David vs. Goliath.
As the NCAA National Championship game is tonight, it’s almost like David vs. Goliath with small school Butler takes on heavily favorite Duke university.
That is arguably one of the best parts of March Madness—the exciting possibility of a small-college program beating a nationally ranked team. Who can forget Princeton’s upset win over UCLA in the mid-’90s or, more recently, Davidson College’s triumphs over Gonzaga, Wisconsin and Georgetown in the 2008 season? Many wonder if this will be the miracle year that the 16th seed finally topples a No. 1 seed.
The biblical imagery of triumph against the odds would have greatly appealed to the game’s founder, Dr. James Naismith.
Naismith himself overcame great tragedy and adversity early in life. Orphaned at age 9, he was raised primarily by his grandmother (until her death two years later) and then by a bachelor uncle. Although he was a high-school dropout, he eventually finished both secondary school and college.
As a young Christian, Naismith received a master’s degree from Montreal’s Presbyterian Theological College. Convinced that he could better exemplify the Christian life through sports than in the pulpit, he moved to Springfield, Mass., to serve as a physical-education instructor at the Young Men’s Christian Association’s International Training School for Christian Workers (now Springfield College). Naismith’s vision? “To win men for the Master through the gym.”
Encouraged by his director, Luther Gulick, Naismith set out to create an indoor activity for students during the winter months. Having studied European gymnastics models, and toyed with indoor versions of football, soccer and lacrosse, Naismith spent two weeks testing various games with his assigned athletics class—with no success. Finally, 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. Thus, at a Springfield YMCA in 1891, was the game of basketball born.
Naismith and Gulick held the sport and its players to a high standard. In an 1897 article addressing foul play, Gulick underlined basketball’s noble origins: “The game must be kept clean. It is a perfect outrage for an institution that stands for Christian work in the community to tolerate not merely ungentlemanly treatment of guests, but slugging and that which violates the elementary principles of morals. . . . Excuse for the rest of the year any player who is not clean in his play.”
Men like Naismith and Gulick sought to develop the whole person—mind, body and spirit—and the YMCA emblem, an inverted red triangle, symbolized their threefold purpose. As Gulick stated, “Christ’s kingdom should include the athletic world.” From their beginning in 1851, YMCAs on college and university campuses had tremendous participation nationwide. Close to 50,000 men were enrolled in YMCA college Bible studies by 1905. There were 1,000 men at Yale alone in 1909.
One notable characteristic that defined these college YMCAs—particularly those among the Ivy League schools—were their weekly “deputations,” or local mission trips. Groups of college students ministered to needy children in nearby urban neighborhoods and rural areas. These trips would last three or four days and included musical entertainment, sporting events and Christian instruction, both in the schools and from the pulpits of local churches. On a February 1911 trip to New Hampshire, 43 out of 70 boys enrolled at Kimbell Union Academy embraced the Christian faith. Weeks later at a church visit in London, N.H., the official deputation logs recorded an eyewitness account from Dartmouth student Cedric Francis (class of 1912): “One very touching case was where it was through the young boy of the family that the mother and father were led to Christ.”
This was the generation of the Student Volunteer Movement which sought to reach the world for Christ “in this generation.” Basketball served as an important evangelical tool for many during its first 50 years. In his 1941 book “Basketball: Its Origin and Development,” Naismith wrote, “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.”
Amazingly, Naismith never profited from the sport he invented, nor did he accept speaker fees when he spoke publicly about basketball. And although the sport may have lost its relationship to Christianity, it will always have the tremendous legacy of a founder who, like his Lord, put others before himself, as he awaited his blessed hope, as the Scripture says: “the glorious appearance of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”