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The Birth of an International Pastime: Sotheby's to Sell the Rules that Invented The Game of Basketball
James Naismith’s Founding Rules of Basketball. Estimate: More than $2 million. Photo: Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- In December 1891, a two-page typed document comprising a set of 13 rules to a new game was tacked up in a Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA gym – and “Basket Ball” was born. The game was the invention of a 30-year old physical educator teacher named James Naismith, created to entertain a restless class of students during the winter months. His “Basket Ball” was an instant success among the YMCA students, and they quickly carried the game across the country and around the world – to China by 1895, the Olympics in 1936, the formation of the NBA in 1949, the first FIBA World Championship in 1950, the arrival of the WNBA in 1997 and with more than an estimated 450 million playing today. The two-page typescript that started it all will be offered by Sotheby’s on 10 December 2010 in New York and is expected to bring more than $2 million. This remarkable survivor has descended in the Naismith family and is being offered to benefit the Naismith International Basketball Foundation, which focuses on the promotion and recognition of good sportsmanship in basketball and other sports.

Selby Kiffer, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist for Historic American Manuscripts, said, “Naismith and his family preserved one of the greatest documents in the history of sports and American culture: the original two typed pages of rules that, as he later noted at the bottom of the second sheet, ‘Hung in the gym that the boys might learn the rules.’ From this Magna Carta of the sport, hundreds of millions of players and fans around the world have experienced untold millions of hours of recreation, excitement, triumph—and, as always with sport, heartache.”

“I am very proud of my grandfather’s achievements during his lifetime as well as the legacy of sportsmanship and teamwork that survives today,” commented Ian Naismith. “The Naismith Family has been the custodian of this treasure for more than 100 years and its sale will ensure that the principles James Naismith lived by and created the game of basketball upon will continue to influence generations of athletes around the world through the work of the Naismith International Basketball Foundation.”

Unique among major sports, basketball did not evolve from earlier games. Basketball sprang, fully formed, like Athena, from the head of James Naismith, a physical education teacher at the Young Men’s Christian Association Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts. Naismith, who would later become an ordained Presbyterian minister as well as a medical doctor, was already a committed Christian of the “muscular” persuasion – one who believed that physical fitness was an imperative part of spiritual development. The long winter months between football and baseball season left Naismith’s students with little to do beyond repetitive and boring calisthenics. Challenged to come up with a team sport that could be played indoors, Naismith took inspiration for an elevated goal from a game he had played as a boy in Ontario, Canada, “Duck on the Rock”. He then added a smattering of elements from soccer, lacrosse, and rugby, eliminated physical contact, and set down the original 13 rules of “basket ball” in December 1891 (the name of the game was spelled in two words until 1921). The first game was played with a soccer ball and peach baskets – the goals went though several modifications, but by 1906 they were well established as metal hoops with backboards – which had first been adopted to keep fans from interfering with the flight of the ball. Women’s basketball followed that same year and almost immediately, the new game was a sensation. Club and pro leagues began popping up all over the country and the world, and Naismith, who died in 1940, lived to see his invention adopted as an Olympic sport in 1936.

Dr. Naismith was also instrumental in establishing college basketball. News of his new game was spread by word of mouth and the media, and the game was quickly introduced on college campuses by colleagues and students of Naismith. Naismith himself brought the game to the University of Kansas in the fall of 1898 and the first NCAA college basketball tournament, now known as March Madness, was played in 1939 with 8 teams. In 2011 it will be a 68-team tournament.

“Dr. Naismith’s goal in life was to leave the world better off than he found it,” added Leila Dunbar, Sotheby's Collectibles consultant and former department head. “In inventing basketball, he gave the world one of its greatest sports. Dr. Naismith's legacy is further enhanced by his lifetime of teaching principles of character to his many pupils, such as sportsmanship, selflessness and equality, through sport; principles that remain relevant today."

The original rules were a mere two pages; the official rules published by FIBA in 2010 are 80 pages. While the game has evolved a great deal since James Naismith tacked these simple rules to a gymnasium wall, today’s basketball is indisputably the same sport that was first played in Springfield. In his own history of the game, Basketball: Its Origin and Development (1940), Naismith proudly and correctly states that the fundamental principles that he planned for the game “are still the unchanging factors of basketball.” Naismith recognized as the biggest change in the play of the sport was the dribble, which he called “one of the most spectacular and exciting maneuvers in basketball.” Interestingly, the dribble was naturally discovered and developed by the earliest players as a way of advancing the ball without violating Naismith’s original injunction that a “player cannot run with the ball.” In fact, Naismith’s greatest innovation might have been that he did not overburden his new game with rules and restrictions. The players were able to adapt the game according to their own ingenuity. As Naismith himself noted, “Many of the plays and maneuvers that we often consider recent developments were really executed from the first.”

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