Feb. 23, 2015

If all Maurice Joyce had ever done was serve as the first coach of basketball at Georgetown University, that alone would be a story worth telling. In fact, his four years were just one of any number of stops among a remarkable journey that took him to careers ranging from a circus performer to that of a United States marshal.

Maurice Joyce was born in Greenwich, NY in 1861, the second of four children to Irish immigrants who had settled in the rural community along the New York-Massachusetts border. (The birth date, confirmed in census records, corrects accounts in the Washington Evening Star that had him born ten years earlier, which was listed in many sites, including this one.) His stay in Greenwich was a brief one, as wanderlust led a teenage Joyce to run away from home and join a traveling circus, where his natural athletic ability soon elevated him into one of the foremost acrobats of his time. Known as an "aerialist", he often performed acts on a trapeze, rope, or other apparatus suspended from the big top.

Little is known about Joyce's travels over the next 15 years, but contemporary accounts recall he toured with John Ringling's circus and that his younger brother followed suit, even going so far as to start his own traveling show.

"Joyce's Old Time Country Circus is billed to appear in Cambridge today," wrote the Washington County Post of Glens Falls, NY. "Joyce the manager and principal owner is a native of Greenwich, where the initial performances were given last week. Associated with him is his brother Maurice Joyce. The Joyces are professional performers and have gathered together an excellent troupe of gymnast and bar and trapeze performers. Come and see the trained dogs and ponies, trick donkeys, fully clowns and other attractions. Admission 10 and 20 cents."

One hundred miles to the south, a new sport changed the 30 year old trapeze artist's life. Joyce's travels may well have taken him through Springfield, MA, where a physical education teacher named James Naismith had created an indoor game to provide exercise to students at the YMCA International Training School, now known as Springfield College. A former gymnast who also played football and lacrosse, Naismith called his new pursuit "basket-ball" and promoted it within the YMCA publications of the time.

As Naismith was teaching in Springfield, Joyce had found a different calling, moving to Washington DC and accepting a position as the Physical Education Director at the Carroll Institute, an athletic club that predated the arrival of the YMCA to the nation's capital a few years later. While having no formal schooling past the sixth grade, he was soon known as "Professor Joyce", in part to distinguish him from another Maurice Joyce, a noted business figure of the day in Washington.

The Carroll Institute was affiliated with the efforts of the Washington Light Infantry, which served as the local militia an later became the National Guard unit for the city. Following a meeting with Dr. Naismith in Springfield in 1892, Joyce introduced basketball to the physical training regimen of the Washington Light Infantry Armory's physical training program to great success.

The Infantry was not a sporting club, but the Carroll Institute often competed with other athletic clubs in various competitions. Basketball would soon join that list, but not without some changes.

It must be said that basketball in 1892 was a far different game than what we know today. The original rules of Dr. Naismith allowed nine players per side (three forwards, three guards, and three centers) in a contest that would be closer to indoor rugby than the finesse sport we know today. Joyce discovered the sport in a magazine account of the new game, and traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts to meet its creator, Dr. James Naismith. After meeting Dr. Naismith and learning the game, Joyce introduced basketball to the physical training regimen of the Washington Light Infantry. The Washington Evening Star wrote that in the early years, Joyce had no peach baskets from which to serve as a goal--and instead hung chairs upside down across the ends of the hall as the goals.

By 1895, Joyce had assembled the first five man basketball team in Washington , and perhaps in the nation. In correspondence with Dr. Naismith, Joyce held that the original rules--nine men per side--failed to achieve sustained physical fitness for the players. Joyce ultimately suggested five men per side, and this was approved by Naismith and a national rules committee by 1897. His five man Carroll Institute club played numerous exhibitions, and it was reported the club was undefeated in five-on-five play for three consecutive years.

Joyce was also a showman from his circus days. Taking umbrage at the performances of the famous Harry Houdini in Washington area theatres, Joyce held a series of shows to debunk some of Houdini's tricks. The Houdini promoters, justifiably nervous, then offered Joyce $100 to perform escapes in Houdini's own equipment. Knowing the inherent danger involved in the act and the intent of the promoters to embarrass him, Joyce declined the offer.

In the fall of 1906, Joyce accepted an offer from Georgetown University to become its Director of Physical Education. The selection of Joyce to oversee Ryan Gymnasium, the school's new indoor facility, offered hope that an intercollegiate team could be fielded that year, as Joyce had previously introduced the game to students at Virginia and the Naval Academy, and both were now fielding teams. With the exception of an obscure 1904 intramural clash between the "Sub-Freshmen" and the "First Academics", basketball was completely foreign to the University at this time.

Tryouts were held in December, 1906, following football season, to select a varsity squad. Collegian Lou Murray was elected student manager and was charged with constructing a schedule. A game with Virginia was available in early February. Negotiations for a January series with neighboring George Washington University proved difficult, and the two teams would not settle on a date until well into February.

It must be noted at this time that until the late 1920's, the basketball coach at Georgetown was more a moderator of the team than the floor leader he is today. At this time, the student manager was responsible for the arranging of schedules, practices, and finances--all tasks expected of today's coaches and athletic directors. The early basketball coach was expected to be an instructor (a teacher, if you will) who taught fundamentals and lent his advice when requested by the team.

The eight man roster met its first intercollegiate opponent in the University of Virginia on Saturday, February 9, 1907. Before a large crowd at the Washington Light Infantry Armory at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Georgetown's inaugural quint upended its highly regarded foe from Charlottesville by the count of 22-11.

The Blue and Gray held a 10-9 lead after the first half of play, but the defensive play of Simon and Schumm held the visiting Virginians to one field goal in the final twenty minutes of play. Richard Downey, GU's starting center, led all scorers with eight points, holding his opponent without a field goal the entire game.

If for some reason fans were not convinced as to the excitement of the new game, the Feb. 27th battle with George Washington would be a different story altogether. Known in this era as the "Hatchetites", GW was led by local star Fred Rice, an elusive forward who played offense and defense with equal skill. As his team prepared for their cross-town battle, Rice was felled by illness and persuaded by a physician to avoid the contest. Adding more headaches for George Washington coach E. Blanchard Robey was the loss of another starter to academic difficulties days before the game.

Robey knew that his team could expect trouble from the Hilltoppers if a 16-11 halftime deficit was any indication. During the intermission, Robey caught sight of Fred Rice himself, seated amidst the GWU student section. The coach called Rice to the floor and persuaded him to don the Buff and Blue for the second half.

"It was a wise move for the George Washington coach,", wrote the Washington Post, "for the way that Hatchetite team fought after the lithe forward had entered the game caused its supporters to go almost frantic with enthusiasm."

With Rice on the court, George Washington's five could do no wrong. Georgetown's men found very few opportunities to score against Rice and the Hatchetites, and Georgetown did not manage a field goal the entire half. Rice tied the game at 16 before a late basket earned GW an 18-16 win.

While it was Georgetown's first loss of the season, the game carried a far greater local significance at the time. This was the first time any George Washington team was known to have defeated Georgetown in an intercollegiate contest. Not unexpectedly, bedlam erupted in the stands upon the cessation of play, and partisans spilled into the streets. Later that week, a photo of the GW squad was featured at the head of the Post's sports page, under the headline "First To Lower Georgetown's Colors".

The two teams met again within a week, this time at the Light Infantry Armory. Before a crowd of 1,100 (a figure unheard of in local athletics to this time), the two teams staged a controversial battle on and off the court. The game itself was delayed over an hour as the two schools could not agree on the rules. (Since the sport was in its infancy, such disputes were altogether common.) As Messrs. Robey and Joyce debated over the use of sidelines, the restless and antagonistic crowd traded cheers back and forth across the hall.

The cheers were quite audible next door, where a performance at Chase's Theatre was underway. The theatre management entered the Armory hall to ask for silence, claiming such rancor would disrupt its performance. The collegians' response was, as could be expected, to cheer even louder, causing the theatre to repeatedly threaten to have the contest stopped if the noise did not abate. This was to no avail, however, as the game (and noise) went on.

As sidelines were agreed to (thanks to Mr. Joyce), the game commenced, with GU holding an 8-4 lead after the first twenty minutes. Fred Rice was held without a field goal and missed seven free throws in as many attempts. Rice did come alive in the second stanza, hitting the first five points of the half to cut the Georgetown lead to one at 10-9. As Georgetown led 15-13 with under a minute to play, GWU held for a last shot, which sailed through the basket, but after time had expired. As its opponents had done a week earlier, this time it was Georgetown's fans that swarmed the floor to celebrate the victory.

The third game was delayed into mid-March, and by that time some of the team had gone on to play other varsity sports. Archival records confirm a 24-10 George Washington victory, with Rice again the star.

Fred Rice's career at George Washington was altogether brief. To his disappointment, GWU failed to sponsor basketball the following year. Knowing an opportunity when he saw it, coach Joyce convinced Rice to enroll instead at Georgetown's law school in the fall, where the nucleus would soon be in place for Georgetown's first great team, the 1908 "Champions of the South".

Joyce coached at Georgetown across four seasons from 1907 to 1911, and remained a notable figure in Washington athletics. An ardent believer in physical fitness, Joyce was a boxing coach to President Theodore Roosevelt. Though inaccurately cited as the man who taught TR to box (Roosevelt had fought as an undergraduate at Harvard) , Joyce would officiate the regular exhibitions Roosevelt would hold within the White House. Roosevelt ended his boxing after suffering a detached retina in 1908 that blinded him in one eye.

"Fortunately it was my left eye, but the sight has been dim ever since, and if it had been the right eye I should have been entirely unable to shoot," said Roosevelt. "Accordingly I thought it better to acknowledge that I had become an elderly man [at 50] and would have to stop boxing. I then took up jujitsu for a few years."

In addition to coaching, Maurice Joyce was active in local circles as a bailiff in the District Court, and moved into public service following his departure from Georgetown in 1911. Joyce was a deputy United States Marshal through World War I, and then served in the Department of Justice as an agent for the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner to the FBI. With an athletic build, a keen mind, and an impeccable reputation in local court circles, Joyce served as an investigator for nearly a decade before retiring.

With a life well lived, Joyce died in 1939 at the age of 78.