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The Birth of the 24-Second Clock

By Harvey Frommer Created: November 26, 2012 Last Updated: November 26, 2012
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The NBA didn't always have a shot clock to ensure a high-paced game. Point guards like Steve Nash (pictured) have pushed the pace even further. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The NBA didn't always have a shot clock to ensure a high-paced game. Point guards like Steve Nash (pictured) have pushed the pace even further. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

To watch the high-scoring action in the National Basketball Association today, it is hard to believe the way things once were. But back in the early years of the league, games were yawning affairs or stalling contests.

The 1950-1951 season saw the NBA go from an unwieldy 17-team league to 11 teams in a two-division setup. It was also a season that included the lowest-scoring game in NBA history.

It happened November 22, 1950—the yawner of all yawners. The game pitted the Fort Wayne Pistons (who became the Detroit Pistons) against the Minneapolis Lakers (who became the Show Time bunch), and was played on the home court of the Lakers, who enjoyed a great home advantage. Their court was shorter and narrower than normal size. Their team was big, bulky and slow—all of which were perfectly suited for a slowdown game.

In the game, the two teams combined for just 31 shots. When it was over, Ft. Wayne had creaked out a 19 – 18 triumph in a painful and boring example of how dull a stalling contest could be. The game started serious talk throughout the NBA about ways to prevent those kinds of contests from taking place.

Then on January 6, 1951, a very cold night in Rochester, the Royals (who one day would evolve into the Sacramento Kings) played against the Indianapolis Olympians (evolved from the 1948 basketball Gold Medal winners) in what has gone down as the longest game in the annals of the NBA.

“I played 76 of the 78 minutes in that opus.” -- Red Holzman.

The game lasted a grand total of 78 minutes and included six overtimes. Some of the loyal Rochester fans booed, and hundreds of others walked out of the old Edgerton Park Arena. They just couldn’t abide the slow-down stalling tactics of both teams.

In the half-dozen overtimes, just 23 shots were taken. At the start of each overtime, the team that earned the tip just held on to the ball for one last shot. Players just stood around gaping and staring at each other. One player dribbled or held the ball and looked around hoping to make the smart pass for a high percentage shot. Indianapolis finally won the game, 75-73.

Red Holzman told me in the late 1980s when I was writing his autobiography, “I played 76 of the 78 minutes in that opus. And although I was in great shape, my tail was dragging when the historic marathon was over”. That game and the bore that was the 19-18 contest made players and coaches see the need and the urgency to speed up the game. It was these two games, and others like them, that set the stage for the creation of the 24-second clock—and the salvation of the NBA.

The clock was first used in the 1954-1955 season, and scoring jumped an average of 15 points a game as a result. The new NBA era was underway.

As a post-script to all of this, Holzman told me that back in 1951, after the 19-18 game, he got the idea for a shot clock and told some of the owners about it. They dismissed him as “a young squirt.” But someone must have been listening.

Dr. Harvey Frommer received his Ph.D. from New York University. Professor Emeritus, Distinguished Professor nominee, Recipient of the “Salute to Scholars Award” at CUNY where he taught writing for many years, the prolific author was cited by the Congressional Record and the New York State Legislature as a sports historian and journalist.

His sports books include autobiographies of sports legends Nolan Ryan, Red Holzman and Tony Dorsett, the classics “Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball,” “New York City Baseball: 1947-1957.” The 1927 Yankees.” His “Remembering Yankee Stadium” was published to acclaim in 2008. His latest book, a Boston Globe Best Seller, is “Remembering Fenway Park.” Autographed and discounted copies of all Harvey Frommer books are available direct from the author.

Please consult his home page: http://harveyfrommersports.com/remembering_fenway/

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