The Maude Naismith Trophy was first awarded 75 years ago after the University of Central Missouri successfully defended its first NAIA national championship. It’s still in the trophy case there. In the late ‘70s, Central Missouri student Larry Stitt saw the trophy and became interested in Naismith.
Ten years ago Stitt walked through a tough Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood and into Palmer’s antique store. There, he spied a children’s book with Naismith’s name on the cover.
“And I asked Mrs. Palmer, who owned the store, ‘Does this have anything to do with the guy that coached basketball at the University of Kansas?’” Stitt remembered. “She goes, “Oh yeah.’ And I go, ‘Really?’ And she goes, ‘Yes, my husband has a bunch of that stuff in the back room.’”
Stitt knew he struck gold. After purchasing several children’s books that once belonged to the Naismith family, Stitt’s collection blossomed. He later bought family documents, photos, and even furniture that Naismith himself crafted.
But he’s not the only Naismith collector. Stephen Overbury sees himself as a rival.
“One doesn’t need a Springfield, Massachusetts, mammoth money-losing-and-always-on-edge-financially institution to wow things,” Overbury said. “That’s the American style.”
Overbury lives walking distance from the farm where Naismith grew up in Almonte, Ontario, Canada.
Calling himself a nationalistic Canadian, an ephemera collectibles dealer, and a basketball fan, Overbury purchased a collection of personal archives from the Naismith family seven years ago. He talked about his collection by phone from his home, where he owns a bull named James Naismith and two noisy pet birds.
“I recognized that this treasure trove of Canadian cultural heritage was about to be disseminated in the wind,” he said. “Probably to American collectors who would hoard it and brag about it and whatever. It would never be on public exhibit. I was very concerned about that and went about trying to change that situation.”
Becky Schulte is an archivist at the University of Kansas, where Naismith was the only Jayhawks coach with a career losing record. She would like to see Naismith artifacts gathered in one location in the U.S.
“For the researcher, that’s a definite benefit because they would be able to sit down in one place at a place like Spencer Research Library where the university archives is located and see as many things as possible,” Schulte said.
Les Stitt shares Schulte’s view. He assists his father with preserving his family’s Naismith collection. It’s been nice having the artifacts within the family, the younger Stitt says, but acknowledges the need for an exhibit that draws from various collections.
“I think really a collection that is of a person that is this important, not only to the history of basketball but to the history of sporting in North America and in the world, I’d like to see the collection more accessible to the public.” Stitt said.
Tom Keegan, the sports editor of the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper, feels it should be at KU.
“I think Dr.Naismith and his family made the argument for me,” Keegan said. “He’s buried in Lawrence, so that’s a pretty good claim right there. Where did he want to spend an eternity? Well, in heaven, but where did he want to people to be able to see him for an eternity? Lawrence, Kansas.”
What about Springfield, Mass.? Or Almonte, Ontario?
“Well, Springfield should have an argument,” Keegan said. “That’s where he invented the game, and that’s where they put the Hall of Fame, so a legitimate claim there as well. And Canada? Yes, he was born in Canada, Dr. Naismith, but for Canada to say basketball is Canada’s game, no, because he brought it here. He invented it here.”
Plans are still in the works for the permanent display of Naismith’s original rules at Kansas’s Allen Fieldhouse, which sits on Naismith Drive.