Of all the sporting events on a yearly basis, this month marks my favorite—March Madness. A long, hard-fought basketball season draws to a close with conference championships culminating in Selection Sunday, which launches the start of the NCAA Tournament.
Sixty-eight teams from across the country are chosen for the tournament bracket. But only one will remain standing as the national champion. Win and move on. Lose and go home. There’s nothing like it. Most of my favorite sports memories belong to March Madness and the weeks leading up to it.
I’ll always remember Gus Johnson’s famous call during Ohio State’s historic tournament run—“This is March Madness!” Or who could forget Villanova’s thrilling finish in last year’s championship? Though my personal favorite was Mario Chalmer’s last-second three against Memphis that propelled Kansas to its first championship in twenty years. I have never screamed at a television more than I did in that moment. And of course, we can’t overlook the many, many, many, many buzzer beaters college basketball produces each and every season.
This year, millions of people will fill out brackets and tune in to follow the NCAA tournament regardless of if they have a dog in the fight or not. Last year’s national championship was the second most-watched college basketball game in history, and the tournament registered more viewers than ever before thanks to a broader viewing base via apps on tablets and phones.
Essentially, this sport is alive and well and—like it or not—it plays a significant part of the American life. But many Christian basketball fanatics don’t know the faithful beginnings of the sport. And even fewer Christians know how the sport points us beyond ourselves so that in everything we do, whether eating, drinking, or enjoying March Madness, we would do it for the glory of God.
Muscular Christianity: America’s First Theology of Sport
Now, the Christian faith has not been the most consistent in terms of its theological framing regarding sports. It has tended to lean toward one extreme or the other.
Either it’s taking sports for granted as passive entertainment, or it’s condemning them for stirring up apparent evil and distracting from pure worship of God.
In the mid to late nineteenth century, many Christians in North America looked down on the organized sports of their day, like lacrosse and rugby, as senseless violence and encouraging unhealthy indulgences such as drinking and gambling.
During that time, Christianity largely lacked an appreciation for exercise or physical health as ends in and of themselves. To many, they were seen as unproductive distractions from a faithful spiritual life.
As a result, a movement called “Muscular Christianity” began to grow. It seeped into American society during the Civil War era, closely linking spiritual health with physical health for the sake of effective Christian service.
The thought was that Christians could not afford to neglect or mistreat their bodies because a commitment to holistic physical health—mind, body, and spirit—enabled the personal stamina for service to others.
Rather than ignoring the body, Muscular Christianity encouraged the notion of disciplining the body as a catalyst to greater obedience to God. Some traced this back to the apostle Paul, who used sports language in his New Testament letters. But really, they found their ideological roots in America beginning in the nineteenth century.
Their fruits remain in pockets of life today taking the form of the Boy Scouts of America, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the YMCA whose logo provides a visual symbol of the movement’s commitment to mind, body, and soul in its three-sided triangle.
The Ministry of Inventing Basketball
The invention of basketball has its roots in Christian expression.
In 1883, a man named James Naismith began his studies at McGill University in Montreal—the school where he would get a BA in physical education and a diploma at McGill’s largest affiliated theological school, the Presbyterian College.
Throughout his studies, he was an active athlete who supplemented his tuition payments by serving as an instructor at the campus gym, a lifestyle combination many found mystifying. On numerous occasions, fellow students and faculty encouraged him to leave behind sports and focus fully on books and Christian service. Naismith saw no distinction between the two.
On graduation, he decided to forgo ordained ministry and instead pursued a career in physical education, beginning with a post at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. On his application for the YMCA job, Naismith wrote that his goal for the position was to help “win men for the Master.”
Despite a growing Christian interest in recreational sports, the most popular at the time were outdoor activities, like track and field, baseball, and football. These drew large numbers of participants to the YMCA, but the New England winters made such sports impractical, creating a restless void between the end of football season and the beginning of baseball in the spring.
Naismith’s superior tasked him with creating a new indoor game that would fill those months and keep the athletes in shape.
Over the course of two weeks, Naismith devised a plan that took the form of nailing two peach baskets to opposite ends of a gymnasium, organizing two teams of nine men, and giving them a soccer ball with the goal of lobbing it into the opponent’s basket. And thus, in the winter of 1891, “Basket Ball” was born.
While the sport caught on immediately, it needed revamping just as quickly. The men in his YMCA class were extremely rough with one another—a brawl broke out among them causing several injuries.
So, Naismith further defined his sport with a list of thirteen rules that added precision to its play and led to the institutionalizing of basketball. Two years later, the YMCA introduced it nationally as part of its annual programming.
Taking Basketball to the Nations
From Springfield, Naismith went on to accept a position at the Denver YMCA during which he earned his medical degree. Then, in 1898, he moved for the final time to Lawrence, Kansas, where he accepted the positions of chapel director, physical education instructor, and eventually basketball coach at the University of Kansas, where he remained until his retirement in 1938.
During his tenure, he mentored some of the most famous names in college basketball including, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, and Forest “Phog” Allen, who would eventually succeed Naismith as KU’s second basketball coach. All of them have a well-deserved place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Before his death in 1939, Naismith witnessed his sport reach beyond international borders as athletes from around the world competed with one another in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The Right Place of Worship in a Game
What began as a humble attempt to occupy the time of eighteen young men in a local YMCA has now become a global phenomenon. And for good reason.
Basketball, like all sports, invites us into a story greater than ourselves. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul described food offerings and Sabbath days as a “shadow of things to come, but the reality is Christ” (2:16–17). What led James Naismith to invent the game is what draws us to participate in it—worship of the Master.
The thrill and awe we feel while cheering for our team is a shadow of the worship to come when we stand in the presence of our Savior.
Certainly, basketball has drifted from its evangelistic roots to a proud and self-aggrandizing version of itself, but the story remains. Sports do not play out in an arena void of faith, but one rich with opportunities for worship.
Toward the end of his life, reflecting on the worldwide spread of basketball, Naismith wrote, “Whenever I witness games in a church league, I feel that my vision, almost half a century ago, of the time when the Christian people would recognize the true value of athletics, has become a reality.”
As we fill out our brackets and cheer for our favorite teams, we are being invited into a story greater than ourselves, one for which we long and ultimately find through faith in Christ.
Cover image by Emile-Victor Portenart.