How’s your NCAA basketball tournament bracket looking? If you’re like most March Madness fans, I suppose it’s looking a little like Swiss cheese, with big-time favorites such as Pitt, Louisville, University of Texas, and Notre Dame all being defeated by lesser-known opponents.
No doubt there’s a lot of water cooler talk at your office over just how exciting these contests are and how every year the tournament is filled with upsets. When you join in the conversation, why don’t you add an interesting fact: Basketball was invented more than 100 years ago by a Christian theologian as an evangelical outreach tool.
In a great Wall Street Journal article, one of our Centurions, John Murray, recalled the story of the game’s founding. The inventor of basketball, James Naismith, became convinced that he stood a better chance of exemplifying the Christian life through sports rather than through preaching. So he took a job as a physical education instructor at the YMCA’s International Training School for Christian Workers in Springfield, Massachusetts. Naismith’s vision was “to win men for the Master through the gym.”
In 1891, Naismith set out to invent a new indoor game that students could play during winter. He spent weeks testing various games, including versions of soccer, football, and lacrosse, to no avail. “Finally,” Murray writes, “Naismith decided to draw from all of these sports: with a ball that could be easily handled, play that involved running and passing with no tackling, and a goal at each end of the floor.” In short, he came up with basketball.
From the beginning, Naismith and his athletic director, Luther Gulick, held the players to a high standard. As Gulick wrote in 1897, “The game must be kept clean.” A Christian college cannot tolerate “not merely ungentlemanly treatment of guests, but slugging and that which violates the elementary principles of morals.”
He recommended that a coach should “excuse for the rest of the year any player who is not clean in his play.”
Basketball served as an important evangelical tool during the next 50 years, Murray noted. In 1941, Naismith wrote that “whenever I witness games in a church league, I feel that my vision, almost half a century ago, of the time when the Christian people would recognize the true value of athletics, has become a reality.”
In the last 100 years, we’ve seen no shortage of Christian athletes who use their skill, self-discipline, and sportsmanship as a witness to Christ-from Olympic runner Eric Liddel in the 1920s, to football player Tim Tebow in our own generation.
In fact, so many athletes give the glory to God after a game that sportswriters sometimes get irritated with them. To which I respond: Which would you prefer-players known for their faith and good sportsmanship, or players who are arrested for assault or drug use?
If you have a young basketball fan in your family, tell him or her the story of how basketball was invented. And pray for Christian players who can use the public’s love of sports the way Naismith envisioned when he invented basketball-as a witnessing tool to “win men for the Master through the gym.”