Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The ancient roots of basketball

The Mesoamerican ballgame -- with its image of a ball going through a ring – always brings basketball to my mind.  Indeed there is likely a close relationship between the two games.  Last week's Charlie's Digs focused on the introduction to Europe of the Mesoamerican idea of team sport and the concept of a team as a winner in a sporting event -- a significant break from previous European individualized sport -- in which only individuals competed and only individuals won.  

Most archeological sites in Mesoamerica have at least one ball court with its characteristic capital "I" shaped playing field with a vertically placed ring high on each side of the court.  Hundreds of years after the conquest and the introduction of the idea of team sports to the western world, the Mesoamerican ballgame again played a role in sports.  This time it led to the development of basketball, today one of the world's most popular games. 

Basketball was invented in 1891 by Canadian athletic coach, James Naismith.  With a B.A. in Physical Education from McGill University, Naismith worked his way through seminary as a Physical Education instructor at his alma mater.  In 1890 Naismith graduated with a degree in Theology from The Presbyterian College of Montreal but decided to combine theology with his love of sport.  Instead of taking a pastoral position he relocated to Springfield, Massachusetts and a job at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Training Center – now Springfield College. 

In 1891 Naismith was asked by the director of the YMCA program, Dr. Luther Gulick, to "create an indoor game that would provide an 'athletic distraction' that didn’t take up much space, and could help track athletes keep in shape.”  Gulick explicitly emphasized, “It should be fair for all players and not too rough." Naismith seized on the opportunity to concurrently design a game his American football team could play during the long winter months.  He believed maintaining physical conditioning would give his team an advantage over opponents when football season rolled around.  

In the 1941 posthumously published book, Basketball Its Origin and Development, Naismith recalls pondering over how to adapt popular games of the time to a small indoor space.  He notes, "The normal individual is strongly influenced by tradition.  If he is interested in a game, any attempt to modify that game sets up an antagonism in his mind.  I realized that any attempt to change the known games would necessarily result in failure.  It was evident that a new principle was necessary; but how to evolve this principle was beyond my ken."

Naismith sought ideas from other cultures and from a sport with which his students had neither contact nor bias.  Naismith and his wife subscribed to a Christian missionary magazine which had featured the Mesoamerican ballgame. 

The connection between an1891 issue of a missionary magazine and Naismith’s creation of basketball that same year wasn't made until after his death.  It is more than an interesting coincidence -- perhaps possible only because of his background in ministry and sport.  Indeed, the life-long melding of athletics and theology shaped Naismith’s career and legacy.  The YMCA, through its international programs, and the U.S. Army's adoption of the game for stress relief are credited with the rapid spread of basketball worldwide. 

In 1895, Naismith enrolled for a medical degree at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver. While pursuing medical studies, he worked as physical education director at YMCA, Denver. 

In 1898, the new “Dr.” James Naismith joined Kansas University as its basketball coach, physical education instructor, and chapel director.  He retired from the University forty years later by which time basketball was an established sport throughout the world.   

Dr. Naismith had the rare honor of both creating a new sport and forty-five years later being present at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in which basketball was recognized as an official Olympic sport for the first time.  Naismith tossed the ball at the first game, and presented the medals to the winning teams. Fittingly the first medal presented, the bronze, went to Mexico, homeland of the game that was "beyond his ken".   The U.S. and Canadian teams received the gold and silver medals. 

Today basketball is one of the world’s most played, and popular, games.  In the 2012 Olympics 25 professional NBA (National Basketball Association of the USA) players will play on the teams of birth countries from six continents.  Basketball courts are ubiquitous throughout the world.  I rarely pass through a pueblo in Mexico without one . . . as it should be in the country of its true origin. 

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