Newly found documents shed light on basketball's birth

CLAYTON, Mo. -- It's settled. Basketball really did evolve from a childhood game called "Duck on a Rock."

Such are the revelations contained in a newly unearthed trove of personal documents, photographs and mementos from basketball's founder, James Naismith.

The items, including handwritten diaries and typed notes, were discovered last spring, when Naismith's granddaughter, Hellen Carpenter, went down to her basement to find an old family photograph.

Instead, Carpenter found journals, keepsakes and typewritten rule sheets that open a new window on the birth of one of the world's most popular sports.

Carpenter is auctioning off the documents in December. She said they settle details about her grandfather's invention, such as the "Eureka" moment when he remembered rules from Duck on a Rock, a
Canadian game he played as a child, and applied them to his new game.

The items include the first rules of basketball; photos of the first basketball team and basketball court, as well as Naismith's description of the very first game; a whistle Naismith used as the first basketball coach in University of Kansas history; and the passport he used to attend the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, the first to feature basketball as a medal sport.

The five boxes of documents, photos and items were handed down to Carpenter from her mother, Hellen Naismith Dodd, Carpenter said. She kept them around for decades without looking through them.

"My mother told me for years that there was nothing of real value there," said Carpenter, 74.

Chris Ivy disagreed. As director of sports auctions for Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, he was stunned when Carpenter called him and described the documents casually stored in her home in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield.

Documents autographed by Naismith only surface two or three times a year, he said. Carpenter's boxes were an especially rare find, he said.

"It almost crosses into history -- it's not just sports collectibles," he said.

Naismith carefully recorded basketball's birth in 1891.

At the time, Naismith, a native of Canada, was teaching at a school in Springfield, Mass., that trained young men to become instructors at the newly formed YMCA centers that were opening around the country, Carpenter said.

The students got bored during the winter months when they couldn't play outdoor soccer and football. Naismith needed to invent a strenuous game that could be played on small indoor courts.

He tried to adapt lacrosse and football to be played inside. He even introduced his students to a slew of invented games like Hylo Ball, Scruggy Ball and Association Football. None of them took.

Handwritten diaries show Naismith was nervous the students wouldn't like his newest invention -- Basket Ball, as he called it.

Before the first basketball game was played, Naismith prepared the gym by nailing two baskets to balconies on either end of a court and posting 13 rules of the game on a bulletin board.

"I busied myself arranging the apparatus all the time watching the boys as they arrived to observe their attitude that day," Naismith wrote in cursive script.

"I felt this was a crucial moment in my life as it meant success or failure of my attempt to hold the interest of the class and devise a new game," he wrote.

He seems to have gotten mixed reviews. He wrote that Frank Mahan, a southerner, was the first student to walk on to the court. Mahan looked at the baskets and the rules.

"Huh. Another new game," Mahan said, according to the diary.

Still, basketball caught on. But there were glitches. Naismith eventually added a backboard behind the basket so students couldn't stand in the balcony and knock away good shots from the opposing team, Carpenter said.

Naismith also noted in his journal that it took a lot of reminding to keep students from tackling a player when he got possession of the ball.

The game became more popular as Naismith's students went on to teach at YMCAs around the country, Carpenter said.

Naismith knew before his death in 1939 that he had created a lasting game when basketball became an Olympic sport.

"Up until then, he'd just thought of it as a little game," she said.