Jim Naismith is a retired engineer in Corpus Christi, Tex., and the grandson of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.
I never much watched basketball. With a name like mine, that causes some people to say to me, “What’s wrong with you?” I like to reply: “There’s lots that’s wrong with me, but this isn’t one of them.”
As a child, I knew that granddad invented the game, but he died when I was three years old, so that was just a fact. I was more interested in other facts, such as: “Mom, what are we having for supper?” I tried my hand at it in high school, but while I was good at putting the ball in the hoop, I wasn’t so good at everything else. My favourite sport growing up was baseball, instead; I could play a pretty good game in the infield, scooping up balls with the neighbourhood kids. And here in southern Texas, where I wound up, football is king.
That changed for me, as things so often do, when I retired after a long career in engineering in 2012. I didn’t have particular plans for my next steps. About that same time, I began receiving invitations to enter the basketball world – obviously, because I had a good name. My wife Beverly and I decided this would be an interesting journey, so we jumped in. I told new friends I couldn’t be accused of basketball “name-dropping” because to be honest, I didn’t know the names.
We quickly learned them, though, as we met some great people who loved the game. We relished the opportunity it provided to reach out to and help young people learn the values of working as a team, developing appreciation and respect for all members on both sides, following the rules, and working hard to improve. I became a fan of the Toronto Raptors – I even have the shirt to prove it. Along the way, I met several basketball players, well along in their careers, who told me, “Jim, your granddad saved my life.” If you think this caught my heart, well, you’d be absolutely correct.
And now, the Raptors have brought the NBA championship to Canada for the first time. It’s incredible to think of my granddad’s winding road, and the remarkable journey that this Ontarian’s simple game has travelled before it finally came home.
Granddad was born in 1861 near Almonte, Ont., the son of John Naismith and Margaret Young, who were both born in Scotland. He was raised as a wee Scot, with all that would imply, but tragically, at the age of 9, lost both of his parents amid a typhoid fever epidemic. He was taken in by family, and within two years, he was left with his bachelor uncle Pete.
He quickly dropped out of high school in Almonte and started farming and lumbering, likely to help Uncle Pete with the bills. He soon developed a bit of a reputation as a drinker, but one day, as the family story goes, a man approached him at a bar where he was spending his just-earned paycheque and asked, “Are you Margaret’s son?” When he said yes, the man shook his head. “She’d roll over in her grave if she saw you now.”
At the age of 20, he decided to finish his high-school degree, then he went to Montreal. The plan, after four years in physical education at McGill University and three years at the Presbyterian Theological School, was to pursue the ministry. But instead, granddad decided to blend his two passions, looking to “win men for the Master” with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Springfield, Mass., in 1891.
There, he was tasked with finding a salve to his “incorrigible” group of rowdy boys, pent-up inside a snowed-in gymnasium. Armed with two peach baskets and a soccer ball, he established 13 rules (lightly revised for safety, after a couple of black eyes and an injured shoulder) and gave birth to basketball.
His life is woven into the sport itself, right down to how he was inspired by his childhood game of duck on a rock. And it was through his deep faith that the game found its way into the lives of so many. Just one year later, Senda Berenson brought basketball to women’s liberal arts college Smith College, making basketball the first women’s team sport. Two years later, the YMCA movement – founded in London in 1844, and quickly spreading across the United States and Europe – lifted it to an international audience. Forty years later, he was handing out medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the first to feature basketball as a sport.
Today, the NBA is a multibillion-dollar business, and the sport is played by more than 300 million people around the world. But granddad didn’t want any credit; he refused to patent the game. All he wanted was simple: “l would like the world to be a better place for my having been here.” All he’d care about, if he saw the game today, would be how the kids and young people are doing. In some ways, this was his ministry.
Basketball may have been invented by a Canadian, but it touched lives around the world as much and as soon as it left that Canadian’s mind. And now, with the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy in Canada, where the Toronto Raptors have galvanized a country and inspired a generation of young Canadians, it’s finally home. I think if he were around today to hear that, he’d smile and say, “Well, how about that.”