Lost, Lone Recording of Basketball Inventor James Naismith Discovered by Scholar

James Naismith

A professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas discovered an interview of Dr. James Naismith in the Library of Congress that remains the lone recording of the inventor of basketball’s voice.

Dr. Michael J. Zogry stumbled across a nearly three-minute clip of Naismith discussing the origins of the game in the last year of his life on the We the People radio program. Naismith founded the game at a YMCA school in Springfield, Massachusetts, with the backdrop of the muscular Christianity movement influencing the sport’s genesis. He also served as the first basketball coach of the University of Kansas, posting a losing record despite holding the advantage of inventing the sport. So, Zogry’s school and his field meshes with Naismith’s history.

On the audio, the Canadian-born Naismith—sporting an interesting, often imitated but rarely spoken in a natural sense, old North American accent resembling the late elderly actor Burt Mustin’s—talks clearly but from a script of some sort. He discusses how a brutal New England winter compelled him to devise a sport to keep boys from brutalizing one another indoors in 1891. He did so by nailing peach baskets to the ends of a gymnasium and using a soccer ball as the means by which two opposing teams of nine could score points.

He eventually devised the sport’s first thirteen rules. But his initial laws of basketball did a poor job of maintaining order.

“Well, I didn’t have enough,” he tells the WOR interviewer about the game’s early rules. “That’s where I made my big mistake. 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. Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several of them with black eyes, and one had a dislocated shoulder. It certainly was murder.”

In Naismith’s game, the players defending the baskets called themselves “guards” and the athletes advancing toward the opposition’s hoop called themselves “forwards.” He lamented in the 1930s that he barely recognized the game he founded once rulemakers replaced obligatory tip-offs after each made basket with an in-bounds pass from the team unsuccessfully defending their own hoop. But in 1939, just ten months before his death, the medical doctor gushed about the rapid growth of his invention.

“Ten years later, basketball was being played all over the country,” Naismith observed of the aftermath of that first nine-on-nine game. “And in 1936, I saw it played for the first time at the Olympic Games. And the whole thing started with a couple of peach baskets I put up in a little gym 48 years ago.”


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