The NBA’s Rocky Road to Playoff Fever
The San Antonio Spurs, one of two teams competing for the National Basketball Association championship this week, have nine international players. The league itself has 85, and the NBA finals are being broadcast to 215 counties in 47 languages.
It’s all a far cry from the NBA’s provincial precursor, the now-forgotten Basketball Association of America (BAA). Nonetheless, as the place where the business of basketball began, it’s worth remembering how the BAA gave the sport a foothold in the U.S. and, eventually, the world.
The BAA was the bright idea of a group of hockey-arena owners seeking a way to fill open dates during the long winters in the Northeast. Why not launch a professional basketball league? After all, Americans were flush with cash in 1946, and many servicemen had recently become civilians. College basketball was a tremendous hit, especially at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The BAA’s only competition was the National Basketball League, or NBL, founded in 1937. While it boasted professional basketball’s most recognizable player, George Mikan, of the Chicago American Gears, most NBL teams were in smaller Midwestern cities: the Red Skins of Sheboygan, Wisconsin; the All Stars of Oshkosh; the Zollner Pistons of Fort Wayne, Indiana; the Packers of Anderson, Indiana, and the Jeeps of Toledo, Ohio.
Demobilization from World War II meant there were lots of players available. Unfortunately, the BAA quickly became a case study in how not to run a professional sports league. The owners, it is true, had arenas in the largest cities. Most, however, either lacked sufficient capital or were unwilling to invest in the league. They also failed to corral the best players. And few owners had any experience with basketball.
They quickly discovered that owning a basketball team was not for the faint of heart or thin of wallet. By December 1946, several teams were teetering on the verge of collapse. All were hemorrhaging money. The New York Knicks only had Madison Square Garden for a handful of games; the club mostly played in a nearby armory. Nor could owners hope for help from television, which was in its infancy, with its amazing growth spurt years away.
Only three of the 11 original BAA teams still exist: the Knicks, Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors (transplanted from Philadelphia). The latter two came close to folding. The Celtics survived through the masochism of their owner, Walter Brown. The Knicks were among the first teams to attain a semblance of financial solvency, as more playing time became available at Madison Square Garden. But several other teams failed to survive the first few years.
Surviving BAA owners decided that competing with the NBL was foolhardy, and enticed the stronger NBL teams to defect. Eventually most of the NBL joined the BAA in the new National Basketball Association. For one bizarre season, 1949-50, 17 teams played. Demonstrating the new league’s instability, not all teams played the same number of games in a season. The BAA owners, however, solved the problem by shunting several of the western NBL teams into a lackluster division. Teams in small cities were unable to withstand the losses and folded. When the dust settled in the mid-1950s, eight teams remained, five of which were former NBL teams. Although it was almost bankrupt, the BAA had managed to swallow another league and come out ahead.
Even with the infighting behind them, NBA owners continued to lose money and the quality of play wasn’t pleasing. Fans and journalists also wondered whether top college teams could defeat NBA teams. The Harlem Globetrotters remained viable competitors and cornered the market on top black players. NBA owners desperately needed the large crowds the Globetrotters created, and almost every team scheduled the Globetrotters to appear once or twice a season in an exhibition game. Having the Globetrotter game precede the NBA game meant losing the audience after the exhibition contest, forcing the NBA teams to play in almost empty arenas. Even so, this was an improvement over the BAA, which had been forced to stage doubleheaders with high school teams.
The first generation of NBA owners faced another challenge: Their product was unattractive. Games were rife with intentional fouling, roughhousing and stalling, and scores often were ludicrously low. Consider, for example, the Fort Wayne Pistons’ 19-18 victory over the Minneapolis Lakers in 1950. There were many such low-point games, making it difficult for professional basketball to attract many college ball fans.
In addition, as television came into its own, the owners failed to use the medium to generate crowds. Ned Irish, who was president of the Knicks from 1946 to 1974, was surprised when a local television station offered to pay him for telecast rights in the late 1940s. The owners signed a modest national-television contract in the early 1950s, but they were so wary of the effect the broadcasts would have on attendance that they only allowed the worst games to be shown. As a result, the league struggled to get a lucrative national-television contract for decades.
Almost by serendipity, owners stumbled upon the 24-second rule. They decided to showcase black players instead of reining them in. It was only in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor arrived on court, that the NBA became the high-flying, crowd-pleasing, exciting -- and profitable -- game that modern fans love.
(David George Surdam is an associate professor of economics at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of six books, including “The Rise of the National Basketball Association” and the soon-to-be-published “Run to Glory and Profits: The Economic Rise of the National Football League during the 1950s.”)
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