LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas religious studies associate professor who explores the junctures of religion and sports is examining the influence of religion on James Naismith, his creation of basketball and the commemoration of his legacy.
Michael Zogry, who directs KU’s Indigenous Studies program in addition to teaching religious studies, will be on sabbatical leave next fall to work on a book to be titled “Religion and Basketball: Naismith’s Game.” In June, he will teach a course on “Sports as Religion: Fact or Fiction” in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Mini College program.
Zogry is author of “Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game: At the Center of Ceremony and Identity” published by the University of North Carolina Press. He teaches courses that include units on religion and sports, and he is a longtime basketball fan.
In examining ritual and belief in traditional Native American sports as well as in games such as basketball, Zogry said: “The core questions for me are: Are there any sports or athletic games in the world that are considered religious? Have there ever been any? Can sports such as basketball, football or soccer be religions for players or spectators?”
In 1891 when Naismith invented basketball, physical fitness and religion were entwined in a movement transplanted from England that came to be known as muscular Christianity. Teddy Roosevelt was among those who championed muscular Christianity’s doctrine that energetic faith and vigorous masculinity make for healthy citizens.
Zogry said, “The story of Naismith’s creation of the game is widely known — that he strived to create an indoor game to be played during the long winter months in New England that would hold the attention of an unruly physical education class.
“Less well-known is that his game also was meant to help build Christian character and to inculcate certain values of the muscular Christian movement.”
Although times have changed, Zogry sees analogies between the beliefs and activities of 19th century sports figures such as Naismith and Amos Alonzo Stagg, a Yale divinity student who pioneered football coaching, and those manifested by 21st-century athletes such as Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin.
At age 29, Naismith had a bachelor’s degree from McGill University and was prepared to become a Presbyterian minister when he decided to forego ordination to teach physical education for an organization dedicated to building a healthy mind, body and spirit — the YMCA International Training College in Springfield, Mass. (Naismith and Stagg both taught YMCA training college.) After Naismith was ordained much later, he defended his earlier decision by “saying that he could best serve God by influencing young men’s characters.”
Naismith arrived at KU in 1898 after he had earned a medical degree while employed by the Denver YMCA. KU hired him to be the chapel director (daily prayer services were compulsory for students then), campus physician, physical education program director and, yes, the basketball coach.
Zogry noted that Naismith believed an umpire was essential in basketball, but that a coach was not. He said an umpire could to enforce the rules and remind players how to behave.
“Perhaps this explains why he is the only KU basketball coach in history with a losing record.”
In addition to basketball and physical fitness, Naismith nurtured the study of religion at KU. In 1921, he was among those founding the Kansas School of Religion just a few steps off the university campus.
Zogry described Naismith and his colleagues as progressive in that time for finding a way to provide courses about religions without conflicting with separation of church and state mandates. The Kansas School of Religion was a forerunner of KU’s Department of Religious Studies, which offers degree programs that teach religious traditions from an objective perspective, without seeking to promote or disprove any specific belief system.
Religious imagery to commemorate Naismith also intrigues Zogry. A 1941 bulletin from the Springfield (Mass.) Naismith Memorial Committee seeks funding to build “The Naismith Temple of Basketball.” The proposal came two years after Naismith died at age 78. When Springfield opened the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1968, it featured an “Honors Court,” a room evoking a reverent atmosphere ringed by floor-to-ceiling mock stained-glass windows honoring players, coaches and contributors. Today the stained-glass window honoring Naismith is housed in Springfield, and the window for Forrest Clare (Phog) Allen is housed in the Booth Family Hall of Athletics at KU.
Allen was not only known as the father of basketball coaching but is thought to have been Naismith’s student at KU. The Booth Hall of Athletics is adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse. When the fieldhouse was dedicated in 1955, students voted to name the new arena for the athletic director KU had hired in 1919 rather than for Naismith.
“People tend to idolize Naismith almost as a grandfatherly religious figure, removed from the concerns of everyday life,” Zogry said.
Zogry sees Naismith as “more down to earth – he was an highly competitive person who played football and rugby throughout college and graduate school. He was someone who created something of international significance and then stepped back. He made almost no money from his invention. He refused offers to endorse products such as cigarettes.”
Later in life Naismith was not shy about commenting on some of the rule changes of his game, Zogry said, noting that Naismith’s hand-written original 13 rules of basketball sold for $4.3 million in 2010. A KU alumnus, David Booth and his wife, Suzanne, purchased the rules as a gift to KU. University officials and the Booth family are discussing plans to house the rules permanently on the KU campus.