The NBA remains one of the most popular and important leagues in sports history, one with some of the highest-paid players and the highest-priced memorabilia and gear. This league’s unique history is worth visiting because it includes many big names and fascinating changes that some younger fans may not know. Walk with us at Fanatics down memory lane to learn more about the NBA.
The Early Days of Basketball
It’s impossible to talk about NBA history without touching a little on the earliest days of basketball as a competitive sport. Though games like basketball had existed before, such as the ancient Mayan game that involved throwing a ball into a hole using players’ hips, arms, and legs, modern basketball started with a young man named James Naismith, a Canadian teacher at an International YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. Naismith invented the game in just two weeks as a way of entertaining young people at the YMCA during Massachusetts’ often tough winters.
The Beginning of the NBA
In the late 1940s, two major basketball leagues served the nation: the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League. Both leagues featured high talent levels and similar high-quality competition. Many college students started focusing heavily on the BAA, though, after multiple NBL teams transitioned to that league. The NBL tried to stay separate for several more years but continued losing teams to the burgeoning BAA. As a result, the final three NBL teams moved to the BAA in 1949 to merge these leagues and create the National Basketball Association or NBA.
NBA Development and Growth
The early NBA years were often a struggle. For example, the league started with 17 teams spread across the nation. However, these teams had varying budgets and play spaces, with some playing in YMCA gyms. Teams with bigger budgets attracted better players and more fans, causing a discrepancy in the league that caused it to shrink to just 11 teams in 1950. Three years later, the league had just eight teams and was struggling to stay solvent. These teams were the New York Knicks, Fort Wayne Pistons, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia Warriors, Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals, Syracuse Nationals, and Tri-Cities Blackhawks.
Amazingly, all these teams still compete, though often with different names and locations. For example, the Philadelphia Warriors moved to San Francisco and the Fort Wayne Pistons moved to Detroit, a larger city with more growth potential. However, the league started expanding throughout the ’50s and ’60s as it accepted more diverse players. For example, the first African American to sign a professional contract with an NBA team, Harold Hunter, joined the Washington Capitols in 1950.
This expanding acceptance of minority players helped improve the league’s play and boosted it to catch up with other leagues’ popularity. MLB had already accepted African American players in 1947, while the NFL signed its first in 1946. That increased racial acceptance and improved play in big markets drew more attention and helped the NBA rise in popularity. However, there was one team that helped expand this league’s popularity more than any other during the 1960s: the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics Era Enhances NBA Popularity
The 1960s Celtics arguably are the best NBA team of all time, even compared to later greats like Michael Jordan’s Bulls or LeBron James’ Cavaliers. The Celtics’ accomplishments with coach Red Auerbach and legendary player Bill Russell are unprecedented. Starting in 1956, the Celtics won 11 of 13 NBA championships, including eight consecutive championship victories. During this stretch, they won all but one 1960s NBA championship. Their exciting competitive approach featured guard Bob Cousy playing off Russell for maximum scoring potential. Auerbach’s innovative coaching strategies helped keep the team competitive.
As exciting as the Celtics were as a team, there was one player who brought more excitement than any other: Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain was like nothing the league had seen before his time. Standing at over seven feet, Chamberlain was taller than any other player on the court. However, Chamberlain was also a skilled offensive thinker, an efficient scorer, and a capable defensive player. He averaged 30 points and 20 rebounds for his entire career, the only player to do so. He is the only player who scored 100 points in a game, during which he snagged 55 rebounds.
With the Philadelphia 76ers and later the Los Angeles Lakers, Chamberlain transformed the game forever. Though precision passing and careful play design still ruled the game, height became more important than ever. Average player height went up considerably during this period, as did defensive play design. Coaches, forced to deal with Chamberlain’s overwhelming size, created strategies that dealt with him specifically. Chamberlain and the Celtics maintained a heavy competitive streak throughout this period, which helped propel television and attendance ratings even further.
Things weren’t always positive for the NBA during the late 60s and into the 70s, though. During this period, the American Basketball Association began operating in 1967. This league started taking major talent out of college by offering better pay and by scouting college undergraduates, which the NBA didn’t do. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joined the ABA, as did Julius Erving. Despite this competition, the NBA expanded from nine to 18 franchises by 1974 and eventually merged with the ABA in 1979 to balloon to 22 teams. The NBA also adopted the ABA’s popular 3-point line at this point.
Progress Hastens Through the ’80s and The Bulls Era
Despite the league’s continuing expansion, TV ratings and low attendance issues began plaguing the league. While popular players like Abdul-Jabar and Pete Maravich brought people to arenas, the league seemed to lack focus and excitement. However, the drafting of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson helped refuel interest in the league. Bird was the first 3-point king and one of the toughest and smartest players on the court. His perimeter shooting showed skeptical NBA fans just how transformative this innovation was for the sport. His antics started improving TV rankings and attendance again, alongside rival Magic Johnson.
Magic Johnson brought his own unique skill set to the game and helped start the Lakers’ domination of the 1980s. Johnson’s basketball IQ was off the charts, with his signature move being the no-look pass. He helped the Lakers win five NBA championships in the NBA, while Bird led the Celtics to three. Their high-energy competition was always exciting. Bird’s legendary trash talking and tough play style roughened up the league, while Johnson’s offensive and defensive excellence forced teams to compensate with better coaching and more complex offensive and defensive concepts.
That said, it was in 1984 that the league transformed forever when Michael Jordan joined the NBA. Jordan’s college career had outstripped mild high school potential, and he made a major impact almost immediately. Jordan eventually led the Bulls to six championships after the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons knocked them out of the playoffs in 1989 and 1990. Finally defeating the Pistons, the Bulls won three consecutive championships twice, from 1991 to 1993 and 1996 to 1998. Jordan’s high-flying offensive skills included accurate shooting and high-energy play-making paired with an aggressive and intelligent defense.
The NBA’s Continued Surge
NBA history during the 1990s and 2000s experienced many unique peaks. For example, the 1992 Olympic Dream Team beat every opponent by an average of 44 points to claim a gold medal. More teams continued to join the league, eventually bringing it up to 27. Dark spots like the 1998 lockout, which lead to a 50-game season, brought some criticism to players. Fans thought players wanted too much money, while players thought their coaches and owners worked them too hard. The early 2000s were also an age of transition, in which new superstars like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal emerged.
The Spurs also became dominant throughout this period, with Tim Duncan leading the way. Duncan’s focus on all-around skills earned him the derisive nickname of “The Big Fundamental.” However, college players took notice as the Spurs won multiple championships during this period. Players started focusing on the fundamentals that made Duncan such a potent player, and the sport’s competition level increased substantially. However, no single player quite represented the new NBA quite like superstar LeBron James, whose 2003 draft out of high school came with heightened anticipation.
James’ skill set is like that of Jordan’s: superior offensive intelligence and balanced defensive capabilities. Though it took some time and a team switch, LeBron eventually won two championships with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013 and came home to Cleveland to give his hometown its first championship win in 50 years in 2016. James achieved this victory after a come-from-behind win against the most dominant team in NBA history: the 73-9 Golden State Warriors.
Legendary shooter Stephen Curry spearheaded this dominant team and, even then, was hailed the best pure 3-point shooter in history. Alongside his Splash Brothers teammate Klay Thompson, Curry and the Warriors pushed the 3-pointer even more into the forefront of the game. Meanwhile, in Houston, James Harden brought a uniquely strategic approach to the game. Harden, a dangerous scorer from any spot on the court, used a contact-first method in the paint. As a result, he spends a lot of time at the free-throw line, where he’s almost automatic. Some decry this approach, but other teams have already embraced it.
Clearly, NBA history has come a long way from Naismith putting peach buckets up in a YMCA gym. Where the sport goes from here is up to debate. With 3-point shooting becoming nearly automatic, could the league install a 4-point line? Only time will tell. We know that officially licensed sports apparel, sports collectibles, and memorabilia from the NBA lead all leagues in value, and there’s plenty of reason for that given the sport’s history.