Happy Birthday, NBA!
Or, Why Primary Source Evidence Matters in Historical Debates
The National Basketball Association was born on August 3, 1949. But if you only listened to the National Basketball Association, you’d never know it.
The NBA insists that it was founded in 1946 when the Basketball Association of America (BAA) got up and running. In fact, as of this writing, the NBA’s history website describes the 1946-47 basketball season as the “first season of the BAA, the precursor to the modern-day NBA[.]” The BAA is a precursor of the NBA not the precursor.
The NBA’s other precursor league is the National Basketball League (NBL). In fact, the NBL was much older than the BAA since it dated back to 1935 as the embryonic Midwest Basketball Conference. In 1937, that league underwent a reorganization and became the NBL.
The NBL and BAA engaged in some delightful sports warfare in the late 1940s that was finally settled on August 3, 1949, when the two leagues merged. Currently, the NBA doesn’t call this a merger, though. This is how their history website describes what happened in 1949: “The summer of 1949 solidified the professional basketball picture, with the six surviving NBL teams being absorbed into the BAA and the league being renamed the National Basketball Association.”
No merger here. NBL teams were “absorbed” and the BAA was “renamed” to the NBA.
As I harp about consistently, evidence of this merger—not absorption—is in the name of the NBA… National Basketball League plus the Basketball Association of America gets you the National Basketball Association.
NBL + BAA = NBA
Detailing the long process and bickering that led to the merger is part of my in-progress dissertation. So you’ll see that someday! And there’s also some fantastic players as well as stories pertaining to basketball rule changes, franchise foundings, and racial integration that get left by the wayside because of the NBA’s shoddy history choices.
For example, there’s Hank DeZonie.
For today, though, I’m just going to present contemporary newspaper headlines that debunk the NBA’s subsequent and ongoing sorry attempt at whitewashing the NBL’s existence by denying that a formative merger ever happened in 1949. Indeed, the NBA gearing up for a so-called 75th anniversary celebration for the 2021-22 season continues the charade.
This is why historians go back and look at evidence from the era in question, instead of just accepting what gets told down the line.
The Midwest Basketball Conference forms (fall 1935)
Can’t find the specific date of the MBC’s creation, which is unsurprising given how haphazard pro basketball news reporting could be prior to World War II, but here’s the Akron Beacon Journal on December 3, 1935, gearing up for opening day.
This isn’t the birth of the NBA, but it sets in motion the direct chain of events that lead to the NBA’s creation.
The MBC reorganizes as the National Basketball League (October 1937)
At its annual meeting, the MBC renames itself the National Basketball League and addressed typical, mundane sports league matters. The league maintained its Midwestern essence and was based primarily in mid-sized cities. Franchises routinely cropped up in Chicago, but they rarely lasted more than a couple of seasons. A team in Indianapolis (the Kautskys) was a longtime associate being a founding member of the MBC, but also dropped out of the league from time to time.
The NBL’s true stalwarts over the years proved to be Wisconsin’s Oshkosh All-Stars and Sheboygan Redskins (ugh) as well as the Fort Wayne Pistons. Once again, the Akron Beacon Journal has the scoop, this time from Monday, October 4, 1937.
The Basketball Association of America forms (June 1946)
The NBL chugged along for a decade surviving the Great Depression and World War II as the United States’ premier basketball loop. On June 6, 1946, though, it got a rival: the Basketball Association of America.
Some bigwigs in (mostly) big cities decided to provide some filler events for their arenas by creating a new basketball league. The East Coast was essentially uncontested territory since the NBL’s easternmost clubs were the Syracuse Nationals and Rochester Royals. The BAA also competed with the NBL in the Midwest staking out the biggest cities in that region (Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, etc.).
Once again, the Akron Beacon Journal was on the case. From Friday, June 7, 1946.
The NBL and BAA merge; the NBA is born (August 1949)
After three years of rancor and raids, the NBL and BAA figured neither one could survive another year of warfare. So they merged.
Of the 17 teams comprising the new league, 10 had their professional league origins in the NBL. Six germinated in the BAA. And one from the minor-league American Basketball League. Today, just eight of the original 17 franchises survive. Five from the NBL and three from the BAA.
Instead of sticking with just the Akron Beacon Journal, this time I’ll provide a few more headlines showcasing that this was universally recognized as a merger. Thus it’s all the more curious (ridiculous) that the NBA has engaged in a long-running retcon that defies the historical record.
From the Syracuse Post-Standard
From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
From Iowa’s Waterloo Courier
From Illinois’s Moline Dispatch
The NBA’s First Game (October 29, 1949)
The NBA’s first game was played on Saturday, October 29, 1949, in Moline, Illinois. The contest was a showdown between two former NBL teams: the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks) and the Denver Nuggets (a different franchise than the current Denver Nuggets that started in the ABA).
The Rock Island Argus of Illinois carried an anticipatory article on the 29th featuring a photo of the visiting Nuggets. Notice that the paper emphasizes that this is a new league.
And the Quad-City Times from Davenport, Iowa, gave the after-action report on October 30th.
The NBA’s First Champion (April 1950)
Lastly, we have the St. Cloud Times of Minnesota on April 24, 1950, celebrating the Minneapolis Lakers winning their third pro title in three years in three different leagues: the NBL, BAA, and NBA. Today the NBA recognizes the Lakers’ BAA (1949) and NBA (1950) titles, but not their NBL title from 1948.
One last emphasis: these are just SOME pieces of the historical record. There’s plenty more I could dump in here to further prove the point, but that’s what the dissertation is for.
It’s pretty clear on when the NBA was founded. Question is whether the NBA will ever accept what the evidence says or continue running with a mythology. But now y’all know better, so be sure to let your fellow fans, friends, family, and journalists know too.
PS - If we can’t get this bit of history right, now you know why it’s such a pain in the ass for historians to correct popular myths concerning much weightier issues.