The “Life & Times of Dr. Naismith” museum exhibit, dedicated to its namesake inventor of basketball Dr. James Naismith, is located in his small rural hometown of Almonte, in eastern Ontario. Stephanie Kolsters has worked as the museum’s curator for 18 years, but she’s never seen it as busy as it’s been over the past couple of weeks.
“It’s been crazy,” she laughs. “It’s not very often that something like this comes along.”
The Toronto Raptors’ record playoff run — a Canadian team poised to hoist the NBA Championship Trophy for the first time — has sparked international interest in basketball’s Canadian roots. And those roots reach all the way back to November 6, 1861: the day Naismith was born in Almonte.
I’m proud to say that Naismith and I have that in common. I was also born and raised in Almonte — the quiet picturesque community, nicknamed “The Friendly Town,” located about a 40-minute drive from Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Growing up in the early 1990s, we played street hockey until sunset, yelling ‘car!’ and pulling our nets to the sidewalk on the rare occasion that a vehicle drove through our neighbourhood. Back then, the town’s focus was largely on hockey and football. But Naismith’s sport and his name were (and are) everywhere — from the local Naismith Sports Pub to Naismith Memorial Elementary School — and we were all taught about his story.
Naismith was just nine years old when his parents died of typhoid fever. He and his two siblings moved in with their uncle, who also lived in Almonte. Growing up, Naismith spent much of his spare time playing outdoors, where he and his friends devised a game called ‘duck on a rock’; they would place a small stone on top of a larger rock outside their one-room schoolhouse. The objective was to knock the small stone off of its perch by lobbing another stone into the air from about four metres away, while an opponent tried to block the shot.
“His ‘duck on the rock’ experience, from playing as a child, was where he got his general idea about how to introduce the game (of basketball),” explains Bonnie McBain, a distant relative of the sport’s inventor whose maiden name is Naismith. “Some of the principles of the arcing of the basketball were what he used as his beginnings.”
Fast forward to 1891 and Naismith was teaching physical education at what is now Springfield College in Springfield, Mass. During a cold winter, he was tasked with inventing a game that could be played indoors. He instructed his students to compete by throwing a soccer ball into peach baskets nailed to the wall. The ball would be thrown in an arcing motion, just like ‘duck on a rock.’
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Basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936 and the precursor to the NBA was founded in 1946. Springfield, where he invented the game, is now home to basketball’s hall of fame and is often cited in its origin story, but Naismith’s Canadian and Almonte roots are perhaps lesser known.
“He never made a cent off of the game of basketball,” says Kolsters. “And I think that there are many people here that aren’t aware of his story, of the great man that this town produced.”
But an unexpected byproduct of the Raptors’ success, she says, has been unprecedented outside interest in basketball’s Canadian backstory. Over the past couple of weeks, the Naismith museum has been inundated by visitors and journalists from across North America and even Europe. During my recent visit to the museum, I met a church youth group from the United States whose pastor, Steve Miller, attended Springfield College, where Naismith used to teach.
“I knew Dr. James Naismith — I’d known that name since I went to the college. But I honestly didn’t know he was born in Canada,” Miller says. “And with the Raptors doing so well right now and everybody having ‘We The North’ fever, that’s awesome.”
“For us, it’s really exciting,” says Christa Lowry, mayor of Almonte and Mississippi Mills. “It’s a history that we’ve always known and worn on our sleeves with pride. And it’s a little bit of that history of basketball that we can share with the rest of the country and the world.”
During the NBA Finals, Almonte is hosting its own small-town version of Toronto’s big-city Jurassic Park outdoor viewing parties. Last Friday’s event for Game 4 attracted around 500 fans in a town of 5,000. A bronze statue of Naismith was dressed in a Raptors T-shirt.
“With the Raptors going to the finals, that’s all everyone’s talking about at school,” says Jonah Lee, who attends Naismith’s former high school.
Lee is also a member of the school’s basketball team, which just won the provincial championship for the first time in over 30 years.
“It’s been a big year for basketball in Almonte,” he says.
The street where I used to play hockey growing up is now dotted with basketball nets and young kids spending their Saturdays shooting hoops. They wear Raptors jerseys that bear the names Leonard and Lowry — names we likely would never have known, if not for another: Dr. James Naismith.