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swimming hole in the
Indian River. It was typical boys’ play in the water; they ducked one
another and used the mud banks for a slippery slide. When it was dark,
they left the river and went back to their homes, as each of them would
arise with the sun the next morning.
As the summer waned and
the maple trees turned brilliant colors, the activities of the boys
changed. There were still contests at the Comers, but there were also
days of hunting and fishing. It was rare sport to catch the great
northern pike in the late fall, and the partridges and snowshoe hares
were plentiful. Occasionally one of the men would bag a deer or a
Canadian lynx; and at these times the boys would have something special
to discuss in the evenings.
Sometime in November,
the first freeze would come sweeping out of the North, and cold and snow
would put a finish to the summer play. Not long after the first freeze
there would be ice; and when the Indian River froze over there was
skating. The old swimming hole was once more in use, the log fires
burned every evening, as the sharp blades of the skates cut the glazed
surface of the Indian River.
One of the boys of the
Bennie’s Comers group was an orphan who made his home with his uncle.
His father and mother
had died when he was eight years of age. It was the first night of
skating, and this boy stood by the fire on the river and watched the
other fellows gliding over the ice. The lad did not have any skates, and
he was too proud to ask his uncle to buy him a pair. He left the river
and went to his uncle’s shop, and there late into the night the
neighbors saw a light burning.
The next evening, when
the group gathered at the river, this young fellow was among them, and
over his shoulders hung a pair of skates. These skates were not like
those of the other boys, but were made from a pair of old files set
firmly into strips of hickory wood. Years later, when necessity arose,
this same inventive lad gave to the world not a pair of home-made
skates, but the game of basketball.
Bob-sledding was a
popular sport with this group, and many evenings boys and girls would
pile into a sled filled with straw, and, singing and yelling, they would
go from house to house, rousing out some of their friends who had failed
to start with the group. Often the whole crowd would enter some kitchen
to laugh and chatter as they ate doughnuts and drank cider.
snowshoeing were other sports that they enjoyed in the winter. They
built a long slide for the toboggans and spent many evenings whizzing
down this slide at a speed that only a toboggan can attain.
Play, however, was not
the only factor that affected the lives of these boys. Work had its
influence as well. When a boy was sent into the field with a team, he
was expected to accomplish the task that he had been assigned. If some
emergency arose, he was not expected to go to the house and ask for
help; if it were at all possible, he was expected to fix the trouble
himself. Sometimes deep in the woods a singletree would break, and it
was expected that the teamster, whether he be sixteen or sixty, make his
Bennie’s Corners was my
home community, and my early training was with the group that I have
described. Both at play and at work I was closely associated with the
people of this district, and I recall distinctly some of the lessons
that I learned as a boy.
One incident that I
will never forget was my trip across the Misiwaka River for a load of
hay. We had been using a crossing down the river, but rather than to go
around, I decided that I would cross higher up. I went across the ice to
the far shore, and quickly loaded my sleigh. I started back, and was
almost to the home shore, when with a crash my team went into the water.
We had hit a spring hole, and I did not have time to go for help. I can
well remember the lump that arose in my throat. A valuable team of
horses was struggling in the water, simply because I had been in too
much of a hurry to go a quarter of a mile down the stream.
I did not have much
time to think, for the team was threshing in the water and something had
to be done. Luckily the sleigh had not gone in, and I rushed around to
loosen the doubletrees. This helped the horses a little; one especially
was kicking and floundering on one side of the hole. I loosed a rein,
and throwing it over the horse’s head, I began to tug with all my might.
In a few moments the horse, after a desperate lunge, slipped up on the
clear ice, and I quickly worked him away from the hole. In a few moments
I had the other horse out of the water, and I sat down on the bank to
rest a minute. As I turned to see if the horses were all right, I saw my
uncle standing back in the trees, watching me. I never knew how long he
had stood there, but I am sure that he was there before I had pulled the
The use of our own
initiative was great training for us boys, and prepared us to meet our
future problems. Some of us went to the city; others answered the call
to hew lands in western Canada.
It is surprising how
well many of these country boys succeeded after leaving their boyhood
home. Robert Tait McKenzie, the noted sculptor of athletes, went to
McGill, then later to Philadelphia to the University of Pennsylvania as
director of physical education. Jim Young entered medical school. Bob
Toshack started a transport company in Winnipeg. Jack and Bob Steele
built a canning factory in San Diego, California. Bill Naismith became a
machinist and is now with the Denver Gardner people in Denver, Colorado.
Gilbert Moir owned a hardware store in Arnprior, Ontario. Jack Snedden
was a salesman in New York City. And as for myself, I went to Montreal
to study for the ministry.
In the fall of 1883, I
left Almonte to attend McGill University, in Montreal. I had been
working on the farm for years, and my physical condition was excellent.
It was with a firm determination and a great sense of confidence that I
was to enter the study for the ministry. For several years I had been
wondering what I wanted to accomplish; finally I decided that the only
real satisfaction that I would ever derive from life was to help my
fellow beings. At that time the ministry was the way that one attempted
to help his fellows. I knew that there would be seven years before I
would be able to go out into the world and begin my life work, but I
felt that the time spent would be worth while.
I had earned a
fellowship in McGill and had corresponded with the university
authorities in regard to attending their school. When I reported to the
dean of the college, I was told that my room had been selected for me
and I was shown to the dormitory that was to be my home for the next few
I had missed several
years during high school, and when I entered college I felt that I had
little time to lose and was determined to study as hard as I could. I
spent long hours over my books, and everything else was forgotten in my
desire to finish my education and get into the field as soon as
One evening, as I sat
studying in my room, someone knocked at the door. I raised my head from
the book and called, “Come in.” Two juniors in the college, Jim
McFarland and Donald Dewar, entered. I knew these fellows only to speak
to them, and I was surprised at their visit. I asked them to sit down,
and after some small conversation, McFarland turned to me and said:
“Naismith, we have been
watching you for some time, and we see that you never take part in any
of the activities. You spend too much time with your books.”
I looked at McFarland
with a smile. He was a big fellow, one of the outstanding athletes of
the school. Then my gaze turned to Dewar. Dewar did not appear strong,
and as he noticed my glance, he spoke:
“Believe me, Naismith,
what McFarland says is true. I wouldn’t listen to the fellows either,
and you see the results.”
The fellows talked for
some time, and finally, as they started to leave, I explained to them
that I was grateful for their advice, but I was sure that I was strong
enough to study as hard as I wanted to and that I did not have time for
Late that night, when I
had finished my studies and lay on my bed, I began to wonder why those
two fellows had seen fit to spend their time in giving advice to a
freshman. The more I thought, the more clearly to my mind came the
realization that they were doing it purely for my own benefit. I
determined that the next day I would go over to the gymnasium and see
what they were doing.
It was the next
afternoon that I went, and from that time to the present I have been
engaged in physical work both in the gymnasium and on the athletic
Though my introduction
to gymnastics in the university came about in a casual way, my entrance
into athletics was accidental. One evening, on my way home from a trip
down town with a chum, I stopped to watch the football team at practice.
During the scrimmage, the center had his nose broken, and there was no
substitute to take his place.
The captain called out,
“Won’t one of you fellows come in and help us out?”
No one responded
immediately, and throwing off my coat, I volunteered to take his place.
At the close of practice, the captain asked me if I would fill the
center position the next Saturday in a game with Queen’s University. I
purchased a suit—at that time each man bought his own equipment—and
played my first game of college football. For seven years I played
without missing a game and enjoyed the sport, even though it was not
thought proper for a “theolog.” Football at that time was supposed to be
a tool of the devil, and it was much to my amusement that I learned that
some of my comrades gathered in one of the rooms one evening to pray for
It was in my senior
year in theology that the incident occurred that changed my career from
the profession of the ministry to that of athletics, which was then in
its infancy and rather in disrepute.
During a hotly
contested football game, the guard on my left encountered some
difficulty, and losing his temper he made some remarks that, though
forceful, are unprintable. When he had cooled a little, he leaned over
to me and whispered, “I beg your pardon, Jim; I forgot you were there.”
This surprised me more
than a little. I had never said a word about his profanity, and I could
not understand why he should have apologized to me. Later, thinking the
matter over, the only reason that I could give for the guard’s action
was that I played the game with all my might and yet held myself under
A few days later I went
down to the Y.M.C.A. and told my experiences to the secretary, Mr. D. A.
Budge. In our conversation I brought up the point that I thought that
there might be other effective ways of doing good besides preaching.
After a while Budge told me that there was a school in Springfield,
Massachusetts, that was developing men for this field. I made up my mind
that I would drop the ministry and go into this other work.
On consulting with my
favorite professor, I received some very sound advice. He said,
“Nai-smith, I can’t tell you what you should do. While this new field
appears good, I would finish the course in theology; then if you do not
like this new work, you can return to your original field.”
I followed the
professor’s counsel, and have had frequent occasion to be thankful for
After graduating from
the theological college, I spent the summer visiting Y.M.C.A.’s in the
United States, spending a few days at the summer school in Springfield.
It was there that I first met Dr. Luther Gulick.
On arriving unannounced
at Springfield, I went to the Training School and asked for the dean of
the physical education department. I was informed that Dr. Gulick was in
class but would be out shortly. I sat down and waited.
I had been brought up
in a British university, where all the professors with whom I was
acquainted were elderly men, sedate and dignified. After I had waited a
few minutes, a man about my own age entered the office. He was tall and
angular, his eyes were a bright piercing blue, and his hair and whiskers
were a peculiar shade of carroty red. This man crossed the room with a
rapid, jerky stride, fingered the mail on his desk, and then crossed to
where I sat. With a winning smile on his face and a freckled hand
extended, he welcomed me to the school. It is little wonder that I
immediately felt a warm regard for Dr. Gulick, and I knew that, with
this man as dean of the school, I was going to enjoy my work. I told him
of my experiences and convictions as we chatted.
When the next class
period started, he invited me to attend the session. I was delighted
with Dr. Gulick’s methods of teaching; he seemed to take the students
into his confidence as he discussed the subject with them. Later, I was
to find that he was one of the few men whose teachings have remained
with me and have been a help not only in my profession but in my life as
By appointment we met
that evening and sat for hours discussing ideas that were of common
interest. He was engaged at that time in planning a pentathlon for the
Y.M.C.A. As I talked, he convinced me, more and more, of the importance
of the work of a physical director.
The rest of the summer
was spent at my old home in Almonte. In the fall I started for
Springfield, and in Ottawa I was joined by T. D. Patton. In Montreal,
Dave Corbett met us, and we three formed the Canadian contingent at the
International Training School at Springfield, Massachusetts.
On arriving at the
school, I met A.. A. Stagg, who had been a theological student at .
Yale, and who had come to Springfield inspired with the same ideals that
had brought me from McGill. I had gone into Dr. Gulick’s office and
found him seated at his desk talking to a short stocky man of my own
age. Gulick looked up and motioned for me to come over. He arose with
his usual quick manner and introduced me to the man who was to be a
fellow student for one year and a teaching colleague for another. AmosL
Alonzo Stagg. Stagg grasped my hand with a grip that he was accustomed
to use on a baseball, and I retaliated with a grasp that I had learned
in wrestling. Each of us, through Dr. Gulick, had heard of the other,
but this was our first meeting; our friendship has lasted more than
It was a few days after
enrollment in the fall that Dr. Gulick conceived the idea of starting
football in the school. Stagg had been an all-American at Yale, Bond and
Black had played at Knox College, and I had played seven years of
English Rugby at McGill. Stagg was appointed coach, and he selected
thirteen men and asked them to purchase suits. I had the Rugby suit that
I had used at McGill, and I laughed at the others when they purchased
long-sleeved canvas jackets. My suit resembled a track suit; it was only
a few days later that I sheepishly bought one of the longsleeved jackets
like the others. The only remnant of my McGill uniform that I retained
was the red and white striped stockings.
On the football field,
I really learned to know Stagg and to admire his methods. He was the
same then as he is today. Just before the opening game I had my first
view of the real man who, through the years, has become the dean of
American football. It was in the dressing room, just before we were to
go out on the field. Stagg had given us our instructions; then he turned
to us, “Let us ask God’s blessing on our game.”
He did not pray for
victory, but he prayed that each man should do his best and show the
true Christian spirit.
For two years it was
his custom to ask different members of the team to lead; during those
two years I never heard anything but the same spirit breathed by the
men. Our team averaged less than one hundred sixty pounds, but we played
games with Harvard, Yak, Amjbierst, and other large colleges. We won our
share of the games, and our team became known as “Stagg’s Stubby
I recognized Stagg’s
ability as a coach, and noticed that he would pick one man for a
position and keep him there. He seemed to have the uncanny ability to
place the right man in the right position. I asked him one day how it
happened that he played me at center. Stagg looked at me, and in a
serious voice replied:
“Jim, I play you at
center because you can do the meanest things in the most gentlemanly
manner.” At the end of the first year, Stagg and I were retained on the
faculty; and it was during the following year that the opportunity came
to me to invent the game of basketball.