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How James Naismith created basketball when he was a gym teacher

In a recently surfaced recording of a 1939 radio interview, James Naismith, describes how he invented basketball in 1891.
In a recently surfaced recording of a 1939 radio interview, James Naismith, describes how he invented basketball in 1891.

Updated March 11, 2022 at 9:49 AM ET

March Madness is set to kick off on Sunday, with the final selections for both the men's and women's tournaments happening in the evening.

But before you fill your brackets out and make your schedule to watch as many games as possible, we're taking a look back at the man who invented the game.

Most people are familiar with at least a few details of basketball's humble origin story: the creative gym teacher who thought it up, the simple peach baskets for hoops, and the sport's initial lack of dribbling.

But thanks to the discovery of a 1939 recording of a radio interview, we can hear James Naismith describe in his own words the invention of one of the world's most popular sports.

Naismith was a physical education teacher at what's now Springfield College in Massachusetts. That winter, a blizzard pounded the region and Naismith's students had cabin fever from being cooped up inside. To ward off the boredom, Naismith got creative with an old soccer ball.

"I called the boys to the gym, I showed them two peach baskets I had nailed up at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team's peach basket," he said. "I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began."

A University of Kansas professor, Michael Zogry, found the recording in the Library of Congress while he was researching Naismith. It's full of gems about how the game evolved in it's earliest stages. For example, when Naismith first introduced the game, the only rule was to put the ball in the basket.

"The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches," Naismith said. "Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several had black eyes, and one had a dislocated shoulder."

So, Naismith added a few more regulations — the modern game still remains largely unchanged from his original 13 rules — and the sport took off. American colleges were quick to adopt basketball and not long after the turn of the century, the game had also spread to Europe.

The rest, as they say, was history.

"In 1936, I saw it played for the first time at the Olympic games," Naismith said gleefully in the interview. "And the whole thing started with a couple of peach baskets I put up in a gym 48 years ago."

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