Welcome to the (other) birthplace of basketball

In central New York, a small town pins its hopes on a bold claim: that basketball was invented there. Can it prove its case?

The Herkimer Originals ABA basketball team runs sprints during practice at the HCCC Gymnasium.
The Herkimer Originals ABA basketball team runs sprints during practice at the HCCC Gymnasium. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

HERKIMER, N.Y. — One afternoon this spring, Scott Flansburg was walking past the once-stately 19th-century brick buildings that line Main Street here — a hotel, a grocery store, a bike shop, all turned by time into a gyro joint and empty storefronts. He was looking for a building that wasn’t there.

“Here it is,” Flansburg said, gesturing to a parking lot. “You can kind of imagine it.”

It was the site of the old Herkimer YMCA, built in the 1890s but gone since it burned down decades ago. Flansburg and others in town are convinced that this is where basketball was invented — not, as the famous story goes, by James Naismith and his peach baskets 160 miles east in Springfield, Mass., but by a 16-year-old Swedish immigrant named Lambert Will, who tossed cabbages into crates.

Flansburg, 58, grew up in Herkimer. The busted windows of the now-abandoned elementary school he attended are visible from Main Street. He was a math prodigy, making appearances on “Oprah” and NBC’s “Today” show and landing in the Guinness World Records for doing calculations so fast they called him “The Human Calculator.”

For the past two years, though, Flansburg and others here have been dedicated to uncovering the truth about the town’s role in basketball. The true origins of the game matter, Flansburg said as he gestured along Main Street, because just look around. The area used to be dotted with humming factories. Nearby Standard Furniture manufactured tables that were used at a U.N. summit, according to one town history. The Quackenbush building, a grand Victorian brick structure that once churned out air rifles and nutcrackers, now sits condemned.

Herkimer, with a population of around 7,000, is tucked in central New York’s Mohawk Valley, halfway between Syracuse and Albany. It has been gutted in recent years by the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt and the opioid epidemic. Herkimer County is among the poorest in the state; four years ago, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D) chose the Herkimer courthouse for a news conference to announce new initiatives to battle drug use in the state.

Flansburg talked of ambitious plans to redevelop downtown, and a group he founded bought the Quackenbush building. He has dreams of a museum dedicated to Will’s innovations and a basketball arena to host the Herkimer Originals, the semipro basketball team he just started, and to attract youth tournaments.

He has receipts, Flansburg and others said, after working with two sports historians who published a book this year called “Nais-MYTH” that purports to prove Herkimer is the true birthplace of basketball. That, Flansburg said, is the linchpin for the rest of his plans.

“If I had $100 million, I couldn’t fix downtown and make it last two years,” Flansburg said. “But if this story is true, Herkimer could be like Cooperstown.”

Those in Springfield are less impressed. “Count me on the side of this is nuts,” said Matt Zeysing, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s historian.

Even in Herkimer, there are plenty of divisions over what their story is worth, how to tell it and whether Flansburg is the right person to lead the town’s revitalization efforts.

“I’ve had people call him the Music Man,” said Herkimer Mayor Mark Netti, referencing the famous musical character who arrived in a small town planning to take advantage of naive residents’ hopes for a new band only to turn out to be a good guy in the end. “I’ve also had people call him a con man. But I believe in him. This could be a game-changer for the village.”

Flansburg is undeterred. “How much do they owe us for stealing basketball for 100 years?” he asked.

The power of the peach basket

Naismith, pictured in famous photos with his mustache and peach basket, holds not just the title of basketball’s inventor but a permanent place in the sport’s lore. The Hall of Fame in Springfield bears his name; his original 13 rules are on display at the University of Kansas, where he coached, after a group paid more than $4 million for them a decade ago. The rules are reprinted on the jerseys of the national champion Jayhawks, too.

Naismith, the long-accepted story goes, was an instructor at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield when his boss asked him to develop a new game to keep rambunctious boys occupied in the winter. Naismith puzzled out the new rules and posted them in the gymnasium during the winter of 1891; the first public game was played March 11 the next year.

In Herkimer, though, a counternarrative has circulated among residents for years, in large part because of “I Grew Up with Basketball,” a 1952 memoir by Frank J. Basloe. Basloe, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant and early basketball promoter, organized a team around the turn of the 20th century in Herkimer called the Globe Trotters, 20 years before the world-famous Harlem team adopted the name, and barnstormed around the Northeast.

Basloe’s book credited Will with devising many of the rules of the game, including the opening jump ball, after receiving a rudimentary pamphlet from Naismith through the YMCA network in 1890. After some trial and error, according to Basloe, Herkimer hosted its first game, between a group from the Y and a team of local businessmen, on Feb. 7, 1891 — a full year before the first game in Springfield. The book included an old sepia photograph of a Herkimer basketball team with “91-92” scratched into the ball, suggesting there was a team playing basketball during the same winter that Naismith was said to have invented it. The book also credited Will with creating the sport’s first rim, backboard and net, which was sewed by his mother.

Flansburg spent most of his adult life in Arizona, but he discovered the Basloe book when he was home for his father’s funeral in 2019. Fascinated by the story and imagining what it could mean for Herkimer, he set out to try to prove the book’s case. Along with Brion Carroll, a technology consultant from Herkimer, he reached out to sports historians George and Darril Fosty to write “Nais-MYTH.” The brothers run a publishing company in New York and are the authors of “Black Ice,” a 2004 book that tells the forgotten story of a Black hockey league in Canada that is now cited in the development of the game. While history books have been dismissive of Herkimer’s claims, the Fostys believed Herkimer’s basketball story could be another instance of overlooked history.

The historians, combing through archives, discovered correspondence between Basloe and his publisher that showed Basloe had wanted to publish a revision with even grander claims for Herkimer. It was Will, Basloe wrote, who actually sent his rules east to Springfield, not the other way around. The publisher, though, never issued the revision.

The writers found other evidence they believe bolstered Basloe’s case, including an 1898 article from the Syracuse Herald that reported on the success of Herkimer’s early basketball team, which it said had been playing since the fall of 1891. “Herkimer Crack Players have lost but two of thirty-five games,” it declared. A 1940 article in Little Falls, a neighboring town, noted a celebration of the 50th anniversary of basketball with Will as grand chairman.

Basloe reported that he asked Will why he had never sought credit for his invention. “I am not looking for any glory for what I did for basketball,” Will reportedly said. “I am thankful to think a head of cabbage gave so many people and myself a great deal of pleasure.”

‘What are they hiding?'

After his book was published in 1952, Basloe spoke to the Kiwanis Club in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of baseball’s Hall of Fame, and proclaimed he “would hate to see them put the basketball Hall of Fame in the wrong spot.” It was the beginning of a campaign to put the Hall of Fame in Herkimer that included threatening to sue Springfield.

The controversy became national news, leading to a public debate between the towns. Will and Basloe traveled to Springfield to plead their case. “A five-hour debate here yesterday between supporters of Herkimer and Springfield College as regards the true birthplace of basketball failed to settle the issue,” the Associated Press reported. Springfield eventually raised the money to build the first physical Hall of Fame in the 1960s.

The Fosty brothers believe a fair accounting of basketball’s origin must also question Naismith’s story, beginning with those famous 13 rules. Look closely at the rules that are hanging at Kansas and the handwritten date “Dec 1891.” The “D” is clearly written over a scratched-out “F” and other letters and numbers underneath. In the image of the rules that were published in Naismith’s 1941 autobiography, they are clearly dated “Feb 1892.”

“Why is it changed?” George Fosty asked. “And if that date isn’t right, how can you believe anything in his story?”

Fosty has other questions, too. The rules are supposed to have been posted Dec. 21, 1891, but he believes it was likely that Springfield College was already on Christmas break by then. He said Naismith also at various points in his life described his inspiration for the rules differently, sometimes describing them as spontaneous inspiration and other times as being the product of trial and error.

Then there’s the way the Hall of Fame has responded to Herkimer through the years. There is no mention of Will or Basloe in the Hall of Fame today, but in the 1990s, a group of Will’s descendants was invited to Springfield to dedicate a small exhibit to Will as an innovator of basketball. The family donated several items that had been passed down through the generations.

The experience was surreal, two of Will’s descendants said. They were told not to invite any media members, and one recalled a disagreement with a museum official over the year of Will’s first team. Phil Baruth, Will’s great-grandson and now a state senator in Vermont, said a friend visited the Hall of Fame afterward and reported to him that the exhibit was no longer on display. Baruth said he has tried to collect the memorabilia from the Hall of Fame but no one will respond to him.

“What are they hiding?” asked Lawrence Will, a grandson of Lambert.

A history lesson

When the Herkimer group approached the Hall of Fame about its research project, Zeysing, the museum’s historian and curator, spoke to co-workers and wondered whether they would need to address the Naismith origin story. Baseball’s Hall of Fame had long told the story of Abner Doubleday as the sport’s inventor, only to have historians unearth evidence that he couldn’t have invented the game.

A few weeks ago, Zeysing received his copy of “Nais-MYTH.” He skimmed the book but came away unimpressed. “They told us they were going to have all of this new evidence, but I didn’t see it,” Zeysing said. He said no one had ever spoken to him about the missing Will items.

Springfield College archivist Jeffrey Monseau also met with the Herkimer group and even assisted its efforts. He found no evidence of any correspondence between Will and Naismith, he said. He acknowledged he was skeptical that the rules hanging in Kansas were the same that Naismith once posted, saying there were probably multiple copies that were handed out in those early days. “Don’t tell the people in Kansas that because they spent a lot of money,” he said. “But I don’t know how that invalidates the rest of Naismith’s story.”

Zeysing also wondered about the authenticity of the 13 rules document: “It’s come up many times why it’s scratched out, and I have no idea,” he said, adding, “Maybe they aren’t the original rules.”

Regardless, Monseau explained, the most important historical accountings are primary sources. The first dissemination of basketball’s rules are in a YMCA newsletter early in 1892, sent from Springfield. And there is a story in a Springfield newspaper of the March 11 game. Herkimer’s evidence is based on recollections and news reports that look back on the game’s origins. The photo with “91-92” scratched into the ball isn’t irrefutable, either, because the numbers were added to the photograph’s negative at some point.

That may be more murky than definitive, but history often is. When Michael Antonucci, a history and literature professor, came across the dusty Basloe manuscript in the stacks of the University of Illinois Chicago library in 2001, it had been out of print for decades. Fascinated by what he read, he helped republish it — not because it invalidated Naismith but because it helped better understand how history really works.

“What we’re talking about is power and aura and representational claims,” he said. “This whole thing raises the question of what we want from history and the desire for verification and documentation versus how things actually play out in life. There’s never going to be a smoking gun, because these things aren’t ‘invented’ as we want to cleanly understand the meaning of that word. We’re looking at something collaborative.”

Antonucci also believed Herkimer’s greatest contribution to basketball was bigger than an argument over its so-called invention. Will, along others in the Mohawk Valley, helped develop the game. And while Naismith thought the sport’s utility was to keep incorrigible boys from misbehaving during the long, cold winter, it was Basloe in the early part of the 20th century who understood that it was an entertainment product and that promotion and more offense — and gambling, too — would be key to its growth.

Herkimer and Springfield aren’t alone in their quests to be known as basketball’s birthplace. St. Stephen, a small town in Canada’s New Brunswick, has been fighting to be recognized as the home of the oldest basketball court in the world, precisely because words such as “first” and “inventor” are how history is consumed. Holyoke, a small town in Massachusetts, has made claims that basketball was invented there.

“I hope Herkimer gets something out of this because they deserve it,” Antonucci said. “If I could wave wands, I would say there could be multiple basketball Hall of Fames because there are multiple histories.”

A home for the Originals

On a snowy afternoon last month, Flansburg was at lunch at the Waterfront Grille, a restaurant that overlooks the Erie Canal. He was joined by one of Herkimer’s business leaders, Renee Scialdo-Shevat, the owner of a local mine where a special type of quartz known as a Herkimer diamond is found. There is a Herkimer diamond, Scialdo-Shevat noted, on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, not far from the Hope Diamond.

She was ticking off the area’s attractions as she painted a vision for what Herkimer could be: Cooperstown is 20 miles to the south; the boxing Hall of Fame is in Canastota, 40 miles west of town; the southern Adirondacks are a 30-minute drive away.

“Main Street was beautiful until the 1970s,” she said. “We went to movies. We had parks.”

Renderings from the website of the Herkimer 9, a foundation that Flansburg started to support the downtown renewal, show a basketball museum, a STEM center for kids and a basketball arena. At the site of the old YMCA is a rendering of a gazebo topped with a giant decorative basketball — the largest in the world, Flansburg said — to mark the game’s invention.

“If we prove our story, they might have to move the Hall of Fame to Herkimer,” Flansburg mused.

But there are residents in town who have begun to wonder about Flansburg’s vision. Bob Basloe, a grandson of Frank Basloe and a member of the Herkimer 9 board, worried there had been next to no progress despite Flansburg’s fundraising from local residents and businesses. Carroll said the Herkimer 9 group already has spent some $300,000 on the project, including around $100,000 on research for the book, a large part of that trying to authenticate the old “91-92” photograph.

“Scott has asked for more money, and he should have clarified how he’s going about this,” Bob Basloe said. “He should have already put the basketball downtown, for example. It’s a powerful story and the history is important, but at this point I am wondering if it’s better to scale the project back because I don’t know if there is the money to do what Scott is still proposing.”

Both Bob Basloe and Baruth, the great-grandson of Will, said they were less interested in attacking the Naismith legacy than in securing a place for their ancestors in basketball history. Both said they would like to see, above all, a downtown museum to honor Basloe and Will.

Flansburg, who said he has not taken any salary from the Herkimer 9, argued that proving the Herkimer basketball origin story is worth every penny he has spent because it is the key to the downtown development. Asked where more funding will come from, he said the power of the basketball origin narrative will capture the imagination of both public entities and private donors. (Netti, the mayor, said most funding would have to come from private donations.)

In the meantime, Flansburg is focused on another basketball team. He founded a new semipro squad from the American Basketball Association in Herkimer last season and named it the Originals. They play at the local community college, and Flansburg invited members of the Will family to the home games. At one game, the team held a pregame ceremony to honor the family and Will’s contributions to basketball.

Mayor Netti announced that every Feb. 7 would be Lambert Will Day, in honor of the first basketball game. When the family was presented a key to the city, Flansburg said, he saw tears in their eyes.