In an audio recording, long-buried among countless others in Library of Congress archives, an animated 1930s radio announcer asks, “Dr. Naismith, how did you happen to invent basketball?”
What follows is just more than two minutes of the only known recording of the voice of James Naismith himself — inventor of basketball and former Kansas University basketball coach — explaining how the game was born during an 1891 blizzard, when his students at Springfield College in Massachusetts were stuck inside needing something to do.
The chaos of that experimental first game, according to Naismith, inspired the 13 original “Rules of Basket Ball” that he ultimately put to paper.
“The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches,” Naismith said. “They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor. Before I could pull them apart one boy was knocked out, several of them had black eyes and one had a dislocated shoulder...so I made up some more rules. The most important one was that there should be no running with the ball.”
Michael Zogry, associate professor in KU’s department of religious studies, discovered the audio clip while researching for his book in progress, “Religion and Basketball: Naismith’s Game.”
Naismith’s voice is now available for all to hear online, via the KU Libraries website.
The interview with Naismith was broadcast Jan. 31, 1939, on the radio program “We the People.” In the clip, radio host Gabriel Heatter said Naismith had traveled from Lawrence to New York City to watch a “giant basketball double-header” at Madison Square Garden.
“In that cheering crowd, sitting in row C, seat 11, will be a modest 77-year-old man,” Heatter said. “Those fans won’t know that he made possible the game they’re watching, but you’re going to meet him now.”
Zogry said he was thrilled to find the clip, which he called a piece of Naismith’s legacy that was “lost to history.”
“The version of events that he gives is different from the published versions, so it adds new information to the process of creating the game,” Zogry said. “There’s also value in just hearing his voice... when we hear him talking we get a sense of his demeanor and his self-effacing attitude.”