Mr. Naismith would be smiling

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

James Naismith would be smiling. He died in 1939, but wherever he is, if he was watching the youth basketball game on Saturday morning, he would have been smiling.

Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891 so the young athletes in Springfield, Massachusetts would have a way of staying in good physical condition during the winter.

It was too cold and snowy outside during the frigid New England winters for football or baseball, so Naismith, a teacher and coach, invented an indoor sport – basketball.

He also devised the first 13 rules that were used in the sport. It caught on quickly. There have been some changes, like substituting a net for the original peach basket, but, basically, it remains the same game we see played by kids and professionals throughout the world.

Sometimes, as with all sports, things can get a little ugly – especially when excitable parents and grandparents are in the stands providing loud, passionate support for their kids.

I must admit, I was scolded by a softball umpire last summer for questioning balls and strikes. I didn’t think I was too far out of line. I was just groaning (somewhat loudly) whenever I disagreed with him… which was quite often.

I always thought that complaining about the calling of balls and strikes was an American tradition. The umpire didn’t agree.

Naismith and the inventors of many of our other favorite spectator sports, football, baseball and soccer, would shudder if they sat in the stands today and observed some of the misbehavior of fans, coaches and players.

Some people say that the word “fan” is an abbreviation of the word “fanatic.” Some people certainly get a bit fanatical during a game. Some people would say that fans often go a little bit nuts.

So, why might James Naismith be smiling?

This past Saturday, Debbie and I went to the Church of Christ on West Locust Street to watch a bunch of young boys and girls play basketball. Our grandson Clayton, a kindergartner, was one of the little ball players running up and down the court.

The entire basketball program is promoted by an organization named “Upward Sports.” According to their website, their entire mission is to teach youth the following: “Play with Purpose means you make smart decisions, improve in your physical development, discover your life’s purpose, and put others needs before your own. It’s more than just the game. It’s every practice, every drill, every pivot, every pass and shot. Become more than just an athlete. The driving purpose behind Upward Sports is a desire to help young athletes PLAY WITH PURPOSE.”

All the coaches and referees were living by that same mission. It was beautiful to watch.

These are kids who have never played organized basketball. They have no concept of basketball rules.

Dribbling? They have no idea how to dribble. Passing? They have no idea how or when to make a pass. If a ball is thrown up that actually goes through the hoop, no one is more surprised than the kid who made the shot.

At one point in the game, Clayton’s best little buddy, Camden, got the ball in the other teams end of the court. Instead of dribbling, he tucked the ball under his arm and started running like a fullback.

A beautiful smile spread across his face. Camden was on top of the world as the crowd started to cheer him on.

No one stopped him. No one called a foul. When he stopped running, the referee gently explained to Camden that he was supposed to dribble. Not surprisingly, walking or running with the ball happened time after time.

It was wonderful to see all the parents (both sides) cheering on the little runners as they slowly started to learn the rules. Everyone was smiling, laughing and having a great time. James Naismith would have loved it.

The entire game was a celebration of sportsmanship, joy and the adoration of children.

The kids were made to feel special.

Just before the little ones entered the basketball court, the lights were dimmed. The announcer prepared the crowd by lowering his voice and sounding like a big-time professional emcee. Just before the players names were called to come onto the court, an inflatable entrance was placed at the main door and a fog machine kicked-in to allow the kids to run onto the court like a rock-star.

It was fun. It was a celebration of sports and life.

Yes. James Naismith and everyone who loves sports and values sportsmanship would have been smiling as the staff from “Upwards” taught everyone the true importance of sports.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist