National Basketball League (NBL) in 1949 it was the culmination of two great basketball leagues that would give us one final and polished product; the National Basketball Association (NBA). A league, that in 1949, looked much different that the product we see today. Today we have 30 teams nestled in mega arenas in 28 cities across the United States and Canada and income in the Billions of dollars.
The BAA brought 7 teams into the NBA while the BAA brought 10. Though, two teams, the Indianapolis Jets, formally the Kautskys, and the Providence Steamrollers disbanded before the season started or the number of teams would have been 19
The 17 team league would be a mixture of big east coast cities, small Midwest farming communities, and one lone enclave in the Rocky Mountains. From the start problems started to arise with the disparity between the former NBL teams and the BAA teams. One of the biggest was income disparity as the BAA teams had a lot more money than did the NBL teams, the one thing that the NBL teams did have an advantage over the BAA is that the NBL tended to have the bigger stars.
One of the major factors in the merging of the two leagues was that the BAA, after three years of existence, was finally able to start not only plucking the top stars away from the NBL but also the NBL's top teams as well. Two seasons after its existence in 1947, the BAA was able to lure the Minneapolis Lakers away from the NBL along with the Rochester Royals, Fort Wayne Pistons and Indianapolis Jets.
Adding the Lakers to the BAA gave them the games biggest star in George Mikan. Mikan and the Lakers were the defending champions of the NBL and would go on to win the third championship in BAA history defeating the Knicks.
The NBL tried to counter when it created the expansion Indianapolis Olympians replace the Jets who had jumped to the BAA. The Olympians were made up of 5 Kentucky all American talents lead by Ralph Beard and Alex Groza. The 5 former Wildcats would own the team and would also play for the team. This was one of the few moves that the NBL did in its last few seasons that truly worried the NBA.
The NBL had also been able to lure big man Dolph Schayes away from the BAA when the Syracuse Nationals were able to land him over the New York Knicks. The Nationals offered Schayes a bigger contract and a bigger signing bonus, in cash, if he signed with them the day they met and he did.
Landing the games biggest stars caused a lot of alarm amongst the BAA owners and they pressured commissioner Maurice Podloff to act. The BAA owners feared that with competitive teams in the NBL's biggest markets, one of the markets which the NBA was struggling to compete in, that the NBL may get a decisive advantage over the BAA teams.
The BAA owners had reason to worry beyond just having a competitor. The NBL had tried and failed in many of the cities that the BAA was trying to establish it self in. Most notably the NBL had failed 3 times each in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. The NBL had also failed in Pittsburgh twice, where the BAA also had a team.
The BAA too was starting to fail in some major cities as fan interest was still low and the best players where in the NBL. Like the NBL, the BAA too ended up failing in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and also in Toronto in its first year. Other BAA teams such as Providence and Indianapolis were not looking good following the second season of the BAA.|
The NBL too was losing teams and was having financial difficulties. As mentioned Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Rochester and Fort Wayne all left the NBL for the BAA following the 48-49 season and two teams, the Toledo Jeeps and the Flint Dow AC's went bankrupt following the season. In addition to that the Chicago American Gears, the team that had won the NBL title in 1946 and had Mikan on it, had left the league at the end of the 47 season to start another rival league.
In the three years of competing with the BAA the NBL lost 11 franchises to either the BAA or bankruptcy.
Yet despite all these set backs, the NBL still thrived in places such as Anderson, Indiana and Oshkosh, Wisconsin. This was all the while the BAA was still struggling to keep afloat teams in Chicago and New York.
In the 1940s basketball was still a regional game with most fans living in the East coast and the Midwest. The Southeast and the West really did not care for the game and if they did they cared about their local college or AAU teams. Baseball was also king during this era and football a distant second. Basketball was behind even hockey in most of America and perhaps even behind soccer at the time.
This meant that money was scarce and there was televised games, so the only way people could see your product was to actually go and attend the games. This is why teams in small cities like Anderson and Oshkosh were able to thrive, as they did not compete with the MLB, NHL, or NFL and why teams in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland were not able to thrive and survive.
One often overlooked aspect of the NBL's success is that it included black players in its league. In fact, one of the earliest NBL teams, a team that had been in the NBL's predecessors the Midwest Basketball Conference, the Buffalo Bisons had used a blacked player named Hank Williams as early as 1935. The NBL began using black players during the 1942-43 season because the majority of the male population was fighting in World War II.
The Chicago Studebaker Flyers and the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets were amongst the first NBL teams to use black players, they would be joined by several others including the Rochester Royals, and the Tri-cities Blackhawks. In the NBL's final season they had an entire team made up of black players, who had previously been with the barnstorming juggernaut New York Renaissance, the Dayton Rens.
The addition of black players was another sticky issue with the BAA, as the league did not out right ban the use of black players but those who made the decisions knew not to sign a black player. This racism was most evident when the Royals switched from the NBL to the BAA for the 1948-49 season, when the league made them get rid of Dolly King; a black player who had been playing for the Royals.
Both leagues had plans to go ahead with a 49-50 season independently, but negotiations on some sort of compromise began shortly after both seasons ended. The NBL knew it could not sustain the large paychecks that its teams were giving the best players without more capital, and the BAA knew it needed to get the best players into its league. Negotiations were slow paced until on August 3 after a long meeting inside New York's Empire State Building the two leagues announced that they would merge.
The BAA did allow players of other ethnicity to join the league, however. The first non-white player in NBA history is not Earl Lloyd, nor is the first non white player to be drafted Chuck Cooper. Both of these distinctions belong to Wat Misaka. A 5'7” guard from the University of Utah who was drafted in the 7th round of the 1947 BAA draft by the New York Knicks and played 3 games with the Knicks in the 47-48 season.
As the 48-49 seasons wound down both leagues knew that cooperation was going to be needed in order for both leagues to survive. Both leagues were facing uncertain financial futures and were losing teams at an alarming rate. At the conclusion of the BAA season Providence announced that it would go under and in the NBL the Rens left the league after half a season.
The BAA got the upper hand because of its financial backing and got the better of the deal between the two leagues. Only one of the BAA's teams would not play the following season. The NBL's expansion Indianapolis Olympians would replaced the Indianapolis Jets. The NBL's Hammond Buccaneers would cease to exist. The Oshkosh All-stars, one of the most successful NBL teams, would have their rights sold to a group from Milwaukee. The Milwaukee group failed to get the required backing so, like the Buccaneers, the All-stars also disbanded.
The BAA would keep its official history and the NBL's history would not count. So the championships of NBL teams like the Lakers, Pistons, Royals and Packers would not count. Nor would the involvement of black players and their contributions to the game. Many NBA historians theorize that the reason why the NBL's history was not counted was because of the NBL's use of black players.
The newly organized NBA would be broken up into 3 divisions with 2 of the divisions having six teams and the other one only five. The divisions were based partially on geography but also most the NBL teams were placed into their own division in the west. The only exception to this was the Syracuse Nationals who joined the NBA's Eastern Division along with Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington.
The Central Division included all former BAA teams; Minneapolis, Chicago, Rochester, Fort Wayne, and St Louis. The Western Division contained Sheboygan, Indianapolis, Anderson, Denver, Tri-cities, and Waterloo.
The NBA formed its divisions this way for a variety of reasons. One was cost, the NBL teams needed to keep cost cheap and so playing teams near one another, like they were used to, would lower costs. It also kept the big market teams from having to play many games in the smaller gymnasiums. Another reason may have been to intentionally cause these teams to struggle and force them out of the league. Because, without the big money teams and big money players the fans would lose interest quickly in these cities.
Though, all 17 teams were in the same league, it would appear to an outsider that the Eastern and Central Divisions were one league and the Western Division another league all together. The Western teams were often called bush league teams as their arenas were often high school gymnasiums, were as the BAA teams had stadiums that would seat thousands.
One of the saddest examples of the discrepancies between the two types of teams in the league was when the Sheboygan Redskins had a road game in New York City vs the Knicks. The Redskins could not afford to charter a flight and instead had a team bus, which got stuck in traffic and the team barely made the game in time. The Knicks owner was livid and rumor has it threatened the league if they did not do something about the small markets he would leave the league.
The financial backing and the flair may not have been there for the NBL teams, but the talent on the court sure was. In the first season two of the three divisions were won by NBL teams. Syracuse won the Eastern Division and Indianapolis won the Western, and even the Central was won by former NBL team Minneapolis. Rochester and Fort Wayne, who left the NBL with the Lakers, were second and third in the NBA's Central Division. Not all was rosier for the NBL teams, besides Indianapolis, only defending NBL Champion Anderson, had a winning record in the Western Division. Of the 5 worst records in the NBA that season, only Boston did not play in the NBL the season prior.
The financial strain, lack of success, and pressure from big market owners would spell the doom for four of the NBL teams after just one season. Following the 49-50 season Anderson, Denver, Sheboygan and Waterloo would all join the smaller National Professional Basketball League (NPBL) The league lasted less than one season and folded before even hosting a playoff. Chicago and St Louis also folded that year and Washington during the season.
With the loss of 7 teams the NBA was brought down to just 10 teams and the future looked bleak. The League would survive though and the following season Tri-Cities would move to Milwaukee and take the old Waterloo teams moniker and become the Hawks.
The League trudged on with 10 teams for a few years, but when a point shaving scandal erupted at the University of Kentucky it soon found its ways into the NBA and nearly killed the league. Alex Groza and Ralph Beard admitted to point shaving while in college and were convicted and ordered to stay away from basketball for 3 years. NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff subsequently gave the pair lifetime bans from the NBA. Effectively ending the careers of two bright young stars.
The scandal caused the number of teams to drop from 10 to 9 for the 54-55 season, the following season the league also lost the Baltimore Bullets giving the NBA only 8 teams. The Bullets disbanding marks a turning point in the NBA as it would be the last time the league would lose a team, from this point forward the NBA would only add teams.
The 55 season marks another turning point as NBC began airing games on national TV. This would bring up the interest of the NBA from just regional pockets in the east to the entire nation. Two years after the 55 season, in 1957, the Celtics would win the first of their many NBA titles and the modern game would start to take shape.
Expansion, not contraction, would be the new theme for the NBA. Though it took the NBA 7 more seasons to finally add a ninth team to the league when in 1961 it added the Chicago Packers. The Packers would become the Zephyrs the next season and after two years in the Windy City would move to Baltimore. The NBA would finally succeed in Chicago, and become the first professional basketball team to do so, when in 1966 they added the first expansion franchise the Chicago Bulls.
From 1966 on the NBA has consistently added new teams, some from cities were the NBA and NBL had previously failed such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Buffalo and also in new venues like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Salt Lake City.
The NBA is now a billion dollar enterprise who sadly ignores much of its roots. There are still five NBA franchises who played in the NBL. The Lakers left Minneapolis in 1960. The Hawks moved from Tri-cities to Milwaukee in 1951 and than to St Louis in 1955 and finally to Atlanta in 1968. The Nationals would move to Philadelphia to replace the Warriors in 1963 and become the 76ers. The Royals would move to Cincinnati in 1957 and than to Kansas City in 1975 to become the Kings and than in 1985 to Sacramento. The Pistons would also move to Detroit in 1957.
The five NBL teams have all won an NBA title, and in the case of the Lakers and 76ers have won multiple NBA titles. The Lakers are the leagues most prominent franchise, yet the league still refuses to recognize their NBL accolades.
If the NBA were to recognize the NBL championships the Lakers and Celtics would both have 17 NBA titles, The Pistons 5, the 76ers would have 4 and the Kings 2. It would change the notions of greatness and importance of some of the early players and rewrite everything we think we know of basketball history.