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Basketball Inventor

01/29/07 12:00AM By Philip Baruth
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(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth delivers a stunning bit of basketball history today: his great-grandfather invented the game. And this time apparently - he's not kidding. Here's Philip.

(BARUTH) Unfortunately there's no way to soft-pedal what I'm about to say, so I'll just say it: my great-grandfather invented basketball. Really. The game as we know it, the ball, the net, the rules, everything. And I know what you're thinking: James Naismith invented basketball.

Well, no he didn't. And, I can prove it.

First, let me say that everything I'm about to tell you comes from two sources. The first is my mother, and, my mother doesn't lie. But just to make the case airtight, I'm also working from a book called I Grew Up With Basketball, written by Frank J. Basloe and published in 1952 by Greenberg Books. Here's the story.

In the winter of 1890, my great-grandfather, Lambert G.Will, was a YMCA director in Herkimer, NY, a little village of 2700. He received a letter from James Naismith of Springfield, Massachusetts, with an idea for a game called "basketball." And Lambert was intrigued: Naismith's game could be played indoors, perfect for snowy villages like Herkimer.

But when Lambert assembled a group of 18 boys, they found Naismith's game disappointing: you rolled a medicine ball along the floor to your teammates, and eventually one would throw the ball into a peach basket nailed high up on the wall. The boys thought that rolling the ball was for babies and passes were too easy to block. If someone did make a basket, someone else had to climb a ladder to remove the ball from the peach basket. And nine men on a side was just too many.

So my great-grandfather made an executive decision: they cut the bottom out of the peach basket and then reinforced the remaining frame with wire. Immediately the game became faster paced and more addictive. Lambert dashed off a letter to Naismith, describing the changes but there was only silence from Springfield.

By late 1891, Lambert had organized the first team, the first league, and he'd standardized the basketball court. He replaced the medicine ball with a bounce-able rugby ball, and players began to perfect the art of dribbling. The peach basket he replaced with a metal hoop forged by the Herkimer blacksmith, but it was difficult to tell whether a ball had actually gone through the hoop.

So my great-grandfather asked his mother, my great-great-grandmother for help. As Basloe put it, quote: "So the boys took the iron hoop down and carried it over to Mrs. Will and explained what they wanted. She agreed to do her best to knit two drapes for the hoops. The innovation was a masterpiece". End quote. There you go: Mary Will was the Betsy Ross of the early barnstorming years.

During all this time, Lambert was attempting to contact Naismith, but still Naismith was silent. And so, in the upstate New York region, basketball became known as "Mr. Will's game."

That's the story. And I know what you're thinking: why is the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield instead of Herkimer?

Well, because Naismith did invent the name and the earliest version of the game, and basically Springfield is twenty times bigger. You see my point.

So if you go to the Basketball Hall of Fame you will find a picture of my great-grandfather, but on the whole the Springfield people have really downsized his place in the history of the game, which is a shame.

But hey, that's just the way the ball bounces - thanks to Lambert, of course.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.
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