Leo Ferris: the man who saved the NBA

The early days of basketball often saw games slow and unfriendly to fans that often left viewers bored. Games often only went to 40 and many of the top players averaged less than 15 points per game. Many early basketball games resembled a glorified version of the childhood game of keep away more 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 go on to win 19-18 in the lowest scoring game in NBA history. Prior to that, an all-time low scoring 33 points, just 4 fewer than both teams scored, and that game was one of the opening nights of the NBA, or BAA as it was called back then.

This pace bored fans, many of whom were promised a fun, action-packed experience, and attendance and interest in the new league had begun 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, would change the game forever.

The clock was the brainchild of Syracuse Nationals general manager Leo Ferris, a man the NBA has long forgotten in one of the biggest farces 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 a lot different today without Ferris’ input all those years ago.

Ferris got his start with basketball not in the NBA but in the NBL when in 1946 he helped found the Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons were pretty much a bust in upstate New York and after only 13 games the Bisons recovered and left the shores of Lake Erie and headed to the American Heartland in Molina, Illinois. The team technically 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, the base of one of the longest tenured NBA teams was ugly. The Blackhawks would eventually move to Milwaukee, where they took on the Hawks nickname, later moving 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 all-black New York Ren’s. African-American players had played in the NBL before, but only in the early 1940s, when World War II took many of the NBL’s white players. Gates was the first black player to sign a contract when there was no need for them, and the first signed because of his skill and talent and not 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 home state of New York and started as general manager of the NBL’s Syracuse Nationals. As manager of the Nationals, he scored a huge blow for the Nationals and the NBL when he lured coveted big man Dolph Schayes away from the New York Knicks from upstart BAA.

The BAA and NBL rivalry only got worse, with BAA stealing most of the top NBL players and starting in 1948, BAA began taking top 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 would find that solution.

Starting in the spring of 1949, Ferris began meeting with BAA executives, at first an attempt to get the Nationals into the growing league, but he would soon expand to merge the two leagues. Talks ended in August 1949 when an agreement was reached to merge the NBL and BAA to form the NBA. The BAA only wanted to absorb two teams; the Nationals and Olympians from Indianapolis; who would replace the Jets. Ferris was able to convince the BAA to accept both 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 scuttled Oshkosh’s attempt to move to Milwaukee and Hammond was thought to be too close to Chicago, where the BAA already had a team. The Rens of Dayton were not 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 were initially successful, but the old NBL teams had given up too much power in the merger and despite Ferris’s best efforts, the league kicked out 5 of the old teams. of the NBL next season.

The 1950 season saw the Lakers continue their dominance and the Pistons figured the only way to stop them was to hold a one-point lead and the ball. This was the event that usured into the Leo Ferris watch or more commonly known as the shot watch. Ferris had always liked math and he had been 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 4 more years for the league to implement shot clocks and when they did, the league saw a jump in scoring of nearly 20 points per game and gone were the days of games ending in the 40s. In fact, since the introduction of the shot clock, there have only been 20 regular season games in which a team scored less than 60 points, and only one in which a team scored less than 50 and only one playoff game in which a team scored less than 60. points.

The introduction of the shot clock sent the game into an era of frenetic pace, with teams scoring what was previously considered 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 by 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’s been a finalist a couple of times, but never made it to the consecration part. This is likely due to the utter and complete contempt and disdain that 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 committed in its more than 70 years of existence. Many people are in the Hall of Fame who have fewer resumes than Ferris, and yet Ferris gets overlooked time and time again. Maybe, hopefully, 2018 will be the year of the man who could have saved the NBA.

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