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The Origin Story of Basketball, Part 1: James Naismith and the 13 Commandments

A teacher at a YMCA school was tasked with creating an indoor game for some troublesome boys.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the San Antonio Spurs. It’s also the 77th NBA season, so today I’d like to go back in time to the beginnings of this great game and perhaps educate the young and old on the game’s great — and sometimes hilarious — history. OK, the time machine is warmed up.

In the beginning, basketball all started with bad children. You have heard of James Naismith (he has a whole Hall of Fame named after him, afterall), but you might not know that he was a disciple of what was called “Muscular Christianity,” which meant physical fitness was important to his Christian beliefs. As an instructor at the YMCA International Training School, he had a group of young students named “The Incorrigibles.” The story passed down is that in 1891, this young group of troublemakers caused the faculty to challenge Naismith to make a winter-time game for them that could be played indoors.

Two weeks later, in Martin Luther style, Naismith tacked up the 13 new rules of the game. He pointed at the peach baskets mounted at each end of the gymnasium, and the game was born. He is said to have developed the following rules in a single night under a strict deadline (these kids must have been really bad).

The 13 Commandments

  1. The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.
  2. The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).
  3. A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball running at a good speed if he tries to stop.
  4. The ball must be held in or between the hands; the arms or body must not be used for holding it.
  5. No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any player shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or, if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed.
  6. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violations of Rules 3, 4, and such as described in Rule 5.
  7. If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count as a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul).
  8. A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges, and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal.
  9. When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field of play by the person first touching it. In case of dispute, the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower-in is allowed five seconds; if he holds it longer, it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on that side.
  10. The umpire shall be the judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men according to Rule 5.
  11. The referee shall be the judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made, and keep account of the goals with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee.
  12. The time shall be two 15-minute halves, with five minutes’ rest between.
  13. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner. In the case of a draw, the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made.

Now, you can cite legal historical precedence the next time the ref blows a traveling call, which will be soon and often!

Anyways, you’re probably wondering what happened to the Incorrigibles. Did their grades go up? Did they ever stop giving the administration gray hairs? Unfortunately, not much is known about them, but there is a little bit of direct lineage that can be traced. For example, one of them was a Japanese exchange student named Genzaburo Ishikawa. His descendant, Takeshi Ishikawa, was recently the director of the Japanese national basketball team.

Of course, Naismith’s lineage is much easier to track. Spurs fans are probably familiar with Gregg Popovich’s impressive family-coaching tree, but what you probably don’t know is he himself can be traced back to Naismith’s tree. Naismith would go on to coach at Kansas, where he coached “Phog” Allen (the namesake of Allen Fieldhouse), who eventually had in his career two assistants: Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp, who in turn begat Larry Brown (whom Pop sprouted from), Doug Moe, George Karl, and Pat Riley, to name his most famous ones. So in essence, Pop is Naismith’s basketball version of a great-grandson. Who knew?

The game’s origins get weirder and more profound from here. We’ll cover all the deep ties to the founding moments of the sport in Part 2 tomorrow, so be sure to check back!