“What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” That’s a question asked centuries ago by the church father Tertullian when he wondered what the connection was between theology and philosophy.
“What does March Madness (and basketball) have to do with Jesus?” That’s a question someone asked me recently.
Answer: lots. Turns out, the guy who invented basketball was a devoted Christ follower.
As March Madness comes to a climax, and the 65 NCAA men’s college basketball team competition narrows down, it is worth taking a few moments to think about the origins of the great game of basketball.
Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith. The first public game was played in Springfield, Massachusetts sometime between December 1891 and March 1892.
Naismith was born in Canada in 1861. He was orphaned at age 9. He was educated at McGill University and Presbyterian College in Montreal. Somewhere along the way Naismith got connected with the YMCA. He became a YMCA physical education director in Montreal (1887-1890), in Springfield, Massachusetts (1890-1895), and in Denver, Colorado (1895-1898).
The YMCA was originally founded in England in 1844 to reach men for Christ who were flooding into the urban centers of England. They hoped to substitute Bible study and prayer as alternatives to the evils of city life. So evangelical were the early YMCAs that evangelist Dwight L. Moody served as the organization’s General Secretary in 1879. Moody turned to the YMCA to care for the converts from his large evangelistic meetings.
By the time Naismith was involved, the YMCA’s were still promoted as a wholesome alternative to hanging out in saloons. When asked in May 1889 in Springfield “What is the work of a YMCA physical director?” Naismith replied without batting an eye, “to win men for the Master through the gym.” There they pursued a program of physical, social, mental and spiritual development. Naismith, on one job application said that his job at Springfield was really to train men for ministry in the growing Sunday School movement and the similarly expanding YMCA.
Naismith designed a game that could be played indoors in relatively small spaces in the cold New England Winter. An indoor game would provide an “athletic distraction” to keep men out of trouble.
Originally he got the idea to hang half bushel peach baskets at both ends of the gym, nailed to the lower railing of the gym balcony. He split his 18 member class into two 9 member teams. Then he gave them a soccer ball and told them to try to toss it into the other team’s goal. Basketball was to be a non-competitive recreational sport. Naismith drew up 13 rules for the game, including prohibitions against holding, pushing, shouldering, striking, tackling and tripping. He wanted it to be a non-contact sport so there were few injuries.
In time, the game was refined into its current form with two five player teams, hoops, nets and a backboard, as well as a ball that was four inches larger than a soccer ball.
Basketball quickly caught on and the YMCA and its gyms became basketball incubators. By 1895 the game reached England, France, Brazil, Australia, China and India.
Three years after inventing the game, Naismith was hired as the chaplain and physical education instructor of the University of Kansas. Sometime along the way he was officially ordained into Christian ministry. After that, he applied to be the director of physical education at the University of Kansas—a job which he held until his retirement in 1937.
When he was recommended for the position, A.A. Stagg, “the dean of American football,” described Naismith as the “inventor of basketball, a medical doctor, a Presbyterian minister, a tea-totaller, an all around athlete, a non-smoker, and the owner of a vocabulary without cuss words.” Some have said—no wonder basketball referees penalize for technical fouls!
Near the end of his life, Naismith got to witness basketball become an Olympic sport while attending the 1936 games in Berlin. Shortly before he died in 1939, he also received a Doctor in Divinity degree from McGill University.
The sport never brought him fortune or much fame. But his simple game is now played in organized fashion by more than 300 million people worldwide—and that is excluding all the pick up games in the world. In other words, it keeps an awful lot of people out of trouble, all because of one visionary Christ follower named John Naismith.