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Leo Ferris: The Man Who Saved The NBA
The early days of basketball often saw slow, unfan-friendly games that often left spectators bored. Games often only reached the 40s and many of the top players averaged less than 15 points per game. Many early basketball games were more like a glorified children’s version of the keep-away game than an action-packed professional sport. This 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, holding a 1-point lead over the Lakers. The Pistons would win 19-18 in the game with the lowest scoring in NBA history. Before that, the fewest points ever scored 33 points, just 4 less than both teams scored, and that game was one of the NBA’s opening night, or BAA as it was called in the era.
This pace bored fans, many of whom were promised a fun, action-packed experience and attendance and interest in the new league had begun to dip. 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, would change the game forever.
The clock was the brainchild of Syracuse Nationals general manager Leo Ferris, a man the NBA long forgot in one of the greatest parodies in gaming history. Ferris, is as important to the early days of the NBA as anyone and it could be said that without Ferris, there would be no NBA today; and there would certainly be no Atlanta Hawks or Philadelphia 76ers. The NBA would be very different today without Ferris’ contribution all those years ago.
Ferris got his start with basketball 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 took over and left the shores of Lake Erie and headed to the American Heartland in Molina, Illinois. ‘Illinois. Technically the team played in Molina and Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa, but most of their games were played in Molina. The team was called the Tri-Cities Blackhawks and as they struggled the foundations of one of the oldest NBA teams were laid. The Blackhawks would eventually move to Milwaukee, where they took on the Hawks nickname, then to St Louis and finally to Atlanta.
Shortly after the team moved to Tri-Cities, Ferris went on to make one of his first major upheavals in the basketball world when he signed Pop Gates for the New York Ren’s. entirely black. African-American players had played in the NBL before, but only in the early 1940s when World War II took many white players from the NBL. 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 and 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 home state of New York and started as general manager of the NBL’s Syracuse Nationals. As Nationals manager, he pulled off a huge blow for the Nationals and the NBL when he lured coveted big man Dolph Schayes away from the upstart BAA’s New York Knicks.
The BAA and NBL rivalry only worsened, with the BAA stealing most of the NBL’s top players and from 1948 the BAA also began taking the top teams. 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 desperately needed to find 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 it would soon expand to 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; the Indianapolis Nationals and Upstart Olympians; who would replace the Jets. Ferris managed to convince the BAA to accept these two teams, as well as the Denver Nuggets, Sheboygan Redskins, Anderson Packers and 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 considered too close to Chicago where the BAA already had a team. The Dayton Rens were not allowed to join because their players were made up of black players. In addition to the Rens not being allowed to join, black Syracuse players also had to be released.
The merger proved successful as all 17 NBA teams enjoyed initial success, but the former NBL teams had given up too much power in the merger and despite Ferris’ best efforts, the league kicked out 5 of the former NBL teams the following season.
The 1950 season saw the Lakers continue their dominance and the Pistons believed the only way to stop them was to hold a one-point lead and the ball. This was the loan shark event 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 come up with the 24-second clock. 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 arrive at 24 seconds.
It took 4 more years for the league to implement shot clocks and when they did the league saw a jump of nearly 20 points per game and the era of games ending in years 40 was over. In fact, since the introduction of the shot clock, there have only been 20 regular season games where a team scored under 60 points, and only one where a team scored under 50, and only one playoff game. where a team has scored less than 60 points. points.
The introduction of the shot clock ushered the game into an era of frantic pace, with teams scoring what was once considered an impossible number of points. In 1954-55 Neil Johnston led the NBA in scoring 22 points per game, seven years later Wilt Chamberlain would set the NBA record averaging 50 points per game.
Ferris would only stay in the NBA for one season after his clock was introduced before leaving the league and the game for good to develop real estate. It was an incredibly short career for someone who would have such a profound impact on the game.
Despite all he has achieved, Ferris has yet to be inducted into the Naismith Hall-of-Fame. He was a finalist a few times but never reached the consecration part. This is likely due to the utter and complete contempt and contempt the NBA has often shown towards the NBL and its former players and employees.
The exclusion of Ferris was one of the worst tragedies the NBA has had in its more than 70 years of existence. Many people are in Hall-of-Fame who have fewer resumes than Ferris and yet Ferris is overlooked time and time again. Perhaps, hopefully, 2018 will be the year of the man who may have saved the NBA.
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