In his own words: James Naismith on inventing basketball

"We had a fine, clean sport" once the rules were ironed out, Naismith said in the 1939 radio interview.

Story highlights

  • A University of Kansas professor has discovered what is believed to be the only audio recording of James Naismith
  • The interview took place January 31, 1939, just months before Naismith died at age 78
  • Naismith came up with the game in 1891, while a P.E. teacher at Springfield College in Massachusetts

(CNN)It was a short interview back in 1939 -- not even three minutes long -- but it is one that decades later has a larger historical significance than anyone may have imagined at the time.

A University of Kansas professor has discovered what is believed to be the only audio recording of James Naismith, the man who invented the game of basketball. The interview took place in New York on January 31, 1939, just months before he died that November at age 78. Naismith was in New York to attend a basketball doubleheader at Madison Square Garden, 48 years after he created the very game that he was watching.
Naismith said it all began in the winter of 1891, when he was a physical education teacher at what is now Springfield College in Massachusetts.
    "We had a real New England blizzard," Naismith said. "For days, the students couldn't go outdoors, so they began roughhousing in the halls. We tried everything to keep them quiet. We tried playing a modified form of football in the gymnasium, but they got bored with that. Something had to be done."
    Then one day, Naismith got an idea. At each end of the gym, Naismith nailed up two peach baskets. He called the students to the gym and split them into teams of nine and gave them an old soccer ball and told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team's peach basket.
    "I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began," Naismith said.
    However, there was a major problem. Naismith didn't have enough rules for his new game, and he said that's where he made his big mistake.
    "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. It certainly was murder."
    But a curious thing happened: The students nagged at Naismith to let them play again. So he made up some more rules, which included one that he deemed the most important: no running with the ball.
    "That stopped tackling and slugging," Naismith said. "We tried out the game with those rules, and we didn't have one casualty. We had a fine, clean sport."
    Ten years later, Naismith said, basketball was being played all over the country. The sport had its Summer Olympics debut in the 1936 Games in Berlin.
    The radio interview was aired on a program named "We the People," hosted by Gabriel Heatter, on WOR-AM. The audio was discovered by Michael Zogry, who is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, while researching his book in progress called "Religion and Basketball: Naismith's Game."
    Naismith went on to earn his medical degree and was hired by Kansas in 1898. He was KU's first athletic director and was the school's first basketball coach (1899-1907).