Basketball's early roots on the east coast are well document, from that cold December day in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891 when the game first formed to the present, we know the stories, the players and the histories. What is less known is how the game developed out west. While at the time of basketball's founding the east was pretty much an established mega-industrial center catering to the worlds needs. The west, it was still wild and untamed.
When James Naismith invented basketball in 1891 the United States states had just 44 states and Wyoming and Idaho had just joined the Union. Three states that would join the union after the founding of basketball, Utah, Oklahoma and Arizona, now contain NBA teams. The battle of Wounded Knee, the last great battle between the United States Army and the Native American's had happened just shy of a year before the game of basketball was invented. And the infamous gun fight at the OK Corral had happened just a decade before. In fact, the early days of basketball are closer in time to the French Revolution than they are to today.
It is easy to see why basketball's roots began in the east and why it has stuck and become such an integral part of the urban landscape. The east had the infrastructure and had young men with free time to play the game and form leagues. In contrast, the west lacked the roads, rails, and metropolitan areas to give rise to the infrastructure that is required to play basketball. Basketball, in all reality, is a lot more than just a round ball and a peach basket nailed about some flat surface. You need players, you need officials, and most of all you need the desire to want to play the game.
Yet, with the west lacking all these hallmarks of the game, the game started to flourish in the wild wild west. First the game started to take hold in the mid-west, in cities like Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis. But it was not long before the game appeared on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and in the playgrounds of the Great Basin.
The earliest evidence of basketball being played in the west comes from Stanford University in California. Stanford founded a team in roughly 1896 to play against other teams in the area. Stanford would also become the first university to sanction a women's basketball team that year as well, but would disband the team after only one season.
In the east the game grew in popularity amongst the semi-pro leagues that popped up and disbanded seemingly over night, but in the west the game grew amongst amatures. Several fly by night leagues sprung up in California as early and 1895 and there was a semi-pro league in Utah in 1896 who would play a ceremonial game when the state got statehood in January of 1896. But for the most part basketball saw success in the amateur ranks.
When the Amateur Athletic Union, AAU, finally reached the west it set off an explosion of new basketball teams, players and leagues. It did not take long before teams from the west to start competing with, but beating their eastern counterparts. In 1905 a team from Kansas City won the AAU championship, and in 1915 a team from San Francisco became the first team from west of the Mississippi River to capture the crown. They were followed in succession by squads from Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles.
During the glory days of the AAU the Phillips 66ers, a corporate sponsored team from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, became one of the most success amateur teams in the country. From 1940 until 1955 they captures nine AAU titles including six in a row during World War II. Their biggest rivals were the Denver Piggly Wiggly/Safeway Stores, who captured three titles during their span.
The Denver team would issue in a new era in western basketball. After several years as an amature team, the team decided to take their talents to the pro level and joined the National Basketball League as the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets were the first major professional basketball team west of the Mississippi River.
The Nuggets saw moderate success in the dying NBL, and were one of the many NBL teams who merged with the BAA in 1949 to form the NBA. The Nuggets only lasted a year in the NBA before them and several other western teams were kicked out. The Nuggets would remain the only NBA team to play in the west until 1960 when the Lakers relocated from Minneapolis to Los Angeles.
AAU was not the only area where basketball was popular in the west. College basketball became huge as well, with teams like Kansas, Montana State, Wyoming, Oregon, Stanford and Utah all winning NCAA championships in the early years. Kansas was the first western team to be crowned champion in 1922, and Oregon would win the first NCAA tournament in 1939.
The introduction to the pro game by the Nuggets lead to a surge in professional teams in the west in the 1940s and 50s. The short lived Professional Basketball League of America had teams in Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas. The Pacific Coast Professional Basketball League had teams based in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia and their champion the Portland Indians got to play in the World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago. And even the king of the pro leagues at the time, the NBL, had teams in Iowa and Colorado.
Many entrepreneurs attempted to form teams and leagues in every major western cities. Like in the mid-west, most of these teams where company teams with names like Wichita Clothiers, Salt Lake Simplot Deserets, and Denver-Chicago Truckers. Most players on these teams where employees of the company and played as recreation rather than money.
The amateurism of basketball in the west began to die down in the 1960s when the Lakers relocated to Los Angeles. Soon they were followed by teams in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and San Diego.
When the ABA was founded as a direct competitor of the NBA, many teams were put in western cities. Cities such as Houston, Dallas, Denver, Oakland and Anaheim all got teams. The ABA was instrumental in opening the way for many other western teams in the west. Five cities, Dallas, Denver, Houston, San Antonio, and Salt Lake City, all had ABA teams before they got an NBA team.
By the 1980s things had evened up to a point where the west was no longer considered inferior to the east, and since about 2000 the west can be considered to be stronger than the east. In the last 20 years, the west has won the NBA championship 13 times to the East 7. Though, only 4 different western franchises have won titles while 5 eastern teams have.
However, the same power shift cannot be said for college basketball where teams east of the Mississippi have won 19 of the past 20 championships, and the last NCAA champion in the Mountain or Pacific Time Zone was Arizona in 1997. The west had dominated college basketball from 1939 until 1975, winning 21 titles. Since UCLA's last title in 1975 a team from the west has won the NCAA tournament only 4 times.
So while the west has lost its grassroots approach to basketball, it has become the dominant force in the pro leagues. Betting odds for this NBA season is that the west will once again be better than the east.