Inventive Thinking

Disheartened after another day of failing to connect with his students, the young teacher trudged upstairs to his office and slumped down at his desk chair in defeat. He was angry, and he had every right to be mad. After all, his boss at the YMCA had assigned him a seemingly impossible task. He had been handed a classroom full of misbehaving mischief-makers whom he somehow was expected to make enthusiastic about physical fitness—within two weeks. His three predecessors each had been dismissed after unsuccessful attempts to interest the unruly young men in exercise. Unless something changed, it looked like he would be following their footsteps out the door.

As for activities, his options were limited. Winter weather had forced the physical education class indoors to the gymnasium, and his students showed absolutely no attraction to the usual calisthenics: push-ups, sit-ups, and the like. Also, since many of the students were notorious troublemakers, any sport lending itself to rough play was off limits. He had found that out the hard way after an aborted attempt to introduce lacrosse had ended in a slew of injuries. He had tried derivations of indoor soccer too, but the students had been completely unreceptive to them.

Mulling over the predicament, the young gym instructor concluded that nothing of the usual variety would hold the attention of his students. He needed to come up with a new game. He then began to think abstractly about the team sports he knew, recognizing that, at root, each involved a ball and a goal. He decided a larger, softer ball would be most appropriate for an indoor game. To eliminate violence, he wanted to move away from a type of goal which encouraged forceful or fast-moving shots as in hockey or soccer. Consequently, he hit upon the idea of a goal with an opening at the top rather than on the side to require an arcing or looping trajectory for shots. Since defenders could easily surround and guard such a box-goal, he chose to mount it above their heads. Finally, to prevent the rough collisions of tackling, he stipulated that the person with the ball could not advance it on foot but only by passing.

After several hours spent pondering how the game would be played, the young teacher drew up a list of thirteen rules and had them typed out. He then asked the gymnasium’s facility manger for two wooden boxes so that he could construct the goals. The building superintendent did not have any boxes but provided two peach baskets instead. The next day the young instructor nailed the baskets about 10-feet above the floor of the gym and put the rules of his newly created sport on display. Not only did the game appeal to his students, within a matter of months basket-ball had caught on at YMCAs around the country. The once-discouraged gym teacher, James Naismith, had invented a sport which would go on to become one of the most popular in the world. In 2010 its original rules, which Naismith had scrawled on two pieces of paper, sold for $4.3 million!


James Naismith faced a crisis; his job depended on exciting a group of cynical, asocial youth about exercise. At this juncture, he could have complained about the unfairness of his assignment or griped about the behavioral problems of his students. However, rather than being consumed by the difficulties in front of him, Naismith stayed focused on finding a way to connect with his students. What sticky situation are you presently facing at work? How can you encourage your team to stay focused on searching for a solution rather than worrying about the size of the problem?

James Naismith’s first few attempts to engage his students failed miserably, yet he kept moving forward. How have you moved on from failures in your life, and what lessons have you learned from those failures? Based on your experience, how might you influence your teammates to respond to failure?

original 13 rules of basketball

  1. “The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.”
  2. “The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).”
  3. “A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball at a good speed if he tries to stop.”
  4. “The ball must be held in or between the hands. The arms or body must not be used for holding it.”
  5. “No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this by any player shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or, if there was evident intent to injure the player, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed.”
  6. “A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of Rules 3, 4, and such as described in Rule 5.”
  7. “If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count as a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul).”
  8. “A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the ground into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges and the opponents move the basket, it shall count as a goal.”
  9. “When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field of play by the person first touching it. In case of a dispute, the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower-in is allowed five seconds, if he holds it longer, it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on that side.”
  10. “The umpire shall be the judge of men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have the power to disqualify men according to Rule 5.”
  11. “The referee shall be the judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep time. He shall decide when a goal has been made, and keep account of the goals with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee.”
  12. “The time shall be 15-minute halves, with 5 minutes rest between.”
  13. “The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner. In case of a draw, the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made.”

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