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Celebrating the 108th anniversary of the first Canadian interuniversity basketball game

Basketball inventor James Naismith left a strong Canadian legacy.

When we talk about sports with their origins in Canada, hockey automatically comes to mind and lacrosse may as well. Basketball is a less-common response, but the game also owes a great deal to Canada. Many hoops fans know that James Naismith is widely credited with coming up with the game in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891 (where the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame honours him and other exceptional coaches, players, referees, contributors, and teams), but not as many know about Naismith's time in Canada and the Canadian basketball legacy he left behind. Part of that legacy is honoured this week, as it's the 108th anniversary of the first interuniversity basketball game in Canada, featuring the McGill Redmen and the Queen's Golden Gaels.

That game, played in Kingston, Ontario on Feb. 6, 1904, was rather different from what we'd expect from basketball today. There aren't many details on exactly how it was played, but it likely was reasonably close to Naismith's original rules, which had passing as the only way to advance the ball, used peach baskets for hoops and was rather low-scoring. The game wound up going to overtime, where McGill won 9-7. The Queen's students weren't dismayed by the loss, though, as an article from the Queen's Journal student newspaper a week later shows:

"The first of the Canadian Intercollegiate basket-ball matches was played on Saturday between McGill and Queen's. It is to be hoped that this will become a permanent feature, for the more we brush up against our sister Colleges the more we will sympathize with each other."

"An inter-collegiate basket-ball match, between Queen's and McGill, was played in the YMCA gymnasium on Saturday, February 6th. McGill won out by the score of 9 to 7. There was a good attendance of spectators, as the game is quite popular among the students. The match was a good exhibition and was keenly contested. At half-time the score was 4 to 3, in favor of McGill. In the second half Queen's played up and managed to tie the score. At full time the result was 7 to 7. After 10 minutes extra play McGill scored the winning goal. For Queen's Warren did the most effective work, while A. Ross was the most conspicuous on the McGill team."

Of course, Naismith had long moved on from McGill by that time, and he was establishing the legendary basketball program at the University of Kansas. He had plenty of Canadian connections, though, and it seems possible his old school may have been interested in the game thanks to his involvement with popularizing it. Naismith was born Nov. 16, 1861 in Ramsay Township near Almonte, then part of the Province of Canada, now part of Ontario. He attended McGill in the 1880s, starring in football, gymnastics and soccer, and graduated as one of the top 10 in his class in 1887, bringing in innovations like football helmets along the way. He stuck around after graduation, teaching physical education, and he was McGill's first full-time instructor of athletics before heading to Springfield. His greatest impact may have come south of the border, but Naismith had a strong Canadian background, so it's appropriate that his old school won the first Canadian intercollegiate game.

CIS basketball has come a long way from those humble beginnings, and it's one of the most popular Canadian interuniversity sports today. The men's Final 8 is set for March 9-11 in Halifax and the women's Final 8 is scheduled for March 17-19 in Calgary; both will be events to watch, and both will draw plenty of fans. The high-scoring game of today with such features as dribbling and three-point shots diverges significantly from the style of the original match between Queen's and McGill, but it's always worth looking back at where things come from. For Canadian university basketball's history, there's a dual focus: that first intercollegiate game in 1904, and the Canadian who created the sport 13 years earlier.

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