Basketball is a sport that has captured the hearts of millions of people around the world. It is a fast-paced and dynamic game that demands athleticism, strategy, and teamwork. But how did this popular sport come to be? What is the origin of basketball and how has it grown and evolved over time?
The history of basketball can be traced back to the late 19th century when Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian physical education instructor, created a new game to keep his students active during the winter months. The game was initially played with a soccer ball and two peach baskets as goals, with the first official game taking place on December 21, 1891.
Since then, basketball has grown into a global phenomenon, with professional leagues and international competitions attracting millions of fans and players. From the invention of the shot clock in the 1950s to the introduction of the three-point line in the 1970s, basketball has continued to evolve and innovate over the years.
Today, basketball is not just a sport but a cultural phenomenon that has had a profound impact on popular culture. From the iconic sneakers worn by players to the music played during games, basketball has become an integral part of our cultural landscape. In this article, we will explore the origins, growth, and history of basketball, from its humble beginnings to its status as a global sensation.
The Sport Grows:
College Basketball Early 1900s The spread was made possible primarily through two avenues; first, as mentioned, the YMCA gave the game an outlet that was not only nationwide, but worldwide, in addition to spreading it among young people, helping it grow through time. The second avenue was college; college basketball was far more widespread and popular than any early professional league. That is not to say, however, that the early professional leagues did not matter; they were simply poorly organized. The first pro basketball league, the National Basketball League, was formed in 1898 and folded just six years later. From that point on, for a period of about 45 years, professional basketball in the U.S. was a series of loosely organized leagues primarily in the Northeast. Many of the professional teams during this period were “barnstormers,” pro teams that traveled to play local teams for money. None of the teams in existence today come from those old leagues, though one team, the Original Celtics from New York, helped inspire the naming of the Boston Celtics, while the Harlem Globetrotters, just an exhibition team (not in a professional league) came into existence in 1927. Still, while the teams did not last, some of the changes they brought did. In 1908, the rule of a player being ejected from a game after five fouls were introduced (five fouls are still the standard in college basketball, while the pro game now uses six). 1915 first saw dribblers being allowed to shoot the basketball. In 1938, they eliminated a jump ball at center court after each basket (speeding up the game and creating higher scores). The Original Celtics, and in particular one of their players, Nat Holman, brought passing to a new level in the 1920s while ball-handling became an art under Marques Haynes of the Globetrotters.
International Popularity Early 1900s Basketball’s domestic growth was nearly equaled by its international growth. The Christian missions that brought the game around the world helped make a basketball one of the world’s first truly global games; the first international basketball tournament was the Inter-Allied Games, played between the U.S., France and Italy in Paris in 1919. FIBA, the Fédération Internationale de Basketball, the governing body of the sport internationally, was formed in Geneva, Switzerland in 1932, almost 20 years before the National Basketball Association, the game’s governing body in the U.S. Just four years later, basketball became an Olympic sport, only furthering its worldwide popularity (though its first exposure in the Olympics came even earlier, in 1904 as an exhibition). Interestingly, the U.S. was not one of the original members of FIBA; it joined two years later, in 1934. The founding eight countries were Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, and Switzerland.
Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Princeton While the sport grew internationally and the professional game was stalled by a distinct lack of organization, the college game showed no signs of slowing down. Early in the game’s history, colleges began to play games against each other, with some of the earliest college leagues formed by Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Princeton. Some of today’s basketball staples, including the layup, the one-hand shot, and the dunk, were created by college players.
National Invitational Tournament, or NIT In 1938, a group of sports writers in New York wanted to introduce the concept of a national college basketball champion. They brought six teams to play at Madison Square Garden in the National Invitational Tournament, or NIT. Bradley, Colorado, Long Island, New York University, Oklahoma A&M, and Temple competed for the first NIT title, with Temple besting Colorado 60-36 in the championship game. The NIT would grow over time, eventually becoming a tournament of 40 teams in 2002, and is still played today, though the tourney is now considered a consolation prize when not making the NCAA tournament.
National Collegiate Athletic Association NCAA The success of the NIT led the National Collegiate Athletic Association to form its own basketball championship tournament only a year later. In 1939, the first NCAA basketball championship tourney was played between Brown, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah State, Villanova, and Wake Forest, with Oregon beating Ohio State for the title, 46-33. Like the NIT, the NCAA tournament would grow over time, most recently expanding to 68 teams.
(An interesting side note: teams used to be allowed to play in both the NIT and the NCAA tournament; in 1950, the CCNY Beavers beat the Bradley Braves in both the NIT and NCAA title games, becoming the only team ever to win both in a single season.
Professional Basketball Comes Together:
Early Pro Leagues In 1937, the National Basketball League (NBL) was created by three corporations: General Electric, Firestone, and Goodyear. This was not to be confused with any of the previous five incarnations of the National Basketball League (apparently, that particular title was not very lucky). Most of the teams in the league played in the Midwest, and the league remained in existence for over ten years. In 1946, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) was formed, with 11 teams in the first season, some of them playing in stadiums like the Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, and Madison Square Garden (with almost all the teams playing in venues that also hosted hockey). Though the NBL boasted more talent, the BAA was seen as more successful, and in 1948, four of the NBL’s best teams – Fort Wayne, Rochester, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis – moved to the BAA. A year later, the NBL folded, and the remaining teams jumped to the BAA, forming the National Basketball Association.
National Basketball Association NBA The new league’s early success was helped by what was arguably professional basketball’s first superstar, George Mikan. The 6’10” Mikan, out of DePaul University, was a giant on the court – at the time, being 6’10” meant you towered over almost everyone else. Mikan averaged 27.4 points per game (ppg) and led the Minneapolis Lakers to the first NBA title over the Syracuse Nationals. Mikan was not the most exciting player to watch, but he dominated the game, leading the league in points, rebounds, and shots, his team won the title for 7 straight years (dating back to the NBL and BAA). The NBA began to change its rules to mitigate the Mikan factor, widening the three-second lane, an area in the center of the court by the basket where a player cannot stand for more than three seconds before being whistled for a violation. Removing Mikan from under the basket, allowed teams to score more easily against him.
Breaking the Color Barrier:
Early Players College Teams Black basketball players were nothing new. African-Americans dotted the college basketball landscape – George Gregory Jr. became the first black All-American basketball player at Columbia University in 1931, William Garrett broke the color barrier of major college basketball programs by becoming the first black player in the Big Ten Conference when he joined the Indiana Hoosiers in 1947, and in 1948, Clarence Walker became the first black player to play in a national college basketball championship tournament when he stepped on the court for Indiana State University at the National Association for Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) tournament. Teams like the Globetrotters and the New York Rens (for Renaissance, a barnstorming team from the 1920s and 30s) had been playing games against all-white teams for years. But black basketball players had yet to make their way into any professional basketball league when 1950 rolled around.
Chuck Cooper First NBA Player Chuck Cooper was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1950, the first black player in the NBA. Two other black players joined him that same year; Nat Clifton actually became the first African-American to sign an NBA contract when New York signed him away from the Globetrotters for $25,000 (in today’s money, $223,000). Earl Lloyd, playing for Washington, became the first black player to play in an NBA game, as his team was scheduled to begin the season before Clifton or Cooper’s teams.
Holding the Ball, Killing the Game:
TV rights to NCAA While pro basketball continued in the Fifties, college basketball was where the fans were. The quality of basketball was often higher in the college ranks, and in 1954, NBC paid $7,500 for the first national broadcast TV rights to an NCAA title game; converting that to today’s dollars, that first televised title game cost just under $60,000. At the time, that was a good deal of money for a sporting event; today, the most recent agreement between the NCAA and television networks to broadcast the Final Four tournament cost $10.8 billion dollars. Even in college, where players aren’t paid, big business has drastically changed the game.
Fans Turned Off By Changing Game In the NBA, the Minnesota Lakers had a dynasty going; led by Mikan, they won championships in 5 of 6 seasons from 1949 to 1954. Even as the league changed its rules, and as Mikan’s scoring dipped, the Lakers rolled. However, the game itself was becoming harder to watch. The league had a distinct lack of rules regarding foul limits and stalling; games became knockdown, drag-out affairs, with the end of games often becoming free-throw shooting contests. The 1953 playoffs averaged 80 free throws per game; today, the average is a little over 50. In a famous 1950 game, Fort Wayne beat Minnesota 19-18, while a five-overtime game between Rochester and Indianapolis saw the team with the ball at the start of the period hold it the entire time, shooting only at the last second in an attempt to win, for all five OT periods. These methods were turning away fans.
Jack Molinas Caught Gambling As a further blow to the league’s public image, Jack Molinas, a rookie for Fort Wayne, was caught betting on his own team, the first time something of that nature had surfaced in professional basketball. Even though Molinas was banned from the sport, and the president of the league, Maurice Podoloff, prohibited gambling in the sport, the damage was done.
(An interesting side note: Podoloff was also the commissioner of the National Hockey League, the only person in history to run two simultaneous leagues.)
Shot Clock Introduced in Pro Game In 1954, the league, and more specifically one man, helped revolutionize the sport and save pro basketball. Danny Biasone, the owner of the Syracuse Nationals, introduced the concept of the team foul limit and the shot clock. The team foul limit said that only a certain number of fouls could be committed in a single quarter, and after the limit had been reached, any foul would lead to free throw shots, rather than just shooting fouls (fouls committed while a player is in the act of shooting the ball). This helped the sport, but it was the shot clock that really changed the game. Biasone created the 24-second clock, which counted down at the start of each possession. The team with the ball had to shoot it within that 24 seconds or give the ball to the other team. If someone shot the ball, it hit the rim, and was rebounded by the same team, the shot clock would reset; fouls also restarted the clock. The results were immediate: scoring increased from 79.5 ppg to 93.1 ppg in the shot clock’s first season. Average scoring cracked the 100 mark by 1958.
Biasone arrived at 24 seconds by examining some of his favorite games over the years. He discovered they generally had around 60 shots by each team for a total of 120 shots. If you shoot every 24 seconds over a 48-minute game, you arrive at 120 shots. Meanwhile, college basketball would not institute a shot clock until 1985, with a 45-second clock (which it reduced to 35 in 1993).
George Mikan Retires 1954 was also momentous in that it featured the retirement of its biggest star, George Mikan. Mikan left the Lakers after their fifth championship, and without the big man in the middle, the Lakers dynasty ended. That season, Biasone’s Syracuse team won the title, a fitting payoff for the owner who changed the sport. A year later, in the 55-56 season, the league first began awarding a Most Valuable Player trophy, with St. Louis Hawk Bob Pettit winning the first award.
Russell and Chamberlain:
Bill Russell On April 29, 1956, the Boston Celtics coach traded two players (Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan) for the draft rights to a young center out of the University of San Francisco named Bill Russell. Russell drafted third overall by St. Louis, stood 6’10”, but somehow played even taller. His prowess around the rim led the college game to change its rules regarding offensive goaltending. But his accomplishments in college were nothing compared to what he’d do in the NBA. Russell is regularly included in the conversation for the greatest player of all time – generally, only Jordan tops him. In 13 seasons, Russell won 11 championships with the Celtics (two as player-coach, the only person ever to win even one title with that role). He was an NBA All-Star 12 times; he won five MVPs, including the MVP his rookie year, and was runner-up twice; he made the All-NBA First Team three times and the Second Team eight times. He holds the records for most rebounds in a single half (32), most rebounds in a Finals game (40), and the highest rebounds per game (RPG) for the playoffs, while he is second in career RPG. More than just statistics and awards, however, Russell helped change the game. His style of play – rebounding and shot-blocking, a complimentary player, rather than one who would just take over a game – hadn’t really been seen before out of a player his size. Additionally, he became one of the league’s superstars and was really one of the first black players to become that popular.
MVP trophy But one wonders how a player that well didn’t make every All-NBA First Team and win every MVP trophy. (The NBA’s First and Second Teams work like this: each season, a group of basketball reporters and writers select the best player at each position – point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center – which make up the First Team. The Second Team is comprised of the next best guys for each position.) For a stretch of about ten years, the NBA was dominated by two men: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. If Russell didn’t win the MVP trophy, generally Chamberlain did. From 1958 to 1968, only two MVP awards were won by players not named Russell or Chamberlain.
Wilt Chamberlain While Russell was all about the team game (evidenced by the Celtics’ many titles), Wilt Chamberlain was about stats. Also routinely regarded as one of the greatest to ever play the game, the knock against Wilt was his selfishness. He is often said to care more about his numbers than wins; this is reflected in his career accomplishments. Chamberlain holds the records for career rebounds, career 50-plus point games (118), most points in a single game (the famous 100-point game in 1962), most rebounds in a single game (55), most consecutive scoring titles (7), and is fourth in career points and minutes. He was an All-Star 13 times, made seven All-NBA First Teams, and three Second Teams, won the ’60 Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, and added four more MVPs before his career ended. But Wilt only won two titles, and one, with the Lakers in 1972, was at the tail end of his career, when he was no longer the best player on the court in any given game.
Philadelphia Warriors Play Boston Celtics Perhaps the best example of the differences between the two comes from the very first game they played against each other. November 7, 1959, Wilt’s Philadelphia Warriors came to Boston to play Russell’s Celtics. Wilt outscored Russell 50 to 22, but Russell outrebounded him 35 to 28, and the Celtics won the game. Still, despite the arguments made for either side in the debate over who was better, these two players, different as night and day, helped put the NBA on the map, popularizing the sport to levels it hadn’t even approached before they came along.
Television Revenues Increase As the league began coming into its own, its popularity increased, and with that popularity came increased revenue, both from higher attendance and, in particular, television revenues. (Chamberlain helped this a great deal: following his spectacular rookie season, in which he surpassed all expectations, NBC expanded its coverage to include Saturday and Sunday matinees.) With more money coming in, rifts between players and owners started to worsen.
1963 – 1964 Season Clash Between Owners and Players In the 1963-64 season, things came to a head. Leading into the All-Star Game in Boston that year, the players’ grievances included low wages (hardly any players made over five figures, whereas today the rookie minimum is $300,000), extended traveling, and no pension. The night of the game, the All-Stars informed Commissioner Walter Kennedy two hours before tip-off they would not play the game without a pension plan in place with the owners. ABC, who was broadcasting the game, told Kennedy they would scrap their entire contract if the players didn’t play, and Kennedy, just fifteen minutes before the game started, told the players he would facilitate an agreement. It was the first major victory for the NBA Player’s Association (which had actually been founded back in the 1950s), and really, the first victory for a player’s union in American sports history. The NBA Player’s Association became the first player’s union to engage in a collective bargaining agreement with its league’s owners.
A Growing League:
NBA Growth Though Russell and Chamberlain dominated the sport, the NBA in the 1960s was not without other stars. The breaking of the color barrier in 1950 saw African-Americans in the game, and a decade later, the game’s biggest stars were almost entirely black. With the retirement of Bob Cousy, a legendary white Celtic player, in the 1962-1963 season, and the retirement of legendary coach Red Auerbach (who won a then-record nine titles with Boston), the only big NBA stars who were white were Jerry Lucas and Jerry West. Otherwise, the game was dominated by its black stars, guys like Russell, Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Oscar Robertson (who, in the 61-62 season, averaged a triple-double, meaning he finished the season averaging double-digits in three statistical categories, in this case, points, rebounds and assists. No player had done it before or has done it since). The American public did not respond to these changes entirely positively; while the 60s were a time of great integration in the U.S., it was still a deeply divided nation, and while the American audience was largely white, the game of basketball was becoming more black, creating a disconnect. Still, the game nonetheless began to really flourish, with attendance topping 2.5 million and ABC signing a contract worth $4 million for a five-year TV deal. (Today, that’s worth roughly $27 million. In the most recent TV contract, ABC/ESPN and TNT agreed to pay the league $7.4 billion over eight years.)
Lew Alcindor Even as some of its stars began retiring (Russell in ’69 and Chamberlain in ’72), one of the game’s biggest and greatest players emerged. A young man named Lew Alcindor had played for UCLA for three years (at that time, freshmen couldn’t play college basketball). He was part of a UCLA squad that, over the three years Alcindor played, won 88 games and lost only two, with one of those losses coming against the University of Houston in the first-ever nationally televised regular season college basketball game. He won three championships with the Bruins, and college basketball even outlawed the dunk for nine years because of Alcindor’s domination with the shot. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks as the first overall choice in the 1969 draft, and in his first season was second in the league in scoring and third in rebounding, winning the Rookie of the Year award. The next season, Alcindor won the first of his record six MVP trophies, as well as his first NBA title. Prior to the following season (71-72), Alcindor converted from Catholicism to Islam, changing his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the name he is more commonly known as. By the time Jabbar finished his career, he held the record for points, blocked shots, playoff games, and total games played. He still holds the record for points, with 38,387.
The Rival League:
New League The ABA or American Basketball Association In 1967, a league popped up that would rival the NBA for attention and, more importantly, players, the American Basketball Association (ABA). Eleven franchises – in New York, Pittsburgh, Indiana, Minnesota, Oakland, Virginia, Anaheim, Dallas, New Orleans, Houston, and Denver – formed to join the ABA, with the goal of luring away NBA stars and rookies out of college. The NBA, as a response, expanded, adding five more teams over three years and then three more teams in just the 70-71 season alone.
New League Forces Player Wages Up With the challenge of the ABA to NBA supremacy, perhaps the biggest change was in salaries. The late 1960s saw an explosion in player contracts, with some top rookies now getting deals in the range of $250 to $300 thousand dollars (in today’s money, around $1.5 to $1.7 million, getting far closer to modern standards of rookie contracts). The NBA, desperate to keep the players in their league and away from the ABA, felt they had no choice but to pay increasingly high salaries.
Spencer Haywood However, it was the ABA’s signing of a rookie in 1969 that ultimately forced a change. To that point in history, the NBA had a clause that forced its players to play four years of college basketball before they could be drafted into the NBA. The ABA had no such rule, so when University of Detroit star Spencer Haywood tried to leave school after his sophomore year and was denied by the NBA, the ABA swooped in to claim him. The NBA saw this as giving the ABA a huge advantage in signing away top players, and a merger was agreed upon in 1971. Ten of the eleven ABA teams (all but Virginia) joined the NBA, and in return, the ABA withdrew their antitrust suit against the NBA. However, the Player’s Association objected to the merger, with a lawsuit (nicknamed the Oscar Robertson suit, because Oscar was one of the most high-profile names involved) filed that would last five years. Primarily, the legal action was a challenge to the NBA’s reserve clause, identical to Major League Baseball’s. Haywood, meanwhile, jumped to the NBA after only a year in the ABA, and after successfully challenging their ban on drafting players without four years in college, was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics, permanently ending that ban. A few years later, in 1974, Utah drafted Moses Malone, a center out of high school, ending the ban on drafting high school players, something that would last for over 30 years.
ABA Teams Denver, New York, San Antonio, and Indiana Join NBA As the Oscar Robertson suit languished in court, the ABA continued to poach players away from the NBA, becoming more and more successful over time. Between 1970 and 1974, the NBA scoring average dropped from over 116 points per game to just under 103 ppg. By the summer of 1976, the NBA was tired of waiting for the court case to end, and an agreement was reached. Only four ABA teams joined the NBA: Denver, New York, San Antonio, and Indiana. They each had to pay $3.2 million dollars to enter the league, and could not receive TV money for three years or take part in the 1976 draft. The NBA agreed in the merger to get rid of the reserve clause and allow free agency. Salaries began escalating even further.
The League’s Downward Slide:
Kermit Washington Punch As the league added teams through expansion and the merger, and even as some of its biggest stars took the stage, all was not well with the league. After the ABC television contract ended, they declined to renew, going instead with CBS, who did not promote the league as vigorously as ABC had (and ABC routinely countered CBS’s basketball programming with college football and Wide World of Sports, both of which soundly beat basketball in the ratings). Drugs were becoming an increasing problem in sports, particularly cocaine, and fighting was becoming more prevalent. Things escalated with the now-infamous Kermit Washington punch. In a 1977 game between the (now Los Angeles) Lakers and the Houston Rockets, a fight broke out, and Houston’s Rudy Tomjanovich ran towards the brawl, only to be met with a punch by Lakers forward Kermit Washington’s punch. The punch landed Tomjanovich in intensive care for two weeks, breaking his jaw, and his nose, fracturing his face, and cracking his skull so badly (from hitting the ground) that Tomjanovich could taste spinal fluid in his mouth. The ferocity of the punch, combined with the fact that Washington was black and Tomjanovich was white did not help the league. Attendance had already been dropping, as had television ratings. CBS routinely tape-delayed its games, even playoff games, which meant most markets saw these games on TV after midnight. The NBA was in a significant down period.
Magic, Larry, and Cable Television:
ESPN and three-point line added On September 7, 1979, a new cable television network called ESPN debuted, a 24-hour sports channel with a nightly program called Sportscenter. The show featured highlights from the various sporting events of the day and significantly helped market the sport of basketball. Earlier that year, the NBA had also signed a deal with cable’s USA Network to air Thursday night doubleheaders and some early-round playoff games. Cable was helping basketball limp back. Additionally, the NBA introduced the three-point line in the 1979-1980 season, and though it takes a few seasons to really catch on, adds an exciting element to the game.
NBA Lifted In The 80’s By Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson The 1979-80 season also saw the arrival of two players who would largely set the tone for stardom in the NBA in the coming decade. Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson had just played each other in the NCAA title game before joining the NBA with the Celtics and the Lakers, respectively. Between the two, Bird and Magic would win six MVP awards in the 1980s, with their two teams winning eight of the ten titles in the decade (the Lakers winning five, with both Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom they acquired from Milwaukee in a trade). As Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers battled each other throughout the 80s, the NBA began to recover from the disastrous years of the 70s.
Salary Cap Introduced In 1983, the league and the player’s union signed a new collective bargaining agreement. The new CBA introduced two important components to the game: the first was a salary cap. Players were offered bigger revenue shares in return, but the salary cap in place helped curb the runaway contracts being offered (including $25 million over 25 years to Magic Johnson in only his second season), as well as help level the playing field for smaller market teams. The other new element was a new drug policy, employing a “three strikes, you’re out” method. The first strike came with a suspension, the second with a suspension and a team option of waiving the player, and the third a lifetime ban from the game (though that was reviewable every two years).
NBA Markets Itself Better At the same time, the NBA was making strides to market itself better, creating the NBA Entertainment Division and signing new TV deals. By December 1989, the NBA had signed four-year contracts with NBC and Turner worth a total of $875 million dollars (over $1.5 billion today). Those contracts replaced the old contract with CBS worth $93 million over four years (valued today at $192 million). The NBA was becoming a booming business, primarily under the guidance of David Stern, a lawyer who became commissioner in 1984 (after working for the NBA since 1966, including as its chief negotiator in the ABA merger). Stern, still running the league today, is its longest-tenured president/commissioner.
College Basketball Audience 25 Million While professional basketball began to flourish once again, college basketball was doing just as well. In the 1980s, the viewing audience for the national championship game never dipped below 25 million. Despite no age limit on coming out of school, no players went directly from high school to the NBA Draft from 1975 until 1995 – though a few enrolled in college, never attended. While plenty of players attended college for a year or two before leaving for the pros, their presence in the college game helped continue college basketball’s popularity in the U.S.
College Teams Share Championship Spoils in the 80s Parity also helped college basketball in the 80s. In the decade, only two teams won multiple championships, Indiana and Louisville, and those championships were each separated by six years. Some of the biggest names in the NBA in the 80s were also some of the biggest names in college; Larry and Magic played each other in the NCAA title game in ’79, with Magic’s Michigan State squad beating out Larry’s Indiana State team. The 1982 North Carolina Tar Heels won the title with two future Hall-of-Famers on the roster, Michael Jordan and James Worthy (who would win three championships with the Lakers in the 80s). 1984 champion Georgetown’s star center Patrick Ewing became the number one overall pick a few weeks later. Danny Manning considered one of the best college players of all time, won the 1988 championship with Kansas University, and was drafted first overall by the Los Angeles Clippers.
College Team Underdogs College was also helped by its underdogs. Manning’s Kansas team was nicknamed “Danny and the Miracles” because it wasn’t viewed as a favorite going into the tournament, despite Manning’s status as a top player in the game. The 1983 champs, North Carolina State, came into the title game as huge underdogs to the University of Houston, led by Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, two future NBA Hall-of-Famers. While the Lakers and Celtics dominated the professional basketball landscape, the NCAA tournament made for compelling viewing because the “best team” didn’t always come out on top.
The 1984 Draft: Michael Arrives:
Hakeem Olajuwon The 1984 draft deserves its own section, if only for the enormity of the outcome. The first three picks that year went to, in order, Houston, Portland, and Chicago. Hakeem Olajuwon, a 7-foot center from the University of Houston, came out a season early, after his junior year, and seemed a sure thing to go first overall. Olajuwon ended up winning two titles with Houston, including two NBA Finals MVPs and is the all-time leader in blocks, considered one of the best centers in NBA history. Also from that year’s draft were Charles Barkley, another Hall-of-Famer, drafted fifth by Philadelphia, and John Stockton, taken 16th by the Utah Jazz; Stockton would go on to become one of the greatest point guards of all time, a Hall-of-Famer who holds the records for assists and steals. With those players alone, it would be an important draft. But another significant player came out of the ’84 draft, one who would leave an indelible mark on the game.
Michael Jordan Draft To Chicago Bulls After Houston locked up number one overall, definitely taking Olajuwon, it was up to the Portland Trail Blazers to choose who they would pick second. At the time, they were having trouble choosing between a center out of Kentucky, Sam Bowie, and a young guard from the University of North Carolina named Michael Jordan. Portland claimed they needed a center badly and ended up taking Bowie, leaving Jordan to Chicago. It is probably the worst draft decision of all time, perhaps in any sport, and certainly in basketball. Bowie would have a non-descript career, playing ten injury-plagued seasons without making a single All-Star team. Michael Jordan played 17 years in the NBA, won six NBA titles (and was named the Finals MVP in all of those series), was named MVP of the league five times, won 10 NBA scoring titles (for having the highest ppg average), an NBA record, won Rookie of the Year, was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in the 87-88 season, was named to the All-NBA First Team 10 times (and the Second Team once, the first year of his career), was named to the All-Defensive First Team 9 times (tied for the most in NBA history), has the highest career ppg average in NBA history, the most 30-point games in NBA history, the most consecutive games scoring double-digit points (with 866), the most points scored in career playoff games, and was named ESPN’s top athlete of the century. Suffice to say, Portland would go on to regret their pick.
Michael Jordan As Brand Jordan’s impact on the game, however, went beyond just statistics. Michael became a global icon, building himself into as much a brand as an athlete. He had already inked a deal with Nike before he joined the NBA to market his own brand of sneakers (something that hadn’t been seen before). Every year since 1985, Nike has released a new version of Air Jordans and has recently created the Jordan brand and the entire line of apparel sporting the legendary Jordan logo. Jordan is known worldwide, has been a spokesperson for numerous companies and brands, including Hanes, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Gatorade, and is now the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, the first former player to become the majority owner of an NBA team. Though Jordan set records for player salaries, including a one-year deal worth between $33 and $36 million in his last season as a Chicago Bull (worth about $44-47 million today) which at the time made him the highest-paid athlete in the world, his money came more from his endorsements and business ventures. Five years after his retirement from playing basketball, Forbes listed his pay at $45 million, entirely from sponsorships and businesses. Jordan’s self-branding changed the face of the NBA, setting the table for many of the stars who would come after him.
Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls In The 90 are ’90s belonged largely to Michael and the Bulls. They won their six titles in two three-peats, first from ’91-’93 and then ’96-’98. In between, Olajuwon and the Rockets won their two titles. The break between championships for the Bulls coincided with Jordan’s first retirement, during which he went to play minor league baseball. Many have speculated on the cause of this retirement: some say Jordan was simply bored, having no real challenge in the game, while others attribute the decision to the murder of his father the previous year, while still, others (primarily conspiracy theorists) say Jordan was forced to leave the game for two years by commissioner David Stern because of Jordan’s well-publicized gambling issues. Whatever the reason, Jordan’s absence from the Bulls opened the door for the Rockets, only for Jordan to close it again with his return. After the ’98 season, Jordan retired again, this time staying retired until the 2001 season, in which he returned to basketball playing for the Washington Wizards (with whom he had a minority stake as an owner). That return was less fruitful, as the Wizards failed to make the playoffs either season he played for them.
1992 Olympic men’s Basketball Dream Team The 1990s also saw the creation of the “Dream Team,” the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball team. Up to that point in Olympic history, basketball had been played by amateurs, primarily college players (many of whom would go on to play in the NBA). However, the NBA, seeking to market basketball globally, assembled a group of the best players in the world for the U.S. team in 1992. The roster consisted of Jordan, Magic, Bird, Barkley, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen (Jordan’s Bulls teammate), Stockton, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler and Christian Laettner, all of them All-Stars, many of them Hall-of-Famers. The team destroyed its competition, winning by an average of 44 points at the Barcelona Games, but accomplished its primary goal: to help grow the game worldwide. Twelve years later, Argentina won the first non-American gold medal since 1988, while foreign-born players flooded NBA rosters. Hakeem Olajuwon (from Nigeria) was the first foreign-born player to win an MVP award, while Steve Nash (Canada) and Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) have won in recent years. In the 2009 NBA Finals, eight different countries were represented by players in the series (not including the U.S.).
1998 Owners Lockout Players Following the 1997-98 season, tensions had grown between the owners and the players. NBA players were the highest-paid athletes in the U.S. with an average salary of $1.8 million, compared to $1.2 million for baseball players, $650,000 for football players, and $600,000 for hockey players. Without a hard salary cap in place, a divide was growing in the league between big-market teams who could spend freely and small-market teams who were handcuffed by financial restrictions. Unable to come to an agreement, on July 1, 1998, the owners imposed a lockout on the players (essentially, an owners’ version of a strike). Though the two sides met throughout the summer, no deal was reached on a new collective bargaining agreement, and slowly, the following season began to be canceled. The league canceled the season incrementally, hoping to play at least some of the games if a deal could be reached. David Stern imposed a January 7th deadline, called a “drop dead” day, saying that if no agreement was reached before that day, the league would cancel the entire season. On January 6th, Stern and Billy Hunter, head of the players’ union, agreed to a deal. After the deal was officially signed on January 20th, the season began on February 5th with a 50-game season (instead of the normal 82), and the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title in June.
TV Rating Drop Following Lockout Though no “hard cap” was ever put in place (which restricts how much many a team can spend on its players), there were salary limitations put in place, which put a cap on how high any one player’s salary could be. The most damaging backlash from the lockout came in the form of public perception; public polls showed a widely negative view of the lockout by both the general public and fans of the sport. Many of the players themselves, including stars like John Stockton and Charles Barkley said publicly that it was a mistake and a loss for the league in general. Television ratings for the sport dropped every year after the lockout for five years (though that can also be attributed to Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls).
Kevin Garnett First High Schooler Drafted Into NBA For 20 Years In the 1995 draft, Kevin Garnett, out of Farragut High School in Chicago, became the first high schooler drafted into the NBA in 20 years. Despite the league’s misgivings, there was no rule against it, and Garnett was taken 5th by the Minnesota Timberwolves. His selection would start a huge increase in high school athletes going straight to the NBA. The next year, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal were each taken in the draft. In 2001, Kwame Brown became the first high schooler to take 1st overall in the draft; he was followed in later years by LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Only two high school-to-NBA players have ever won the Rookie of the Year award: Amare Stoudamire (of the Phoenix Suns in 2003) and LeBron James (of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2004).
College Game Suffers With some of the top talents in the country foregoing college, the college game suffered, with a somewhat steady drop in ratings from 1995 onward. Many believe the quality of play also suffered. At the same time, perception of the NBA suffered greatly; many of the high schoolers who came into the league did not do well, and many attributed it to immaturity. In 2005, under a new collective bargaining agreement, the league imposed restrictions on the draft; players now had to be at least 19 years old in the calendar year of the draft and be one year removed from high school. This has led most players who would’ve joined the NBA after high school to spend a year in college before joining the league. Some players, notably Brandon Jennings in 2008, played abroad for a year before joining the NBA. The last three Rookie of the Year award winners in the NBA (as of 2010) all played one year in college before joining the NBA, while the previous four number-one overall picks did the same thing.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were Signed By The Lakers The dawning of the new millennium saw a rebirth of championship basketball in Los Angeles. The Lakers, after acquiring Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets on the day he was drafted, also signed Shaquille O’Neal in the same year, one of the most dominant centers of his era (and perhaps ever). Initially, the team failed to have great success; though a playoff team, they did not reach the NBA Finals until 2000, under the leadership of former Bulls head coach Phil Jackson. They would go on to dominate the NBA landscape for three years, winning three titles. The San Antonio Spurs, who ended the Lakers run of titles, also built themselves a bit of a dynasty in the 2000s, winning three championships in five years (2003, 2005, and 2007), anchored by Tim Duncan, who many consider the greatest power forward of his generation, and perhaps even of all time. After a down year in 2003, the Lakers had rebuilt themselves, signing aging veterans Gary Payton and Karl Malone. However, the team lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals in 2004, and the following postseason, after public disagreements between O’Neal and Bryant, the Lakers traded O’Neal to the Miami Heat. Within two seasons, the Heat, led by Dwyane Wade and O’Neal, won the NBA title. The Lakers, meanwhile, wouldn’t reach the Finals for another four years.
LeBron James Signed By Cleveland Cavaliers Arguably, the most compelling player of this decade, however, hasn’t won an NBA title. LeBron James was probably the most hyped young talent of all time; he received a Sports Illustrated cover story when he was still a junior in high school. Upon entering the league, he was almost immediately considered one of its top players. He has been the youngest player to achieve over a dozen accomplishments, including numerous scoring records. Most recently, he signed a new contract with the Miami Heat, leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join Dwyane Wade and All-Star Chris Bosh (who signed with the Heat from Toronto). His decision was announced in a televised one-hour special on ESPN called, “The Decision.” Though the special was widely criticized, it was viewed by 9.95 million viewers, ESPN’s highest-rated non-NFL program of the year. Despite criticisms, however, the next decade of NBA basketball may belong to the Miami Heat; only time will tell.