Why Ball is Not Life: The Origin of Basketball
photo by Thomas Hawk
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In the True North strong and free, hockey may reign supreme awhile yet, but Canadian basketball is on the rise.

On June 27th, 2013, in a move that Grantland writer Andrew Sharp called “the most shocking no. 1 pick in two decades,” the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Anthony Bennett, making him the first Canadian ever to be taken first overall in the NBA Draft. And Bennett has only been a surprise forerunner to the Canadian everyone predicts will be the first pick in the 2014 Draft: Andrew Wiggins — the 2013 Naismith Prep Player of the Year, the Gatorade National Player of the Year, and, somewhat ironically, Mr. Basketball USA.

After much anticipation and hype, Andrew Wiggins has committed to play college ball for the Kansas Jayhawks – the team that had as its first coach the game’s own creator, Dr. James Naismith, of Almonte, Ontario, Canada.

The growing popularity of basketball in Canada shouldn’t surprise us. In addition to its Canadian heritage, basketball is a beautiful game. A good friend of mine, who teaches ballet, challenged me on this notion a few months ago, “Really? Beauty in basketball?” She looked completely skeptical. I suspect that the untrained eye often views basketball as little more than abnormally tall persons shuffling erratically along the hardwood, handling the ball as some sort of sacred token and, all the while, dripping obscene amounts of sweat. Lovely.

But for any keen observer of the game, basketball truly does possess beauty. Form. Speed. Control. Coordination. Athleticism. Agility. Accuracy. Angles. Arcs.

Naismith himself attempted to put words to the appeal of basketball:

The main interest in basket ball lies in watching the activity of the players and the kaleidoscopic changes which take place. […] No prettier sight can be found in athletic achievement than in a game where the ball, without any preconceived plan, passes from man to man in a series of brilliant movements and lands in the goal, or is cleverly intercepted when a goal seems inevitable.i

And yet, while there is much to enjoy and appreciate about the game of basketball, it is just that: a game. Among basketball fans and players, however, there is a popular saying, “Ball is life.” Teams make it their slogan; fans wear it on t-shirts; players tattoo it on their limbs.

It’s as though humanity has this tendency to elevate things far above the scope they were intended for. We equate our lives with the things we enjoy and allow the two to become enmeshed, confused. We unfairly try to wrest meaning, purpose, identity, redemption, and lasting peace from mere games. Whether consciously or not, we rip otherwise good things from their proper place and perspective and then install them as gods in our lives.

Naismith never lost sight of the distinction between games and life – he believed that games should be educational in nature and were helpful only insofar as they prepared “the individual for the business of life.ii His hope for basketball was that the game would help develop better men and better citizens by promoting certain attributes: “initiative, activity, quick judgement, adaptability to conditions, self-control, perseverance, and concentration.iii

Athletics, however enjoyable, did not comprise the whole of life; rather, they were an opportunity for character development. The most valuable lessons of sport for Naismith were to “be able to lose gracefully and to win courteously, to accept criticism as well as praise, and last of all, to appreciate the attitude of the other fellow at all times.iv

So if ball is not life, then what is?

On his YMCA Physical Director application, James Naismith wrote, “My life work is to do good to men and serve God and wherever I can do this best – there I want to go.” v

Naismith saw his life as belonging to Jesus Christ, who claims unequivocally, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In a short autobiography from 1891, Naismith wrote, “My plans for the future are to go where I can do the most for the Master whom I serve.vi Jesus, whom Naismith referred to as his Master, is the only One who is worthy of the entirety of our lives, of our unbroken worship, of any service we have to offer.

Like Naismith, we would do well to see basketball as finite and to recognize that God, infinite and ultimate, is the Master our souls were created to love and to live for.

i “Basket ball” by Dr. James Naismith, University of Kansas. American Physical Education Review, 1914-15. Accessed 2013 July 8. Courtesy of Springfield College, Babson Library, Archives and Special Collections.
ii Ibid.
iii Ibid.
ivJames Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball by Rob Rains with Helen Carpenter. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009. Location 1553. Kindle e-book file.
v “James Naismith’s Original Application to Springfield College.” 1889 May 27. Accessed 2013 July 8. Courtesy of Springfield College, Babson Library, Archives and Special Collections.
vi “Autobiography of James Naismith (1891).” 1891. Accessed 2013 July 16. Courtesy of Springfield College, Babson Library, Archives and Special Collections.

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2 thoughts on “Why Ball is Not Life: The Origin of Basketball

  1. ArchieK

    Great article. I love basketball, but can see the risk of loving it more than things that are clearly more important

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