The early days of basketball often seen slow fan-unfriendly low scoring matches that often left spectators bored. Games often only got into the 40’s and many of the best players averaged less than 15 points a game. Many early basketball games looked more like a glorified version of the children’s game of keep-away than an action packed professional sport. This style of play culminated in a game between Minneapolis and Fort Wayne, where the Pistons of Fort Wayne held the ball most of the second half nursing a 1 point lead over the Lakers. The Pistons would win 19-18 in the lowest scoring game in NBA history. Prior to that the fewest points ever score 33 points, just 4 fewer than both teams scored, and that game was one the opening night of the NBA, or BAA as it was called back then.
This pace bored fans, many of whom were promised an action packed fun experience and attendance and interest in the new league had begun to dip. The NBA needed a solution and needed it fast. The solution was an ingenious one and one that would revolutionize the game as we know it. A simple clock, with just 24 seconds on it would forever change the game.
The clock was the brain child of Syracuse Nationals general manager Leo Ferris, a man that the NBA has long forgotten in one of the biggest travesties in the games history. Ferris, is as important to the early days of the NBA as anyone and one could argue that without Ferris there would be no NBA today; and there definitely would be no Atlanta Hawks, or Philadelphia 76ers. The NBA would look much different today without Ferris’s input all those years ago.
Ferris got his start with basketball not in the NBA but in the NBL when in 1946 he helped found the Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons were pretty much a failure in upstate New York and after only 13 games the Bisons picked up and left the shores of Lake Erie and heated to the American Heartland in Molina, Illinois. Technically, the team played in Molina and Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa but most of their games were played in Molina. The team was called the Tri-Cities Blackhawks and while they struggled the foundation of one of the longest tenured NBA teams was laid. The Blackhawks would eventually move to Milwaukee, where they took on the moniker Hawks, and than move to St Louis and finally to Atlanta.
Shortly after the team moved to Tri-Cities Ferris would go on to make one of his first major shake ups of the basketball world when he signed Pop Gates for the all-black New York Ren’s to a contract. African-American players had played in the NBL before, but only during the early 1940s when World War II had taken a lot of the white players from the NBL. Gates was the first black player signed to a contract when there was not a necessity for them, and the first one signed because of his skill and talent and not because the league needed players. Gates would re-join the Rens when they joined the NBL as the Dayton Rens two years later.
After only a season with the Blackhawks, Ferris returned to his native upstate New York and began as the general manager of the NBL’s Syracuse Nationals. As manager of the Nationals he scored a huge coup for the Nationals and the NBL when he lured highly coveted big man Dolph Schayes away from the New York Knicks of the upstart BAA.
The BAA and NBL rivalry only got worse, with the BAA stealing away most of the best players from the NBL and starting in 1948 the BAA started taking the best teams as well. In 1947 the Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals and Indianapolis Kautskies left the NBL for the BAA. The Nationals were now in an uncertain league and they and the NBL desperately needed to find a solution, and Leo Ferris would find that solution.
Starting in the spring of 1949 Ferris started meeting with executives of the BAA, at first it was an attempt to possible get the Nationals into the growing league, but would soon expand to merging the two leagues. The talks ended in August of 1949 when an agreement was reached to merge the NBL and BAA and form the NBA. The BAA only wanted to absorb two teams; the Nationals, and the upstart Indianapolis Olympians; who would replace the Jets. Ferris managed to talk the BAA into accepting both of those teams, as well as the Denver Nuggets, Sheboygan Redskins, Anderson Packers and the Blackhawks. He originally wanted the merger to include Oshkosh, Hammond and Dayton, but financial backing ruined Oshkosh’s attempt to relocate to Milwaukee and Hammond was thought too close to Chicago where the BAA already had a team. The Rens of Dayton were not allowed to join because their players consisted of black players. In addition to the Rens not being allowed to join, black players on Syracuse also had to be let go.
The merge proved successful as the 17 team NBA seen initial success, but the old NBL teams had given up too much power in the merger and despite Ferris’s best efforts the league kicked out 5 of the former NBL teams the next season.
The 1950 season saw the Lakers continue their dominance and the Pistons thought the only way to stop them was to hold on to a one point lead and the ball. This was the event that usurer in Leo Ferris’s clock or more commonly known as the shot clock. Ferris had always liked math and had been good at it, and he used math to come up with the 24 second clock. He took the number of seconds in a 48-minute game (2,880) and divided that by the average number of shots in a game (120) to get to 24 seconds.
It took 4 more years for the league to implement the shot clocks and when they did the league seen a jump in scoring by nearly 20 points a game and gone were the days of games ending up in the 40s. In fact, since the introduction of the shot clock there has been only 20 regular season games were a team has scored less than 60 points, and only one were a team scored less than 50 and only one playoff game were a team scored less then 60 points.
The introduction of the shot clock caused the game to enter into an era of frenzied paces, with teams scoring what were once thought of as impossible number of points. In 1954-55 Neil Johnston lead the NBA in scoring with 22 points a game, seven years later Wilt Chamberlain would set the NBA record by averaging 50 points a game.
Ferris would only stick around the NBA for one season after his clock was introduced before permanently leaving the league and the game to develop real-estate. It was a shockingly short career for someone who would have such a profound impact on the game.
Despite all that he accomplished, Ferris has yet to be introduced into the Naismith Hall-of-Fame. He has been a finalist multiple times but never made it to the enshrinement portion. This is likely due to the utter and complete disregard and disdain that the NBA has often shown towards the NBL and its former players and staff.
Excluding Ferris has been one of the worst tragedies that the NBA has done in its 70 plus years of existence. Many people are in the Hall-of-Fame who have lesser resumes than Ferris and yet Ferris gets overlooked time and again. Maybe, hopefully, 2018 will be the year for the man who may have saved the NBA.
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Photo Credit: John Lent/AP