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Are Game Rules Really More Important Than Historic National Documents?

Monday, December 13, 2010, 12:54 EST Leave a comment Go to comments

(Updated with minor edits.)

Naismith's original basketball rules

James Naismith's original rules of Basket Ball - click to view larger (AP photo)

The Basketball Hall of Fame is just a hop down the highway in Springfield, Massachusetts, so this story grabbed my attention over the weekend.

The historic document spelling out the original rules for basketball has fetched $4.3m at auction – a record for any item of sports memorabilia.

The two, signed typescript pages that set out the 13 rules were drawn up by the sport’s Canadian founder, James Naismith, in 1891.

[ . . . ]

At the same auction, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of slaves held in southern states during the Civil War and was owned by ex-Senator Bobby Kennedy, fetched $3,778,500.

Ignoring the misplaced comma in the second paragraph, something else is amiss: the rules of Basketball sold for more than the Emancipation Proclamation? That’s very wrong. But on further examination, I find that it was a copy of the Proclamation, signed by President Lincoln, that was auctioned, whereas the basketball rules were apparently original. I feel better now.

Emotional responses aside, it could be argued that the invention of basketball is indeed a significant historical event that affected subsequent generations all over the world. Unlike Lincoln’s act or the larger war that was waged on his watch, the sport never righted any grievous injustice. But the game today is internationally known and played, not only for competition and money but also for national pride since it became an official Olympic sport in 1936. If, in this era of international superstars and Dream Teams, you doubt the historical importance of basketball as a patriotic statement, ask the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team, who to a man still refuse to accept their silver medals.

As for the game itself, basketball is unusual among major team sports in that its origin is clear and unchallenged. Baseball, by contrast, has much murkier beginnings; its invention by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York, is apocryphal at best and deceptively contrived at worst. A few years ago, in fact, someone dug up a 1791 by-law enacted by the Town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, referring to a game called Baseball, though it isn’t clear what form that game took. The rules of the game played today evolved from stick-and-ball games played informally for at least decades before. Perhaps Naismith was similarly influenced by other games involving getting a ball into or through some sort of opening, but he managed to map out a game that was deliberately new. All because his employers at the YMCA told him he had to. Necessity really is the mother of invention. What is notable is that his creation, however subsequently modified and refined, became so popular outside the Y, even making its way around the world. And it all started about 50 miles from here.

One final note: As far as I can tell, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (its official full name) is the only major sports Hall of Fame that is named after a person. The others I know of are named the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Canton, Ohio); the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (Cooperstown, New York); the Hockey Hall of Fame (Toronto, Ontario); the now-defunct National Soccer Hall of Fame (Oneonta, New York); and the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum (Newport, Rhode Island). For other sports halls of fame, see Yahoo’s directory or the less up-to-date (but more wide-ranging) Sports Links Central directory. I’ve been to the Basketball HOF twice (once to the old facility, once to the new), the Hockey HOF twice, the Pro Football HOF once, and the Baseball HOF too many times to count. The Basketball Hall is by far the most interactive, culminating with a regulation-sized hardwood court on which visitors are invited to practice or play for as long as they like.

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Categories: history, sports
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