From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA

 

The 21st century version of the National Basketball Association will never be confused with the various leagues that cropped up after Dr. James Naismith came up with a game in the fall of 1891 at a Springfield, Mass., YMCA. Dr. Naismith put up some peach baskets and gave 18 players a soccer ball and the game of “basket ball” was born. A century later, basketball was a global sensation.

In 2013, Basketball may or may not be the world’s second most popular sport behind football (soccer) but the game’s growth has exploded since the 1984 Olympics. Dr. James Naismith created the game in 1891 and while it was a popular game, the professional version of the sport did not do well. Leagues came and went. Some of the best teams in the early days didn’t play in an organized league and instead barnstormed and played games wherever a promoter put down a floor and offered a few bucks to pay the players.

"From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA" by Evan Weiner

The most successful of all the early basketball leagues, the National Basketball League, began operations in 1937. The NBL was based in the United States with teams that seemingly were aligned with the American auto industry in the Great Lakes region.

In 1946, the American east coast-based arena owners began the Basketball Association of America. By 1949, the BAA owners were able to entice NBL franchises to join the new league and in 1949, the National Basketball Association .. (Read more) In 2013, Basketball may or may not be the world’s second most popular sport behind football (soccer) but the game’s growth has exploded since the 1984 Olympics. Dr. James Naismith created the game in 1891 and while it was a popular game, the professional version of the sport did not do well. Leagues came and went. Some of the best teams in the early days didn’t play in an organized league and instead barnstormed and played games wherever a promoter put down a floor and offered a few bucks to pay the players.

In 1946, the American east coast-based arena owners began the Basketball Association of America. By 1949, the BAA owners were able to entice NBL franchises to join the new league and in 1949, the National Basketball Association was formed with the amalgamation of the two leagues.

Basketball in the United States reflected the post-Civil War America. Negro players proved they could play with their white counterparts but were shut out of the professional leagues. The all-Negro clubs, the New York Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters won the World Professional Tournament in 1939 and 1940 beating established all-white National Basketball League teams. The NBL desegregated in 1942. The NBA would not sign a Negro player until 1950.  Three players were in fact signed to contracts prior to that season.  One was cut in training camp.  Earl “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first black to play in an NBA game when he appeared for the New York Knicks.  One day later Earl Cooper appeared for the Washington Capitals.

The New York Rens played their “home” games in a dance hall in Harlem that is still standing today, although the building is in disrepair.  On nights when games were played goals were placed at either end of the dance floor.  Spectators sat at tables on the main floor and in the balcony that hung low over the court.  Players tried not to slip on the slick flooring that was designed for dancing.

The Harlem Globetrotters would be scheduled as part of an exhibition-NBA doubleheader in many NBA cities because the Globetrotters will draw a crowd. The 1950s NBA was a sports non-entity.

In the 1960s, two leagues challenged the NBA for major league status in the United States. Both failed but changed the basketball industry despite financial problems.

In the early 1980s, the NBA was still on the brink of failure.  The NBA finals in both 1978 and 1979 were shown on TV only on a tape delayed basis because ratings were so low.  It took the entrance of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird into the league the next season to help revive interest in the sport. This is the story of the professional basketball from the people who were there, their story of old cars, dance halls and chasing TV dollars.

The book ends on February 1, 1984, the day David Stern became the fourth Commissioner of the National Basketball Association. Somehow the NBA survived against long odds in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Stern’s NBA is sturdy. Franchise values have soared over a half billion dollars. The pioneers of basketball never did think the NBA would become a global entity. They were just happy to play pro basketball and then get on with their lives.

The book is a “must read” for anyone interested in the history of pro basketball in its early years.  Mr. Weiner has a wealth of experience and contacts to draw upon, and has a knack for bringing a story to life.  This is an excellent read for a lazy summer afternoon.

Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and sports columnist. His latest e-book, “America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century” is available at www.smashwords.com, iTunes, nook, kobo, Sony reader and Diesel. Weiner can be reached at evanjweiner@gmail.com.

(Editor’s Note.  This e-book by Evan Weiner was published on April 13, 2013.  Its ISBN number is 9781301298235.  This review of the book is in part taken from [smashwords.com].  (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/306157#longdescr).  It is posted here with the permission of Mr. Weiner.)

 

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