Kansas Jayhawks Basketball: The Story Behind One of the Most Prestigious Program

Ryan ReschContributor IIIMay 16, 2012

Courtesy of kuathletics.com
Courtesy of kuathletics.com

Every story has a beginning, and every sport played is just another story.

Not every program has a rich history steeped in tradition or an institution built on success, but the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team is one of those programs.

The Beginnings of a Game

The story of Kansas basketball does not begin in Lawrence, Kansas, funnily enough.

Instead, 1,264 miles away and 151 years ago, the man who would create not only the first Kansas basketball team, but the sport of basketball all together was born.

James Naismith, eventually becoming Dr. James Naismith, was born on November 6, 1861 in Almonte, ON, Canada. According to the Naismith Museum and Hall of Fame, the young Naismith first discovered one of the most essential traits for basketball while playing a game called “duck on a rock.” In it, the player had to knock down a large rock by throwing smaller rocks at it.

Before long, Naismith discovered that if one shot the smaller rock in an arched motion over the heads of the defenders, he would be more likely to succeed.

Eventually, the talented athlete would attend McGill University in Montreal. Here, he would represent the Martlets in rugby, soccer, gymnastics and football, still a rather young sport at the time. By the end of his time at McGill, Naismith earned a BA in Physical Education, as well as a degree from the Presbyterian College in Montreal.

He would take his athleticism and his physical education degree to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he began working at a local YMCA. It was here that the game of basketball was born.

James Naimisth hold a soccer ball and a peach basket, the first type of basket used. Courtesy of businessinsider.com
James Naimisth hold a soccer ball and a peach basket, the first type of basket used. Courtesy of businessinsider.com

His students at the YMCA were limited to only indoor sports at the time, because it was winter, and the boys were becoming reckless.

The director of the facilities ordered Naismith to create a game that would appease the children but keep them in shape at the same time. He also wanted a game that was “fair for all players and not too rough.”

After looking at other sports for inspiration, Naismith removed the injury potential by deciding to only allow the soft ball to be passed, that the goal had to be unguardable and, therefore, above a player’s head, and the ball had to shot into the goal in the same way that he played “duck on a rock.”

From there, James Naismith created the now famous 13 original rules of basketball.

“The invention of basketball was not an accident,” Naismith said. “It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play drop the handkerchief.” 

The Arrival in Lawrence

The University of Kansas welcomed Dr. Naismith in the late 1890s but not as a basketball coach. Instead, the now famous Naismith was hired to be the director of chapel and a physical education professor.

Even so, Naismith did create the first Kansas basketball team in 1898, and the team went on to play local YMCA teams, as an official collegiate program had not yet been founded. Naismith and his teams would eventually play three current or former Big 12 members, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas State.

1899 Kansas basketball team, courtesy of wikipedia.org
1899 Kansas basketball team, courtesy of wikipedia.org

By the time his coaching career ended for Kansas, he finished with a losing record of 55-60. However, he would be, in a strange twist of events, the only Kansas basketball coach to finish with a losing record.

It seemed as though the best part of coaching was watching his players play. He once told one of his players, when asked about coaching, “You cannot coach basketball… you play it.” The player in question was the now famous Phog Allen.

The Phog Rolls In & The Establishment of a Coach’s Schools

In an attempt to prove his old coach wrong, Dr. Forrest C. “Phog” Allen accepted the position of Kansas’ head coach in 1907.

His time at Kansas would come to an end in 1909, as he then took his coaching abilities elsewhere, but in 1919, he returned to the Jayhawks.

After an incredible 37 years at the helm of the Kansas basketball program, Allen amassed an overall record of 590 wins and only 219 losses. He built Kansas’ trophy case with two Helms Foundation National Championships and an NCAA National Championship.

His legacy did not end there, however.

Phog Allen coached some of basketball’s greatest players of his time, including Dutch Lonborg, Bill Hougland and Clyde Lovellette, just to name a few.

In addition, one of Allen’s greatest accomplishments was the addition of the sport of basketball to the Olympics in 1936. In the 1952 Summer Olympics seven players from the 1952 NCAA Championship team represented the USA and brought their old coach back a gold medal.

By the time that Allen retired from coaching, it had become clear to the nation that Kansas was one of the premiere basketball schools around, and not only a player’s dream, but a coach’s as well.

The list of names on the coaching wall for Kansas is not one rivaled by many. From Dick Harp and Ted Owens, to Larry Brown and Roy Williams, when Bill Self accepted the job as Kansas’ latest in 2003, he had to be ready to continue to the tradition of winning for the Jayhawks.

A Long List of Names and Numbers

Regardless of how good a coach is, he has to have players willing and talented enough to play for him.

For Kansas, the topic of recruiting has never been a difficult one to swallow. The Jayhawks throughout the years seem to have a magnet on some of the nations best young talent, and they always find a way to shape every player’s potential.

The list of names that have played for the Jayhawks is one that could probably fill a good portion of any basketball collector’s Hall of Fame. The debate over the top 10 players in Kansas history will probably rage on forever, but with names like Paul Pierce, Danny Manning, Aarron Miles, Jo Jo White, Bud Stallworth and, of course, Wilt Chamberlain, multiple teams could be made with Kansas’ roster history.

Wilt Chamberlain, courtesy of stormingthefloor.net
Wilt Chamberlain, courtesy of stormingthefloor.net

It is hard to sum up the level of talent and success that each of these former Jayhawks have brought to Kansas, but when a school has 27 retired jersey numbers, it has to be doing something right.

Here to Stay

Simply put, Kansas basketball will not be going anywhere anytime soon, but its past must also be recognized, even as the success grows.

The Jayhawks continue to build on their already deep history with each and every season that the next group of young men put onto the court.

Fifty-five conference regular season championships, 25 conference tournament championships, 41 NCAA tournament appearances, 14 Final Four appearances, nine national championship games played and five (combined) national titles, the Kansas Jayhawks are a program built on a strong foundation and one for the ages.


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