Dr. James Naismith was born in 1861 in Ramsay Township, Ontario, Canada. Naismith’s parents died of typhoid when he was only 9-years-old leaving him to live with his strict religious grandmother and uncle.
In 1883, Naismith entered McGill University in Quebec. Initially, he stayed away from sports until friends suggested he join football rugby and lacrosse to stay fit. He graduated top 10 in his class earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy and Hebrew. Naismith won scholarships in theology and continued to participate in sports, much to the dismay of his professors. They particularly didn’t like lacrosse due to its aggressive nature. Yet Naismith held to his belief that a person could play sports and have a good spiritual life.
After obtaining his diploma and becoming an ordained minister, Naismith departed for Massachusetts and joined the YMCA in the summer of 1890. While teaching youth physical education, he discovered that football, baseball, and track and field were great in the summer months, but there was nothing in the winter months to keep the young boys busy and off the streets at night.
The YMCA gave Naismith 14 days to develop a new indoor game for the youth to keep them active and trouble free. He worked out a sport that didn’t allow the roughness of football, and eliminated the bunching of players around a goal that was prevalent in hockey and soccer. Basing the game on a tossing principle, he tacked a peach basket up on the wall, 10 feet off the ground, and devised 13 rules for playing the game. He grabbed a soccer ball, divided the class of 18 into two teams of 9 and the first game of “Basket Ball” was played in December of 1891.
Naismith maintained the belief that basketball should be played for fun, not as a serious competition. Interestingly, many of the rules Naismith invented are still used in basketball today and the regulation height of the rim is still 10 feet.
Naismith believed athletics could lead people toward both spiritual and physical development and away from immoral conduct. As one of his students said, “With him, questions of physical development inevitably led to questions of moral development, and vice versa.”
In 1917, Naismith travelled to Paris and the YMCA put him in charge of their Hygiene Department. Hygiene in 1917 meant sex education. He wrote a 32-page document titled The Basis of Clean Living, heralding the attributes of living a clean and moral life as well as answering questions men often asked.
Combating the brothels that sprang up near the army barracks, Naismith thought he could outwit the devil’s efforts with sports. He constructed boxing rings near the gate of the camp and when soldiers began to file out for a night on the town, he sold them on watching a fight. They stopped to watch and before they knew it, it was time to return to their quarters. Naismith prevented scores of soldiers from getting into trouble. Prize fights might seem like strange preaching, but they worked. His philosophy was simple:
“Absorption in athletics occupies the mind along natural and helpful lines, and furthermore is a continual incentive to good living . . . By using up our surplus energy, we invite to rest rather than to mischief…”
What can we learn?
1. Healthy distractions are useful to divert sinful behavior.
2. Idleness and slothfulness breeds trouble….stay busy!
3. God uses different people and things, even sports!