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Leo Ferris: The Man Who Saved The NBA
The early days of basketball often saw slow, fan-friendly, low-scoring games that often left spectators bored. Games often only started in the 40s and many of the top players averaged less than 15 points a game. Many early basketball games looked more like a glorified version of the children’s game of keep-away than an action-packed professional sport. This style of play culminated in a game between Minneapolis and Fort Wayne, where the Pistons of Fort Wayne held the ball for most of the second half to secure a 1-point lead over the Lakers. The Pistons would win 19-18 in the lowest scoring game in NBA history. Previously, the fewest points ever scored was 33 points, just 4 fewer than both teams scored, and that game was one of the opening night of the NBA, or BAA as it was then called.
This pace upset fans, many of whom had been promised an entertaining, action-packed experience, and attendance and interest in the new league had begun to decline. The NBA needed a solution, and it needed it fast. The solution was a clever one and one that would revolutionize gaming as we know it. A simple hour, with just 24 seconds would change the game forever.
Ora was the brain child of Syracuse Nationals general manager Leo Ferris, a man the NBA has long forgotten in one of the biggest travesties in gaming history. Ferris, is as important to the early days of the NBA as anyone and one could argue that without Ferris there would be no NBA today; and there would definitely be no Atlanta Hawks, or Philadelphia 76ers. The NBA would look much different today without Ferris’ contribution all those years ago.
Ferris got his start in 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 packed up and left the shores of Lake Erie and warmed up in the American Heartland in Molina, 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 NBA’s longest-running teams were laid. The Blackhawks would eventually move to Milwaukee, where they took on the name Hawks, and then move to St Louis and finally Atlanta.
Shortly after the team moved to the Tri-Cities, Ferris would go on to make one of his first big shocks in the basketball world when he signed Pop Gates to a contract with the all-black New York Ren’s. African-American players had played in the NBL before, but only during the early 1940s, when World War II had taken many white players from the NBL. Gates was the first black player to sign a contract when it wasn’t necessary for them, and the first to sign because of his skill and talent rather than because the league needed players. Gates would rejoin the Rens when they joined the NBL as the Dayton Rens two years later.
After just one season with the Blackhawks, Ferris returned to his hometown of New York and began as general manager of the NBL’s Syracuse Nationals. As manager of the Nationals, he scored a major coup for the Nationals and the NBL when he lured highly coveted big man Dolph Schayes away from the new BAA’s New York Knicks.
The BAA and NBL rivalry only worsened, with the BAA stealing most of the best players from the NBL and starting in 1948, the BAA began taking over the best teams as well. 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 was going to find that solution.
Beginning in the spring of 1949, Ferris began meeting with BAA executives, initially in an effort to bring the Nationals into the growing league, but soon to expand into a merger of the two leagues. The talks ended in August 1949 when an agreement was reached to merge the NBL and BAA and form the NBA. BAA only wanted to absorb two teams; Indianapolis Nationals and Junior Olympians; who would replace the Jets. Ferris managed to talk BAA into accepting both of those 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 financial backing thwarted Oshkosh’s attempt to move to Milwaukee, and Hammond was thought too close to Chicago, where BAA already had a team. The Rens of Dayton were not allowed to join because their players consisted of black players. In addition to the Rens not being allowed to join, black players at Syracuse also had to be released.
The merger was successful as the 17 NBA teams saw initial success, but the old 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 thought the only way to stop them was to hold a one-point lead and the ball. This was the event that the usurer on the clock of Leo Ferris or better known as the shot clock. Ferris always liked math and was good at it, and he used math to create 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 another 4 years for the league to implement shot clocks and when they did the league saw an increase in scoring of nearly 20 points a game and went away from the days of games ending in the 40’s. In fact, since the introduction of the shot clock, there have only been 20 regular season games where a team has scored fewer than 60 points, and only one team has scored fewer than 50 points, and only one playoff game has a team that has scored less than 60 points. point.
The introduction of the shot clock ushered the game into an era of frenetic pace, with teams scoring what were once thought to be impossible numbers of points. In 1954-55, Neil Johnston led the NBA with 22 points per game, seven years later Wilt Chamberlain would set the NBA record by averaging 50 points per game.
Ferris would last only one season in the NBA after his watch was introduced before leaving the league and the game for good to develop real estate. It was a shockingly short career 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 several times, but never made it to the defensive end. This is likely due to the complete and utter disregard and contempt the NBA has often shown towards the NBL and its former players and staff.
The firing of Ferris has been one of the worst tragedies to befall the NBA in its 70 years of existence. Many people are in the Hall-of-Fame who have smaller resumes than Ferris and yet Ferris is constantly overlooked. Maybe, hopefully, 2018 will be the year for the man who may have saved the NBA.
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