The Sport of Saints?
On the day before St. Patrick's Day, you probably thought you'd be reading about snakes and shamrocks here. Well, no. There's plenty of Irish lore in issue 60: Celtic Christianity, so that will have to do. I'd rather talk about basketball. (You can take the girl out of Indiana, but you can't take the Hoosier out of the girl.)
Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a gym teacher at the International Training School of the Young Men's Christian Association in Springfield, Massachusetts. Winter gets cold in Massachusetts, so Naismith wanted to devise an indoor activity that would keep his students busy and fit. Thinking back to rock-throwing games he'd played during his childhood in rural Ontario (origin of the phrase, "give me the rock"?), he nailed half-bushel peach baskets to both ends of the Springfield gym, split his 18-member class into two 9-member teams, and instructed the boys to try to toss a soccer ball (accurately, not forcefully) into the other team's goal.
It must have been an interesting game: 18 guys crammed onto a gym floor trying to dribble a soccer ball, then scrambling toward the rafters to retrieve the ball from the bottom-intact basket after each goal. Naismith quickly refined the game to its current form: two five-player teams, a ball four inches larger in circumference than a soccer ball, and hoops with nets and backboards.
With these modifications, the game took off. In January 1892 Naismith published the rules, including prohibitions against "holding, pushing, shouldering, striking, tackling, or tripping," in the training school paper. By 1896 the game had reached England, France, and Brazil; Australia, China, and India soon followed. Ironically, by 1897 the game had grown so popular in North America that YMCA facilities started banning it—hotshot teams were monopolizing the gyms. At the 1936 Berlin games, basketball became the first team sport in Olympic competition.
Where's the Christian history in all of this? To start, Naismith, after working his way through high school (he was orphaned at age 9), trained as a Presbyterian minister at McGill University. He taught phys. ed. there before going on to Springfield to study psychology. When he applied at Springfield in May 1889, he was asked, "What is the work of a YMCA Physical Director?" He answered, "To win men for the Master through the gym."
Naismith later applied to be director of physical education at the University of Kansas, a job he held until his retirement in 1937. In recommending Naismith for the position, A.A. Stagg, "the Dean of American football," described him as the "inventor of basketball, a medical doctor, a Presbyterian Minister, a teetotaller, an all-around athlete, a non-smoker and the owner of a vocabulary without cuss words." No wonder basketball refs penalize technical fouls.
The YMCA—which used to emphasize the "Christian" aspect much more than it does today—is also important in the development and phenomenal growth of the game. YMCA gyms, basketball's incubators, were opened to provide young men a wholesome alternative to hanging out in saloons. They were also intended to promote civic and religious education.
Like Naismith said on his application, his job at Springfield really was to train men for ministry in the growing Sunday school movement and the similarly expanding YMCA, which at that time pursued "the fourfold program" for fitness: physical, social, mental, and spiritual development. The organization had some spiritual heavyweights at the helm, too. John R. Mott, who would go on to chair the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference and share the 1943 Nobel Peace Prize, began his career as college secretary of the YMCA.
So, as you park yourself in front of the TV for March Madness, note which teams follow Naismith's advice: "Let us be able to lose gracefully and to win courteously; to accept criticism as well as praise; and to appreciate the attitude of the other fellow at all times." Those teams are the real winners, whatever the bracket says.
* For more on Naismith, see "Fatherhood on the Rebound" by David Blankenhorn at and http://collections.ic.gc.ca/heirloom_series/ volume4/280-283.htm.
* For more on Mott, see CH issue 65: The Ten Most Influential Christians of the Twentieth Century.
Elesha can be reached at cheditor@ChristianityToday.com.
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