The early days of basketball often saw slow and unfriendly games, which often left spectators bored. Games often don’t enter until the 1940s, and most of the top players average less than 15 points per game. Many early basketball games felt more like a glorified version of the kid’s sideline game than an action-packed professional sport. That style of play culminated in a game between Minneapolis and Fort Wayne, where the Fort Wayne Pistons held the ball for most of the second half with a 1 point lead over the Lakers. The Pistons would win 19-18 in the lowest game in NBA history. Previously, the fewest points scored 33 points, just 4 short of both teams, and this game was one of the NBA’s opening night, or BAA, as it was called at the time.
This pace bored fans, many of whom were promised a fun, action-packed experience and attendance and interest in the new league had started to plummet. The NBA needed a solution and needed it fast. The solution was ingenious and would revolutionize the game as we know it. A simple clock with just 24 seconds on it would be a game-changer.
The clock was the brain of Syracuse Nationals general manager Leo Ferris, a man the NBA has long forgotten in one of the greatest disguises in gaming history. Ferris, is as important as anyone to the early days of the NBA and you could say that without Ferris there would be no NBA today; and there certainly wouldn’t be the Atlanta Hawks or the Philadelphia 76ers. The NBA would be very different today without Ferris’ contribution all those years ago.
Ferris made his basketball debut not in the NBA but in the NBL when, in 1946, he helped found the Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons were pretty much a failure in upstate New York and after just 13 games the Bisons recaptured and left the shores of Lake Erie for the American Heartland in Molina, Ill. Technically, the team has played in Molina and Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa, but most of their games have been played in Molina. The team was called the Tri-Cities Blackhawks and as they struggled, the foundation of one of the oldest NBA teams was laid. The Blackhawks eventually moved to Milwaukee, where they took the Hawks nickname, then moved to St Louis and finally Atlanta.
Soon after the team moved to Tri-Cities, Ferris continued to make one of his first major basketball upheavals when he signed a contract with Pop Gates for the New York Ren’s all. black. African-American players had played in the NBL before, but only in the early 1940s, when World War II removed many white NBL players. Gates was the first black player to sign a contract when there was no need for them, and the first signed because of his skills and talent, not because the league needed players. Gates would join the Rens when they joined the NBL as Dayton Rens two years later.
After just one season with the Blackhawks, Ferris returned to his hometown of New York and started as general manager of the NBL Syracuse Nationals. As manager of the Nationals, he scored a huge blow for the Nationals and the NBL by drawing the coveted big man Dolph Schayes away from the upstart New York Knicks of the BAA.
The BAA and NBL rivalry only got worse, with the BAA stealing most of the best players in the NBL and from 1948 the BAA began to take on the best teams as well. In 1947, the Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals, and Indianapolis Kautskies left the NBL for the BAA. The Nationals were now in an uncertain league and they and the NBL were in desperate need of a solution, and Leo Ferris would find that solution.
Beginning in the spring of 1949, Ferris began meeting with BAA leaders, at first it was an attempt to bring the Nationals into the growing league, but would soon expand with the merger of the two leagues. Talks ended in August 1949 when an agreement was reached to merge the NBL and BAA to form the NBA. The BAA only wanted to absorb two teams; nationals and Olympians who arrived in Indianapolis; which would replace the Jets. Ferris was able to convince the BAA to accept these two teams, as well as the Denver Nuggets, Sheboygan Redskins, Anderson Packers and the Blackhawks. He originally wanted the merger to include Oshkosh, Hammond, and Dayton, but the financial backing ruined Oshkosh’s attempt to move to Milwaukee, and Hammond was thought to be too close to Chicago where the BAA already had a team. The Rens of Dayton were not allowed to join because their players were black players. In addition to the Rens ban, black Syracuse players also had to be sacked.
The merger proved successful as all 17 NBA teams enjoyed initial success, but the former NBL teams had given up too much power during the merger and despite Ferris’ best efforts, the league kicked out 5 of former NBL teams the following season.
The 1950 season saw the Lakers continue their dominance and the Pistons figured the only way to stop them was to maintain a point lead and the ball. This was the event that usurped in Leo Ferris’ clock or more commonly known as the shot clock. Ferris had always loved math and was good at it, and he used math to create the 24-second stopwatch. He took the number of seconds in a 48-minute game (2,880) and divided it by the average number of shots in a game (120) to come up with 24 seconds.
It took the league 4 more years to implement the shooting clocks and when they did the league saw a jump of nearly 20 points per game and game time ended in the 1940s. In fact, since the introduction of the shot clock, there have only been 20 regular season games where a team has scored less than 60 points, and only one was a team that scored less than 50 and one. only playoff game was a team scoring less than 60 points. points.
The introduction of the shot clock brought the game into an era of breakneck rhythms, with teams scoring what was once considered an impossible number of points. In 1954-55, Neil Johnston led the NBA with 22 points per game, seven years later, Wilt Chamberlain would set the NBA record with an average of 50 points per game.
Ferris would only stay in the NBA for a season after the introduction of his clock before leaving the league and the game for good to develop real estate. It was a terribly short career for someone who would have such a profound impact on the game.
Despite all he has accomplished, Ferris has yet to be inducted into the Naismith Hall-of-Fame. He was a finalist several times but never reached the consecration section. This is probably due to the utter and utter contempt and disdain that the NBA has often shown towards the NBL and its former players and staff.
Excluding Ferris has been one of the worst tragedies the NBA has done in its 70 years of existence. Many people are in the Hall-of-Fame who have fewer CVs than Ferris and yet Ferris is overlooked time and time again. Maybe, hopefully, 2018 will be the year of the man who maybe saved the NBA.