An Evangelistic Slam Dunk

It was the basketball game for the ages. On Monday night, the Duke University Blue Devils survived a desperate, last-second shot by the underdog Butler University Bulldogs to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship.

It was a great game—a classic “David and Goliath” matchup, given that Duke has appeared in eight championship games under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, and that Butler had never even made it to the Final Four.

You may hear folks talking about the game for some time. When you do, you can add to the conversation by revealing an interesting fact: Basketball was invented more than 100 years ago by a Christian theologian as an evangelical outreach tool.

In a recent 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.”

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  • Grandpa Tom

    Great story. I have told my grandkids the Naismith story, about the creation of basketball. One of my grandsons is a very good student of the game. I did not tell them Naismith traveled to the School for Christian Workers (presently Springfield College) in 1890 to take a course in physical training. Now, I can tell them the reasons for his invention of the game, specifically as a evangelization tool. The story goes that in a few years after the game began to catch on, one on Naismith’s student’s suggested it be called “Naismith-ball” after it’s creator. Naismith hooted. The game, he said, is called basketball (source; book (2003): Smooth Moves; by: Derek Gentile). Today, the James J. Naismith Basketball Court is the home of the Kansas University JayHawks.

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