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KU Professor Unearths Recording Of James Naismith, Inventor Of Basketball

University of Kansas

He sounds like he could be your grandpa, recounting a snow day long ago.

“I showed them two peach baskets I’d nailed up at each end of the gym,” says 77-year-old James Naismith in a 1939 radio interview recently unearthed by a University of Kansas professor, “and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team’s peach basket.”

In a town where basketball is worshipped, it’s fitting that religious studies professor Michael Zogry unearthed the only known audio recording of the sport’s founding father.

Zogry’s writing a book about the influence of religion on Naismith, who invented basketball as a way for students at Springfield College in Massachusetts to work off excess energy during a long, cold winter.

In the recording, Naismith tells interviewer Gabriel Heatter the first game ended in disaster after the players began tackling each other in the middle of the gym. That’s why he added a rule barring them from running with the ball.

That was in 1891. On Jan. 31, 1939, Naismith was at Madison Square Garden to watch the sport he invented. He also gave an interview to “We the People” that was mentioned in “The Basketball Man,” Bernice Larson Webb’s biography of Naismith.

But Zogry wasn’t sure if he’d be able to find a recording. Another interview with Naismith, this one with a KU radio station, had already been lost to time.

Turns out, the Library of Congress had the recording. Before Zogry could access it, he’d need permission from the copyright holder. He got permission to use the recording and share it with the surviving Naismith grandchildren, including Jim Naismith and his wife, Beverly.

“They were in town a couple of weeks ago,” Zogry says. “We had them over for dinner, and then we played the recording for them at our house, and that was a special moment for me.”

Start to finish, it took Zogry about four months to locate the recording and get permission to use it. A copy of the Naismith has been archived at KU, where the original rules of basketball will go on display in March 2016.

“As far as I know, and as far as my colleagues know, this is the only audio recording of him that exists,” Zogry says.

Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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