Naismith Heirs Tell Tale of Basketball's 'Magna Carta'

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Some things evolve over a long process. Others appear suddenly.

Place football and baseball in the first category. They morphed over several centuries from sports like soccer and cricket. Basketball, in contrast, was brought forth suddenly in one man’s burst of creation.

On that morning in 1891 when James Naismith typed up the rules of “Basket Ball” and tacked them up in the YMCA gym in Springfield, Mass., he didn’t just invent a new sport – he created one of the most valuable pieces of sports memorabilia.

Naismith’s heirs are telling the story of basketball’s “Magna Carta” in the latest episode of Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby, which airs Monday, January 30 at 9 p.m. EST on the FOX Business Network.

Naismith had been tasked with creating an indoor activity that young men could play at the Y during the winter. A lightbulb went off as he lay in bed; it was the original hoop dream.

The next day he hung two peach baskets at each end of the gym, and handed a soccer ball to a scrum of rambunctious males. A new sport was born. Almost.

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“The first game resulted into multiple black eyes and a dislocated shoulder. One guy completely knocked out,” Jim Naismith, James’ grandson, told Colby.

But the young men begged to play again. So Naismith, in an attempt to civilize his new (or newborn) “sport,” typed up 13 basic rules and posted them on the gym wall. If basketball’s your religion, those two pages are the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

The game spread quickly. Naismith moved to the University of Kansas and started what grew into one of the most storied basketball programs in history. He also saw the game played professionally – and around the world.

He must have realized from the start he was on to something because he saved the original typewritten rules in a hidden compartment in his home.

Years after Naismith died, his grandson Ian took the rules on tour…and at one point feared he left them in a restaurant.

“He started looking around and couldn’t find the rules,” said Ian’s son Sean Naismith. “He called the waitress who said, ‘I saw you walk out with those rules.’ And sure enough, when he tore apart his van he found them in there.”

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The scare, however, helped convince the Naismith family – which couldn’t afford to insure the original typewritten rules – to auction them off. They sold in 2010 for an astounding $4.3 million, the most ever paid for a piece of sports memorabilia up to that time.

Of course, that’s just a free throw when you consider the value of the worldwide basketball industry Naismith created. Or that LeBron James makes about $4.3 million every 10 games.