ALMONTE, Ontario — The Toronto Raptors opened the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in a giant vat of deafening noise that made it easy to forget that basketball began as a simple game.
Professional basketball’s championship series has become a carefully choreographed and layered spectacle, with dance teams, celebrities, booming soundtracks, light effects and nearly 20,000 screaming spectators combining to scramble the senses. But in a quiet moment before the pandemonium began Thursday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pointed out that this year’s event marked “a homecoming of sorts.”
While Toronto was making its first appearance in the Finals, Silver noted that James Naismith, the sport’s inventor, hailed from Ontario.
Basketball’s origin story is a well-told legend: Naismith, then a 30-year-old physical education teacher in Springfield, Mass., nailed peach baskets to the railing of his gym’s gallery, suspending them above the floor, in 1891. His goal was to keep his antsy students occupied during the cold winter months with a less violent sport than football. Naismith’s 13 original rules outlawed pushing, tripping and striking opponents while laying out the basics for how to score points by tossing the ball into the baskets. The sport spread rapidly, reaching the 1936 Olympics. In 1946, the precursor to the NBA was formed in New York.
Yet Naismith’s origin story and his Canadian roots often get passed over in the retelling, in part because he became synonymous with Springfield — now home to basketball’s Hall of Fame — and the University of Kansas, where he coached and worked for much of his adult life.
Their own ‘Dr. J’
Naismith’s rural hometown of Almonte is a four-hour drive northeast of cosmopolitan Toronto, past dairy farms, a handcrafted oak furniture store and road signs advertising delicious maple syrup. Its downtown hugs the Mississippi River — which, while bearing the same name, is separate from and considerably smaller than Huck Finn’s — and is dotted with craft stores, ice cream stands and a series of waterfalls.
Roughly 5,000 people, mostly Scottish and Irish immigrants, live in the serene and immaculate community. “We used to have ‘The Friendly Town’ written on our water tower, and it’s so true,” said Kristine Gray, an Almonte resident.
Naismith’s childhood, though, was less than friendly. His father, John, and mother, Margaret, died of typhoid fever in 1870, leaving him an orphan at age 9. Naismith and his siblings moved in with his unmarried uncle Peter who, according to local lore, left the children to fend for themselves. Before long, Naismith dropped out of Almonte High School to pursue a career as a lumberjack.
Bonnie McBain — an Almonte resident who is Naismith’s second cousin, twice removed — said that a stray comment at a bar altered the course of Naismith’s life. “Your mother would roll over in her grave if she saw you in here,” a man told Naismith, prompting him to leave the bar and reconsider his future.
“Dr. J,” as McBain called him, finished high school and set off for McGill University in Montreal, where he earned a degree in physical education in 1888 and launched his career as an educator that eventually took him to Springfield.
There are tributes to the father of basketball at nearly every turn in Almonte, which is pronounced with a silent “e.” There’s Naismith Memorial Public School, a “Life & Times of Dr. Naismith” museum exhibit, a Naismith Sports Pub, a Naismith mural that graces Almonte Town Hall, a roadside placard recognizing Naismith’s boyhood home on James Naismith Way and a larger-than-life bronze Naismith statue downtown.
Thanks in part to its connection with the sport’s founding father, Almonte has fostered a rich basketball history. Large Canadian flags are the most common yard decoration, but basketball rims are a close second. The hoops banners at Almonte High date from the 1930s, and the school recently claimed the provincial championship. A summer three-on-three tournament bearing Naismith’s name has been held for decades, with divisions for all ages and ability levels. Hundreds of residents will converge on Town Hall on Sunday to watch Game 2 of the Finals at an outdoor viewing party, one of dozens scheduled in various cities across Canada.
Old memories, new fans
Game 1 of the series Thursday drew an average of 3.5 million viewers among Canada’s 37 million residents. More than 8 million unique viewers tuned in at various points Thursday, according to the NBA, so roughly one in five Canadians saw some portion of the Raptors’ victory.
The students at Naismith Memorial were among the avid viewers, although some had to go to bed before the game finished due to its 9 p.m. tip. For many, their interest in basketball has been stoked by their parents, the Raptors’ recent success and the NBA’s outreach efforts. Multiple Naismith students met Canadian NBA players Andrew Wiggins and Cory Joseph while attending a ceremony for the unveiling of a new court in town, and others planned to attend a basketball camp run by Raptors guard Danny Green.
Logan Duckworth, an 11-year-old point guard dressed in a Raptors shirt, recounted his trip to see a home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Hailey Ladouceur, also 11, gushed at Toronto forward Pascal Siakam’s improvement. Bryce Gray, a Rajon Rondo superfan, rattled off the story of Naismith and the peach baskets before detailing his own devotion to the sport.
Understandably, the preteens were more enthralled by the Raptors’ high-definition successes than by black-and-white photographic memories of Naismith. Nevertheless, McBain and Kristen Ray, an Almonte resident who serves on the Naismith Basketball Foundation’s board, have persisted in carrying on the inventor’s memory.
At the Mill of Kintail, a museum that sits on the Indian River, visitors walk down a rickety flight of stairs into a room filled with Naismith memorabilia. Among the gems: an ancient ball found in the attic of Naismith’s office in Kansas; a model of the original basketball court; and the “Naismith Stone,” a boulder that Naismith used to play “Duck on a Rock” — a childhood game that is said to have inspired the arcing basketball shot.
The museum, which resides in a former mill where Naismith often visited with close friend and well-known sculptor R. Tait McKenzie, welcomes 8,300 annual visitors. The Harlem Globetrotters have stopped by on multiple occasions.
“This is an opportunity to celebrate one of our own who pulled up his bootstraps and had to persevere,” Ray said. “His life wasn’t easy. He had some stops and starts. It’s a great example for anyone in our community who is struggling or going through a change of direction. This is a spiritual area, and he developed the sport to round young minds and spirits.”
In 2011, the foundation commissioned sculptor Elden Tefft to create a statue of a bespectacled Naismith, seated with a ball in his lap and a peach basket at his feet, that welcomes tourists near Mill Street.
Karen Gleason of Sheenboro, Quebec, her sister Cathy and two friends stumbled upon the bronze piece while window-shopping during a weekend getaway. The four women recognized Naismith’s local ties but were more interested in gushing about the Raptors’ success.
As a Christmas present, Gleason treated her 15-year-old son, Abram, to a 12-hour round trip to Toronto in February to see the return of DeMar DeRozan, a former Raptors guard traded last year to San Antonio. Abram wore a Raptors hat, multiple Raptors jerseys on top of a Raptors T-shirt, Raptors underwear, Raptors pajama pants and Raptors socks.
“DeRozan totally hooked him on the sport,” said Gleason, flipping through photos of Abram and his friends posing in basketball jerseys. “Not every kid is a hockey fan. If the Raptors win the title, I can’t even imagine his reaction. Oh, my God. He will scream and shout.”
‘Canadians want a winner’
Despite that enthusiasm, Charlie Kitts, manager at Naismith Sports Pub for the past 18 years, was one of many residents to stress that Almonte remains “hockey country.” Still, his establishment is decorated with Naismith-related memorabilia, including a Kansas Jayhawks hat, and a large peach basket is perched on the bar’s top shelf.
Kitts roots for the Boston Celtics, out of Irish ancestral pride, and admitted there weren’t many Raptors die-hards among his aging clientele, who tend to favor the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, who play their home games about a half-hour drive away. As a former marketing teacher at Almonte High, he expressed admiration for the Raptors’ branding work, including the popular “We The North” rallying cry that was inspired by HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
“Basketball has had a long history in Canada, but it comes and goes,” said Kitts, who referred to Naismith as “Jimmy” and traveled to Springfield for a centennial celebration in 1991. “The excitement level among the younger generation now is tremendous. It’s rippled out from the cities. Canadians want a winner, and we haven’t had one for a long time. I hear the ‘We The North’ stuff all the time. The strength of their team and the strength of their marketing program is what’s doing it.”
The electricity in Toronto is bound to reach new heights Sunday as the Raptors continue their quest to become the first Canadian team to win a major North American team sports championship since 1993. Outside the sold-out Scotiabank Arena, thousands of fans will congregate in “Jurassic Park” to watch on a projection screen. That bedlam is a perfect representation of the growth of modern basketball: The speed, skill and complexity of the game has evolved, and its global scope and financial scale would be unrecognizable to its pioneers.
Even so, a visit to Almonte reinforces basketball’s timeless qualities. Hanging on one museum wall is a copy of Naismith’s “physical and mental requirements of basketball,” penned in 1892. The list reads: “agility, accuracy, alertness, cooperation, initiative, skill, reflex judgment, speed, self-sacrifice, self-confidence, self-control and sportsmanship.”
If Raptors Coach Nick Nurse were to identify the attributes needed to vanquish the Warriors, he need not change a thing.