KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It has been nearly 119 years since James Naismith wrote down 13 rules for a new game he devised as a way to give youths at a Springfield, Mass., YMCA an athletic activity to keep them busy in the winter.
On Dec. 10, those rules — considered “the birth certificate of one of the world’s most popular sports” — will be put up for auction in New York and are expected to bring in at least $2 million. The proceeds are to go to the Naismith International Basketball Foundation, which promotes sportsmanship and provides services to underprivileged youths around the world.
Ian Naismith, the foundation’s founder and grandson of James Naismith, said it was a family decision to put the rules on the auction block and give the money to the Naismith charity.
“We need to take the money and work the money back into kids,” Ian Naismith told The Associated Press. “We call it recycling. With the economy going south the last couple of years, my stroke, my wife passing away, it was more important to me to have the game go back into the kids. It’s what Dr. Naismith wanted.”
James Naismith penned the 13 rules on Dec. 21, 1891, while he was a physical education instructor at a YMCA training school in Springfield. His boss had given him two weeks to come up with a new indoor activity for his gym class, and he wrote down the rules on the eve of that deadline.
He gave the list to his secretary, who typed them up on two pages that Naismith pinned on a bulletin board outside the gym.
He moved to Lawrence, Kan., in 1898 and became the first basketball coach at the University of Kansas. He coached for nine seasons before assuming other academic duties and serving as athletics director.
One of his players was Forrest “Phog” Allen, who went on to become popularly known as the “father of basketball coaches.”
The two are memorialized on the University of Kansas campus, where the basketball court at Allen Fieldhouse is named James Naismith Court.
Naismith died in 1939, three years after his new game became an official sport at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
“It’s really the genesis, the birth certificate of one of the world’s most popular sports,” said Selby Kiffer, senior specialist in American history documents for Southeby’s, which will conduct the Dec. 10 auction. “It’s a sport that has had an impact on everything from fashion, such as sneakers, to culture that in a way transcends sports.
“Basketball is a pure invention,” he said.
Ian Naismith said he has wanted to sell the rules for years, but had never made a serious effort to do so. He said someone offered his father, also named James, $1 million for them in 1968 and $2 million in 1973, but they were never sold.
The rules were passed down to Ian Naismith, his brother and sister in 1980 when their father died.
“I’m very proud of the game, proud that it’s the fastest-growing game,” Ian Naismith said. “I’m upset about a lot of things taking place in the game, but I don’t want to say anything negative. Well, one thing. The Labron James spectacle, his reality show when he was signing up with a team, I thought that was in poor taste. That’s not basketball, as far as I’m concerned.
“It’s a different world,” he said. “I live in that world, but sometimes I don’t understand it.”
Kiffer said the estimated value of the rules is “$2 million plus,” but said it’s hard to estimate how much the pages will sell for because they are unique.
“The estimate is unusual for us, giving a single-figure estimate,” he said. “Normally we have a high and a low. This is something so unusual that I don’t think we know what the upper end might be. We’re afraid that by putting a high estimate, it might limit people’s vision of what it is worth.”
The basketball rules will be in elite company at Southeby’s on auction day, with Robert F. Kennedy’s copy of the Emancipation Proclamation — one of only 26 copies signed by Abraham Lincoln that are believed to still exist — and a battle flag recovered from the Battle of Little Bighorn also on the block.
“One of (James Naismith’s) famous quotes was, ‘I want to leave the world a better place for me having been here,’” Ian Naismith said. He added that putting the money from the sale back into the Naismith Foundation — which also funds orphanages and children’s services around the world — means his grandfather’s legacy will endure.
“We heal kids, if we can,” Naismith said. “We educate them. We’re talking about street kids. I’m not into the politics of the game. I prefer to do the charity.”