Does today's game look little bit familiar to you, Dr. Naismith?

March 17, 1991|By Skip Myslenski | Skip Myslenski,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- One hundred years ago, in December 1891, a Springfield College professor named James Naismith sat down with pencil and paper and scribbled the rules for a new game he had dreamed up. Days later, in that Massachusetts city's International YMCA Training Center, he gathered 18 of his students, divided them equally into two teams and for the first time gave his creation a try.

"Basket Ball" was the name immediately accorded it, and today millions of people play it in more than 170 nations. But never does it capture the imagination as it does now, during the NCAA tournament, where the hysteria surrounding this once-obscure game reaches outsized and outlandish proportions.

On this 100th anniversary of his brainstorm -- and with the not inconsiderable aid of Kentucky's late Baron, Adolph Rupp -- Naismith floated down and agreed to be interviewed for the first time since his death in November, 1939. A partial transcript of that conversation:

What are your first impressions of the way the game is played now?

"Maybe I should have taken the easy way out and done what Gulick said. Created a new game that had its roots in lacrosse."

Pardon me?

"You must understand how it was back 100 years ago. The boys, they would get bored doing the rings and the horse and all that other gymnastics stuff after an exciting fall of football, and so we were looking for a competitive exercise to keep them interested and in shape during the winter. I'd been tinkering with some ideas along those lines, but it was Gulick -- that's Luther Gulick, then the dean of the phys ed. department at Springfield -- who demanded some action.

"I'll never forget that day. There we were in a meeting, him nervously tapping his pencil, and then he pointed it at me and -- I still remember his words -- told me to find 'a competitive game like football or lacrosse, but it must be a game that can be played indoors. . . . It must be one that can be played without extreme roughness, or damage to players or equipment.'

"That last order, that's why I got to believing lacrosse was the wrong model to follow, and why I finally wrote my Rule No. 5: 'No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any player shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or, if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole game, no substitute allowed.' That rule. Now I wonder why I bothered."

So you're saying it's gotten a little rougher than you intended?

"Is the pope Polish? Just take a look at some of those, what do you call them now? Conferences? Those big ones."

The Big Ten? The Big East?

"We didn't play lacrosse as rough as they play basketball, and they're only using five guys on a side. Why, just think what it would've been like if we'd used that style back when we started, and maybe had 50 to a side."

Wait a minute. Are you saying you used to play games where each team had 50 players on the court at the same time?

"Sure, if the gymnasium was big enough. It wasn't until 1905 that everyone agreed to play only five a side."

But. . . .

"But nothing, if you know your facts, which I'll put in modern terms for you. In baseball you have all these stadiums that look alike, right, and then you have those architectural anomalies like your Wrigley Field and Fenway Park and your old Comiskey Park. Now all the gymnasiums were anomalies in my day, and it was their size that determined the size of teams.

"If it was a big one, a lot of men played. If it was a small one, maybe only nine. I even suggested -- and I will quote here from my book of rules: 'The only limit to the number of men that can play is the space at command. If a great number of men wish to play at once, two balls may be used at the same time, and thus the fun is augmented though some of the science may be lost.' "

Speaking of size -- the size of today's players must be a shock.

"Not so much. I could see that coming in 1936, when the Coaches Association was nice enough to send me and my wife to the Olympics in Berlin. That, you might remember, is when basketball was first played in them, and the United States won its gold medal behind this Kansas kid named Joe Fortenberry, who was 6-8. It's the way the players move now, that's the big shock. The way, how do you say it, they go to the hole?"

We say that, yes.

"Hole? We didn't even have a hole when we started. We had good, solid peach baskets, and guys up on ladders to retrieve the ball after a shot went in. We didn't go anywhere, either. Players had definite positions on the floor and used, I believe today you call it, 'the passing game'?"

Popularized by Bob Knight, if you've heard of him.

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