James Naismith: The History Behind March Madness

posted Mar 15, 2018 by Kathy Pinna
Didn't we all play basketball in school? It used to be mandatory in grade school for girls and boys to participate in P.E., which often included playing a game or two - or more - of basketball. So it makes sense that the game was invented by a Canadian P.E. teacher a little over 100 years ago. His first equipment was a soccer ball and two peach baskets (closed at the bottom) - pretty rudimentary. But since he was trying to engage students during the rainy season - when they had to stay indoors - the fundamentals were enough. Of course basketball evolved, and college tournaments - now called March Madness - came along in 1939 when basketball was about 40 years old. Basketball has a fascinating history - and some interesting fashions for the girls. Really, how did they play in those long skirts?

Surprise Valley High, 1926

The history of basketball - James Naismith, born in 1861 in Ontario Canada, earned a B.A. in Physical Education at McGill University in 1888. After a couple of years teaching at McGill, he moved south to become a teacher at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was there, in 1891, that he invented the game of basketball. In college, he had played several sports - including football - and he felt that the game of football was too hard on the body. In addition, he was teaching students who were stuck indoors during the harsh Massachusetts winters.

Lowell High School Champions, 1905

James needed a game that could be played indoors, was more "body friendly" and used up the excess energies of his students. So he came up with the game of Basket Ball - and the first game was played by his students in December 1891. There were nine players on each side, they used a soccer ball, and a peach basket was hung at each end of the gym (about 10 ft from the floor). His 13 rules of Basket Ball were posted and the game began.

Snohomish High School, 1923

North Manchester College, 1927

"Drowsy Dribs"??

Westmoreland High, 1949

Kansas Champions, 1911

Naismith later (1939) recalled the first Basket Ball game: “I showed them two peach baskets I’d nailed up at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team’s peach basket. I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began. . . .The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor. (The injury toll: several black eyes, one separated shoulder and one player knocked unconscious.) “It certainly was murder.” (Naismith changed some of the rules as part of his quest to develop a clean sport.) The most important one was that there should be no running with the ball. That stopped tackling and slugging. We tried out the game with those rules (fouls), and we didn’t have one casualty.”

James Naismith

The founder of Basketball

8th grade team, 1924

LIncoln High, 1911

High School Basketball Because the game of basketball doesn't require many people or much equipment, it spread like wildfire through schools in the early 20th century. While there is no tournament for a national champion on the high school level, local school teams are often a source of pride. In 1920's Indiana, the Franklin High School "Wonder Five" team had 104 wins and only 10 losses in 4 years. The boys began playing together as children and most of them even continued playing at Franklin College, beating large Universities.

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