Professional Basketball’s Salad Days

Earlier this year, Shaquille O’Neal was chastised online for his interview with Donovan Mitchell, where he challenged him to continue raising his ceiling by stating he couldn’t win a championship. Naturally, this turned into online pundits and sports personalities criticizing older players for dismissing recent players and their perceived “soft” play style of today’s era. In decades past, players often paid their respects to legends before them, and older players were generally complimentary of new players. They had critiques of the game as it evolved but didn’t often belittle new players in doing so. Now with social media, it makes more headlines to be disrespectful towards the opposing generation.

There is always a recency bias when discussing athletes of the era one grew up in, and the inverse of that is the older legends sometimes are mythologized. However, the one constant is that people always use the late 1950s and early 1960s as the cut-off point for consideration in these hypothetical rankings. I am not calling for more romanticization of the past or a critical study of the sport’s evolution. I am not even calling for people to reconsider their all-time placement of players from these bygone eras of basketball; however, I am asking for more fans to have a better appreciation for the people who paved the way. Reading over the YouTube comments on a basketball fundamentals video from the 1940s reveals the sheer number of people who believe they would dominate that era. What’s lost on these commenters is that their front yard moves would be traveling back in that era.

Most of the ball manipulation people today are allowed to get with would be called for traveling back then. Not only that, but basketballs themselves only removed the laces from their design in 1937, so dribbling itself as a technique was still in its infancy. It’s unfair to say it was even in its infancy, as players weren’t even allowed to dribble for the first ten years of the sport1, and even then, they were only allowed one bounce. This one bounce amounted to little more than a bounce pass since they weren’t allowed to shoot after taking their single dribble anyway. The NBA Storyteller published a fantastic video about the evolution of dribbling techniques2 that briefly touched upon how players had been drilled for years to play with more conservative dribbling. The Storyteller pointed out how in Julius Erving’s 1987 instructional VHS tape that taught kids how to dribble, he had to explain that a simple between-the-legs dribble move was not just a flashy maneuver but a technique that made it harder for defenders to steal the ball. If someone had gone between their legs in the ’40s or earlier, the fans would have erupted into a riot.

A riot wouldn’t have even been a rare sighting at a basketball game up until the late 1920s. The out-of-bounds rule change in 1904 awarded a team possession of the ball based on whichever team touched it before it went out of bounds, the ruling before this awarded possession to whichever team grabbed the ball first. This ruling led to wild chases for the ball that included shoving and diving, so cages were implemented to speed up the game and essentially allow no out-of-bounds ruling to take place3. The cages were done away with by the mid-1920s in most Northeastern professional leagues, where nearly all caged basketball occurred. However, its lasting impact on basketball history is the misconception that its creation was to separate the players from rowdy fans4 who often got involved in the out-of-bounds scrimmages. It very well may have played a factor since, in this era, basketball was a rough sport you wouldn’t want to take a date to spectate.

The NBA underwent a defensive renaissance from the late ’90s until the early ’00s, which resulted in criticism from the media and declining ratings after the 1998 NBA Finals that persists. The Malice at the Palace was an infamous brawl between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, including several fans, at The Palace of Auburn Hills on November 19th, 2004. It’s commonly cited as a low point for the NBA’s image, especially when considering the rugged defensive style of play amongst teams and the media’s promotion of a ghetto image of the average NBA player. However, this rough atmosphere was ordinary in the earliest days of the sport, and everyday YMCA games at the turn of the previous century5 likely weren’t too far off from resembling The Malice at the Palace, except for the racial discrepancy between fans and players.

The crude reality of segregation prevented any professional league from assembling all the best players in the world at any given time. The New York Renaissance was a legendary all-black basketball team6 owned by Robert Douglas in agreement with the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. Despite being barred from joining any professional basketball league from their formation in 1923 until their disbandment in 1949 due to these leagues being white-only, the Rens regularly played against all-white teams, including the Original Celtics. It was common for professional teams to host their games in a ballroom since most leagues weren’t financially stable and folded quickly after a handful of seasons, so they would often host dances after the games. Combine this with the rich history of Harlem, and it’s easy to see why the Rens had so much success early on.

However, as beloved as they were by their community, it didn’t lead them to permanent financial prosperity. Near the end of the ’20s, their attendance began to dwindle, which forced them to barnstorm across the country. Despite their financial difficulties, the Rens were the winners of the first World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939 against the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars. Oshkosh themselves were a barnstorming team founded in 1929 who eventually became a founding member of the National Basketball League in 1937. Despite this championship game taking place 82 years ago, this is the moment I typically attribute as being the genesis of the professional leagues we are more familiar with today. It was only a decade after this game did the NBA manage to configure itself together from the decaying remains of the National Basketball League and the upcoming Basketball Association of America, after all. It’s important to note that the nominal merger between the NBL and BAA was, in reality, the absorption of the NBL by the BAA. The BAA viewed the acquisition of seven NBL teams and their history as an expansion, which is why the NBA never mentions the history of the NBL when discussing historical statistical data; it was never a fair merger for both sides from the start. The BAA’s inaugural season was 1946-47, the same season the NBA views as its inaugural season7. This myth that the two leagues merged to create the NBA continues to be perpetuated by the media to this very day when in reality, the NBA seemingly disregards the statistical achievements of the history they acquired.

The NBL also underwent a rebranding in 1937, as it began its inaugural season in 1935 as the Midwest Basketball Conference. The MBC was initially similar to many professional leagues in years past, with infrequent scheduling left to the decisions of the many barnstorming teams who came and went. However, attempting to gain a larger audience and be seen as more professional, they rebranded the league and began regulating games tighter than before. However, as you’ve undoubtedly assumed, even the MBC was not the first professional basketball league in the United States. There was already a National Basketball League established in 1898, but it folded nine weeks into the 1903-04 season after losing talent to rival professional leagues in the Northeastern region. A significant amount of the original NBL’s top teams had already left the prior two seasons to join the local competitors or become independent, which had put a financial strain on the turbulent short-lived NBL. How ironic is it that an AAU-sounding league called the Massachusetts Basketball League successfully poached the top talent of the National Basketball League? That was simply the state of pro basketball back then, as players and teams could drop out of a league at a moment’s notice and begin to play elsewhere.

The Northeastern pro leagues soon found themselves on the receiving end of this once pro basketball expanded into the Midwest with the establishment of the Central Basketball League in 1906. Players left the Philadelphia Basketball League to join the new CBL, which led to the PBL becoming insolvent in 1908. The cyclical process continued in this manner for years, as the Eastern Basketball League was formed in 1909 to compete with the CBL, which eventually collapsed in 1912 before the EBL itself collapsed in 1923. However, the initial spark of an organized league began in the summer of 1911, when the EBL and the Hudson River Basketball league pitched the idea of a National Commission of Basketball to the CBL. Unfortunately for all involved, the CBL declined and then promptly folded the following year after being unable to compensate the same players they feared a National Commission would hinder their ability to keep. The HRBL was another one of innumerable brief professional basketball leagues that had been around since the formation of the original NBL in 1898 who just happened to be one of the more popular leagues at the time. Ironically, they would fold at the beginning of the 1911-12 season once the president of the HRBL and his supporters broke away from the league to start their own, all because they couldn’t come to negotiation terms over his re-election with the remaining team owners opposing him.

The involuted details expunged above are all provided solely to paint a better picture of the utter insolvency of professional basketball at the turn of the century. A group of owners and a league president defecting to form a new league with the same name is the kind of hilarity all too commonplace in the annals of early basketball. Farcical decisions like these haven’t occurred since the emergence and subsequent absorption of the American Basketball Association from the late ’60s to the late ’70s. It’s mainly due to the prominence the NBA has had since its 1948 rebranding, successfully culminating from decades of ideas from businessmen attempting to forge a viable business model from the sport. It wasn’t too long before the emergence of the 1937 NBL that the prototype for the modern league came to be; precisely a quarter of the way through the 20th century came the American Basketball League. What makes the American Basketball League a prototype while the World Professional Basketball Tournament was the genesis for professional basketball, you ask? The NCAA had also created their March Madness tournament in 1939; in contrast, the ABL continued a turn-of-the-century Northeastern tradition of splitting the seasons into two halves and having the winners of each half play each other for the championship.

Although it doesn’t sound like a radical difference, you also have to factor in the context provided above about the financial status of the game and how players approached contracts. Players were coming and going at will between competing professional leagues, and the ABL sought to change that. Formed by several NFL owners such as George Halas, Max Rosenbaum, future NFL owner George Preston Marshall, and NFL President Joseph Carr, the ABL was the first promotion that introduced exclusive contracts and standardized play. Investors looking to form their franchise with the league would undergo stricter criteria, which is why many of the founding franchises of the ABL had already been well-established barnstorming or professional regional teams, such as the Original Celtics. These practices set a good framework for future professional leagues to work with once the ABL failed in 1931 amidst the Great Depression. Their two-half regular season would become antiquated, but they did manage to eventually institute the concept of a championship seven-game series into professional basketball. There was an anomaly in 1911 when the CBL and the EBL miraculously agreed to have their best teams at the end of the 1910-11 regular season compete in a seven-game championship series8, which I signify as being the rudiment of the prototype.

Still, why refer to the World Professional Basketball Tournament as the genesis of modern professional basketball leagues? It’s not as if it’s a certifiable fact that college basketball is more popular than the NBA, but that wasn’t always the case, especially during the first half of the 20th century. The ABL succeeded in getting big-market teams but failed in maintaining quality arenas for all their franchises; the NBL wasn’t any better in that regard, but the WPBT was like March Madness for professional teams. The NBA playoffs, as are most professional sports playoffs, are still structured in a bracket format. This type of knockout-style tournament couldn’t last forever; any successful future professional basketball league would need to revert the playoff bracket into a series of games, but excitement (or disappointment, depending on your viewpoint) generated from the first WPBT is undeniable. The Rens were massive underdogs against the All-Stars, and already played against the only other all-black team competing in the WPBT, the Harlem Globetrotters, due to bitter promoters wanting to ensure there wouldn’t be an all-black championship game. The Globetrotters won the tournament the following year, and despite neither team being allowed to join the all-white leagues of the ABL and the 1937 NBL, they both ended up being more successful than a large majority of those teams in the long run.

The re-introduction of the sport to the Midwest during the Great Depression managed to increase its popularity nationwide. The emergence of the ABL inspired small-scale leagues such as the Metropolitan Basketball League, the revived CBL, and the revived EBL to crop up, but they all quickly folded in the following years along with the ABL. The ABL eventually returned in 1933 when the MBL merged with select teams from the revived EBL, however as I mentioned above, the MBC formed in 1935, which featured teams not exclusive to the east coast, as many franchises were upon the contraction of the original CBL in 1912. The MBC’s financial support came through companies such as the Firestone Tire Company, whose Akron Firestones won the inaugural MBC championship. These industrial teams mixed in with established barnstorming teams, and the best ones featured All-American college players seeking pricy compensation for their talents. That is why the WPBT is what I refer to as the genesis of the modern professional basketball leagues, but to continue with the biological theme of naming events like I did when I referred to the 1911 CBL-EBL Championship Series as the rudiment; then the 1939 WPBT is the insemination.

College athletes weren’t heading into professional basketball with much fanfare since college basketball was more popular. That changed in 1936 when Leroy Edwards declared his intention to leave the University of Kentucky after his sophomore season9, a move that was simply unheard of at the time, and play professional basketball. This move, an outlier at the time and one that remains so if looking at the timeline of professional basketball on a graph, would greatly influence the direction professional basketball would take going forward. Players would go to college and then turn pro after their four years of eligibility were up, something they could have done before but not always with the certainty they would be well compensated and playing against the best competition in the best arenas. Although the ABL, NBL, and later the BAA were all segregated, the NBL was the first to allow black players to participate in 1941, when players started getting drafted into World War II. Games featuring all-white teams against all-black teams gathered the largest crowds, something Oshkosh, the Original Celtics, and the Rens can all attest to, meaning that segregation was never going to last forever in the professional leagues. Every professional basketball league suspended operations from 1917-18 and 1918-18 due to World War I and the influenza pandemic. Contrast that with the fact that black players had been playing for otherwise all-white college teams since before World War I, and it was only a matter of time before investors and promoters allowed everyone to compete against each other. Investors don’t want stoppages in the middle of the season, and fans want to see the best players compete against each other; the ’30s was the first time the link between college and the pros made this possible.

The birth of the modern professional basketball league was the formation of the BAA, as standardized rulings still weren’t commonplace amongst NCAA teams. Edwards’ Kentucky Wildcats lost the 1935 championship to NYU in front of 16,500 fans due to what several sportswriters deemed unfair enforcing of the rules because of geological differences10. Regardless, once Edwards declared his intention to play professional basketball in the MBC, they quickly rebranded as the NBL the very next season. His stardom and impact on Oshkosh were apparent from the beginning, as he led the All-Stars to the NBL Championship for the first five years of the league, winning two consecutively in 1941 and 1942, the same year Oshkosh won the WPBT. That’s why the WPBT was the genesis/insemination of professional basketball; it was the first time large crowds of people could gather and watch college athletes they were familiar with continue to compete against each other. Players who had developed in the era of numerous local professional leagues were starting to get beat out for roster spots by younger college players looking to secure their future. It truly was a decade of transition for the sport.

The ABL introduced the three-second rule in 1930 and was implemented six years later in college. Edwards’ playstyle was the primary reason for this, but he was not the only player of the era who inspired change to the game. Despite my assertion that Edwards was the first true basketball superstar, George Mikan certainly makes a great counterargument. Edwards won titles, put up great scoring numbers for his era, was a tough defender, led his team on playoff runs, and led the NBL in every recorded offensive statistic in 1938-39, but Mikan was bigger, more exciting, and won more. He was the BAA’s first true star after his Minneapolis Lakers won the 1948 NBL Championship and defected to the BAA immediately after, where they wound up winning the BAA/NBA Championship in 1949, 1950, ’52, ’53, and ’54. The NBA widened the key from six feet to 12 feet before the 1951-52 season to combat Mikan’s effectiveness near the basket, but judging by the titles won after this change, all it did was serve as proof of Mikan’s dominance. Edwards was a rough-and-tumble center at 6’5″, considered tall for frontcourt players of his era; Mikan changed the paradigm by flipping the notion of incredibly tall players being too clumsy to dominate basketball on its head and thoroughly disproving it.

When considering the factors listed throughout this article, it’s no wonder Mikan was voted the best basketball player of the first half of the 20th century by The Associated Press in 1959. It doesn’t hurt to mention Mikan’s Chicago American Gears, the NBL team he played for in his rookie season, also swept Oshkosh in the semifinals en route to the 1947 NBL Championship. The owner of the Chicago American Gears attempted to start his professional league the following season, which quickly folded and allowed the Minneapolis Lakers to secure the rights to Mikan. As mentioned previously, they would go on to win the championship that year, but in doing so, they also beat Oshkosh in the opening round of the playoffs. Mikan’s evident success over an aging Edwards likely made it easier for the presiding body of the NBA, still composed of officials from the BAA governing body even after the absorption, to overlook Edwards in all-time discussions. Along with the exclusion of Edwards, this made it easier to disregard the history of the NBL and continue moving professional basketball forward as an entertaining and profitable commodity.

My hope with this written rambling is to provide a better sense of historical context to the old-time highlights today’s viewers and youth may dismiss, especially when the older generations continue to proclaim the superiority of their generation. If anything, this examination of basketball’s yesteryears should prove that the spirit of the game has remained unchanged since its inception. Basketball is a team sport where one individual can have the highest winning impact over a game, and that’s always been true. If it wasn’t, why would the Massachusetts Basketball League poach talent from the original NBL? Why else would the game consistently find itself heavily featured around star players joining teams with considerable talent and a better payday? No matter the rule changes or era of play, basketball is essentially still a team game where the better-operated team with the better players is normally going to win the game. The more things change, the more they remain the same; it’s time to stop disrespecting the pioneers who came before and helped mold the game into what it is today.

Editor’s Notes

  1. A few publications stated Yale implemented the one-bounce dribble in 1897, but most state the one-bounce dribble was made official in 1901. Since Yale was dominant during this time and there was no governing body for intercollegiate basketball, we can only assume that Yale could have tested this dribbling method with willing opponents; upon proving it successful, the dribble was adapted to the official rules and at the professional level in 1901. Just our theory.
  2. YouTube.com – 4/3/2019 – NO LEFT – A Basketball Revelation
  3. Sports Illustrated – 11/11/1991 -When the Court Was a Cage
  4. The Trentonian – 1900: Basketball’s First Dynasty
  5. Pro Basketball Encyclopedia – Seasons: 1898-1899
  6. ABC News – Fadeaway: The Team That Time Forgot
  7. WBUR.org – 10/25/2019 – Why The NBA Celebrates The Wrong Birthday
  8. A completely dominating 4-0 sweep from the CBL champions.
  9. Freshman weren’t allowed to compete in varsity sports until 1968, and even then both football and basketball were restricted from this ruling until 1972.
  10. Bigbluehistory.net – Leroy Edwards

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