Beginnings of the NBA
From the NBA Encyclopedia
By Leonard Koppett
When Germany surrendered in May 1945, it became clear that World War II would soon end, and the civilian world could start thinking about a future. In America, the sports world was no exception.
Baseball, the unquestioned top spectator sport for more than half a century, could look forward to a return to its established normality. Pro football, struggling for a foothold just before the war, was on the road to further development because an expanded college population would keep turning out stars. Hockey, reduced to two Canadian and four American cities during the war, nonetheless retained a firm grip on the northern half of the continent. Boxing and horse racing, the other two major commercial sports, could resume contexts that were as well defined as baseball's.
A group very interested in looking ahead consisted of the operators of big arenas in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toronto and elsewhere. These had been built in the boom time of the 1920s to house boxing, the circus, track meets, horse shows, rodeos and other special events, and had brought hockey south of the border to fill their many other open dates. After the 1936 Winter Olympics, ice shows featuring Sonja Henie also became main moneymaking productions.
Dates had to be coordinated for such activities, so the operators formed close working relationships, and in the late 1930s found a new highly successful date-filler, college basketball doubleheaders.
At this point in time, professional basketball was in ill repute and a commercial failure. Attempts at establishing league play flourished in the 1920s but died in the Depression of the 1930s. Games were staged in dance halls and theaters, armories and small gyms. A college star's reputation seldom extended beyond its immediate locality or region. Most did not continue their careers, and those who did had only two outlets, the small-income professional minor leagues or "amateur" teams subsidized by business firms, which also hired those players.
But from 1936 on, when basketball itself magnified its spectator appeal by abandoning the center jump after every score and creating a "racehorse" style of play, the college doubleheaders had become a big moneymaker. The college game flourished during the war because outstanding players could stay in school. Some of the best players were too tall for military service; others who were in service were assigned to on-campus training; others were still too young to be drafted.
When the war ended, there would still be open dates to fill. Hockey, boxing and college basketball (with its short December-March season) took up only five nights a week. Why not a professional basketball league to continue cashing in on the reputations the college stars had built up?
The rudiments of an organization were in place. New York (Madison Square Garden), Boston (the Boston Garden), Detroit (Olympia), Chicago (the Stadium) and Toronto (Maple Leaf Gardens) were partners in the National Hockey League. Hockey's top minor league, the American, had Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, New Haven and St. Louis.
A New League
Walter Brown, who owned the Boston Bruins, and Al Sutphin, who owned the AHL Cleveland team, took the lead within the arena operators' group in pushing for a basketball league. John Harris of Pittsburgh, the chief ice show impresario, was in favor. Ned Irish of Madison Square Garden, dedicated to the college basketball phenomenon he had created, was reluctant but unwilling to let an outsider in, so he went along.
On June 6, 1946 -- two years to the day after the invasion of Normandy, exactly ten months after the first atom bomb fell on Japan -- they formed the Basketball Association of America (BAA) during a meeting at New York's Commodore Hotel, next to Grand Central Station. There would be 11 teams, playing a schedule of 60 games, each 48 minutes long, to make a full enough evening for ticket buyers accustomed to two 40-minute games.
They chose as league president Maurice Podoloff, who was also president of the American Hockey League, in whose office the BAA could be given some office space. He knew as little about basketball as he did about hockey, and didn't pretend otherwise, but his knowledge of law and real estate and his familiarity with the club owners he would administer suited their needs. To handle publicity, they hired a truly knowledgeable Walter Kennedy, well known within the sports media establishment.
The concept was clear-cut: "clean" college boys, fresh from glamorous and well-publicized achievements, would be presented in a college-type (that is, lots of running) game, to continue developing their popularity.
It didn't work, for several reasons:
- The teams had no identity and didn't last long enough to gain one.
- The college doubleheaders were going stronger than ever.
- Most of the best existing pros were in the 10-year-old National Basketball League or with Industrial teams playing within the structure of the Amateur Athletic Union. You couldn't claim to be "major league" when it was obvious that more proficient players and teams were not included.
- The biggest arenas, such as Madison Square Garden, couldn't give their teams 30 home dates, and consigned them to smaller courts. So their moneymaking potential was back to square one.
With only seven teams left for the second season, they cut the schedule to 48 games and brought in the Baltimore Bullets from the American Basketball League, an eastern weekend league. The Bullets, an old-style pro team with old-pro tug-and-pull techniques, won the BAA championship.
The problem was clear. The pro players to whom basketball fans could respond were in the National League-operating in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Rochester, Syracuse, Sheboygan, Oshkosh, Moline, Anderson (Ind.), Toledo and Youngstown. They had the players, the BAA had the arenas and population. They had to merge to thrive.
The key man was George Mikan, who had come out of DePaul in 1946. At 6-10, he was college basketball's dominant player, but instead of coming into the BAA he had joined the Chicago American Gears and led them to the 1947 NBL title. The Gears later folded after their owner tried to form a new league, and Mikan ended up with the Minneapolis Lakers, where he teamed with Jim Pollard, a superstar out of Stanford. If they came to New York or Philadelphia, they would sell out the building-but they weren't in the right league.
Top Teams Jump to the BAA
Podoloff succeeded in getting Fort Wayne and Indianapolis to switch on the eve of the 1948-49 season-so Minneapolis decided to come along also. The best team of all, as a team, was in Rochester, so it moved too. Now the BAA had 12 teams and most of the experienced pros, and more room for emerging collegians, and it was playing a 60-game season again.
The 1948-49 season proved the BAA was viable; shaky, still unsound economically, but viable. The remains of the National League were absorbed after the season. The name was changed to National Basketball Association, but in essence and power structure it was (and is) the BAA.
But the 1949-50 season, with 17 teams divided into three divisions, playing unequal schedules, and stretching as far west as Denver, nearly broke everyone. The original concept was destroyed. The Lakers and other stars could show up in the big cities too seldom, the old pro style (rough, slowdown) was winning games, and income could not cover expenses.
So the great shakeout took place in the summer of 1950 and when the 1950-51 season started, there were 11 teams and a 66-game schedule. At this point, the NBA was living off two main attractions: Mikan's Lakers (on their way to five championships in six years) and the Harlem Globetrotters, who could (and did) sell out any building as a "preliminary" game. But it had made little headway against college basketball's popularity, and few were ready to predict long-range success.
The College Game Takes a Hit
Then it got its big break.
Point-fixing scandals tore through the college basketball world. Revelations began in January 1951, and continued past October. The New York District Attorney's office finally reported dozens of games in 22 cities in 17 states had been rigged, including tournament games. And no one doubted that this was just the tip of a huge iceberg. The colleges retreated to on-campus sites, away from the "evil" big-city arenas. Doubleheader dates dried up.
That enabled the NBA teams to move in. Their arenas now had dates to fill. And the league, despite cynicism and suspicion, had produced no evidence of manipulated games. The very fact that the players had reasonably well paid careers at stake, and that hard-core gamblers had been concentrating on colleges, helped make pro honesty seem plausible. The situation gave the public's attention a chance to shift to the pros.
Competitive results helped. In the 1951 Finals, the Knicks took Rochester to the seventh game before losing, and the Knicks lost the next two Finals to the Lakers and Mikan. Since New York was then so clearly the center of the world in communications, media and advertising, that period of Knick success helped the league gain increased prestige and attention. The NBA was becoming a permanent part of the major-league landscape.
One step remained to complete the originally sound idea, so often lost sight of. Post-graduate basketball had to be based in big markets with big arenas. Once the franchises themselves were stabilized, by 1952, the migration out of smaller cities could begin.
By 1960, Rochester was in Cincinnati, Fort Wayne was in Detroit, and Milwaukee was in St. Louis. Before the 1960-61 season, Minneapolis became Los Angeles, and when the Warriors moved to San Francisco in 1962, Syracuse became the Philadelphia 76ers the year after that. Chicago came back and so did Baltimore. That began a process of expansion that has never stopped and reached 29 by the end of the century.
It has proved two things.
- The original vision was correct.
- It's never easy to turn a vision into a reality, and it takes time.
(Republished with permission from the NBA Encyclopedia)