Basketball had its origins with a 19th-century teacher

January 23, 2004|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

The other night at dinner, our son brought up the subject of basketball.

He and his friends are learning how to dribble and handle the ball, but he says he's not looking forward to learning how to shoot.

How curious. Most kids can't wait to get their hands on the ball so they can shoot.

"Why don't you want to learn how to shoot?" I asked.

"Oh, Mommy, all those balls coming right at you. It's kind of scary."

Mmmm. I hadn't thought of it that way. A court full of kids shooting at the same hoop, balls coming from every direction ... I guess that would be pretty scary if you're just over 4 feet and only weigh 60 pounds.

I was thinking about that and drifted away from the conversation (Yes, parents do daydream!) but was brought back, in time to hear him say, "Yeah, so Charlie Brown and his friends were goofing around one day and invented basketball."


Obviously, it was time for a real vs. pretend conversation. At times, for artistic reasons, Peanuts stretches the truth.

"Well, you know, son, that's not really how it happened. James Naismith invented basketball."

My husband looked up and said, "Who?" From the how-did-you-know-that look on his face, I knew I had some explaining to do.

Last year I gave a presentation to a children's group on the history of basketball. The research I did for that little talk was so interesting, the origin of the sport stayed with me. It's been said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. The older I get, the more I realize how true that is. If you're going to tell a story, you have to know it first.

Back to basketball.

Naismith, a teacher at a YMCA training school in Springfield, Mass., needed a game that could be played inside during cold New England winters. He wanted the game to be competitive, in order to keep students interested.

Naismith remembered a game from his childhood called "duck-on-a-rock." Players tried to knock a small rock (the duck) off a larger rock by tossing another rock at the "duck."

Naismith soon learned that rocks thrown straight usually didn't knock off the duck. The rocks that were thrown in an arc were typically the successful ones.

He wondered if this principle could be transferred to a game played inside. Instead of knocking something down with a ball, perhaps players could throw a ball in an arc, aiming for a target to put the ball inside.

Initially, Naismith sought boxes for the goal, but found peach baskets in the school's storeroom instead.

He took the baskets to the gym and tacked them to the lower rail of the balcony, 10 feet above the floor.

He decided to use a large ball because a little ball would require the use of equipment such as a bat or a stick. A soccer ball was chosen.

According to on the Web, he then came up with a set of 13 rules, including:

  • The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.

  • The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands, but never with the fist.

  • A player cannot run with the ball.

  • The ball must be held in or between the hands. The arms or body must not be used for holding it.

  • A goal is made when the ball is thrown or batted from the ground into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal.

At first, the game was cumbersome because a player had to climb up to retrieve the ball each time a basket was scored. (I think my son would like this form of the game.)

To make things easier, the bottoms were removed from the baskets.

The sport, which was conceived in 1891, spread as it was taught at YMCAs across the country. In 1936, it was introduced at the Berlin Olympics.

Today, America's favorite wintertime sport is a fixture in gyms everywhere.

For more information on basketball or on Naismith, go to on the Web.

You also can check out "The Story of Basketball" by Dave Anderson, a book available through Washington County Free Library.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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