A Brief History
On April 25, 2019, NBA (National Basketball Association) Hall of Famer, John Havlicek, died in Jupiter, Florida at the age of 79. Born in 1940, Havlicek was already 6 years old when the NBA was born. We use this occasion of the passing of an NBA (and Ohio State University) legend to talk about the evolution of the NBA.
In June of 1946, the Basketball Association of America was formed as a major league of professional basketball in the United States and Canada. The BAA started out as a competitor of the already established (1937) National Basketball League and when the 2 competing professional basketball leagues merged in 1949, the NBA was born, the premier professional basketball league in the world.
The first game recognized by the NBA as their inaugural contest was played between the Toronto Huskies and the New York Knickerbockers in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Not familiar with the Toronto Huskies? Well, that first year the BAA boasted teams from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh Detroit and St. Louis. In 1947, the BAA added the Baltimore Bullets, but lost the teams from Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Toronto. The 1948 season saw major expansion by adding teams from Indianapolis (their only season), Fort Wayne, Rochester (NY) and Minneapolis (the Lakers).
The stage was now set for the 1949 season, the first season of the National Basketball Association! The line up of teams might not seem totally recognizable today, with teams representing Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Syracuse, Chicago, Fort Wayne, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Rochester, Indianapolis, Denver, and a trio of teams most modern NBA fans probably never heard of, the Tri-City (Illinois) Blackhawks, the Sheboygan Red Skins, and the Anderson (Indiana) Packers! The young league shrunk for the 1950 season back to 11 teams, dropped another team for the 1951 and 1952 seasons, and yet another team folded leaving only 9 teams to compete during the 1953 and 1954 seasons. (Another notable development of the 1950 NBA season was the racial integration of the league. It is hard to imagine today that pro basketball could be any sort of major sports event without the participation of people of all races and nationalities.)
The NBA found some stability at a size of 8 teams from the 1955 through the 1960 basketball seasons, with the Boston Celtics, Cincinnati Royals, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia Warriors, Syracuse Nationals, St. Louis Hawks and the Minneapolis Lakers. The Lakers moved to Los Angeles for the 1960 season. The 1961 season saw the addition of the Chicago Packers to the league, and in 1962 the Chicago team was called the Zephyrs, a new name that did not really help! The Warriors moved to San Francisco that year.
The following year the league remained at 9 teams, but the Zephyrs moved and became the Baltimore Bullets and the Syracuse Nationals became the Philadelphia 76’ers. Chicago got back into the NBA in 1966 with the creation of the Bulls, and the following year another pair of teams were added, the San Diego Rockets and the Seattle SuperSonics. The expansion continued for the 1968 season, adding the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks to the mix.
The 1970 season was a big year for the NBA, when another 3 teams were added, the Buffalo Braves, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Portland Trail Blazers. The NBA now boasted 17 teams, the largest the league had been up to that point. (At this point, we will mention teams added, but no longer document teams moving to a different city as the movement becomes convoluted.) The 17 team NBA remained steady until 1974 when the New Orleans Jazz were added to the league.
A major development occurred for the 1976 season when the rival American Basketball Association was absorbed by the NBA, adding the Nets, Spurs, Nuggets and Pacers to the NBA, the other ABA teams that remained went out of business. The NBA experienced an influx of exciting players and could now truly boast of fielding all the best professional basketball players in the world. The addition of ABA superstars such as David Thompson, Rick Barry, Julius (Dr. J) Erving, George Gervin, Moses Malone, Spencer Haywood, Dan Issel, Mel Daniels, Connie Hawkins and Artis Gilmore, among others were an enormous injection of thrills for basketball fans. Taking a page from the ABA, the NBA finally adopted the 3 point field goal for the 1979 season, adding a major new dimension to the game. Sharpshooters from long range, such as Steph Curry, have revolutionized how the game is played.
In 1980, the Dallas Mavericks were added to the league, and 1988 saw the creation of the Charlotte Hornets and the Miami Heat. The next year expansion continued with the Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves, and in 1995 Canada reappeared in the NBA with teams from Toronto and Vancouver. The Charlotte Bobcats were born for the 2004 season, bringing the league to its current size of 30 teams.
The NBA has the distinction of having the highest paid professional athletes by average annual salary per player and plays an 82 game regular season for each team followed by 16 teams making the playoffs. For the 2021-2022 season, a new twist was included in the playoff format with 2 teams in each conference playing a single game elimination “play-in” to see who made the final playoff slots. As measured by annual revenue, the NBA ranks behind the NFL and MLB in the United States and also behind international professional soccer (football to non-Americans).
An aside to this narrative about the formation and evolution of the NBA is the ongoing discussion, sometimes not so friendly, about the Greatest of All Time, or the GOAT. Many say that Michael Jordan would be that man, while currently LeBron James is often named in the same breath. How about dominant big men in the center, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain? Both of those guys could really dominate a game. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson and perhaps a few others can all have a case made for them as the GOAT. Even Pete Maravich could have ranked among these estimable greats if he had only played during the 3 point era, Maravich is estimated to have scored an incredible 57 points per game during his college career if the 3 point line had been in effect, and his #21 best NBA career scoring average of 24.2 ppg might have been more like the 30.1 and 30.07 ppg posted by Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain at the top of the NBA scoring per game heap. Pistol Pete took an extraordinary number of shots from what is now 3 point range in his day, and had there been an actual 3 point line in his day he may have taken even more. In fact, in Maravich’s final NBA season the NBA finally instituted the 3 point line, and with limited playing time due to injuries a hobbled Pete Maravich made 10 of the 15 three pointers he took! Imagine what he might have accomplished! Injuries and the changing nature of the game make it hard to definitively determine the GOAT, but for this observer, I would go with Wilt Chamberlain. How about you?
(Trivia point: Steph Curry and LeBron James were both born in the same hospital in Akron, Ohio, though a few years apart.)
Question for students (and subscribers): If you are an NBA fan, who is your current and all time favorite players?Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Meyers, Christian. The All-Time Greatest NBA Book: Counting Down the 50 Greatest Teams, the 50 Greatest Playoff Runs by a Player, the 50 Greatest Playoff Moments, and the 100 Greatest Players. Independently published, 2022.
Segal, Adam. Basketball Now!: The Stars and Stories of the NBA. Firefly Books, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of professional basketball players Dave DeBusschere (left), John Havlicek (center), and Terry Dischinger (right), is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in the United States between 1927 and 1977, inclusive, without a copyright notice. For further explanation, see Commons:Hirtle chart as well as a detailed definition of “publication” for public art.