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Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventureby Alexander Wolff
Duck on a Rock
As I made my way toward Canada and the birthplace of basketball's inventor, an oversized Massachusetts mill town beckoned from alongside Interstate 91. I stopped, but not for the purpose most tourists do, to slog through Springfield's Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Rather, I stopped to see Bob Jennings.
I'd first found him about 15 years ago at Dunbar Community Center, the recreation hall he ran in the city's blighted Hill-McKnight district. Jennings was a trim and courtly black man who had eased into his sixties with an even temper and an ever-open door. Dunbar was once the First South Church of Christ, and Mister J-everyone called him Mister J-used it to minister to a variety of the neighborhood's needs. The old nave had been given over to a basketball court, which indicated one need prime among them. In the late afternoons the best ballplayers in western Massachusetts gathered at Dunbar's procrustean court to jostle one another for elbow room. The cramped quarters required a stout heart, and so the Dunbar parquet was known for miles around as Death Valley.
On that visit Mister J had recited the wagon train of local stars to rumble through Death Valley. He told of an intern he once supervised, an undergrad from the University of Massachusetts in nearby Amherst known as Julius (Doctor J) Erving. And Mister J described what it took to get himself to set aside his duties as a surrogate father to the local kids and pull on his sneakers to play. Not much, it turned out. "They'll say, 'Run with us, Mister J.' I'll wake up the next morning a little stiffer. But I won't play half-court. You stand around too much."
That last comment had particularly endeared him to me. So, though I hadn't been in touch for years, I drove out State Street on a brilliant fall afternoon. I ducked into Dunbar and asked to see Bob Jennings.
"Mister J's passed a few years now," a young man told me.
Doctor James, Mister J, and Doctor J made up a kind of holy trinity at Dunbar, whose court sat closest to the very first one. Now two of those three icons were dead. I spun the three blocks to Winchester Square, site of the old YMCA Training School at the northeast corner of Sherman and State, and found it gone, too-replaced by a shopping center parking lot commanded by that international symbol of spoilage, a McDonald's.
I'd been told that a plaque marked the sacred spot. But I could find only a drive-thru lane and a few no loitering signs. I asked a fry-slinger if he could direct me to any commemoration of the game's invention.
"There's a sign over there, but I think it's for some guy," he said.
"Yeah. That's the guy."
I crossed the street to a traffic island with a monument, but it turned out to be a war memorial. So I went back to Mickey D's.
"It's a sign?" I pressed. "I didn't see any sign. What kind of sign?"
"Well, in this neighborhood, somebody probably stole it."
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but eccentricity is the inventor's mistress. Benjamin Franklin believed you could fend off flatulence by drinking perfume. Leonardo da Vinci used a shorthand of his own devising to take 5,000 pages of notes, all backward. Thomas Edison tried to get people to say "ahoy" when answering the telephone, an effort that mercifully foundered on the shoals of "hello."
The originator of basketball stands proudly in this tradition. First let it be said that James Naismith invented more than just hoops. He came up with various other games, whose names (hy-lo, vreille) hint at why they never caught on. In the fall of 1891, he jerryrigged what's believed to be the first football headgear, a chamois skullcap secured by a chin strap.
But even if Naismith had never invented anything, he sometimes seemed like a man at least a free throw short of a three-point play. Certainly his wife, Maude, must have found him a constant entertainment. He slept only four hours a night. He was so absentminded that he would regularly drive to work, then at the end of the day hitch a ride or hop a streetcar home, thereby marooning the family Model T. Upon returning from World War I, where he served 19 months as a YMCA chaplain in France, he declared that he stood two inches shorter from all the walking he'd done. And while we aren't sure that Naismith actually believed you could make an athlete run faster by feeding him rabbit, as athletic director at the University of Kansas he hired a coach who did.
When his youngest son, Jimmy, was three days old, Naismith took him into a classroom at Kansas and, to illustrate points on child development, plopped him down naked and marked him up with red and blue chalk. The good doctor was so enamored of data that he took 19 measurements of every entering freshman male, from height and weight to breadth of shoulders and girth of chest, and added notations about more private bodily regions-which led his daughter, Annie, in remarks made years later to his biographer, to call Papa Jim's records "a mid-Victorian Kinsey Report." In the throes of his preoccupation he was forever making notes like this: "Man dribbling. Defense holds out arm. Dribbler runs into arm. On whom the foul?"
I suppose we'd all be forgetful if pondering such essential questions.
Naismith had received his divinity degree from McGill University in Montreal, and he enrolled at the Training School in the fall of 1890 to begin work on his master's in physical education because he wanted to reconcile a love of sports with Christian rectitude. But one of his assignments turned into a test of faith. In December 1891 he took over what, were the Y not such a pious place, would surely have been called the Phys Ed Class from Hell. Two other instructors had tried and failed to bring some order to this incorrigible group of 18 future YMCA executive secretaries, most of them out-of-season rugby and football players who chafed under the regimen of leapfrog and tumbling that passed for sport during the winter.
As it happened, Naismith had already begun wondering why there wasn't a game better suited to his athletic beau ideal, a specimen somewhere between the rugger and the runner-"the tall, agile, graceful, and expert athlete," he would write, "rather than the massive muscular man on the one hand, or the cadaverous greyhound type on the other." The characteristic act of his invention-the arched throw of a ball at an elevated goal-would come from an obscure children's game popular in Ontario's Ottawa valley, which young Jim had played in the hamlet of Bennies Corners. In the game, called duck on a rock, players knocked a fist-sized rock off a boulder by pelting it from a distance with smaller stones. If the thrower missed the target, he had to retrieve his stone before another player, designated "it," could tag him. Naismith recalled how finesse was at least as important as force, for the thrower had to balance the objective of hitting the duck with the need to retrieve his stone if it were to miss. Thus players learned to throw in an optimal arc. Station the goal overhead, Naismith concluded, and his new game would further reward skill over force.
Naismith stayed up late drafting the original 13 rules, and the next morning asked the Training School janitor, whom history records as one James Stebbins, to fetch a couple of boxes. Stebbins famously produced instead two half-bushel peach baskets, which he hung from the 10-foot-high balcony circling the basement gym. The inaugural game ended with a YMCA executive secretary-to-be named William Chase having scored basketball's first-and the first game's only-basket, a throw from 25 feet away.
As Training School graduates fanned out on missions around the world, and Naismith shared his game with anyone who showed an interest, basketball spread rapidly and widely-so widely that before his death in 1939, the inventor had collected translations of the rules in almost 50 languages and dialects. But in its first blush of life, no one gave any consideration to where basketball might go. The game had been a stopgap, and it had worked: The class was brought to heel. But consider for a moment. What if Stebbins had come back with two lengths of stovepipe? What if the balcony had been 12 feet high instead of 10? A colleague of Naismith's at the Training School would invent a different sport involving a ball and a net; had he done so sooner-had William Morgan come up with volleyball in 1890 instead of 1895-missionaries might have packed its rules with their Bibles, and there might be volleyball nets, not basketball hoops, in gyms and parks and schoolyards the world over. You might be reading a book called The Golden Spike: By Rail through the Country of Volleyball.
By 1898 the Naismiths had settled in Lawrence, Kansas, where the good doctor, having now added a degree in medicine to those in divinity and phys ed, took on three duties at the university: as athletic director, chapel director, and the entire faculty of the department of health and phys ed. As an afterthought, he served as the school's first basketball coach.
In 1905, Naismith's best player was an angular young man from Missouri named Forrest (Phog) Allen. That fall officials at a small college near Lawrence contacted Naismith to ask if they might hire Allen as a part-time basketball coach. Naismith laughingly mentioned the offer to Allen.
"What's so funny about that?" Allen wanted to know. "Why, you can't coach basketball," replied Naismith, who rarely even traveled with his team. "You just play it!"
The exchange may be apocryphal, but the sentiments behind it were real enough. For years the two would spar over their philosophical differences. Allen came to regard Naismith as something of a fuddy-duddy, scoffing at his habit of counseling any student with a problem who stopped by his office, as if Naismith were some early-century Mister J. By contrast, Allen hitched his ambitions to the game. He took that job, and by 1907 had replaced Naismith as the Jayhawks' coach. (It's often noted that Naismith is the only losing basketball coach Kansas has ever had.) After two seasons Allen left to study osteopathy, but a decade later he returned, first taking over as hoops coach from the man who liked to serve rabbit as a training meal, and, in 1924, in the great humiliation of Naismith's professional career, accepting an appointment from the chancellor to replace the Basketball Man himself as head of phys ed.
Over the years Allen showed Naismith many kindnesses, offering to help him avoid foreclosure on his house and launching a campaign to send him to Berlin in 1936 for basketball's Olympic debut. Naismith would, with no apparent begrudgement, sign a photograph for Allen with the inscription: "From the father of basketball to the father of basketball coaching." But none of this altered Naismith's conviction that his game should be for the masses, not an entertainment spectacle played by the competitive elite. In notes appended to the first edition of the rules, published in 1892, he wrote, "At a picnic the baskets may be hung on a couple of trees and the game carried on as usual." He even envisioned goals being stuck at either end of a football field, and as many as a hundred people playing with several balls at once. To Naismith, in the midst of a noble contest the true sportsman shouldn't have some nonparticipant telling him much more than "You're smart guys. You figure it out." Indeed, in 1910 the rules committee, on which Naismith still sat, banned coaching during games, and not until 1949, a decade after the inventor's death, were coaches allowed even to talk to players during timeouts. Naismith believed the purpose to which he had devoted his life-the development of muscular Christianity through sport-was best served when players were taught the basics of a game and left to themselves.
This conflict, almost as old as basketball itself, seemed to me an essential one. Of course there was a place in the game for coaching. But to whom did basketball really belong? The players? The coaches? Or the heirs to Doc Naismith and Mister J, ministers of the game who taught a kid self-reliance and responsibility long before the limelight found him, just in case it never did?
The next morning, looking up from the foliage that lingered in the floodplain of the Connecticut River, I saw flocks of Canada geese heading south. But like Doc Naismith I was going to be something of an odd duck and continue north.
All sorts of incongruities awaited. In the upper reaches of New York State, just beyond the ferry from Vermont, yard signs touted a candidate for sheriff named Lawliss. Across from a Mohawk tribal office near Hogansburg, a Conestoga-style hutch peddled Sof-Serv under a sign reading CUSTARD'S LAST STAND. But I came across the starkest contrast later that day, after Highway 374 carried me unawares into a forlorn farming village a few miles from the Canadian border: the juxtaposition of Doc Naismith with McGill's second most famous basketball graduate.
For some reason the name of Chateaugay, New York, had stuck in my head, and I soon remembered why. It's the hometown of a coach named Kevin O'Neill. O'Neill, who was then carrying a clipboard for Northwestern, had a few too many clicks on the odometer to qualify as what wags call "an up-and-comer." But he happened to be working his first head coaching job, at Marquette, when three underfunded filmmakers put together a documentary called Hoop Dreams. Because O'Neill would sign to a scholarship one of the film's two subjects, Chicago high school star William Gates, the coach found himself with several fleeting minutes of screen time in the three-hour movie, including a visit to the Gates family's apartment in the Cabrini-Green housing project. Hoop Dreams depicted O'Neill as a reasonable if businesslike guy, not the unctuous procurer who as an assistant coach at Arizona some years earlier had cultivated a reputation as such a ruthless recruiter that he said, "When I walk into a gym, I want everybody to say, 'That asshole's here.'"
When Hoop Dreams was finally finished-after the filmmakers spent eight years maxing out credit cards and negotiating every circle of development hell-the movie met an improbable fate. In the rarest of receptions for a documentary, it won a theatrical release and rave reviews, even touching off a revolt among critics when the Academy failed to nominate it for Best Documentary. Throughout its long gestation, director Steve James had told the families of Gates and costar Arthur Agee that the film probably wouldn't make money, but if it did, the families would get their fair shares. When James sat down to write them checks, he also offered sums to 45 others with a speaking part in the film, with the money apportioned according to screen time. For permitting the filmmakers to document his sales call in the Gates family living room, O'Neill was to receive $887.31, with the possibility of almost $2,000 more depending on future revenues-not all that much, but $887.31 more than convention requires documentarians to pay their subjects.
But James soon heard from a lawyer representing O'Neill. Alone among those to appear in the film, the coach-who by then was making some $350,000 a year from his salary, endorsements, TV show, and camp as coach at Tennessee-wanted more. Almost $50,000 more. James pointed out that the formula was designed so every supporting player would be treated the same way, whether player, coach, or minister of the game. In response he received a note from O'Neill that read, "Steve: Let's move on this and get it cleared up. It's not going to go away."
Fortunately, it did go away. O'Neill dropped the matter. Yet here I found myself in the town that had nurtured such a charitable specimen of humanity. I skulked into the gym in which O'Neill had rung up 30 points a game for the Chateaugay High Bulldogs before heading up to McGill for college. I picked his mug shot out of the hallway photo board from the class of '75. (He rather looked like a kid whose ambition in life was to piss people off.) And I recalled how Naismith, McGill class of 1887, had replied to the question of whether he regretted not making a penny off the game. "It would be impossible for me to explain my feelings to people who ask this," the good doctor wrote shortly before his death. "My pay has not been in dollars, but in satisfaction of giving something to the world that is a benefit to masses of people."
Sometimes the place you find yourself tells you exactly where you need to go. Chateaugay was just such a place. I left in a hurry. Soon I was speeding over the St. Lawrence River, bound for Doc Naismith's birthplace.
Southeastern Ontario was flat and aflame. It pushed to the horizon with yellows and reds and rusty browns, like Vermont with a rolling pin put to it. Almonte was once known as Little Manchester, after the mills that attracted British immigrants like Naismith's Scottish father, John. In 1870 John and his wife, Margaret, left Almonte with their three children for a lumber camp on the Quebec shore of the Ottawa River. But a typhoid outbreak swept through the camp that fall, killing John and, three weeks later, on young Jim's ninth birthday, Margaret, too. Jim and his two siblings were shipped back to Almonte, to live with Margaret's brother, Pete Young, just outside town in the stone farmhouse in which Margaret and Pete had grown up.
The orphaned Jim took eagerly to the outdoor life. He dropped out of high school at age 15, and for four years found work in lumber camps and on Uncle Pete's farm. According to Bernice Larson Webb's biography of Naismith, The Basketball Man, as a lumberjack Naismith "learned to swear and drink, and began to wear heavy boots." There is no Pythonesque mention of his having put on women's clothing, but he did hang around in bars-a biographical detail that doesn't entirely conform with the eulogy read at his funeral, which asserted that "In no sense was he the reformed unclean liver preaching to others. Clean living seemed to have been the passion of his life youth up."
In fact, clean living only kicked in at age 20, if we're to believe a story Doc Naismith told over the years. After one hard day of lumberjacking, he sat down in an Almonte saloon and ordered a whiskey.
"Ye're Margaret Young's son, aren't ye?" said a man sitting next to him.
"Aye," Naismith replied.
"She'd turn over in her grave to see ye."
He set the glass down, pushed it away, and never took a drink again.
James returned to high school that year, and in the fall of 1883 took a scholarship to enroll at McGill. For seven years he studied there, first earning a B.A. and then that master's in divinity. But he made his mark in gymnastics, soccer, and rugby, too, and his peers twice named him the school's best all-around athlete.
During Naismith's final year at McGill, at a 6 a.m. rugby practice, a teammate let slip a curse. "Sorry, Jim," he quickly added. "Forgot you were here." Naismith had heard much worse in the lumber camps. But the incident persuaded him that a righteous man could have an influence on the athletic field, which was then regarded as a seedbed of ruffianism. He decided to pass up the ministry to pursue the career in phys ed that would bring him to Springfield.
Naismith's decision left his professors scandalized. They had prayed for his soul since the Sunday he delivered a sermon while sporting shiners on each eye. Back in Almonte, Uncle Pete and Jim's sister, Annie, were just as disappointed. They had reluctantly supported his decision to go to McGill because they imagined him someday mounting a pulpit, and now he was devoting his life to games. Pete and Annie cited Luke 9:62, accusing him of looking back after putting his hand to the plow. Over the years Jim would patch things up with his uncle. But his sister, who spent the rest of her days in that stone farmhouse, never forgave him.
As I cruised up Provincial Highway 15, the Young-Naismith farmstead appeared on the right, just past the Almonte turnoff. Scottish immigrant stonemasons had built it to last, and I was cheered to note the hoop over the garage. But the farmhouse was now a private home, and so the Visitors Centre of the Naismith International Basketball Centre and Foundation lay a half mile back from the highway, in a tiny structure that could have been made of gingerbread. On many days-especially long, cold, dark, Canadian winter ones-no one turned off at the ambiguously marked signpost and followed the access road to where I found John Gosset.
John was director, curator, archivist, landscaper, janitor, flamekeeper, and chief propagandist of the Naismith Foundation and its affiliated Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame. Every chore of preserving the Canadian chapters of the Naismith legend fell to him. Several years earlier, after hours of searching, he had discovered the tumbledown graves of Naismith's parents in the cemetery adjoining Auld Kirk Presbyterian Church, and each year he-for no direct survivors still lived in Almonte-scrubbed the marble headstones to keep moss from accumulating anew. He staged an annual fund-raiser in downtown Almonte, something called the Running of the Balls (No Bull!), in which Almonteans bought up the rights to each of hundreds of plastic mini-basketballs, then rolled them all down the Mill Street hill for a jackpot prize. Over the years John had fielded scores of queries from journalists, historians, and tourists, including an indignant one from a woman from North Carolina who emerged from her car to ask, "Yer not claimin' the game was in-vin-ted here, are yew?"
Out front of the Visitors Centre sat the very boulder at which young Jim and his buddies used to play the stone-throwing game that was basketball's progenitor. For centuries the sacred duck's rock had remained where Naismith would have remembered it, about a mile away, in a yard fringed with maple trees by the old Bennies Corners blacksmith's shop. When a woman bought the shop as a residence, she had the rock pushed to the edge of the lot by the road. Sensing history in peril, John arranged for it to be packed in sand and trucked on a flatbed to the Visitors Centre. One of the movers was amused by the boulder's sudden status as fragile historical artifact. "I've driven a snowplow for 30 years and hit that rock I don't know how many times," he said. "Never cracked then. Sure isn't gonna crack now."
Almonte was content to cede basketball itself to Springfield. But the town wanted to honor Naismith the man and recognize the migration of his invention beyond the United States. In his most optimistic moments, John Gosset envisioned moving the Naismith Foundation to the old town hall, a limestone Victorian that sits at the head of Almonte's business district. Tourists would have no problem finding the place, and the downtown would get a sorely needed boost. "You're starting to see some vacant storefronts," John told me. "This may be a ghost town if the community doesn't get on board." But the Naismith Foundation wasn't the only organization eyeing that space, and my visit to Almonte coincided with a public forum on how the old town hall ought to be used. The following evening John invited me along.
Citizens made their pitches in an auditorium at the new municipal offices, as portraits of hoop-clueless Windsors gazed quizzically from the walls. One woman pleaded that the space be converted into a lending library for toys. Another argued for a performing arts center. When a man proposed a diorama to commemorate the Almonte train wreck in 1942, a calamity that killed 42 people, I wasn't the only person who regarded his idea as a bit ghoulish. "What," a man next to me stage-whispered, "and perform reenactments every hour?"
After the Naismith Foundation president made his pitch, the chairwoman of the town council called for public comment. Before I knew it, I was on my feet in this room full of strangers.
I had no standing to be standing, I began. But as a visitor in this entirely reasonable country and thoroughly hospitable community, I might have a perspective not available to anyone else. "I've spent the past two days in Almonte," I said. "I can vouch that you do hospitality well. The Visitors Centre could be better marked, but if I'd taken a wrong turn off Highway 15, I don't doubt that whichever door I'd knocked on, someone would have cheerfully steered me in the right direction.
"But I speak tonight not just as a tourist, but on behalf of basketball. It's a great game, but it's suffering right now. It's suffering from misplaced emphasis and too much money and poor sportsmanship. More people play it and love it and know about it in more parts of the world than ever before, but the spirit in which Doctor Naismith conceived the game is being forgotten. There's a world beyond Almonte that needs to be reminded of where basketball comes from, and why it's with us, and you're in a better position to do this than anyone else."
Perhaps any visitor saying kind things about their hometown would have pleased the people in that room. Maybe a majority really did want to see the old town hall turned into a shrine to the good doctor and one of his good works. All I know is, many others spoke that evening, and only I got an ovation.
The next afternoon John took me by the old Young-Naismith farmstead to meet the current occupants. Greg Smith and his Swiss-born wife, Marianne, had four boys, two horses, sundry chickens, several dogs, a barn, and the same granary in which young Jim used to hole up to cry over the loss of his mother. Deer, wolves, geese, skunks, lynx, and coyotes still gamboled on the adjacent acreage. In the summer, tourists turned into the Smiths' driveway four or five times a day. Usually they mistook the historical marker out front as a come-on for the Visitors Centre. "You can always tell the basketball people," Greg told me. "They turn in really slowly. The dogs start to bark. And I'm usually on a long-distance call."
But the Smiths were honored to be living on hallowed ground. They understood that pilgrims to the childhood home of the inventor of basketball weren't worth snapping at. Greg had even served a term as president of the Naismith Foundation.
I mentioned idly that I wanted to go over to the Visitors Centre to play duck on a rock. At that, Greg's 11-year-old son Colin abandoned plans to go horseback riding. Soon he was astride his bike, bolting through the fields that led back from the highway.
I hopped in my car and shadowed him. Halfway down the dirt access road I looked left. At first I could see nothing but an empty field, tawny in the goldening light. But Colin soon appeared from behind a row of maples, pumping madly to keep up. Beyond him, at the fringe of another field, a doe flashed a tuft of tail and disappeared, her movement for a wonderful instant in perfect sync with Colin's.
We met at the famous rock, plinthed there in front of the Visitors Centre. We agreed that we wouldn't play a formal game, for we didn't have the numbers to do it justice. Instead we'd test our aim with target practice. I scavenged around the parking lot, gathering a dozen stones of various sizes, a cache of ammo with which to fire from 10 paces away.
Colin took a different approach. He hunted for a single stone, but just the right one. "I want to use the same stone so I can get the feel of its shape and weight," he explained. It didn't bother Colin that he would have to retrieve this stone after each toss.
As we placed the duck on the rock to begin, it occurred to me that in Colin I was catching a glimpse of James Naismith as a boy. Here in rural Ramsay Township, Colin hadn't been raised to take the easy way out. He didn't have that Nintendency to become instantly bored. He knew the land and the animals that lived off it, and to him a high-tech contraption was the bike on which he had just ridden over. Like young Jim, he could amuse himself with nothing more than rocks and stones.
Late in his life Naismith confessed bafflement at the spell a ball and a hoop could cast. "I remember walking across the gym floor one day and seeing a boy toss the ball toward the basket, recover it, and toss it again," he wrote. "An hour later, as I came back through the gym, the same boy was still at his play. For some time I had been trying to discover what there was about goal-throwing that would keep a boy at it for an hour. I stopped and asked him why he was practicing so long. The boy answered that he did not know, but that he just liked to see if he could make a basket every time he threw the ball."
Once, at Colin's age and in my own driveway, the same simple act-easy to perform, difficult to master-had bewitched me, too, and for much the same reason. I didn't mind picking up that broom handle to knock the ball free from the net on cold or rainy days. And so I identified with my new Canadian friend. But I was a little jealous of him, too. In my jet-age, big-city life, it was harder than ever to find time for getting lost in that repetitive but soothing exercise of shooting hoops.
Both the story of basketball's beginnings and the key to mastering the shot lie with the Protestant work ethic, and the Protestant work ethic has a distinctly North American cast. Yet there's a third place, far from Almonte and Springfield, where the game is more central to national identity than it is in Canada-more so, even, than in the U.S.
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