National Basketball Association (NBA)

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National Basketball Association (NBA)

One of two indigenous American sports (volleyball is the other), basketball dates to 1891, the year Young Men's Christian Association instructor James Naismith first hung two peach baskets to the track railing around his gym and encouraged his charges to pitch balls into them. The first professional leagues began operating around the turn of the twentieth century, with the first true national league, the American Basketball League (ABL), established in 1925. A casualty of the Depression, the ABL's demise left the midwestern-based National Basketball League (NBL) as the only major professional basketball league. That monopoly lasted until 1946, when the Basketball Association of America (BAA) was formed by an alliance of arena owners in the major eastern cities. The New York Knickerbockers and the Toronto Huskies played in that league's inaugural game on November 1, 1946.

Despite staging its games in the nation's best venues, like New York's Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden, the BAA had trouble attracting top-flight players. By a fortuitous coincidence, that just so happened to be the NBL's strong suit, paving the way for a league merger that resulted in the creation of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949. The new league fielded 17 clubs in its inaugural season, although the absorption of NBL franchises left the NBA a curious agglomeration of large (New York, Boston) and small (Sheboygan, Syracuse) markets. As a consequence, seven of the league's less competitive teams had folded by the start of the 1950-1951 season.

The contraction actually helped the NBA by dispersing the talent more generously among the surviving franchises. But professional basketball still suffered in comparison to the college game, then all the rage in hoops hotbeds like New York City. Only a point-shaving scandal that rocked the college game in January of 1951 allowed the NBA a chance to grab the attention of basketball fans nationwide. The incorporation of African American players, beginning in 1950 with Earl Lloyd of the Washington Capitols, further enhanced the level of play and improved the league's image in progressive circles.

Still, professional basketball had trouble captivating the national imagination. Its marquee player in those early years, seven-foot Minneapolis Laker center George Mikan, seemed an unapproachable hero whose freakish size inspired a host of less talented imitators. The league became dominated by big men and slowed down by constant fouling designed to impede their scoring. Public disenchantment was crystallized by a nationally televised contest between the Knicks and the Boston Celtics in 1954, from which the network cut away in the final minutes because the action was so enervating. The NBA quickly adopted rule changes to speed up play and encourage athleticism.

The principal beneficiaries of the new rules were the Boston Celtics. They built a team around two players—center Bill Russell and guard Bob Cousy—who excelled at the fast-break style of play that the new regulations encouraged. With the athletic, intimidating Russell blocking shots out to the agile, propulsive Cousy, the Celtics won five straight NBA championships between 1959 and 1963 and set a standard of excellence in the sport akin to that erected by the New York Yankees in baseball. Upon Cousy's retirement, they added five more titles in the ensuing six years to bring their total to 11 championships in a 13-year span. By the end of Boston's remarkable run, the NBA had overcome its early doldrums and established a foothold on the national sports scene.

The 1970s began with great promise for the NBA. The rivalry between Bill Russell and the league's other dominant center, Wilt Chamberlain of the Los Angeles Lakers, gave professional basketball the first of the compelling mano a mano matchups it would successfully market over the ensuing decades. The New York Knicks teams that won the NBA championship in 1970 and again in 1973 attracted many new fans with their cerebral, team-oriented style of play. Passing and shooting became the order of the day, as the league's highly skilled black players came increasingly to dominate the action.

But there were warning signs on the game's horizon as well. A rival league, the American Basketball Association (ABA), seduced away some of the pro game's best young players, including Rick Barry, George "the Iceman" Gervin, and Julius Erving, known popularly as "Dr. J." Though financially unstable, the ABA offered a freewheeling brand of basketball—symbolized by its use of a red-white-and-blue ball—that held some appeal for fans in the 1970s. Unwilling to change its own game to emulate the upstart league, the NBA instead entered into prolonged negotiations for a merger that was finally consummated in 1976. Four ABA teams were allowed to join the NBA, and a special draft was arranged to disperse ABA players throughout the consolidated league. Once again, the NBA had established itself as America's sole professional basketball association.

While the merger relieved some of the NBA's financial difficul-ties, it did not address the league's most pressing underlying problems. A series of violent incidents, capped by Kermit Washington's life-threatening assault on Rudy Tomjanovich, severely tarnished the image of professional basketball. Increasingly, there was talk that substance abuse was rampant around the league. While the NBA implemented programs to remedy this problem, the image of the NBA as a "drug league" persisted into the 1980s.

The NBA hit its nadir in the early part of that decade. A paucity of compelling players or intriguing rivalries, coupled with the negative press coverage engendered by the drug and violence scandals, prompted many league sponsors to back away from television advertising. As a consequence, the deciding game of the 1980 finals was not even aired live but relegated to late-night tape delay. By 1981, a majority of NBA teams were losing money, and the league itself seemed at a loss for a solution to the crisis.

Salvation came in the form of two young players, Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who would go on to dominate the game during the 1980s. Rivals in college, they continued their competition in the pros, as the focal points of the NBA's two most prestigious franchises, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, respectively. When they met in the finals for the first time in 1984, it marked an important step in the NBA's return to prominence. The series went seven games and attracted the largest viewing audience in NBA history. To the delight of the league, championship rematches were staged in 1985 and 1987, with the high-flying Lakers winning two out of three from the bruising Bostonians.

A second factor in the NBA's revival was the appointment of a new commissioner, David Stern, in 1984. A league attorney who had helped negotiate the NBA/ABA merger, Stern brought a strong marketing orientation to his new post. Building on the Magic/Bird rivalry, he negotiated a new television contract with NBC prior to the 1990-91 season, with instructions to the network to promote the league's emerging stars. The result was a decade of expansion in the NBA's popularity fueled by the rise of its brightest star, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. Once just another prolific scorer, Jordan became an international symbol of competitive fire after capturing three straight championships between 1991 and 1993.

Jordan's ascension to international icon status helped turn NBA basketball into one of the most profitable entertainment properties in the world. Merchandising of team and player logos exceeded the one billion dollar mark, while the worth of the average franchise increased by threefold from the dark days of the early 1980s. New teams were added in Florida and Canada, allowing the NBA to enter new markets and disperse lucrative franchise fees to the other clubs. While Jordan's departure from the league to pursue a baseball career briefly derailed the NBA juggernaut in 1993, his return two years later only seemed to raise his mystique to another level. The Bulls set an all-time single-season record for wins in 1995-96, en route to the first of three consecutive world championships. Not since the Celtics of the 1960s had one team so dominated the world of professional basketball—to the delight of the game's fans and the consternation of the other 28 teams.

In 1998, Jordan retired for a second, and presumably final, time. His departure from the scene raised the obvious questions about the NBA's ability to sustain its growth absent its most compelling international star. Even more troublesome was the public relations disaster engendered by a lengthy labor dispute that cut short the 1998-1999 season. Most of the public ire was directed at the NBA players, who made a series of bafflingly intemperate public statements and inexplicably failed to point out that the league was locking them out of the arenas. A new collective bargaining agreement ponderously favorable to the league was signed in January of 1999, further solidifying Commissioner Stern's status with league owners and paving the way for sustained profits ad infinitum. It remained unclear, however, whether the league would be able to maintain its popular cachet without the emergence of a new star to shepherd the game into the next millennium.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Bjarkman, Peter C. The Encyclopedia of Pro Basketball Team Histories. New York, Carrol & Graf, 1994.

Decourcy, Mike. Inside Basketball: From the Playgrounds to the

NBA. New York, Metro Books, 1996.

Fox, Stephen R. Big Leagues: Professional Baseball, Football, and Basketball in National Memory. New York, William Morrow, 1994.

Minsky, Alan. Kings of the Court: Legends of the NBA. New York, Metro Books, 1995.

Peterson, Robert. Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years. New York, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Salzberg, Charles. From Set Shot to Slam Dunk: The Glory Days of Basketball in the Words of Those Who Played It. New York, Dutton, 1987.

Vancil, Mark, editor. The NBA at Fifty. New York, Random House, 1994.

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National Basketball Association (NBA)

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National Basketball Association (NBA)