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Updated 5:00 PM March 16, 2007




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Collection celebrates origin of sport that has become
source of March madness

In 1891 James Naismith was in Springfield, Mass., training to be an administrator of YMCA programs. Given responsibility for a gym class, he was asked to invent a physically demanding indoor sport that could be enjoyed during the dreary Massachusetts winters. And basketball began.
(Photo courtesy Clements Library)

Designed for nine players on each team trying to put a soccer ball through a peach basket, the game is played now with only five competing for a basketball to drop through the hoop.

The Clements Library has numerous memorabilia from Naismith and his game—among them an answer to a query about the beginnings of the game.

Long-time member of the board of the Clements Library Associates, Duane Diedrich, recently added to the items he has donated to the Clements Naismith collection with letters and a photograph he purchased at auction. Among the items are speeches on athletics and religion, and morals and the philosophical basis of physical work that Naismsith gave across the country.

There are letters from individuals and educational institutions from around the world, praising Naismith and his game or asking for information. One letter in 1930 from an Indiana sporting goods company wanted to know Naismith's opinion on eliminating the "center jump."

Naismith's 1937 letter to the query about the birth of his game is a description of the gymnasium, its size and the game's first rudimentary equipment. He wrote that the players "wore the regulation gymnasium uniform—long trousers and quarter sleeve jerseys with elk sole shoes."

Of his original rules, 12 were still in use in 1939, but he wished the 13th had also been retained. It prohibited players from handling the ball with any part of the body other than the hands and so would "eliminate diving for the ball when it is free on the floor." The modern rules had become ingrained, however.

When asked about the possibility of staging a game reenacting the original, Naismith noted that it would be necessary to "find 18 young men 23-30 years of age, with moustaches and who had never seen, read or heard of a game of basketball." By 1939 this was an unlikely prospect, and Naismith's earlier attempts to that end had failed when the players "injected the new rules or have gone to the other extreme and have made it rougher than football."

In 1948, the Wheelchair Bulldosers of Kansas City, Mo., sent a letter to those inspired to create a monument to Naismith that, "We are confident that Dr. James Naismith, if he had lived to see this development of his game, would have been proud to give his personal support to the program of making wheelchair basketball a national sport."

While the Clements collection of Naismith memorabilia continues to grow, his game spreads around the world.

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