Basketball, of course, traces its history back to the game’s founder, James Naismith, but the National Basketball Association came much later. Today’s NBA can trace its roots back to the other three major professional sports in the United States. It was a joint effort by some very wealthy individuals that helped professional basketball become the exciting, fast-paced game it is today.
As the college game became more popular, a few professional leagues attempted to pop up around the country. The first was the National Basketball League, which was made up of just six teams. Founded in 1898, the NBL folded in 1904. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Eastern, Metropolitan, and American basketball leagues existed, but it was the new National Basketball League (NBL, established in 1937) and the Basketball Association of America (BAA, founded in 1946) that would have the most impact on today’s NBA.
The 1949 Merger
The BAA was started when ice hockey arena owners in major cities in the Eastern U.S. and Canada realized that there was money to be made by filling seats on nights when there weren’t hockey games. The BAA played its first season with teams in major cities like New York and Boston whereas the NBL had teams in smaller cities. The teams in the BAA started to attract the game’s better players and before the 1948-49 season four NBL teams moved to the BAA.
In August of 1949, the BAA and NBL merged to form what is today the NBA. The first formation of the league had 17 teams and the Minneapolis Lakers, led by George Mikan, was its first dynasty winning five championships between 1949 and 1954. The league began to fade in the mid-1950s due to lack of fan and financial support. In the 1954-55 season, the NBA had just eight teams. The 24-second clock was introduced that year to speed up play and make the game more fun to watch. Fans returned, teams became financially stable, and the league began to grow.
Because of the NBA’s popularity, a new league, the American Basketball Association, formed in 1967. The fledgling league adopted a red, white, and blue ball, a 30-second shot clock, and the 3-point line. It also drew some of the game’s top players like NBA-leading scorer Rick Barry, Connie Hawkins, and Julius Erving. After the 1975-76 season, four ABA teams were absorbed by the NBA and the rest of the league shut down. Those four new teams again helped the NBA expand and the league continued to grow until its current 30 teams.
The Modern Era
The NBA added the ABA’s 3-point line in 1979 and the arrival of players like Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird provided significant interest in the league. Michael Jordan entered the league in 1984 and embarked on a career that included six NBA titles. By the mid-1990s, the league was so popular that it expanded into Canada – Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies (who later relocated to Memphis). Players like LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden are the latest in a long line of superstars that make the NBA fun to watch. From its original 11 teams to today’s 30, the NBA continues to be one of the most-watched spectator sports in the U.S.