David George Surdam
The Rise of the National Basketball Association
University of Illinois Press 2012
This past October, David Stern announced that he would step down as commissioner of the National Basketball Association in February 2014. In Stern’s three decades at the helm, the NBA has seen its domestic fortunes rise and ebb. Television ratings for regular-season and playoff games have declined steadily since their peak in the late 1990s. In the present season, ten teams in the league are filling less than 80 per cent of seats in their home arenas, and average attendance in the league overall has dropped below that of the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer. But Stern has been successful in meeting one of his stated aims: expanding the international profile of the NBA. Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant have been global celebrities in a way that no American football or baseball player can imagine. Meanwhile, some 20 per cent of players on current NBA rosters are foreign-born. The league’s games are broadcast in 40 countries by various partner networks, and overseas sales of caps and jerseys account for more than a third of the league’s merchandising revenue. Stern has even spoken of a European division of the league beginning play in the next decade.
The NBA’s international success is all the more striking when one considers that it the youngest of the major American sports leagues, and that it took some two decades to gain stable fan support and financial health. Founded in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America, the league competed in cities of the Northeast and Midwest. From the start, the BBA had rivals: the celebrated barnstorming team of African American players, known as the Harlem Globetrotters, and a second professional circuit, the National Basketball League, which played in smaller cities like Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Waterloo, Iowa. As David Surdam shows in his history of the NBA’s first 15 years, these were humble origins. Professional basketball’s early years were marked by cheap owners, empty arenas, and plenty of red ink. When the BAA and NBL merged in 1949, the combined league featured 17 teams. Ten years later, there were only eight.
Dave’s book, The Rise of the National Basketball Association (University of Illinois Press, 2012), focuses on the economic history of the league’s early years. Told from this perspective, the NBA’s rise is a story of survival–and somewhat bewildering tenacity. But the league’s eventual stability can also be attributed to the innovations of its early leaders. The widened free-throw lane, the 24-second shot clock, and other rule changes were aimed at bringing fans to the arenas. The ultimate effect was to transform professional basketball from a game of defensive stalling and two-handed set shots to the fast-paced, high-scoring entertainment of today.