(Part I of a two-part series.)

The roots of basketball among African Americans trace back to the Hemenway Gymnasium on the campus of Harvard University.

Hemenway Gymnasium today (Harvard University)

Hemenway Gymnasium today. (Harvard University)

This historic facility still exists as a modernized four-story structure inside the original vintage shell.

In the 1800s, a man named Dudley Allen Sargent became one of the earliest advocates of the link between “bodily vigor” (that is, athletic competition) and Christian virtues. It was known as Muscular Christianity or physical culture. These concepts grew so popular that they became a movement.

Sargent’s way of thinking was this:

Some of the specific mental and physical qualities which are developed by athletics are increased powers of attention, will, concentration, accuracy, alertness, quickness of perception, perseverance, reason, judgment, forbearance, patience, obedience, self-control, loyalty to leaders, self-denial, submergence of self, grace, poise, suppleness, courage, strength and endurance. These qualities are as valuable to women as to men.

Though this makes complete logical sense today, back then it introduced a completely new way of thinking.

Dudley Allen Sargent.

Dudley Allen Sargent.

Sargent went to medical school at Yale and in 1881 became Harvard’s first professor of physical training. By 1887, he was teaching a five-week course in Physical Education at Harvard University’s Summer School of Arts and Sciences.

In the early days of the course, Sargent had some famous students, including Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington. Washington’s own wife had sent him there to “man up.” No, seriously. Booker T. himself once admitted, “I think I would now be a more useful man if I had had time for sports.”

Another one of Sargent’s students was a guy named Luther Gulick. Gulick became convinced about the benefits of Muscular Christianity and wrote, “bodily vigor is a moral agent, it enables us to live on higher levels, to keep up to the top of our achievement.”

That seems right too, doesn’t it?

Gulick got a job at the Young Men’s Christian Association, was promoted, and was subsequently assigned to the School for Christian Workers in Springfield, Massachusetts (later renamed the International YMCA Training School, then Springfield College) as head of its physical education department.

Soon, a new teacher showed up to join the faculty. His name is Naismith. Gulick ordered the rookie to invent an athletic game to keep the young men busy for the winter season. It is to keep them from becoming idle, since the devil will find work for idle hands to do. What difference does it make? A crucial one, because helping males avoid moral decay was the essential mission of the YMCA in those days.

(Part II looks inside the Hemenway Gymnasium and covers how it links to the “Grandfather of Black Basketball,” a pioneer who is now enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.)

(Photos courtesy of the Harvard University Archives.)