The instructor of this class was James Naismith, a thirty-one-year-old graduate student. After graduating from Presbyterian College in Montreal with a theology degree, Naismith embraced his love of athletics and headed to Springfield to study physical education—at that time, a relatively new and unknown academic discipline—under Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick, superintendent of physical education at the College. (Gulick is today renowned as the father of physical education and recreation in the United States.)
As Naismith, a second-year graduate student who had been named to the teaching faculty, looked at his class, his mind flashed to the summer session of 1891, when Gulick introduced a new course in the psychology of play. In class discussions, Gulick had stressed the need for a new indoor game, one “that would be interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light.” No one in the class had followed up on Gulick’s challenge to invent such a game. But now, faced with the end of the fall sports season and students dreading the mandatory and dull required gymnasium work, Naismith had a new motivation.
Two instructors had already tried and failed to devise activities that would interest the young men. The faculty had met to discuss what was becoming a persistent problem with the class’s unbridled energy and disinterest in required work.
During the meeting, Naismith later wrote that he had expressed his opinion that “the trouble is not with the men, but with the system that we are using.” He felt that the kind of work needed to motivate and inspire the young men he faced “should be of a recreative nature, something that would appeal to their play instincts.”
Before the end of the faculty meeting, Gulick placed the problem squarely in Naismith’s lap.
“Naismith,” he said. “I want you to take that class and see what you can do with it.”
So Naismith went to work. His charge was to create a game that was easy to assimilate, yet complex enough to be interesting. It had to be playable indoors or on any kind of ground, and by a large number of players all at once. It should provide plenty of exercise, yet without the roughness of football, soccer, or rugby since those would threaten bruises and broken bones if played in a confined space.
Much time and thought went into this new creation. It became an adaptation of many games of its time, including American rugby (passing), English rugby (the jump ball), lacrosse (use of a goal), soccer (the shape and size of the ball), and something called duck on a rock, a game Naismith had played with his childhood friends in Bennie’s Corners, Ontario. Duck on a rock used a ball and a goal that could not be rushed. The goal could not be slammed through, thus necessitating “a goal with a horizontal opening high enough so that the ball would have to be tossed into it, rather than being thrown.”…