The Game Remains

Reflections on a day in Dr James Naismith’s Hometown, Almonte

Almonte, ON–Do you think Dr. James Naismith could have predicted a Dwight Howard block? Maybe. how about a thunderous breakaway aerial from LeBron James? Doubt it, but maybe a crisp Steve Nash dish, or a smooth Ray Allen corner jumper? Yeah, that would be right up the doc’s alley.

The game has obviously changed from the idealistic vision that Naismith had for his game. Basketball was not invented to be the high-scoring, above the rim, star-producing global entertainment machine that it is today. Sure the game has changed, but it’s still basketball.

The pastoral image that we all know, of a grandfatherly Naismith standing in a grainy, black & white field with a couple of peach baskets and a beat-up old leather ball is true, it really started like that.

Upon a recent visit to Almonte, the small milling town in Lanark, just outside of Ottawa, Ontario, I had the honour of making a pilgrimage to the shrine of a basketball deity known as “The Basketball Man.” The Naismith Memorial Museum currently displays exhibits in the basement of the nearby, antique, wooden, Mill of Kintail that include personal diaries of Naismith, photos, medals and trophies and what is believed to be the original basketball among other relics. Basketball’s beginnings could not have been presented in a more modest reflection. Though the atmosphere was underwhelming, a sense of discovery pervaded unlike that of visiting a museum in a metropolitan centre.

IMG_0331.jpg  Such treasures are so hidden from an urban contemporary society, but there are future plans in place to move the exhibitions to a more permanent, more secure Canadian location such as Toronto. Among numerous stories of his life and accompanying artifacts, however I felt that I had reached the heart of Naismith and the spirit of the game he invented while in Almonte.

 From the humblest of humble beginnings Naismith invented basketball for everybody, not just so that the NBA could exist. He invented basketball for the physical education students he had to keep active in the winter months. He also invented it for the blacktop on playgrounds across the country and world. He invented it for high-school rivalries, and for university and college level perfection. He invented it for the gamers who just want to play, and for the watchers who are content.

 And it’s not as if inventing basketball was all he did either. Naismith was a Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Medicine, and Master of Physical Education, yet he is most remembered for an assignment he had with a YMCA class.

From being orphaned at nine, growing up on a farm in Canada and working in a lumber camp, Naismith ultimately lived to see his game become successful. Maybe that’s what makes James Naismith’s vision so iconic. Of the major team sports, basketball certainly has the clearest lineage. The game has so conclusive a birth in the United States, by a Canadian no less, that it has become a blueprint success story.

Through photographic record, James Naismith seemed to know his game had something special, and not just because he lived to see Basketball become an official Olympic sport in the 1936 games in Berlin, but because of his delightful tongue-in-cheek smile and understanding glint in his eye.

He is a figure beyond basketball, he stands for the ideal of perfection of youth through both mental and physical exercise. Naismith invented his game, and it truly is his game, as a canvas on which the colors of the modern social, cultural and economic pallet could be applied. The game has changed, but a quick look at its roots reveal that basketball in its purest form is not far away and when glitz and glamour fade, the game remains.

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