The Birthplace of Basketball
Basketball is built into the fabric of Springfield College. The game was invented by Springfield College instructor and graduate student James Naismith in 1891, and has grown into the worldwide athletic phenomenon we know it to be today.
Where Basketball Originated
It was the winter of 1891-1892. Inside a gymnasium at Springfield College (then known as the International YMCA Training School), located in Springfield, Mass., was a group of restless college students. The young men had to be there; they were required to participate in indoor activities to burn off the energy that had been building up since their football season ended. The gymnasium class offered them activities such as marching, calisthenics, and apparatus work, but these were pale substitutes for the more exciting games of football and lacrosse they played in warmer seasons.
James Naismith, The Person Who Invented Basketball
The instructor of this class was James Naismith, a 31-year-old graduate student. After graduating from Presbyterian College in Montreal with a theology degree, Naismith embraced his love of athletics and headed to Springfield to study physical education—at that time, a relatively new and unknown academic discipline—under Luther Halsey Gulick, superintendent of physical education at the College and today renowned as the father of physical education and recreation in the United States.
As Naismith, a second-year graduate student who had been named to the teaching faculty, looked at his class, his mind flashed to the summer session of 1891, when Gulick introduced a new course in the psychology of play. In class discussions, Gulick had stressed the need for a new indoor game, one “that would be interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light.” No one in the class had followed up on Gulick’s challenge to invent such a game. But now, faced with the end of the fall sports season and students dreading the mandatory and dull required gymnasium work, Naismith had a new motivation.
Two instructors had already tried and failed to devise activities that would interest the young men. The faculty had met to discuss what was becoming a persistent problem with the class’s unbridled energy and disinterest in required work.
During the meeting, Naismith later wrote that he had expressed his opinion that “the trouble is not with the men, but with the system that we are using.” He felt that the kind of work needed to motivate and inspire the young men he faced “should be of a recreative nature, something that would appeal to their play instincts.”
Before the end of the faculty meeting, Gulick placed the problem squarely in Naismith’s lap.
“Naismith,” he said. “I want you to take that class and see what you can do with it.”
So Naismith went to work. His charge was to create a game that was easy to assimilate, yet complex enough to be interesting. It had to be playable indoors or on any kind of ground, and by a large number of players all at once. It should provide plenty of exercise, yet without the roughness of football, soccer, or rugby since those would threaten bruises and broken bones if played in a confined space.
Much time and thought went into this new creation. It became an adaptation of many games of its time, including American rugby (passing), English rugby (the jump ball), lacrosse (use of a goal), soccer (the shape and size of the ball), and something called duck on a rock, a game Naismith had played with his childhood friends in Bennie’s Corners, Ontario. Duck on a rock used a ball and a goal that could not be rushed. The goal could not be slammed through, thus necessitating “a goal with a horizontal opening high enough so that the ball would have to be tossed into it, rather than being thrown.”
Naismith approached the school janitor, hoping he could find two, 18-inch square boxes to use as goals. The janitor came back with two peach baskets instead. Naismith then nailed them to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony, one at each end. The height of that lower balcony rail happened to be ten feet. A man was stationed at each end of the balcony to pick the ball from the basket and put it back into play. It wasn’t until a few years later that the bottoms of those peach baskets were cut to let the ball fall loose.
Naismith then drew up the 13 original rules, which described, among other facets, the method of moving the ball and what constituted a foul. A referee was appointed. The game would be divided into two, 15-minute halves with a five-minute resting period in between. Naismith’s secretary typed up the rules and tacked them on the bulletin board. A short time later, the gym class met, and the teams were chosen with three centers, three forwards, and three guards per side. Two of the centers met at mid-court, Naismith tossed the ball, and the game of “basket ball” was born.
The Year Basketball was Invented
Word of the new game spread like wildfire. It was an instant success. A few weeks after the game was invented, students introduced the game at their own YMCAs. The rules were printed in a College magazine, which was mailed to YMCAs around the country. Because of the College’s well-represented international student body, the game of basketball was introduced to many foreign nations in a relatively short period of time. High schools and colleges began to introduce the new game, and by 1905, basketball was officially recognized as a permanent winter sport.
The rules have been tinkered with, but by-and-large, the game of “basket ball” has not changed drastically since Naismith’s original list of “Thirteen Rules” was tacked up on a bulletin board at Springfield College.
Where was Basketball Invented?
There’s been some confusion over the precise nature of the official relationship between Springfield College and the YMCA, as it relates to James Naismith and the invention of basketball.
The confusion stems in part from changes in the School’s name in its early history. Originally the School for Christian Workers, the School early in its history had three other names which included “YMCA”: the YMCA Training School, the International YMCA Training School, and, later still, the International YMCA College. The College didn’t officially adopt the name “Springfield College” until 1954, even though it had been known informally as “Springfield College” for many years.
But by whatever name, since its founding in 1885 Springfield College has always been a private and independent institution. The College has enjoyed a long and productive collaboration with the YMCA, but has never had any formal organizational ties to the YMCA movement.
The confusion has been compounded by a small sign on the corner of the building where basketball was invented. The building stood at the corner of State and Sherman streets in Springfield, Massachusetts. The sign, carrying the words “Armory Hill Young Men’s Christian Association,” is visible in old photographs of the building that have circulated online. This has led some to believe, erroneously, that the Armory Hill YMCA owned the building, and that James Naismith was an employee of the YMCA.
However, in 2010, some historic YMCA documents and Springfield College documents from the period were rediscovered. These documents prove conclusively that the gymnasium in which Naismith invented basketball was located not in a YMCA but in a building owned and operated by the School for Christian Workers, from which today’s Springfield College originated. The building also included classrooms, dormitory rooms, and faculty and staff offices for the institution. The Armory Hill YMCA rented space in the building for its activities, and used the small sign to attract paying customers.
James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was an instructor in physical education at the College. It was Luther Halsey Gulick, Naismith’s supervisor and the College’s first physical education director, who challenged Naismith to invent a new indoor game for the School’s students to play during the long New England winter. There is currently no evidence to suggest that either man ever worked for the Armory Hill YMCA, per se.
So now you know the true story of James Naismith and the invention of basketball.
Springfield College alumnus James Naismith invented basketball on campus as a graduate student of the College in 1891. Hear him tell the story here.
This is the only known audio recording of basketball inventor and Springfield College alumnus James Naismith describing the first organized game of basketball, played at Springfield College. The audio was unveiled by Michael J. Zogry, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas.