The National Basketball Association (NBA) is celebrating its 75th season this year. To mark the occasion, the league named the 75 greatest players in NBA history.
I’ve been thinking about the NBA for years because I researched and wrote a book called “Hardcourt: Stories From 75 Years of the National Basketball Association.” The book is a history of the NBA for kids and includes stories about the players and other people who made the league what it is today.
Some of the stories are famous while others are not as well-known. For example, many basketball fans know that Wilt Chamberlain (NBA career: 1959-1973) set a league record by scoring 100 points in a game in 1962. But the giant center may have been helped by the loose rims at the arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania. (Loose rims allow more shots to roll into the net.) Why were the rims loose? A circus had recently been in town, and the clowns may have loosened the rims by hanging on them during their act.
Bill Russell (1956-1969) won an amazing 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics. The Celtics were able to draft Russell, who had led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back national championships, as the Number 2 pick. You might wonder why the Rochester Royals, who had the Number 1 pick, didn’t choose him. It was because the owner of the Celtics, who also owned a popular ice show called the Ice Capades, promised to let the Royals’ arena host the moneymaking show for a week.
George Mikan (1949-1956) was the first NBA super star. The 6-foot, 10-inch center, who wore glasses when he played, was a big attraction. He was so popular that a sign outside the Madison Square Garden arena once advertised “Geo Mikan v/s Knicks” for a game there between Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers and the New York Knicks.
Even the greatest players had to work hard to become better. After his rookie-of-the-year first season in the NBA, Michael Jordan (1984-2003) returned to North Carolina and asked his college coach what he needed to do to get better. The coach said Jordan had to improve his jump shot. Jordan, already a star, spent all summer working on his jumper.
Similarly, Larry Bird (1979-1992) thought he needed a step-back jump shot to improve his game. Bird took 800 (!) step-back jump shots each day one summer at home in Indiana.
I also learned that the NBA was not always the big deal it is today. In the early 1950s, teams traveled by trains, not airplanes. When the Boston Celtics traveled to play in Rochester, New York, and then to Fort Wayne, Indiana, the train would stop in a cornfield and the players would ask for car rides to Fort Wayne from high school students.
Great players, great moments, great games. It leaves any hoops fan looking forward to more hardcourt stories in the years to come.