Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer Book List: The Rise of the National Basketball Association

If you're looking for a book on the history of the NBA that features tables with titles like "Fixed-Effects Regression Equation for NBA Gate Receipts, 1950– 51," then this is your book and David George Surdam (a professor of economics at the University of Northern Iowa) is your author.

To be fair, Surdam's tables, all thirty-three of them, are placed in Appendix B. The main text of the book follows the typical chronological pattern of most descriptive histories. Within that text, though, Surdam offers a unique angle to the NBA's early history that (like the charts on fixed-effects regression equations) could only come from an economics professor. Forget Bill Russell, the owners are the heroes in The Rise of the National Basketball Association. Men like Walter Brown, Fred Zollner, Les Harrison, Eddie Gottlieb, Ned Irish, Ben Kerner, and Maurice Podoloff, should "justly feel proud of their efforts," Surdam writes, because they held the NBA together with "determination" and "a willingness to absorb losses."

To get at the owners' perspective and to explain the choices they made -- from integration, to television contracts, to gate receipt sharing, to league rules, to expansion and franchise relocation -- Surdam relies on a mix of secondary literature, New York Times and other national print media, archival research at the Naismith Hall of Fame, and a 1957 Congressional antitrust hearing on "Organized Professional Team Sports." Numerous NBA owners testified at that hearing, providing documentation on league finances and operating procedures that help Surdam analyze the economic underbelly of the league in a new way.


While Surdam's economic analysis is new, his narrative is not. It tends to draw largely from stories that have been told in other basketball history books, such as Terry Pluto's Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA, Robert Peterson's Cages to Jump Shots, Murry Nelson's The National Basketball League, and Ron Thomas's They Cleared the Lane: The NBA's Black Pioneers (among others). This is not necessarily a drawback, as The Rise of the National Basketball Association provides a coherent synthesis of the basic history of the league to go along with its unique economic angle. Thus, both those who are already familiar with the story of the NBA's early years and those who are not will find something to enjoy.

I'll close with a few of the most interesting tidbits that Surdam mentions in his book:
  • Surdam argues that there was no "white flight" in the 1960s. The 1950-51 season was the first in which black players played in the NBA (they had previously played in the NBL). By the 1958–59 season, every team had an African American player and they made up 21 percent of the league roster. During the 1960–61 season every team had at least two black players, and by 1964–65 blacks made up almost half of the league’s roster. Yet, fan support actually grew as the league added more and more black players (at least in the era that Surdam's book covers).
  • NBA success required a dominant big man -- specifically, either George Mikan, Bill Russell, or Wilt Chamberlain. Between 1949 and 1969, only four teams without one of those three players won an NBA title. Two of those teams (the Rochester Royals in 1951 and the St. Louis Hawks in 1958) won their titles in years when Mikan/Russell were injured during the playoffs. The other two teams (the Syracuse Nationals in 1955 and the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956) won their titles in the gap in between Mikan's retirement and Russell's rookie season. 
  • Surdam spends a lot of time in the book comparing the NBA with other pro sports leagues. It's obvious that the NBA was minor league compared to Major League Baseball. For example, Surdam notes that the NBA's total attendance for the 1959-1960 season was less than the attendance for the Pittsburgh Pirates alone. There were other comparison with MLB, too. For example, early NBA players tended to make shots at about the same rate that baseball players made hits. While MLB batting averages lingered in the .260 to .270 range,  NBA players were shooting about 28% from the field, and the BAA/NBA's leader in shooting percentage during the 1947–48 season knocked down only 34% of his shots.
  • The NBA didn't know at first what to do with television. Rochester Royals owner Les Harrison recalled that NBA owners "put our worst games on because we feared that if we broadcast the best games, no one would buy a ticket. They’d all stay home and watch it for free. So what the public saw was the worst of pro basketball.” Surdam corroborated Harrison's assertion by examining the 14 games that were televised in 1953-1954. Four of those fourteen games featured the NBA's worst teams. 
  • The NBA was very much willing to experiment in its early years. For example, the NBA played an official game in which referees sat in tennis umpires' chairs. They also played a game in which twelve-foot-high baskets were used. And salary schemes were flexible as well. The Chicago Gears of the NBL temporarily utilized a scheme in which George Mikan got five dollars for each field goal and two dollars for each free throw made. The Gears owner unsuccessfully tried extending the pay-for-stats scheme to the entire team.
  • While the founding of the BAA in 1946 is often cited as the beginning of the NBA, only three of the original BAA teams (the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia Warriors, and New York Knicks) survived. Meanwhile, five teams that originated in the NBL are still in operation. 
  • There is much handwringing today about the 82 game schedule. But how did the schedule get that unwieldy in the first place? Surdam argues that we can blame the owners of teams in smaller cities. With slim margins, they pressed for as many regular season games as possible, eventually pushing the league schedule to reach the 80-game threshold by 1961–62. 
  • Speaking of slim profit margins, there was really only one path to profitability for owners in the NBA's early years: they needed to own an arena. During the NBA's first decade, only two teams (the Knicks and Celtics) managed to consistently post a profit in any given season. Those two teams were also the only two in which the owner of the team also owned the arena in which home games were played.