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Biography of Dr. James Naismith

Basketball has a lot to owe to its creator, Dr. James Naismith. It is still played in almost the same format as it was invented by him. Read on for more information.
Deepa Kartha Aug 25, 2020
The invention of basketball was not an accident. It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play 'Drop the Handkerchief'.
 - Dr. James Naismith
Dr. James Naismith is known to be the creator of the popular sport, Basketball. A physical instructor by profession, his interest in spiritual matters and quest for related knowledge led him to take up courses in theology and medicine. He was a down-to-earth, modest man who was interested in imparting moral education through physical education.


  • James Naismith¬†is acknowledged for introducing protective helmets for football players while studying in McGill University, Montreal.
  • He was the first basketball coach of the University of Kansas basketball team and coached the 'Father of Basketball Coaching', Phog Allen.
  • The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has dedicated three awards named after James Naismith - the Naismith College Player of the Year, the Naismith College Coach of the Year, and the Naismith Prep Player of the Year, for facilitating the best players annually. 
  • He acquired American citizenship in the year 1925.


James Naismith was born in Almonte (Ontario), Canada on November 6, 1861 to Margaret and John Naismith. He was the eldest of the three Naismith children.
In 1870, a year after moving to Grand Calumet, his parents contracted typhoid fever and died. The orphaned James and his siblings, Annie and Robbie were taken in by their grandmother. After her death in 1872, their uncle Peter Young became their custodian.
Naismith attended the Almonte High School from 1875-1877, and dropped out of school to work at a lumber camp, as his athletic abilities were greater than his academic skills. However, he rejoined school in 1881 and completed his high school in 1883.
Naismith liked to work in the family fields and woods, while he was at school. It is said that he had to walk 5 miles everyday to attend school.

Education and Career

Dr. Naismith joined the McGill University in 1883 and earned a degree in physical education. He came out as an accomplished athlete having keen interest in football, rugby, lacrosse, and ground gymnastics. His avid passion for sports earned him the Best All-Around Athlete in 1885 and 1887.
In 1890 he joined the prestigious Presbyterian College to study theology, and took up the job of physical instructor at McGill. In 1891, he moved to America for a two-year course at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts.
After completing the course, he continued at the same place as a physical instructor. It was here that the game of basketball was born. In 1895, Naismith enrolled for a medical degree at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver. While pursuing medical studies, he also worked as the Physical Education Director at YMCA, Denver.
In 1898, Dr. James Naismith joined Kansas University as a basketball coach, physical education instructor, and chapel director. He worked there for 40 years, retiring at the age of 76.

Invention of Basketball

 In 1891, while at Springfield College (then known as the YMCA Training School), he was asked by the head of Springfield YMCA Physical Education to invent a game that could be played indoors.
The idea behind was to physically engage the students during long winters, and also to control their rowdy behavior that resulted from strict discipline. He observed that the existing games like football, soccer, rugby, and lacrosse were pretty rough. So he thought of creating a game that was vigorous, and at the same time, clean and fair for the players.
It is believed that Naismith was highly inspired by the game
duck on a rock which he played during his childhood. It required team spirit, marksmanship, and passing. He thought of combining all theses activities and invent a game that could be played indoors with minimum chances of injury and stress on the fitness and health of the students.
The Game:
He used the soft ball of soccer and fixed two peach baskets, ten feet above the ground, at the two ends of the college gym. The students were permitted to use only their hands to pass the ball between their team members and had to drop the ball into the basket, to score a goal. He named the game 'basketball' and came up with
13 basic rules for it.
The first game of basketball was played at the college gymnasium in December, 1891. Initially, this game did not receive much enthusiasm from the students, but it soon gained popularity.
Basketball gained world-wide popularity and was introduced at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. He was invited for this event and also gave out medals to the winning teams. He is believed to have said that watching basketball being played internationally was the biggest reward that he got for his invention.

Personal Life

Dr. Naismith had five children; 3 girls (Margaret Mason, Helen Carolyn, and Maude Ann) and 2 boys (John Edwin and James Sherman) from his marriage with Maude. After her death in 1937, Dr. Naismith remarried a widow friend, Florence Kincaid in 1939. He died on November 28, the same year, due to brain hemorrhage in his home in Kansas.

Achievements and Accolades

In his lifetime he had acquired about 11 academic degrees. This enabled him to fit into various career roles entrusted upon him. Some of these are listed here:
  • Physical Education Director - McGill University (1887-90)
  • Physical Education Instructor - Springfield College (1890-95)
  • Physical Education Director - Denver YMCA (1895-98)
  • Associate Professor - University of Kansas (1898-1909)
  • Chapel Director - University of Kansas (1898-1909)
  • University Physician - University of Kansas (1909-17)
  • Ordained as a Presbyterian minister (1915)
  • Athletic Director - University of Kansas (1919-37)
To honor his endeavor and hard work in the field of sports, notably basketball, he was inducted in the following Hall of Fame:
  • Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame
  • Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
  • Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame
  • Canadian Sports Hall of Fame
  • Ontario Sports Legends Hall of Fame
  • Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame
  • McGill University Sports Hall of Fame
  • Kansas State Sports Hall of Fame
  • International Basketball (FIBA) Hall of Fame

Interesting Facts

  • It was proposed that this new game be called Naismith ball but he rejected the idea and the game came to be known as basketball.
  • Though he invented one of the most popular games of all time, he played it only twice in his lifetime. He played basketball for the first time just after few weeks of its invention and then 7 years later in the University of Kansas.
  • He believed that the game with simple 13 rules didn't really require coaching.
  • During his time at Presbyterian College he received a lot of criticism for his interest in games from clergymen. They were of the idea that sports was evil, leading to anger and physical harm. However he was determined to use sports and ministry to groom young men.
  • The first women's basketball game played at Springfield College had his wife, Maude in the team.
  • While supervising a gym class, one of his students fell accidentally on his neck and died. For months he lived in remorse and guilt, until his call to study medicine at the University of Kansas.
  • He served the military during World War I at the Mexican border and in France.
  • Apart from writing the original basketball rulebook, he published papers, 'A Modern College' in (1911) and 'Essence of a Healthy Life' (1918), and other books like, 'The Basis of Clean Living' and 'Basketball: Its Origin and Development'.
Dr. Naismith wanted games to be played for fun and exercise, and not with an unhealthy competitive spirit. He strongly believed that spirituality could be achieved through physical education. His contribution to the world of sports has earned him the title, 'father of basketball', and he continues to inspire many.