How the NBA’s 75th anniversary sweeps away its early history

On Aug. 3, 1949, representatives of the National Basketball League and Basketball Association of America shake hands after agreeing to merge the two circuits into an 18-team organization known as the National Basketball Association. Grouped around Maurice Podoloff, center, are, from left, Ike Duffey, Leo Ferris, Ned Irish and Walter Brown. (John Lent/AP)

The NBA’s 2021-22 season is billed as its 75th anniversary season.

The league says it was founded in 1946 when the Basketball Association of America (BAA) began operation. Certainly, the BAA is a part of the NBA’s history, but so is the National Basketball League (NBL), which was founded in 1937. After three years of acrimonious competition in the late 1940s, the BAA and the NBL merged Aug. 3, 1949, to form the NBA. Thus the league’s true 75th anniversary season doesn’t begin until 2024.

By using the 1946 founding date, the NBA has neglected NBL records, all while incorporating BAA statistics into the official NBA record book; altered the histories of five of its extant franchises; and missed out on important progress toward racially integrating the hardwood made by the NBL.

The NBA’s history website describes the NBL-BAA merger as an absorption: “The summer of 1949 solidified the professional basketball picture, with the six surviving NBL teams being absorbed into the BAA and the league being renamed the National Basketball Association.”

However, the NBA’s own name bears witness to this merger of equals. The National Basketball League plus the Basketball Association of America produces the National Basketball Association. NBL + BAA = NBA.

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Even the NBA’s record book from the 1949-50 season attests to this historical truth. To wit, “The basketball season of 1949-50 finds a new name flashing across the national court scene — the National Basketball Association. It is an offspring of a midsummer merger between the 12-year-old National Basketball League and the four-year old Basketball Association of America.”

Here’s an expanded look at the NBA’s history, which includes the significant influence of the NBL:

The NBL and origins of the NBA

The National Basketball League was initially established as the loosely organized Midwest Basketball Conference in 1935. Two years later, officials tightened up operations, set firmer rules on scheduling and adopted a more grandiose title in the process.

Even with the impressive National in its name, the NBL remained primarily based in the Midwest and Great Lakes region during its life span. Despite its geographical limits, the NBL became the premier and most stable basketball league of its era. The mainstay franchises for the NBL were the Oshkosh All-Stars, Sheboygan Red Skins and Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons. During the extremely lean years of World War II, they were the only clubs to participate in every NBL season, keeping pro hoops alive for a postwar boom.

Following World War II, that boom came quickly. The NBL reached its zenith in the 1946-47 season with an all-time high of 12 teams.

Among these recruits were the Rochester Royals, Minneapolis Lakers, Tri-Cities Blackhawks and Syracuse Nationals. If those names sound familiar, it’s because they live on in the NBA today, albeit in different locales.

  • The aforementioned Pistons are now in Detroit.
  • The Royals are now the Sacramento Kings.
  • The Lakers moved to Los Angeles.
  • The Blackhawks became the Atlanta Hawks.
  • The Nationals transformed into the Philadelphia 76ers.

In that same 1946-47 basketball season, East Coast business executives from the NHL and American Hockey League decided to fill empty dates at their arenas by riding the basketball boom themselves. Thus was born the BAA.

Of the BAA’s original 11 teams, only the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia Warriors (now in Golden State) and New York Knicks remain. Indeed, after just one season, five BAA teams folded in financial distress. The BAA subsequently raided the original Baltimore Bullets from the American Basketball League (ABL) to bring their ranks back up to eight teams for the 1947-48 season, while the NBL fielded 11 squads that year.

However, the BAA aspired to dominate pro basketball, not merely survive alongside the NBL or minor leagues such as the ABL. This prompted the BAA’s high-stakes gambit in the 1948 offseason. Instead of building talent over time, it would lure away franchises from the established NBL. Four clubs took the bait. In one fell swoop, the Lakers, Pistons, Royals and Indianapolis Kautskys joined the BAA.

Although the BAA was new and struggling, the allure for these four renegade NBL squads was the prospect of playing in major venues such as Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden to showcase stars George Mikan and Bob Davies.

Despite the damage done by the raid, the NBL stiffened its resistance to the upstart BAA. Veteran player Al Cervi, quoted years later in Robert W. Peterson’s “Cages to Jump Shots,” was one such NBL devotee who was upset with the BAA’s move.

“The NBL was the strength! The BAA was a high school league,” Cervi said. “If they don’t steal four clubs from the NBL, they’re out of business.” Tri-Cities Blackhawks co-founder Leo Ferris contemporaneously called the raid “a declaration of war” and acted accordingly to force the BAA into a merger.

The NBL successfully recruited new teams to replace all the defectors for the 1948-49 season, including the all-Black New York Renaissance, which relocated to Dayton, Ohio, to compete in the league.

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Ferris meanwhile got to work salvaging the NBL. And he had plenty of opportunity to do so because he co-owned the Blackhawks, served as acting general manager for the Syracuse Nationals and served in the NBL league office.

His major moves in the 1948 offseason were a pair of signings that deprived the BAA of top-flight talent. Ferris convinced Cervi to abandon the BAA-bound Royals to sign with the Nationals of the NBL. Then came the bombshell that Ferris’s small-town Nationals outbid the BAA’s New York Knicks for rookie forward Dolph Schayes, who would go on to make 12 NBA all-star teams with Syracuse.

In the spring of 1949 came Ferris’s most daring move, one that has been largely forgotten but should not be underestimated.

Ferris signed five players from the University of Kentucky and gave them their own franchise in the NBL: the Indianapolis Olympians. These five players, headlined by superstar center Alex Groza, had led Kentucky to two NCAA titles and the United States to a gold medal in basketball at the 1948 Olympics (hence the name of their new player-owned franchise). The move muscled the BAA out of Indianapolis — the Kautskys went out of business — and returned the NBL to a major basketball market.

Stunned by the signings and the NBL’s overall resilience, the BAA was brought to the peace table. On Aug. 3, 1949, the leagues signed paperwork to conclude a merger forming the NBA.

Assessing the NBL’s impact

Of the NBA’s 17 original franchises from the merger, only eight survive. Five have their major league roots in the NBL compared with just three in the BAA.

During its first six seasons, when the league was largely populated by pre-merger players, the NBA was dependent on and dominated by the old NBL teams. The first six NBA champions were former NBL teams. Even the franchises finishing as Finals runners-up were mainly from the NBL. The only former BAA team to appear in the NBA Finals these years was the Knicks.

Players who began their careers in the NBL also dominated the all-NBA first and second teams in this era. Of the 61 selections made for that year-end honor, 30 of them (49 percent) were players who began their career in the NBL. Meanwhile, 18 were players who started their careers in the BAA (30 percent), and 13 entered the pros after the merger (21 percent).

The NBL’s impact goes beyond just powering the NBA’s early talent pool.

That executive mentioned earlier, Leo Ferris, remember him? Well, Ferris and Syracuse Nationals owner Daniel J. Biasone devised the 24-second shot clock in 1954. Those two NBL vets created the rule that helped usher in the modern era of basketball and made the game more thrilling for fans.

There’s also the issue of race. During the 1930s and 1940s, Blacks and Whites did play against one another in pro basketball. However, these contests were usually exhibitions, and the teams were all-White and all-Black. Integration within a team was rare.

When the NBA began in 1949, it was an all-White league. The BAA had only one non-White player during its three years, and that player, Wataru Misaka, played a mere three games for the New York Knicks.

The NBL was normally all-White as well. However, the NBL broke with pro basketball tradition by having Black men play alongside Whites. Its integration was never permanent. Nor was it universal, steady or perfect. But it did happen.

In the 1935-36 season, when it was still known as the Midwest Basketball Conference, the NBL’s Buffalo Bisons employed Hank Williams, a Black center.

During the NBL’s 1942-43 season, the Chicago Studebakers and Toledo Jim White Chevrolets signed multiple Black players, marking the first time that several Black men would be playing alongside Whites. In fact, the Chicago team was majority-Black. Not until the mid-1960s would the NBA field a majority-Black team.

Speaking in 1992 to the United Auto Workers’ Solidarity Magazine, Black player Tony Peyton of the Studebakers reflected on the integrated squad. “We were proud of what we did,” Peyton said. “Just playing our home games in Cicero [a Chicago suburb] was groundbreaking, man, because black people weren’t even allowed to walk there back then.” Black teammate Bernie Price rebutted any notion that Black and White players couldn’t get along. “It didn’t matter if there were three Black players and two Whites in the game or three Whites and two Blacks, we played as a team. There was no difference.” White teammate Dick Evans added: “We were proud to be together. We admired each other.”

In the 1946-47 NBL season, two future NBA franchises employed their first Black players. The Rochester Royals hired William “Dolly” King, and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, under Ferris, signed William “Pop” Gates to their squad.

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In the NBL’s final season of 1948-49, the renowned barnstorming New York Renaissance joined the league. They remain the only all-Black team to have played in the NBA or its predecessor leagues. Owned by Bob Douglas, an African American immigrant from St. Kitts, the Renaissance was also the only Black-owned franchise in the NBA, BAA or NBL until Robert Johnson’s ownership of the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004.

These integrations were imperfect. They each lasted just a season before the NBL fell back to being all-White. Nonetheless that imperfection provides a truer tale of racial integration.

Studying the NBL further reveals the importance that communities outside the sporting mainstream had in nurturing the professional basketball behemoth that is now the NBA.

During the 1930s and 1940s, newspapers and sports fans in large metro areas primarily focused on major league baseball, professional football and college basketball. They generally considered professional basketball a backwater. The White press in cities such as Oshkosh, Syracuse, Moline, Rochester and Akron (as well as Black newspapers in the major metros) devoted far more coverage to professional basketball in these years. Teams such as the Oshkosh All-Stars and New York Renaissance were the pride and joy of their sporting communities, be they predominantly White towns in the Midwest or Black neighborhoods such as Harlem in major cities, sparking attention and devotion not to be found for years in the NBA’s larger markets. These areas disproportionately cared about professional basketball and the nascent NBA, giving the league a foundation to build upon as it steadily grew over the years.

Franchises such as the All-Stars and Renaissance never made it into the NBA proper. When it comes to professional league play, all they have are their NBL histories. Other franchises, such as the Lakers and Pistons, made it to the NBA, only to have their histories partially erased. For example, the Lakers have a 1948 NBL title that goes unacknowledged by the NBA, but the Warriors’ 1947 BAA title receives full faith and credit from the NBA.

So despite a 75th anniversary that ties the league’s founding to the BAA, the NBL played an indispensable role in setting the NBA up to eventually flourish as a global entertainment enterprise.

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Curtis M. Harris holds a Ph.D. in American History from American University. He manages ProHoopsHistory, an independent blog and newsletter focused on exploring the history and complexities of professional basketball in North America.