Saturday, June 27, 2015

Summer Book List: Learning about the National Basketball League

Recently I had time for a little pleasure reading, so I picked up Murry Nelson's history of the National Basketball League. For those not familiar, the NBL was one of two leagues (the Basketball Association of America was the other) to merge in 1949 and form the National Basketball Association.

The impetus for the book came back in 1996 when the NBA celebrated its 50th Year Anniversary. Nelson, a leading historian of basketball, cried foul, noting that 1996 was 50 years after the BAA's founding, not the NBA's. As for the NBL -- the other half of the merger that created the NBA -- it had been around since 1937. Choosing 1946 as the beginning of the NBA blatantly ignored both the importance of the NBL and the historical record.

Not surprisingly, Nelson's pleas went unheard. The NBA went ahead with its celebration in 1996 and continues to mark 1946 as the starting point in league history. In light of this, an angry and inspired Nelson set out to recover the NBL's history. In The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949 (McFarland, 2009) he's done just that, providing the definitive account of the league that from 1937 until 1948 was "the undisputed premiere professional basketball league in the United States."

Nelson certainly has a point when arguing for the superiority of the NBL. He estimates in the book that 90 percent of the best professional basketball players in 1947 played in the NBL. It's impossible to know with certainty whether or not that estimate is correct, but we do know that the first six NBA champions were NBL teams, and that in the NBA's first season six of the ten All-NBA players were from the NBL while only one came from the BAA (three rookies also earned All-NBA honors). Of course, in the 1940s some of the nation's top basketball players, including Hank Luisetti, Bob Kurland, and Jesse Renick, found homes and stable employment on company-sponsored AAU teams. And, an even greater asterisk, professional basketball leagues mostly barred blacks from playing (more on that in a second), leaving the top African American players to join famed traveling teams like the Harlem Globetrotters and the New York Rens.