James Naismith: his early formative years in Canada leading to the invention of basketball

The origins of popular sports such as baseball, football and hockey are often difficult to pinpoint; often a number of individuals and places claim to be the inventor or the birthplace of a sport. However, there is no dispute on who invented the sport of basketball: Canadian Dr. James Naismith. Born in the Ottawa valley town of Almonte, province of Canada on November 6, 1861, James Naismith was orphaned at a very young age and was raised along with his older sister Annie and younger brother Robbie by his uncle and aunt.

A popular childhood game in Naismith’s youth was “duck on the rock.” A stone called “the duck” was placed on a larger stone or a tree stump. The objective of the game was for players to knock the duck stone off its base, run to retrieve their own stone and return to the original throwing location. A participant would play the role of the “guard” whose role was to pick up the duck rock if it had been knocked off, place it back on its base, and race to tag one of the throwers before the latter returned to his starting point. While each player had his or her throwing technique, Naismith noticed that the most successful players lobbed their stone with aim and accuracy which would allow them more time to pick up their stone. The memory of this childhood game would influence his creation of the game of basketball.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of men standing in a field watching a game of duck on the rock.

A game of duck on a rock, Alberta, September 1906 (MIKAN 3386054)

Naismith struggled with his studies and decided to quit during his second year at Almonte High School at the age of 15. He preferred to work on the family farm in the summer and the logging camps in the winter. The 1881 Canadian census lists his occupation at the age of 19 as a farmer.

Later that year, Naismith decided to go back to high school and graduated in 1883 at the age of 21. He moved to Montréal and pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Honours and Philosophy and Hebrew at McGill University. Late 19th-century Montréal was an important centre for the early development of organized sports in Canada and North America. The first official rules for popular sports such as lacrosse and hockey were elaborated during that period. Naismith—blessed with natural athletic abilities—was drawn to many sports played at the university including gymnastics, rugby football and lacrosse. He graduated from McGill with a Bachelor of Arts in Physical Education in 1888. These interests led him to be named the first director of physical training at McGill in the fall of 1889.

A black-and-white photograph of two rugby football players crouching, the man on the left is holding the ball, waiting to throw it to the other man behind him.

James Naismith (on the left) playing rugby football (MIKAN 3652828)

A black-and-white photograph of the McGill University rugby football team. They are wearing striped knee socks and white uniforms adorned with a crest.

James Naismith (far left, sitting down) part of the McGill rugby football team (MIKAN 3650079).

In September 1890, Naismith moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S. to attend the International YMCA Training School. Tasked with creating a new indoor sport, he invented the game of basketball. The first game was played in the YMCA gymnasium in Springfield in December 1891. Basketball has since become of one of the most popular sports in the world.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of men sitting on a staircase. On each side are the baskets that were first used in the sport.

The world’s first basketball team. Dr. James Naismith is on the right in the center row (MIKAN 3652826)

For more photos documenting Naismith’s professional and personal activities, consult the D. Hallie Lowry collection held by Library and Archives Canada.

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