Watching NBA high flyers, three point shooters, is a bit like watching pinball machine action in a game controlled by a clock.
And all of this is a far cry from the way things once were. Back in the early years of the league, many 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.
Back on November 22, 1950 – the yawner of all yawners took place. The game pitted the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons (who became the Detroit Pistons) against the Minneapolis Lakers (who became the Los Angeles Lakers). The game was played on the home court of the Lakers, who enjoyed a great home field 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, New York, the Royals played against the Indianapolis Olympians in what has gone down as the longest game in the annals of the NBA.
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.
The great coach 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. But let’s give credit now where credit is due.
COMING IN SEPTEMBER: Nominated for the Pen Center Awards in the literary sports writing category, Harvey Frommer’s WHEN IT WAS JUST A GAME: REMEMBERING THE FIRST SUPER BOWL tells the fascinating story of the ground-breaking AFL–NFL World Championship Football game January 15, 1967: Packers vs. Chiefs. Book features oral history from many who were there and archival photographs & drawings. (Bookings in progress)