The invention of basketball and the Canadian participants in the first ever basketball game

By Normand Laplante

December 21, 2016 marks the 125th anniversary of the invention of basketball by Canadian James Naismith and of the first game ever played. In the fall of 1891, Naismith was studying to become a YMCA physical education instructor at the International YMCA Training Institute in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was given the task of finding a suitable indoor recreational sport for a physical education class for men aspiring to become executive YMCA secretaries. This group of “incorrigibles” had shown little interest in undertaking traditional calisthenics and gymnastics exercises and their reluctance had led the two previous physical instructors assigned to the group to quit. Naismith first attempted to have the class play modified indoor versions of football, soccer and even the Canadian game of lacrosse. However, these initiatives proved unsuccessful, largely due to the physical restraints imposed by a small gymnasium. Naismith then came up with the idea of a new sport, based on a children’s game Duck on the rock, where two teams would battle each other to throw a ball into the opposing team’s basket to score points. On December 21, 1891, Naismith presented his 13 rules for the new game to the class and separated the group into two teams of nine players. While the final score of the game was only 1-0, the new sport proved to be a big hit with the players.

A black-and-white photograph with a list of all the players pictured, as well as those missing from the photograph who were part of the first team.

Members of the world’s first basketball team, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1891 (MIKAN 3652826)

The participants in the first game included four Canadians who, like Naismith, were studying at the International YMCA Training Institute in Springfield: Lyman W. Archibald, Finlay G. MacDonald and John George Thompson, from Nova Scotia, and Thomas Duncan Patton, from Montreal. As graduate trainees of the Institute returning to their new duties in Canada, some members of the “First Team” were
instrumental in spreading the new sport through the YMCA network in different regions of Canada.

Detail from a black-and-white photograph of the first basketball team.

Lyman W. Archibald, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1891 (MIKAN 3652826)

Originally from Truro, Nova Scotia, Lyman W. Archibald (1868-1947) became general secretary and physical director of the St. Stephen, New Brunswick, YMCA in 1892 and organized one of the first basketball games played in Canada in the fall of 1892 in this town on the Canada-US border. In 1893, Archibald moved on to Hamilton, Ontario where, as a YMCA physical instructor, he brought the sport to that region.

Detail from the black-and-white photograph of the first basketball team.

John G. Thompson, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1891 (MIKAN 3652826)

After graduating from the YMCA Training Institute in 1895, John G. Thompson (1859-1933), from Merigomish, Nova Scotia, returned to his home province and, in 1895, was appointed physical education director at the new YMCA building in New Glasgow, where he introduced basketball to the Pictou County region.

Detail from the black-and-white photograph of the first basketball team.

T. Duncan Patton, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1891 (MIKAN 3652826)

T. Duncan Patton (1865-1944), originally from Montreal, was one of the two team captains selected by Naismith for the first game. He is said to have introduced the sport to India as a YMCA missionary in 1894. Later on, as YMCA secretary in Winnipeg in the early 1900s, Patton influenced the early organizers of the game in that city.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds the D. Hallie Lowry collection which includes photographs of Naismith and of participants of the first basketball game in Springfield. The National Council of Young Men’s Christian Associations of Canada fonds includes a copy of James Naismith’s 1941 book, Basketball: Its Origins and Development, autographed by some of the members of the first basketball team, including Canadians T. Duncan Patton and Lyman W. Archibald; and Patton’s personal published account of the origins of the sport, Basketball: How and When Introduced, written before 1939. LAC’s collection also has photographs of early basketball teams which provide visual documentation of the development of the sport in Canada.

A black-and-white photograph showing four young men posing around a basketball.

An early photograph of a Canadian basketball team which included Norman Bethune (second from the bottom) with Clark, Lewis and McNeil, members of the Owen Sound Collegiate Institute basketball team, ca 1905 (MIKAN 3192129)

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Normand Laplante is a senior archivist in the Society and Culture Division of the Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

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.