University of Kansas

Listen to rare radio recording of James Naismith, discovered by KU professor

James Naismith, inventor of basketball
James Naismith, inventor of basketball File photo

The first ever basketball game, it turns out, looked something like a raucous brawl.

This is one finding after a University of Kansas professor discovered a piece of basketball history: a radio recording of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball and the first coach of the sport at KU.

Michael J. Zogry, an associate professor of religious studies, uncovered the recording while researching a book on the role of religion in Naismith’s life.

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The radio excerpt comes from a Jan. 31, 1939, broadcast of the radio program “We the People,” hosted in New York by Gabriel Heatter. In a clip that lasts just under 3 minutes, Naismith discusses how he set up the first ever basketball game, which took place at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass., in December 1891.

In the clip, which is thought to be the only known recording of Naismith’s voice, the inventor says that he had been given two weeks to come up with a new indoor activity for his gym class. The work was hurried along by what he described as a “real New England blizzard” that had his students confined to the gymnasium with nothing to do.

“I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team’s peach basket,” Naismith says during the interview, his voice sounding like that of a high-pitched college professor. “I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began.”

The first game, Naismith explains, featured total carnage. Naismith said the players immediately began tackling each other. Two young men suffered black eyes while another was knocked out, and he had to pull players apart, he said.

“I didn’t have enough (rules), and that’s where I made my big mistake,” Naismith said.

The recording, in part, clarifies the early days of basketball. It’s thought that after the first game Naismith crafted his original 13 rules of basketball, a document that will soon be on display at the University of Kansas, where Naismith worked for 40 years.

“What we know is there was the first game, then there was a second game with the full complement of rules,” Zogry told The Associated Press. “He said the players were nagging him about (the new rules), so it sounds like it happened in pretty quick fashion.”

According to KU, Zogry discovered the clip in the audio and manuscript archives of New York radio station WOR-AM, which were donated to the Library of Congress by RKO General Inc.

In a news release, Naismith’s grandson, Jim Naismith, said the audio clip “changes just about everything that’s been written about that first game.”

“When he turned those 18 guys loose,” Naismith said, “obviously they were having a good time, but obviously this was kind of try Number 1. He commented and said he didn’t write enough rules. It came out of that experience.”

Listen to the clip here: http://exhibits.lib.ku.edu/exhibits/show/naismith150/collections/radio-interview.

Rustin Dodd: 816-234-4937, @rustindodd

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