Basket Ball: James Naismith’s Original Rules at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City)

James Naismith thumbtacked the freshly typed 13 rules for his new game, Basket Ball, to a gymnasium bulletin board in December 1891. Now nearly 120 years later, the public will have its first chance to see the landmark document that launched a cultural legacy in a display at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. James Naismith’s Original Rules of Basket Ball opens to the public Saturday, March 5, in Kirkwood Hall at the Museum.
James Naismith - Basket BallAt 2 p.m. Friday, March 4, the Nelson-Atkins will unveil the exhibition with a press conference that features David Booth and Suzanne Deal Booth, who purchased the Rules of Basket Ball at a Sotheby’s auction Dec. 10 for more than $4 million. The selling price exceeded other exceptional items sold the same day, including Robert F. Kennedy’s copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln, and a battle flag from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s Last Stand.
“My family is very proud to bring this important treasure to the Nelson-Atkins for its first presentation to the public, where the rules will be enjoyed by sports fans and museum-goers alike,” said Mr. Booth, who is a native of Lawrence, Kan., and a graduate of the University of Kansas.
The rules will be on view during March, when the region’s excitement about college basketball is at its height, and will be open through May 29.
“The Booths understand the pride, the intensity and the traditions that people in the Midwest hold for their teams, and we are extremely grateful for their generosity in sharing this historic document with our visitors,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, who became Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell Director & CEO of the Museum Sept. 1. “The Nelson-Atkins is attuned to this part of our cultural fabric, and we all look forward to celebrating James Naismith’s entrepreneurship and world legacy.”
The exhibition will be free and open to the public. Free timed tickets to the exhibition will be available through the Museum’s website,, at the Info Desk in the Bloch Building, or by calling 816.751.1ART (1278).
“Seeking out and showcasing humankind’s creative genius is at the heart of our mission at the Nelson-Atkins,” said Sarah Rowland, chair of the Museum’s Board of Trustees. “Mr. Naismith’s invention is a cultural triumph, and we are pleased to make this exhibition accessible to everyone.”
During the exhibition, the region’s focus on basketball will be at its height. The Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) will hold its basketball championships at Municipal Auditorium March 3-6. The Big 12 Tournament for men’s and women’s teams will be March 9-12 in Kansas City, and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) will host its tournament from March 16-22 in Kansas City as well. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament begins March 15, with rounds in cities throughout the country, culminating in the Final Four and championship April 2 and 4 in Houston.
Ultimately the Rules of Basket Ball are destined for a permanent home in Lawrence, where Naismith was KU’s first college basketball coach. Following the purchase by the Booth family, Kansas head coach Bill Self said, “We’re very happy the Booths were able to pull this off, very proud, and certainly appreciative of what David and Suzanne and the rest of their family have done for this university. The pride in having these rules here in Lawrence will last far longer than any of us will. It will last for many generations.”
The 13 basic rules were typed on two sheets of paper, now yellowed with age, so that Naismith could introduce his new game to a group of young men at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass. He nailed two peach baskets to each end of the first Basket Ball court, and within a matter of days, people were gathering to watch the popular new game.
“It’s really the genesis, the birth certificate of one of the world’s most popular sports,” said Selby Kifer, senior specialist in American history documents at Sotheby’s. “It’s a sport that has had an impact on everything from fashion, such as sneakers, to culture in a way that transcends sports.”
The Canadian-born Naismith studied physical education in Montreal before coming to the YMCA in Springfield, Mass., and he was intent on promoting strong moral character. While there, he was asked to develop an indoor game for the winter months that would not take up too much room, could help athletes stay in shape, would be fair for all players and not be too rough. He called his new game Basket Ball.
Naismith joined the KU faculty in 1898 and ironically, remains the university’s only men’s basketball coach to ever have a losing record. Through the years, he took great pride in seeing the game develop. When asked if he had attained any wealth as a result, he said, “It would be impossible for me to explain my feelings to the great mass of people who ask this question, as my pay has not been in dollars but in the satisfaction of giving something to the world that is a benefit to masses of people.”
Naismith died in 1939 and is buried in Lawrence. In the 120 years since he posted rules to his new game, the document has been passed from one generation to the next, kept in desk drawers or safe deposit boxes at various locations, until being auctioned in December.