Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Story of the First Swish! Hoop Genius (How a Desperate Teacher Invented Basketball) by John Coy

In December of 1891, James Naismith took over a rowdy gym class that had already forced two teachers to quit. Nobody else would teach that class.

Winters in New England are cold and dreary, and the young single men of Springfield, Massachusetts, were restless. Filled with the more energy than they could work off during the day, they flocked to the local YMCA with its gymnasium and emphasis on body building. But the town's older teens and twenty-somethings were bored with toe-touches, squats, and the other gentlemanly calisthenics that the Y offered. They wanted to move and groove. When they weren't kept in motion at all times, fights threatened to break out.

Naismith reluctantly took the job. The guys obviously needed something exciting to work off their drive, and James had the idea that he could focus the young men's aggressive energy by designing indoor versions of outdoor games played in the summer. His first choice was indoor lacrosse, but hardwood sticks in the hands of rambunctious young men resulted in a lot of injuries. Indoor soccer, football and field hockey were even worse. Blood and broken bones didn't exactly fit in with the goals for the Young Men's Christian Organization.

James realized that none of the usual outdoor sports worked in a small gym and recalled a game he and the boys in his neighborhood used to play--Duck on a Rock. Obviously, tossing rocks at a target wasn't a good idea, but an old soccer ball would work, and he decided to go with it as a safe bouncing version of the hockey puck. He divided the floor down the middle and planned to split up the guys into two teams. But what could he use to replace the goalie cages? James wanted to try out his idea with some of the guys the next day, so he asked the custodian, Pop Stevens, for a couple of boxes. Pop couldn't come up with any boxes, but he did find two old peach baskets in a closet. Those would have to do, and Naismith nailed one up on the wall at each end of his improvised court. He hurriedly wrote some rules, pointedly including no body contact at the top of the list. Now Naismith hoped he was ready for his challenging class.

Naismith's "basket ball" was an instant hit. The young men loved racing up and down the court and trying to toss the ball into the basket, but the first game was not exactly a high-scoring duel. At last, the game's first and only goal was scored, and it was a doozy--a three-pointer before there were three-pointers!

William Chase launched a shot from twenty-five feet that went in for the only basket.

When Naismith blew the whistle for the end of the game, nobody wanted to leave.

Almost immediately, James had more players than he could manage, and when the Christmas holidays came, the players shared the new game with all their friends. Soon a young woman teacher approached the coach and asked him to teach her friends the game, and the first women basketball players took to the court in 1892, long skirts and all. Everyone loved the new game, and soon someone had the bright idea of cutting a hole in the bottom of the basket so that the ball could go right back into play after each score. The first SWISH was heard in the land!

John Coy's Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball (Carolrhoda Picture Books) (Lerner Publishing, 2013) tells the story of how Naismith's "basket ball" became one of the world's most popular sports, ending with its inventor being honored in 1936 when it became an Olympic game. Coy's writing is clear and witty, much abetted by Joe Morse's comic illustrations of turn-of-the-century athletes in their "gym costumes" and handlebar mustaches going for the goal. Coy adds an author's note for more historical information and Naismith's original rules, as well as a bibliography for readers who want to know more about how the game grew.

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