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Reflections-By Dr Rajan Philips

( This motivational article was published in Oman Observer , one of the leading Newspapers in Oman. The article is reproduced with the permission of the author )

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The birth of an exciting game


‘NECESSITY is the mother of invention’ is a well- known adage. This came very true in the life of James Naismith who faced a unique challenge as a new physical education teacher at the YMCA International Training School in Massachusetts, USA. Dr Luther Gulick, the director of the Physical Education Department ‘ordered’ him to create an active indoor game to keep the students busy in winter when outdoor games like football and baseball were not feasible. He was given 14 days for this onerous assignment.

Naismith took up the challenge sportingly and invented a game that gained international stature and astounding appeal — the exciting game of basketball. Since today is considered the ‘birth’ anniversary of this game it will be worthwhile to take a closer look at the circumstances of its origin in 1891 and its evolution into an incredibly popular and lucrative game.

When he joined Springfield YMCA, Naismith struggled with an unruly class which was confined indoors. The director had tossed the ball into Naismith’s court. Naismith set to work in earnest to come with a solution. He was guided by three main considerations.

He realised the hazards of a small fast ball used in some games and felt a big soft soccer ball was the safest bet. Secondly, he noticed that most physical contact and hence rough play in games occurred while running with the ball, dribbling or hitting it. So he decided to make passing the only legal and harmless option. He wanted to reduce chances for body contact further, by making the goal high above the player’s heads.

To score goals or points, the players had to throw the ball with a controlled lobbing action into the goals for which he used two peach baskets hung at a height of 10 feet from the ground. He arranged the first game with his regular students who were 18 in number. So he had nine on each side unlike the modern form with just 5 a-side.

As other classes at the institution tried out the game it gained in popularity. Probably, the only one who was not too happy was the janitor who had to climb a ladder to retrieve the ball from the peach basket after each successful shot. Fortunately for him, not many points were scored in the early days.

As people realised the charm of Naismith’s brilliant creation, they wanted to call the game ‘Naismith ball’ in his honour. But modest and humble as Naismith always was, he rejected the idea and suggested the name basketball, which stuck. He also formulated the 13 basic rules for the game that have not been altered drastically.

Naismith was inspired in accomplishing his mission by his favourite childhood game duck-on-a-rock. In this, players throw a small rock at a “stone duck” placed on top of a large rock in an attempt to knock down the “duck’. To play well, Naismith had found out that a gentle lobbing shot was more effective than a straight hard throw, an idea he incorporated into basketball.

Soon, other schools and colleges started playing the game. The first ever inter-college basketball game was played on January 18, 1896, between teams from the University of Iowa and the University of Chicago. The final score line was understandably modest: Chicago 15, Iowa 12, unlike the 100 + scores of the present day professional games.

The playing equipment and the rules did undergo some changes with time. For instance in 1893, James Naismith replaced the peach baskets with iron hoops and a hammock-style basket. Ten years later came the open-ended nets of today. No more interruptions for retrieving the ball!

Although his brain child grew rapidly in prominence, Naismith regarded this game as a curiosity and considered gymnastics and wrestling as better forms of physical exercise. He was also neither interested in self-promotion nor basking in the glory of creating this competitive sport. He did not gain monetarily from such a brilliant invention, either.

All the same, basketball became a demonstration sport at the 1904 Olympic Games in St Louis, USA and a competitive discipline at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His admirers saw to it that the 74-year-old Naismith was invited and given the privilege to hand out medals to the winning teams — gold for United States, silver for Canada, and bronze for Mexico. While there, he was also named the Honorary President of the International Basketball Federation.

Naismith died in November 1939. Probably, he has had more honours bestowed on him posthumously than during his life time. His masterpiece Basketball — its Origins and Development was published in 1941. National Basketball Association named its Hall of Fame the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and inducted him posthumously in 1959. It is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the home city of basketball.

Basketball is played today by more than 300 million people worldwide, making it one of the most popular team sports. Its stars win handsome rewards and international acclaim. For instance, the game’s super star Michael Jordan was voted the greatest North American athlete of the 20th century. The stars and the ardent fans of this exciting and healthy game owe it all to a single man’s stroke of genius unveiled on a bleak winter day in 1891. Hats off to James Naismith!

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