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The Rules of the Game

Bill Self, Kansas, and basketball history

In the morning before his physical education class met at 11:30 in Springfield, Mass., James Naismith stepped into his office and hurriedly started writing.

At the time, the concept of a new game existed only in his mind. He had played it out while lying in his bed the night before, mentally approving of the game’s requirements and mild physicality. He had failed in modifying other sports for the class at least three times before, but this game seemed different.

Now he wanted to make it permanent with a set of rules. He placed pen to paper and started scribbling. It took him less than an hour.

He handed the note to the office stenographer, Miss Lyons. Shortly before the class met, Miss Lyons typed the 427 words that Naismith then gently fastened on a board inside the gym. And then, in a sloppy contest that no one fully understood, the first game of basket-ball unfolded below two peach baskets at noon on December 21, 1891.

Six years later he packed up his life, including the rules, and headed to the University of Kansas. They were starting a basketball program there.

When Drue Jennings started looking for Roy Williams’s replacement in 2003, he knew he needed a good basketball coach. A guy who could recruit. A guy who could develop talent. A guy could hold his own with X’s and O’s.

But Jennings, KU’s interim athletic director, also understood something else. A coach at Kansas assumes a different status than at almost anywhere else. Upon his hiring, he is the face of the university. If he wins, he flirts with divinity. “The caliber of coach that is hired there just about has to go in a phone booth,” Jennings said, “and come out with an S on his chest.”

Jennings interviewed four coaches for the job.1 One was Bill Self. At the time, Self presided over an Illinois team he thought might be able to win a national championship. He was coaching in a major conference at a school with fertile recruiting ground. He had just turned 40. The Illini fans loved him. But if Kansas came calling, Self admitted, he would listen. He didn’t play there, but the Oklahoma State grad spent one year at KU working under Larry Brown in the ’80s.

For that reason, he told a group of Illinois supporters, he’d take the call.

“I don’t know what I’d tell them,” he said at the time.

In need of a physical education director who could double as religious director, University of Kansas president Francis Snow tapped into his contacts. He got in touch with William Harper, his counterpart at the University of Chicago, who passed along Snow’s inquiry to Amos Alonzo Stagg, perhaps the most famous football coach of his day.

According to reports, Stagg issued a glowing recommendation for one of his former football players: “Recommend James Naismith, inventor of basket-ball, medical doctor, Presbyterian minister, tee-totaler, all-around athlete, non-smoker, and owner of vocabulary without cuss words.”

Naismith arrived in Lawrence at a time when the school’s athletics were in their infancy. He arrived before KU had a basketball team and before many of Lawrence’s residents even knew how to play the sport.

He quickly introduced his invention to physical education classes at Kansas. In the winter of 1899, with his students wanting to play other competition, Naismith combined the top players from his classes into one team. He took that group to play Kansas City’s YMCA team in KU’s first basketball game. The Jayhawks lost that night, 16-5, in part because the other team featured a rather rough player by the name of Jesse James.2

The ironic thing about Naismith is that he never understood the importance of a coach. While he is considered the father of basketball, his pupil, Forrest “Phog” Allen, is considered the father of basketball coaching. Naismith even told Allen, “You don’t coach this game, Forrest; you play it.”

Naismith viewed basketball as a means for a simpler pursuit: It was a chance for young people to stay in shape during the winter when outdoor activity was impossible. In fact, he even admitted toward the end of his life to only playing the sport he invented twice. He watched games with only mild interest. He thought other sports more entertaining, more physically rewarding, than this own. He reportedly never yelled during games.

He also never cared much for winning. After nine seasons, he is the only coach in the program’s history to leave with a losing record.

One of Bill Self’s greatest gifts is his ability to let the air out of a tense moment.

Most recently, after his team blew an eight-point lead in the final minutes to hated Missouri on February 4, Self deadpanned to a quiet room, “Don’t be scared to ask a question. I’m not that pissed off.” Yet for all the times he’s had to let everyone know that everything is OK, his best crisis management happened on his first day in 2003.

Roy Williams had left for North Carolina, his alma mater, after turning down the job three years before. He’d spent 15 years at KU, making four Final Fours and winning 80 percent of his games. Kansas fans were stunned, shocked, frustrated, and, in some cases, downright fuming.

Self, meanwhile, had put together a monster team entering his fourth season at Illinois, a team with NBA draft picks Dee Brown, Luther Head, James Augustine, and Deron Williams. But he couldn’t forget his year at Kansas nearly two decades before.

“I can’t say positively,” Self said, “but I doubt I would have ever left Illinois to come here if I hadn’t been here before. I had it so good at Illinois, and we had that thing rolling.”

He had others weighing in. Dick Vitale called. Here’s how Self remembers his advice: “You don’t want to do that. You’ll never win as much as Roy, but you’ve got a chance to do what he did at Kansas at Illinois. Why would you want to go follow a legend?”

Here’s how Vitale remembers it: “You have to understand something. You’re loved where you’re at. At Illinois, you’re a hero. You’ve got to know what you’re stepping into.”

Self also turned to his dad, Bill Self Sr. The elder Self didn’t guide his son one way or the other — “My dad would never tell me what you should or shouldn’t do,” Self says — but he quietly challenged his son to “be a man” when making his decision. “If you’d rather be at Illinois, stay at Illinois,” he said. “If you’d rather be at Kansas, go to Kansas. But don’t not go because you don’t think you can live up to what the guy before you did.”

And so, at his introductory press conference, at a time when Kansas fans felt most uneasy, Self was handed a chair by Chancellor Robert Hemenway. It was a simple gesture, a metaphor of the seat occupied by those before him. He touched it, looked at the assembled people in front of him, and, in a perfect Bill Self moment, said, “It feels hot.”

Only eight men have ever coached at Kansas in 114 years. Some of those names are the biggest in basketball past or present: Naismith, Phog Allen, Larry Brown, Roy Williams. Rarely, if ever, has a coach not followed a tough act. Dick Harp followed Allen; Brown followed Ted Owens, who made two Final Fours; and Williams followed Brown.

The funny thing about tradition, though, is that while it might lure a 40-year-old man from a cushy job, it means almost nothing to recruits. As much as Kansas’s coaching tree registered with Self, following Wilt Chamberlain or Paul Pierce doesn’t sell with high schoolers.

“It’s not an easy place to work, because there’s not very many players in your area,” Self says. “Recruiting is never easy. It’s a crapshoot most of the time because you have to go to someone else’s turf to get guys.”

But Self has found other ways to use the idea of Kansas in his favor. He once used campus as an arena for public shaming, driving all night from Oklahoma City after losing to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament. He wanted his players to see disappointed students the next day.

In his third season at KU, Self had a talented but raw group led by freshmen Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, and Julian Wright. The young Jayhawks weren’t sure of what Self was selling. They started the year 3-4, and fans started asking them what was wrong in public.

“They didn’t like it,” Self says. “They realized then, ‘I don’t care what we have to do, but we have to win here.'” They won the Big 12 that year, the second of eight straight conference titles. Two years later, much of that group won a national championship.

Rules of Basketball
Not long after Naismith’s class played the first game of basketball, the original rules went missing from the gymnasium bulletin board. Before class one day, Frank Mahan, a tackle on the football team from North Carolina, approached Naismith.

“You remember the rules that were put on the bulletin board?” Mahan said, according to Naismith’s book, Basketball: Its Origin and Development.

“Yes I do,” Naismith said.

“They disappeared.”

“I know it.”

“Well, I took them,” Mahan admitted. “I knew that this game would be a success, and I took them as a souvenir.” Mahan returned the two pieces of paper to the game’s inventor that afternoon. Later, Naismith would call those rules one of his prized possessions, but he never understood their value.

In June 1931, after urging from his son, Jimmy, Naismith officially signed the rules, providing authentication to little more than two pieces of paper.3

“You have to remember,” Jimmy’s own son, Ian Naismith, said, “this wasn’t a valuable document.”

Naismith never cashed in on his creation. He had offers to do commercials and advertisement campaigns, but except for lending his name as endorsement for a Rawlings basketball, he declined. He continued preaching. He stayed involved with the university. He watched from afar as the rules evolved and marveled at receiving letters from people playing basketball in Europe and China.

“I am sure that no man can derive more pleasure from money or power than I do from seeing a pair of basketball goals in some out of the way place,” he once wrote.

As the years went by, the game was no longer Naismith’s. Instead, as he wrote, it “belonged to the public.” Three years before Naismith died in 1939, Phog Allen started a penny campaign to raise enough money so Naismith could attend the Berlin Olympics in 1936. From there, rather quickly, came the NCAA tournament, the NBA, and all the developments of basketball as we know it. Over time, those two typed sheets started gaining value.

And so, with the Naismith International Basketball Foundation named in his grandfather’s honor struggling financially in 2010, Ian Naismith decided to do something his grandfather couldn’t do some 90 years before.

He would sell the original rules of basketball.

Every so often, people talk about what Self could do if he weren’t a coach. He could be a salesman, they say, because he can talk with anyone. Or a politician because he is so affable. Or a businessman because, well, people around Lawrence think Bill Self could do just about anything.

That’s because he’s quick to make a stranger feel like a friend. He doesn’t turn down requests for pictures or autographs, even at his son’s high school basketball games. His jokes have perfect delivery and timing. Few coaches can hold a room like him.

Self likes to talk about the old characters in coaching, guys like Billy Tubbs or Jerry Tarkanian. Yet Self, the coach who worked his way up at a young age from Oral Roberts, Tulsa, and Illinois, is now one of the sport’s true characters. He is also one of the sport’s best coaches.

After taking over for Williams, Self took KU to the Elite Eight his first year, then lost in the first round to Bucknell and Bradley in consecutive years. Fans became restless. But then he got KU to another Elite Eight and won the national championship a year later. He sent guys to the NBA. He filled their roster spots with future pros. He had everything rolling, and then …

This year.

Four starters from the 2011 team were gone. The one left, Tyshawn Taylor, had been so erratic in his three years that many fans wished he’d left too. Self also had Thomas Robinson, a player with huge upside but one who averaged only 14 minutes last year. Guards Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson were highly recruited, but they had limited roles off the bench. Jeff Withey, a 7-foot center, had been nearly unplayable the year before. Shortly before this season started, the NCAA ruled that freshmen Jamari Traylor, a three-star forward, and Ben McLemore, a four-star guard, were academically ineligible.

So Self — a man once described by assistant Barry Hinson as a guy who “could sell a pinto hatchback to somebody there to buy a BMW” — did something he rarely does. He tempered expectations. “I always say coaches know more than the media,” he said after the Big 12 coaches picked Kansas as preseason co-champions. “But I’m not sure that’s the case in our league right now.”

Self has coached green teams before. He has won with guys fresh out of high school and when many predicted an off year. What makes this year different is that Self is winning without a deep bench. He is winning with Conner Teahan, a former walk-on, as his sixth man. He is winning with two post players, Kevin Young and Justin Wesley, who transferred from mid-major schools.

Now this team is a 2-seed in the tournament.

“That’s why this year, I think, is his best coaching job, because while he’s done great coaching jobs with teams that have had very, very good players,” ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla said, “he’s gotten more out of this team than I think anybody could have expected back in November. That’s the mark of a great coach.”

This may not be Self’s Mona Lisa — he did win a national championship, after all — but this is the year he turned finger paints into a masterpiece.

David Booth stepped into a sixth-floor conference room on the morning of December 10, 2010, and, in five minutes, spent $4.3 million.

Across the table sat his wife, Suzanne, who had given her blessing to go ahead with the day’s mission. To his right, at the head of the conference table, sat Bill Bradley, the former NBA player and United States senator.

As they looked down at the rolling hills of west Austin, Texas, the office phone rang. It was Sotheby’s auction house in New York. Naismith’s 13 original rules — the ones Miss Lyons had typed back in 1891 — were next on the bidding schedule.

Booth first contemplated buying the rules when he met Josh Swade, a New York-based producer who grew up in Kansas City. Swade had sat high in the corners of Allen Fieldhouse at his first KU game when he was 10. From then on he couldn’t shake Kansas basketball. Not so much the winning and the players, but the idea of it. The idea that Naismith coached here, Chamberlain played here, and Phog Allen worked here.

He decided to make a documentary for ESPN detailing his three-week attempt to persuade former coaches, players, and, most important, wealthy boosters to buy the rules for KU.

He met Booth, a Lawrence native and KU grad, for the first time in a 21st-floor suite in the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. He wanted to tell him in person about his plan.

Booth has made millions leading an investment firm, amassing enough money that a purchase like this wouldn’t cripple his bank account. He is the type of guy who says he likes preservation causes “just kind of for the standard reasons. I can’t think of any unusual reasons.” And this, like most good business decisions, just made sense.

“The rules were available, they really belong at KU, and nobody at KU was offering to chip in to buy them,” Booth said. “So if you’re going to buy them, we had to buy them ourselves.”4

From their distant outposts on the phone, Booth and his final bidding competitor started in. Booth raised the price by $100,000. The other bidder did the same. Booth raised it again. The mysterious other bidder followed. Back and forth it went — until, after a total bidding period of five minutes, the action ceased and Booth had won, paying $4.3 million for rules that modern basketball no longer recognized.5

“You can’t buy a very significant painting for $3.8 million,” Booth says. “In the art world, by art standards, it wasn’t a typically large standard. They referred to it as sports memorabilia. I thought that was like saying the Emancipation Proclamation is some sort of presidential memorabilia.”

It was only later that Booth learned the identity of the final man bidding on the rules. His name was David Rubenstein, and he and Booth both graduated from the prestigious University of Chicago business school later named in Booth’s honor.

It’s through his old friend that Booth learned something. Rubenstein told Booth his plans for where the rules would have called home if he had won. He would have given them to the school where he got his undergraduate degree, a basketball blue blood in its own right.

He would have given them to Duke.

Tonight, Bill Self and his team will play against Detroit, a 15-seed, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Even with eight straight Big 12 championships, Self is still judged most by what his team does in March.

He is judged by a standard that developed from all the coaches who came before him, and from his own success as well. He is judged on a curved scale because of Kansas’s past, a past that started with a man who didn’t see any of this coming.

James Naismith is buried in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Lawrence, two miles from Allen Fieldhouse. A large marble slab with Naismith’s image rises near the cemetery’s entrance. His distinctive mustache covers his upper lip. His right hand holds out a basketball.

As you walk across the pathway leading to Naismith’s image, you walk across the names of hall of fame coaches, all connected to KU in some way: Adolph Rupp, Phog Allen, Larry Brown, Dean Smith.

One name is conspicuously absent from the shrine of successful KU coaches: Roy Williams. Apparently, once you leave for North Carolina after telling TV audiences “you could give a shit about North Carolina,” you live, for now, as an outsider.

Sometime in the future, Self will join that group of engraved coaches. No matter what he does from here on out — no matter how much more he wins — he will forever be revered as Bill Self, coach of the 2008 national championship team.

Throughout the year, a stream of visitors trickles to the monument, maybe a couple hundred a year. They come because of the historical marking, some not knowing that Naismith is actually buried under a far more modest stone in back.

And then, as the NCAA tournament draws close every year, someone arrives with an offering.

It is placed at the bottom of the man’s depiction, a reminder of his greatest gift to the school and town around it, a reminder that places change and people come and go but tradition means not forgetting.

It is a basketball.

Jayson Jenks covers the Kansas Jayhawks for the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Filed Under: General topics, History, Kansas, Teams

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