This evening (tipoff 9:23 p.m. EDT) the University of Kansas Jayhawks and the University of Kentucky Wildcats will compete for the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball title. The history and unique nature of this event make it a suitable topic for this blog.
First, basketball is unusual among sports in that it is played indoors, and in that its origins are sufficiently recent that we can attribute its introduction to a specific individual, James Naismith (1861-1939). Wikipedia provides an interesting biography. Naismith was Canadian born and studied physical education in Montreal before moving to the United States. We’re told he invented basketball in 1891 while working at the international YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. These were supposed to be Christian men, but the harsh New England winters (there’s that promised climate connection! Imagine a warmer world…one of its unintended consequences might have been the absence of this splendid game) confined them indoors. The confinement made them rowdy and short-tempered (In a Christian community, this would never do). Naismith was given 14 days to come up with a new activity, one that would meet three criteria: it should be playable indoors and not take up too much room; keep track athletes in good shape, and not be too rough and tumble. We’re told this led Naismith to think along three lines. First, big, soft soccer balls were safer than their smaller, harder baseball, lacrosse counterparts. Second, most physical injuries occurred when sportsmen were running, dribbling, or hitting a ball, making moving the ball by sequences of passes a less-violent option. Third, if he made the goal unguardable by raising it high above the floor, that would force soft, lobbing shots on goal, further reducing the chance of injury.
The results were amazing. The YMCA went international with the game in 1893. Naismith moved on to the University of Kansas in 1898, introducing the game there. In the early going, Kansas played YMCA teams, but by the turn of the century, Kansas was able to play an intercollegiate schedule. To date, Naismith is Kansas’ sole coach in its history with a losing record (55-60). But he did coach Forrest “Phog” Allen who eventually succeeded him as coach at Kansas. Allen in turn would coach Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith in a career spanning over three decades. When Dean Smith retired, these three were the winningest coaches in the college game. Basketball was introduced in the Olympics in the 1936 Summer Games. The NIT (1938) and NCAA (1939) championship tournaments were initiated soon after.
Not bad for two weeks’ thought.
Naismith had been hired at Kansas not as a coach but as a chapel director (that continuing Christian connection) and a physical education instructor. These two interests dominated his career; fame or recognition for his role in giving the world this sport seemed to be far from his concerns.
It’s appropriate that the University of Kansas be in tonight’s finals, given their institution has a special connection with Naismith. And fitting that Adolph Rupp’s school, Kentucky, should be the opponents.
Some might think that March Madness, with its emphasis on competition and winning, is antithetical to Christian ideals and values. But in fact, in 1 Corinthians 9:24, the Apostle Paul remarks, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
And think about it… the odds are hugely in your favor in the NCAA basketball tournament. 63 teams go home having had a character-building experience. Only one team goes home with a unduly-roseate view of what it means to Live on the Real World.
There’s an analog here to the climate-change discussion. Many of the participants are so focused on “winning,” whatever that may mean to us, that we lose sight of the myriad opportunities within the science and the policy for character-building experiences. If we took time to see the latter for what they are…and maybe even to savor them as such…the world would be more likely to achieve good outcomes, and we’d be the happier for it.
And James Naismith might smile.