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Who is recognized as the "Father of Basketball"?

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Basketball is one of the most popular sports in the world. It is played daily by more than 300 million people and was invented by Dr. James Naismith (6 November 1861 - 28 November 1939) who was born and lived on a farm just outside Almonte (now part of Mississippi Mills), Ontario. His ancestors were among the multitudes of Scottish immigrants to settle Lanark County, Ontario. Orphaned at age eight when his parents died from typhoid, James Naismith attended a local one-room schoolhouse and Almonte High School before beginning his studies in 1883 at McGill University (graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Physical Education) and in 1887 at the Presbyterian College (degree in theology), both in Montréal, Québec. It was there that he excelled at athletics. Upon his graduation in 1890, Naismith enrolled in the International YMCA Training School at Springfield, Massachusetts (now Springfield College) to study physical education, a relatively new and unknown academic discipline. While a second-year graduate student, he had been named an assistant director of physical education by Dr. Luther Gulick, superintendent of physical education at the College and who is today renowned as the father of physical education and recreation in the United States. It was while working in this capacity that Naismith developed his sport of 'Basket Ball' – as it was originally spelled – in December 1891. When Gulick introduced a new course in the psychology of play, he stressed in class the need for a new indoor game, one "that would be interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light." Although there were attempts by a few instructors to come up with activities that would interest the students, the problem remained of the class's unbridled energy and disinterest in required work. It was during a faculty meeting that Naismith expressed his opinion that the issue was not with the men but with the system they were using and that in order to motivate and inspire them, the kind of work needed "should be of a recreative nature, something that would appeal to their play instincts." Before the end of the meeting, Gulick placed the problem squarely in Naismith's lap. Much time and thought went into this new creation, essentially adapting many games of its time, including American and English rugby, lacrosse, soccer, and something called 'duck on a rock', a game Naismith played during his childhood. Ultimately, he wanted something whereby the goal would have a ball that could not be slammed through but would have to be tossed into it, rather than being thrown. Naismith approached the school janitor, hoping he could find two, eighteen-inch square boxes to use as goals. The janitor returned with two peach baskets instead and Naismith then nailed them to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony, one at each end. The height of that lower balcony rail happened to be ten feet. A man was stationed at each end of the balcony to pick the ball from the basket and put it back into play. It was only a few years later that Naismith cut out the bottom of the basket, allowing the ball to fall through. It is believed that Naismith drew up the thirteen original rules of his new game of Basketball in about an hour, which most of these rules still apply today. The game became an instant success – the students found the game simple and easy to play and the fans liked the idea of not having to go outside in the cold to watch. In 1895 Naismith left the school and went to Denver to study at the University of Colorado, where he earned a medical degree in 1898. Naismith was associated with the University of Kansas for nearly four decades (1898 - 1937) as professor, physician and director of physical education and published several books. It was not until 1925, at age 64, that James Naismith became an American citizen. In 1936 he was invited to witness his game become an official Olympic sport at the summer games held in Berlin and agreed to throw the ball for the Games' first-ever basketball match. He also had the honour of awarding the first medals to three North American teams: United States, for the gold medal; Canada, for the silver medal; and Mexico, for their bronze medal win. It was not until the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montréal, Québec, that women's basketball became an Olympic event.

It is worth noting that Naismith served twice in military conflict. He was commissioned in 1916 as a captain of the 1st Kansas Infantry Regiment performing the traditional roles of a chaplain of a deployed unit for a period of three months until October 1916 while his regiment was on border duty patrolling the national border with Mexico. The following year, in June 1917, Naismith worked as a volunteer chaplain for the YMCA across the United States assisting the Army with religious and morale support activities. Three months later, the YMCA sent him to France, where he served a 19-month post (September 1917 - March 1919) as one of the organization's "overseas secretaries" spending most of his time near the front lines, working to improve the social hygiene of the troops. He has been honoured numerous times over the years for his contribution to athletics and never sought fame or fortune for his invention of the popular sport. For example, in 1941 he was posthumously elected to the American Academy of Physical Education and in 1959 he was enshrined as the first member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He is a member of the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame. After suffering a major brain hemorrhage, he died in 1939 in his home in Lawrence, Kansas and is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery also known as Lawrence Memorial Park. Shown in the photograph is a larger-than-life bronze statue of Dr. James Naismith seated with a peach basket, located in his Canadian home town of Almonte, Ontario. It was designed by professor and world-renowned sculptor Elden Cecil Tefft (22 December 1919 - 17 February 2015); he was 91 at time of unveiling. The statue was commissioned by the Dr. James Naismith Basketball Foundation and dedicated on 23 July 2011.

It is interesting to note that Google created a daily 'Doodle' honouring Dr. Naismith and his invention of basketball. The "animated Google Doodle depicts a cartoon of Naismith taking notes as two students take turns tossing a simple ball into basket, harkening back to the game's original, improvised equipment." The Doodle was put out on 15 January 2021 to mark and celebrate the anniversary of 15 January 1892, when an article about Naismith's basketball was published in the college newspaper and the activity exploded in popularity.

On this day, 6 November 2021, we commemorate the 160th anniversary the birth of the "Father of Basketball", nearly 130 years since the invention of the game, and more than ten years since the unveiling of a statue in his honour in his Canadian home town of Almonte, Ontario.

André M. Levesque

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