Article Thumbnail

Talking Hoops With Sean Naismith, Great-Grandson of the Inventor of Basketball

And the amazing story of the original basketball rule book that lived in his dad's briefcase before selling for a whopping $4.34 million

Sean Naismith elected not to go to Kansas University, where his great-grandfather James coached basketball, the sport he invented 127 years ago in a YMCA. It’s also where he’s buried. “Living in the Naismith Hall, being on Naismith Drive or going to games at Naismith Court” would be “pretty crazy,” he says.

But the family still talks hoops — notably, professional basketball’s ongoing changes, from the game’s rapidly growing rule book to the rumblings of bringing a 4-point line to the game.

Those original rules mean a lot to the family. Dr. Naismith passed them down to his son, James, who had three children: another James; Ian, Sean’s father; and a daughter. Ian toured around the country with the rule book before selling it at auction. The last James Naismith is still around, living in Corpus Christi, Texas. “He’s very active in the basketball scene,” Sean says.

Sean, 33, now lives in Chicago and works as a data analyst. But… can he play? Naismith says he’ll shoot around in the backyard once in awhile, but the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame “won’t let him” in for that.

Photo of James via Wikimedia Commons
Sean and James Naismith

The Evolving Game

So long as the NBA’s changes stay true to his great-grandfather’s original intentions, they’re okay by Sean, he says.

Really? How would he feel about a 4-point line? “The amount of rules went from 13 to thousands, but for the most part, they’re all there for a good reason — and it’s to facilitate a smooth game that’s fun to play, it’s safe and it’s enjoyable for the spectators. … My great-grandfather was most concerned with the game from the perspective of the spectators and players.”

What about raising the hoop to 11 feet to give sharpshooters like Stephen Curry and long-limbed 7-footers like Giannis Antetokounmpo a challenge?

Nah. “Players love dunks. Fans love dunks. Unless we think a 10-foot rim is no longer elevated high enough, I see no reason to minimize something great when dunks only account for less than 5 percent of shots taken in the NBA.”

A recent thread on Reddit’s r/NBA marveled that the basketball rim being set “randomly” at 10 feet has worked out perfectly, despite the average height of the NBA player increasing from 6-foot-4 in the 1950s to 6-foot-7 since the ’80s. Naismith argues the contrary. This isn’t random at all, he says, but the the result of his great-grandfather choosing to set the rim inside a gymnasium built for humans.

“It’s not like it was on a tree and there was like a branch, because that would be random,” he says. “If anything, the hoop’s height is driven by architecture and ceiling height, and it just kind of worked out that way.”

Why the NBA Is Different

Height isn’t the only thing seeing an uptick in the NBA. The general popularity of the game is at an all-time high. In an article comparing revenue and viewership growth between the NBA and NFL, Fortune suggests the “NBA is growing more than three times as fast as the NFL — and that could have startling impacts in just a few years.”

While many have attributed the NBA’s rise (especially among a younger viewership) to likable and recognizable stars, Naismith returns to the idea that basketball is a “simple, intuitive game” with a low “barrier to entry.” He says, “Think about expensive it is to play hockey, think about expensive it is to play football. I’m sure you could sort of play catch and throw a ball back and forth, but you can’t really do that by yourself, otherwise you just look like a total weirdo.”

Basketball is “different,” he says. “You can do that all on your own, and you just need a pair of shoes and a ball and a basket — there’s just something natural about wanting to sit there and to shoot a ball.”

Sean says James himself was constantly surprised to see the game grow in popularity.

“Dr. Naismith was always surprised when he would go the gymnasium down the street and he’d see a kid sitting there just shooting the ball into a hoop. Then he’d come back an hour later and the kid’s just still at it,” he tells MEL. “So [Dr. Naismith] stopped and asked him, like, ‘Why are you still shooting?’ And he’s like, ‘I just want to see if I can make it every time.’ So that’s all it took.”

The Story of the Original Rule Book

In 2010, Dr. Naismith’s original set of rules were donated to Kansas University after being purchased via auction from the Naismith International Business Foundation for $4.34 million, making it one of the most expensive manuscripts in history. The Naismith Foundation donated that money to charity, while KU built a $21 million house around the rules. Naismith says he’s thrilled the rules are now out for the public to see.

The rules, originally designed for “a bunch of rowdy dudes at Springfield College YMCA,” have a special meaning to Sean and the family. His father toured the country with the rules, carrying them in a gold briefcase and using them as an inspiration to kids, he says. “He was kind of a macho guy.”

Dr. Naismith “always said that the first game of basketball was played in his mind the night before he wrote down the rules,” Sean says. “So from that genesis and then getting ’em written on the gymnasium wall, to them being in my freaking house growing up as a kid and my dad carrying them around, to now being at KU on display next to the Allen Fieldhouse [arena], it’s a really cool journey and story.”

Life Now

Sean followed in the footsteps of his older brother, who’s “in finance and owned registered investment advisory,” he says. “When I was a late teen I got to see what he did for a living, his lifestyle and his family, and I really enjoyed how he went about his everyday life… and eventually that’s how I got into quantitative programming.”

Naismith says he’ll occasionally run into fans who recognize his last name, and for them he carries around copies of the original rules to hand out. “Once in awhile, people find my last name very interesting,” he says. “And we have copies of the original rules, which are fun to give to folks who appreciate it.”

Beyond that, he’s chosen to break from family tradition once more by not naming any of his kids James. “No one is named James. I have three daughters, so that would be awkward for everyone. They’re tall, though, so maybe the WNBA’s in their future.”