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The Rise of the National Basketball Association

Author(s):Surdam, David George
Reviewer(s):McFall, Todd A.

Published by EH.Net (April 2013)

David George Surdam, The Rise of the National Basketball Association. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012. vii + 247 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-252-07866-8

Reviewed for EH.Net by Todd A. McFall, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

The bulk of my growing up occurred in the 1980s in Indiana, a time and place in which basketball was king. Looking back, it?s easy to see why. I?m not exaggerating when I say that Indiana University coach Bob Knight could have staged a coup and become governor of the state, and not many of us would have thought twice about it. This was the era when he was at the height of his powers as a college basketball coach (NCAA championships in 1981 and 1987 and an Olympic gold medal in 1984). Every good hero needs a rival, though, and Knight had one in Purdue University coach Gene Keady, a man who acted somewhat classier and always gave the favored sons in Bloomington a run for their money but fell short in the bright lights of March Madness.

The state?s famous single-class high school tournament hadn?t yet been traded for spiritual pennies on the dollar for the multi-class system that?s used now, so in those years the ?three-peat? team from Marion High School and Bedford?s Damon Bailey were taking Hoosier Hysteria to another level. Even Hollywood got in on the action when it released the movie ?Hoosiers? in 1986 in order for the world to know the story of the 1954 Milan Indians, the last small, agrarian high school to win the tournament.

Finally, at the world-class level, we had the self-proclaimed Hick from French Lick, Larry Joe Bird, the three-time NBA MVP and league savior who, along with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan revived the league from its embarrassing state in the late 1970s.

So, it was with great interest as a basketball fan and an economist that I read The Rise of the National Basketball Association, by David Surdam (Department of Economics, University of Northern Iowa). I was born in Fort Wayne, an industrial city in the Northeast portion of the state that was one of the original cities to host an NBA team. (The team moved to Detroit once the league started to outgrow its original britches.) The story of the NBA is a story about where I?m from and many of the cultural touchstones about the game I love.

And that?s audience for whom the book is written. If you?re a fan of the NBA ? and I mean a real fan of the league and its history ? Surdam?s book won?t disappoint. He?s researched well the men who struck out together to take advantage of the growing popularity of basketball in the post-World War II era, a time in which incomes were expanding and cities were becoming more important to the American economy.

Surdam is at his best when he?s discussing the two men at the center of the league?s founding ? Maurice Podoloff, the league?s first commissioner, and the incredibly named Ned Irish, the owner of the New York Knickerbockers and Madison Square Garden. Irish?s scheming and dreaming of creating a league worthy of our attention is palpable in the early chapters of the book, which starts at the founding years of the league (1946-1949) and continues to the mid-1960s, when the NBA became ?major league.? Irish and his founding members were so desperate for a chance to get a legitimate professional league started that they allowed franchises to start in places like Anderson, Indiana, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Waterloo, Iowa (presumably to aid in ease of sportswriting). It shouldn?t be surprising that these franchises folded or were forced out ? the Fort Wayne franchise was moved in the mid-1950s ? once the league started to become a financial force. Not surprisingly, Irish is in the middle of the scheming and dreaming to move to greener pastures during the early era.

But the move from the sticks to the big time wasn?t without incident, and Surdam is there to tell of the growing pains. My favorite anecdote occurred somewhere near what had to be Angola, Indiana, a town about 40 miles north of Fort Wayne. Before flying became the preferred mode of transportation between cities, players often took trains from city to city, and Fort Wayne, for some reason, never had a depot for a passenger train. Knicks official Marty Glickman recalled that players traveling to Fort Wayne had to detrain in Angola, walk for a half-mile to a blinking yellow light, and find the Green Parrot Caf?, where stones were tossed to a window to awaken the proprietor, a ?frosty-haired woman? who would summon cars to take the players into Fort Wayne. You can?t make this stuff up!

The author?s strongest contribution to the sports economics literature is his discussion of the serious aspects of creating and sustaining a league. In order for a professional sports league to be successful, the league has to acquire the best players, bargain with them in order to establish a league with an appropriate level of competitive balance, and aid in creating contests that are viewed as legitimate and exciting. To meet these goals, Surdam recounts the signing of George Mikan, the game?s first superstar, by the Chicago franchise (the American Gears), and eventually the Minneapolis Lakers. Surdam also tells of the role that Irish and Podoloff played in establishing rules-of-the-road for the league. He recounts very well the league?s critical decisions over the sharing of gate receipts, the signing of players, and fees to join the league ? recalled and supported with numerous tables of figures that relate ticket prices to the sizes of the cities where franchises were located. Most interesting is Irish?s devious use his Madison Square Garden, which he opened for franchises from cities he deemed worthy of the NBA (larger gate receipts for those teams) and closed for franchises of lower stature. (Those teams played in the 69th Street Armory.) Finally, Surdam also discusses some difficult decisions the league had to make in order for it to remain legitimate in fans? eyes. The Indianapolis Olympians, a player-owned franchise, had to be dismembered because some of its players were implicated in the point-shaving scandal that rocked college basketball in the early 1950s. Olympian players and former University of Kentucky stars and Olympic heroes like Ralph Beard and Alex Groza were implicated in the scandal and had their ownership status revoked, a move that destroyed the popular franchise and professional basketball in Indianapolis until the creation of the Pacers of the American Basketball Association.

Of course, no telling of the NBA story is complete without mentioning the adoption of the 24-second shot clock, perhaps the greatest rule implementation in the history of professional sports. The shot clock forced teams to MOVE rather than sit on the ball (almost literally) so that opposing teams? stars could not inflict damage on the offensive end of the court. The rule took the NBA away from a league that looked like rugby toward the league of Bob Cousy, Jerry West, and Bill Russell. Unfortunately, Surdam doesn?t treat this development with the level of scrutiny I think it deserves, and this is indicative of the biggest disappointment of the book ? the author just doesn?t talk much about basketball, and I think there?s room for it in a book like this. So, he mentions in passing the adoption of the shot clock and then chooses not to discuss the on-court implications of the rule. Throughout the book, Surdam supports (thankfully) his discussion with numbers, and maybe he feels the numbers aren?t compelling in the case of the shot clock. If so, that?s too bad, because the anecdotal evidence sure is, as the only evidence Surdam needs to cite is the rise of Cousy, Russell, and the Boston Celtics, the team that employed the fast break to its most lethal use. (Let?s be clear, though, there are plenty of other data sources to support such a discussion.) Also, he mentions very briefly the famous players? strike before the 1964 All-Star game, a decision that for many league historians was a critical inflection point for players? compensation. For better for worse, the author asks us to connect those dots ourselves, and if you don?t know the sport well, you might not know those dots exist.?

In closing, Surdam has written a book in which the reader gets a sense of all the important decisions (and scheming) made to take the NBA to the point at which it became a rival to Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Surdam tells well the story of the founders creating a league in which uncertainty and excitement were part of every contest and every contest was viewed as being a legitimate struggle between the agents who were competing against one another. But if one is looking for a discussion of the on-court implications about the NBA?s early days, you?ll find the book to be light in that regard.
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Todd McFall is the author of articles that study the economics of professional golf and the organization of sports leagues. His research has been published in the Journal of Economic Education, Applied Economics Letters, and the Journal of Sports Economics.

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Subject(s):Business History
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII