Mark Story

Mark Story: Seeking to understand his family's hoops legacy, James Naismith visits Kentucky

James Naismith, the grandson and namesake of the man who invented the game of basketball in downtown Lexington, Ky., on July 10, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
James Naismith, the grandson and namesake of the man who invented the game of basketball in downtown Lexington, Ky., on July 10, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

When your name is James Naismith and when your grandfather of the same name invented the game of basketball, you are met by certain assumptions.

"With the heritage, an assumption that will be made is that I've got to be a huge basketball fan," James P. Naismith said. "Well, I'm not a huge basketball fan."

The grandson of basketball's founder was in Lexington on Wednesday. Thanks to a friendship with Lexington sports-marketing mogul Jim Host, Naismith got a tour of Rupp Arena and a meeting with John Calipari.

"I'm fascinated with my introduction to Kentucky basketball," Naismith said.

As those with even a modicum of knowledge about the origins of basketball know, the sport was invented in 1891 in Springfield, Mass. A new teacher working at the local YMCA had been given 14 days by his bosses to create a new indoor activity. His charge was to come up with something enjoyable so young people would get some exercise during the bone-chilling New England winters.

The teacher was a Canadian who had been orphaned at age 9 and raised by an uncle. James Naismith came up with 13 rules for his new game. He found a soccer ball to use and hung two peach baskets, one each at opposite ends, of the "court."

For James Pomeroy Naismith, 76, basketball's past is family history, but not first-hand, family experience.

His grandfather died in 1939. Naismith was 3 at the time.

"I just don't have any personal memory of him," he said. "What I know of him (comes from) my cousin Peggy, who was the oldest of the grandkids and knew him pretty well. And, obviously, from my dad."

After inventing basketball, James Naismith wound up serving nine years (1898-1907) as head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks. He went 55-60.

"People say 'He didn't care whether he wins or loses,'" James P. Naismith said of his grandfather. "My dad always said, 'You don't know the man (if you think that). You don't play a game without trying to win it.' He was certainly focused on trying to win the game."

Still, by the time he died, the sport of basketball had started to become "bigger" than its founder thought was good.

"He's been quoted of not thinking a whole lot of coaching," James P. Naismith said of his grandfather. "His focus was 'just play the game.' It was all about the students, helping the students develop for life. That's what the game was invented for.

"Now, coaching, I think, has gone to a huge money deal. I'm reasonably confident Granddad would have some wise words to pass along to that kind of thing."

Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, where his father was a civil engineer, James P. Naismith says his family rarely mentioned its tie to the game of basketball. Still, in high school, Naismith said he tried out for the team.

"I made it through the first cut, got through the second cut," he says, "but didn't make it through the third cut. I proved to myself that basketball wasn't going to work that well."

After high school Naismith went to Cornell and became an engineer like his father. He worked both for the family civil engineering firm and in water-waste management for the San Patricio Municipal Water District in Texas.

He married his middle-school sweetheart, Beverly, and they started a family that has yielded four children, 15 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren so far.

Over the years, James' passion was classical music, not string music. It was left to Naismith's younger brother Ian (pronounced "Jahn") to look out for his grandfather's basketball legacy. Through shared involvement with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Ian Naismith and Lexington's Host became friends. "I've always felt it didn't make sense not to have a Naismith on the board of the Naismith Hall of Fame," Host said.

When Ian passed away, Host reached out to James P. Naismith to become that person. Now, the guy who never had much interest in basketball is serving on the Basketball Hall of Fame's Board of Trustees.

"If something I can do pulls elements of the game closer to the original focus, I'd feel that is very much worthwhile," he said.

Does James P. Naismith think his granddad would be pleased with how the game he invented has turned out?

"To the extent it is helping kids develop, I think yes," he said. "To the extent it is causing people to make too much money and ruin their lives, absolutely not."