Leo Ferris: the man who saved the NBA
The early days of basketball often saw slow and unfriendly games for fans that often left viewers bored. Games often only reached their 40s and many of the best players averaged less than 15 points per game. Many of the early basketball games were more like a glorified version of the keep the kids 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 with a 1-point lead over the Lakers. The Pistons would win 19-18 in the lowest-scoring game in NBA history. Before that, the fewest points scored 33 points, just 4 less than both teams scored, and that game was the opening night of the NBA, or BAA as it was called back then.
This pace bored fans, many of whom were promised an action-packed fun experience and attendance and interest in the new league had started to wane. The NBA needed a solution and it needed it fast. The solution was ingenious and would revolutionize the game as we know it. A simple clock, with only 24 seconds on it, would change the game forever.
The watch was the brainchild of Syracuse Nationals general manager Leo Ferris, a man the NBA has long forgotten 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 argued that without Ferris there would be no NBA today; and there would definitely be no Atlanta Hawks or Philadelphia 76ers. The NBA would look very different today without the input from Ferris all those years ago.
Ferris began with basketball not in the NBA but in the NBL when in 1946 he helped found the Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons were practically a flop in upstate New York and after just 13 games the Bisons regained and left the shores of Lake Erie and headed for the American Heartland in Molina, Illinois. Technically, the team played in Molina and Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa, but most of its games were played in Molina. The team was called the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, and as they struggled, they laid the foundations for one of the longest-serving NBA teams. The Blackhawks would eventually move to Milwaukee, where they took the nickname the Hawks, and then they would move to St Louis and finally Atlanta.
Shortly after the team moved to the Tri-Cities, Ferris would make one of his first major changes in the basketball world when he signed Pop Gates to the New York Black Ren on a contract. African American players had played in the NBL before, but only in the early 1940s, when World War II took away many of the white players in the NBL. Gates was the first black player to sign a contract when there wasn’t a need for them, and the first one signed because of his ability and talent and not because the league needed players. Gates would rejoin 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 the general manager of the NBL’s Syracuse Nationals. As manager of the Nationals, he scored a major blow for the Nationals and the NBL when he lured the coveted big man Dolph Schayes away from the upstart BAA’s New York Knicks.
The rivalry between BAA and NBL only got worse, with the BAA snatching most of the best players from the NBL and, beginning in 1948, the BAA also began taking over the best 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 executives, initially an attempt to get the Nationals into the growing league, but it would soon expand to merge the two leagues. The talks ended in August 1949 when an agreement was reached to merge the NBL and the BAA and form the NBA. The BAA only wanted to absorb two teams; the Nationals and the Indianapolis Olympians upstart; who would replace the Jets. Ferris managed to convince the BAA to accept both 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 relocate to Milwaukee and Hammond was thought to be too close to Chicago, where the BAA already had a team. The Dayton Rens weren’t allowed to join because their players were black players. In addition to the Rens not being allowed to join, the black players in Syracuse also had to be fired.
The merger proved successful as all 17 NBA teams had initial success, but the old NBL teams had given up too much power in the merger and despite Ferris’s best efforts, the league expelled 5 of the NBA teams. former NBL teams next season.
The 1950 season saw the Lakers continue their dominance and the Pistons figured the only way to stop them was to hold on to a lead point and the ball. This was the usurer event on the Leo Ferris watch or more commonly known as the shot clock. Ferris had always liked and been good at math, and he used math to get to 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 come up with 24 seconds.
It took the league 4 more years to implement the shot clocks and when they did, the league saw a jump in the score of almost 20 points per game and the game days ending in the 40s were gone. In fact, from the pitch clock introduction, there have only been 20 regular season games in which a team scored less than 60 points, and only one was a team scored less than 50 and only one playoff game was a team scored less than 60 points. points.
The introduction of the shot clock ushered the game into an era of frenetic paces, with teams scoring what was once thought of as an impossible number of points. In 1954-55, Neil Johnston led the NBA in scoring with 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 watch was introduced before permanently leaving the league and the game to develop real estate. It was a surprisingly short run for someone who would have such a profound impact on the game.
Despite all that he accomplished, Ferris has yet to be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. He has been a finalist a couple of times, but never made it to the consecration part. This is likely due to the utter disregard and disdain 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 more than 70 years of existence. Many people are in the Hall of Fame with fewer resumes than Ferris, and yet Ferris is overlooked time and time again. Perhaps, hopefully, 2018 will be the year for the man who may have saved the NBA.