- James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball
In 2006, James Naismith’s granddaughter, Hellen Dodd Carpenter, began going through five boxes of material that had sat undisturbed in her basement since 1980, when her mother, Hellen Naismith Dodd, died. Naismith’s daughter had moved in with Carpenter in 1964, taking the boxes with her, though she hardly ever examined the contents, if at all. They contained letters, notebooks, observations, journals, and other memorabilia that James Naismith had compiled for most of his life and not shared before. It is this material that provides the basic structure for this book by a former sportswriter, Rob Rains, assisted by Carpenter.
The volume is relatively short but provides new insights into Naismith’s own perspectives on life, sport, faith, and basketball. Thus, it provides a unique look at Naismith, though the lack of citations and references is maddening in such a historical work. Because of that and because of the much more in-depth research that went into it, the Naismith biography by Bernice Larson Webb (The Basketball Man, James Naismith, University of Kansas Press, 1971), remains the book of choice for scholars and researchers. Nevertheless, anyone working on Naismith and early basketball would want to use the Rains and Carpenter book to augment Webb’s text as well as that by Naismith, himself (Basketball, Its Origin and Development, originally published in 1941 and republished with a new introduction in 1996 by Bison Books).
The book traces Naismith from rural Ontario, through his time at McGill, the Spring-field YMCA Training School (where he invented basketball), and on to the Denver YMCA, before settling at Kansas University for the rest of his life, beginning in 1898. The book has lengthy quotations from Naismith’s letters to his wife when they were separated late in his life as he served as a chaplain for U.S. troops at the Mexican border during the Mexican Revolution, then, again in France during World War I. Naismith was a loving husband, supportive father, and doting grandfather, who found a kind of wanderlust late in life when he got the opportunity to travel. One of his greatest wishes was to share his journeys with his wife Maude, but circumstances prevented her from traveling to France to accompany him home in 1919. In 1936 the Naismiths were invited to attend the Olympic games in Berlin, but Maude suffered a heart attack just before they were to travel and was advised to not make the trip. Naismith went alone to see basketball first played as an official Olympic sport and was honored by the Olympic committee at those games.
Although it is covered in other volumes, the relationship between Naismith and two of his “star” pupils, Forrest “Phog” Allen and John McClendon, is presented in a different manner because of the new material. Allen began at Kansas University in 1905 and later worked at there before departing in 1906 for Baker College in Baldwin City, Kansas, before returning a year later to take over as basketball coach when Naismith stepped down from that post. Despite philosophical differences, the two remained close until Naismith’s death in 1939. McClendon came to Kansas University to work with Naismith in 1933 [End Page 162] and was one of his last advisees (he retired in 1937 at age 75); McClendon was one of the few African Americans on campus. He became a Hall of Fame coach (mostly at Tennessee A&I, later Tennessee State) and always credited Naismith with his success.
One frustrating aspect of the book is a failure to elaborate on many significant persons or events that occurred as “background” to Naismith’s life. For example, there is a short description of a 1905 series played in Kansas City between the Kansas City Athletic Club and the Buffalo Germans, one of the best teams in the country. No mention is made of the Germans being the team who won the exhibition basketball tournament at the 1904 Olympics in...