Pro Hoops Real Birthday Becomes Defined

By Claude Johnson
Updated: April 23, 2009

CONNECTICUT – In 1996, while I was working at NBA Properties — the league’s licensing and merchandising arm — the league vigorously promoted its 50th Anniversary with an avalanche of celebratory events, historical perspectives, and commemorative items.

The problem, though, was that technically it was only the 46th anniversary, since the N.B.A. didn’t actually exist until the 1949-50 season.

That year, the Basketball Association of America (established in 1946) and the National Basketball League (formed in 1937) merged most of their existing teams (except the all-Black New York Rens) into a new league they called the National Basketball Association.

But those historical facts didn’t stop the league, which insisted the official inaugural year was 1946.

Their insistence was based upon the idea — now proven historically inaccurate — that rather than a merger, the B.A.A. merely expanded by swallowing up the N.B.L.’s teams and then renaming itself.

Some suspected that the N.B.A. was using that earlier date and accelerating its 50th anniversary celebration ahead of schedule for marketing reasons — to allow more promotional hype featuring Michael Jordan, whose remaining playing days at the time were uncertain.

Basketball history scholars and educators quickly objected to the dismissal of the N.B.L., a groundbreaking league that signed African American players as early as 1942.

But to no avail. The N.B.A.’s marketing machine, which included the admittedly brilliant though somewhat flawed 50 Greatest Players promotional bonanza, created so much media attention that any dissenting voices were quickly and easily made irrelevant or drowned out.

However, one man, Murry Nelson, a professor of education and American studies at Penn State University, wouldn’t back down. He began a letter writing campaign and, to his delight, Sports Illustrated published one of them in its issue of December 9, 1996:

The celebration of the NBA’s 50th year in SI and elsewhere has me confused. How is the first season of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), 1946-47, the beginning of the NBA? When the BAA and the National Basketball League (NBL) merged to form the NBA before the 1949-50 season, the league consisted of 17 teams, 11 from the BAA and six from the NBL.

Why declare the inception of the BAA as the starting point of the NBA? The NBL began in 1937-38. Why not count the history of the NBA from then? The oldest team in the NBA is the Detroit Pistons, who began in 1941-42 as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons; why not start with them?

Of the 17 teams that began the NBA, eight are still in existence, but they began their various lives in the years from 1941 through 1947 .

MURRY NELSON, Boalsburg, Pa.

That ink got a lot of attention. Regrettably, however, SI’s editor had already drunk the N.B.A.’s revisionist Cool-Aid:

The NBA traces its origins to June 6, 1946, when it was founded, as the BAA, at a meeting of prospective team owners in New York. Maurice Podoloff was chosen commissioner at that gathering. The league, with Podoloff still the commissioner, simply changed its name to the NBA before the 1949-50 season, when it absorbed six surviving members of the rival NBL.—ED.

Prof. Nelson was summarily dismissed. And by a non-academic journalist. As if!

What stands out about this historical faux pas reveals itself, ironically, in the very next letter to the editor, published by SI right below Prof. Nelson’s:

Earl Lloyd is listed in your timeline as the first black to play in an NBA game in 1950. But there were black pro players before then. William (Dolly) King and William (Pop) Gates of the NBL Rochester Royals each played in 1946-47.

Because of a fight between Gates and another player, neither was retained the following year because of concern over racial tension. These two friends and former Harlem Renaissance players were the forebears of blacks in the NBA.

KEITH NORRIS, Los Angeles

It’s as if the N.B.A. didn’t want to be associated with the N.B.L., or with that racial breakthrough, or both, for whatever reason.

In other words, there remains a perplexing question: If the N.B.A. was formed in 1946, then why did the league not leverage or promote or even acknowledge its leadership — ahead of Major League Baseball — insofar as its breaking the color barrier that year (with King and Gates)?

But the brush-off provided powerful inspiration for Prof. Nelson. He decided then and there to set the record straight — by writing a definitive and comprehensive book about the N.B.L.

That book is now finished: The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949, by Murry R. Nelson.

The book is all that. It includes dozens of rarely seen photographs, tables of year-by-year team standings, complete listings of league MVPs and scoring leaders, and details of league franchises.

On a personal note, I met Prof. Nelson about 10 years ago at a basketball history symposium at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, where, afterward, we also played in a game of pickup basketball together.

He subsequently invited me to join a panel discussion on African American history at Penn State, where we played hoops at the college’s famed Rec Hall, under the watchful (and probably amused) eye of John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs, who was also a guest panelist.

After that we met (and played) at a couple of the annual North American Society for Sports History conferences, most memorably at an outdoor playground court in French Lick, Indiana.

So I got to know Prof. Nelson’s game — it’s solid and complete, and impressive in that what he lacks in any area is made up for with crazy stamina.

Moreover, he’s my definitive source for anything about the N.B.L.

He’s also, now, professor emeritus at Penn State, and the author of a history of the New York Original Celtics, as well as biographies of Bill Russell and Shaquille O’Neal.

Prof. Nelson’s new book provides a much-needed bridge between the N.B.A. and a vitally important portion of the history that led up to it’s formation.

So, if you want to know all the facts and the real story behind the hype, I recommend that you check it out.