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Sunday, Jul 23, 2017

Securing basketball’s Holy Grail

There are fans. And then there are fans like Josh Swade. What this fanatical Kansas basketball fan set out to achieve in 2010 reads like a script from the original “Mission Impossible” series:


“Good morning, Mr. Swade. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to secure the original rules of basketball at the upcoming Sotheby’s auction, 39 days from now, and return it to its rightful place in Lawrence, Kansas. You will have to find someone willing to bid several millions of dollars, since you will not have the means to buy it yourself.

“This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Josh.”

OK, that’s a little tongue-in-cheek. But it took some fast talking, legwork, cajoling and plenty of luck for Swade to orchestrate what seemed to be impossible winning an auction for two typewritten pages that contained the 13 original rules of basketball, written in 1891 by the game’s inventor, James Naismith.

Swade’s frenetic pursuit of this goal was documented in ESPN’s “30 For 30” documentary, “There’s No Place Like Home.” And now, Swade gives a more detailed version of his adventure in his book, “The Holy Grail of Hoops One Fan’s Quest to Buy the Original Rules of Basketball” (Sports Publishing; $24.95, hardback, 204 pages).

Is this something a rational man, working for a television production company in New York, would attempt, even if he was raised in Kansas and had an unabashed love for the Jayhawks’ basketball program?

“I think you’re nuts. I think you’re nuts,” Kansas basketball coach Bill Self said twice to Swade. “But nobody gets anything done unless they’re a little nutty, unless they have great energy and great enthusiasm.”

As a child, Swade quizzed his father about the origins of Judaism, the family’s religion. The elder Swade was at a loss to explain it. However, when asked about the origins of basketball, “he responded with a diatribe, a thesis, a history lesson of epic proportions.”

“Had my old man displayed the same passion for Judaism that he displayed for Kansas basketball, I’m quite certain that today I would be a rabbi or a cantor,” Swade writes, “leading a congregation or perhaps living in Israel leading a life dedicated to God.”

Instead, the Swade family’s holy land was located in Lawrence, Kan. And Swade was determined to get what he called “the birth certificate” of basketball — Naismith’s rule — back to Kansas.
So with 39 days left until the auction, Swade shifted into overdrive. He met with prominent Kansas alumni, former Jayhawk coaches (Larry Brown and Roy Williams), and former players (Drew Gooden and Cole Aldrich). He also met with the grandson of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball; and the grandson of Phog Allen, the legendary Kansas basketball coach.

Ian Naismith had the document and was selling it, so he was motivated. Mark Allen, the grandson of Phog Allen, was more reluctant to get involved.

“The Holy Grail of Hoops” bounces along with the urgency of a fast break during the final seconds of a basketball game. So many things could go wrong — but if everything went right …

Before meeting wealthy Kansas alumnus David Booth in Las Vegas, Swade could sense the irony of what he was trying to achieve.

“I was going to be on the twenty-first floor of a Las Vegas hotel room, and I was going all in, hoping to hit blackjack,” he writes.

Swade writes with wit and a fast-paced style, and in a countdown-like style to stress the urgency of the upcoming auction. His love for the Jayhawks is genuine, and his panic attacks as the auction drew closer are not forced. This guy wanted the rules of basketball at the Allen Fieldhouse on the KU campus in the worst way, and how he orchestrated it makes for some very entertaining reading.

I gave away the result, but I will leave the details for Swade to explain. It wasn’t easy.

Swade proved that with a can-do approach and dogged determination, his mission, that at times seemed Don Quixote-like, was not impossible.


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