Jewish Journal

Basketball’s Christian history

by Brad A. Greenberg

March 26, 2009 | 5:49 pm

The Sweet Sixteen starts this afternoon, and for the first time in four years my Bruins are out. That, however, won’t stop me from watching games all weekend. Forget what Christmas carolers claim: March Madness is truly the most wonderful time of the year.

I’ve never thought of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament as a Christian exercise, even though it often feels like religion. But last week Christianity Today offered this previously unknown, at least to me, history:

Where’s the Christian history in all of this? To start, Naismith, after working his way through high school (he was orphaned at age 9), trained as a Presbyterian minister at McGill University. He taught phys. ed. there before going on to Springfield to study psychology. When he applied at Springfield in May 1889, he was asked, “What is the work of a YMCA Physical Director?” He answered, “To win men for the Master through the gym.”

Naismith later applied to be director of physical education at the University of Kansas, a job he held until his retirement in 1937. In recommending Naismith for the position, A.A. Stagg, “the Dean of American football,” described him as the “inventor of basketball, a medical doctor, a Presbyterian Minister, a teetotaller, an all-around athlete, a non-smoker and the owner of a vocabulary without cuss words.” No wonder basketball refs penalize technical fouls.

The YMCA—which used to emphasize the “Christian” aspect much more than it does today—is also important in the development and phenomenal growth of the game. YMCA gyms, basketball’s incubators, were opened to provide young men a wholesome alternative to hanging out in saloons. They were also intended to promote civic and religious education.

Like Naismith said on his application, his job at Springfield really was to train men for ministry in the growing Sunday school movement and the similarly expanding YMCA, which at that time pursued “the fourfold program” for fitness: physical, social, mental, and spiritual development. The organization had some spiritual heavyweights at the helm, too. John R. Mott, who would go on to chair the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference and share the 1943 Nobel Peace Prize, began his career as college secretary of the YMCA.

The top 10 NCAA tournament buzzer beater are up above.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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