- The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949
On December 9, 1996, a brief letter by Murry Nelson to the editor appeared in Sports Illustrated stating his confusion that SI and other media outlets were celebrating the National Basketball Association's (NBA's) fiftieth year. "How is the first season of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), 1946-47, the beginning of the NBA?" he asked, when the BAA and the National Basketball League (NBL) merged to form the NBA before the l949-1950 season. The NBL began in 1937-1938, Nelson pointed out, and then queried "why not count the history of the NBA from then?" Although the editor of SI informed Nelson that the NBA traced its origins back to June 6, 1946, when it was founded as the BAA, Nelson's letter of protest reached at least one positive response. A former NBL player, Dick Triptow, saw his letter and contacted him, and his encouragement and inspiration pushed Nelson to write this book.
Although a number of histories of the NBA have been written and almost all contain the BAA's three years of existence, no comprehensive history of the NBL had been published. Curiously, as Nelson points out in the introduction to his book, "the NBA has seemed to do its best to not recognize the NBL and its contribution to the NBA and professional basketball" (p. 7). A professor emeritus of Education and American Studies at Penn State University and a basketball scholar, Nelson makes a convincing case for the importance of the NBL in the NBA's early history. The first six NBA champions were all former NBL teams—the Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals, and Syracuse Nationals. Not until 1956 did a former BAA team, the Philadelphia Warriors, win a NBA title. Furthermore, in these early years all league teams were dominated by former NBL squads. In the first two years of the NBA, sixteen of the twenty players named all league were former NBL players. For these reasons and others mentioned in the book, it became obvious to Nelson that the history of the National Basketball League, "the greatest professional league in the United States that few people really know much about (p. 234)," had to be written. Through extensive interviews with former NBL players, executives, and coaches, and archival research at the University of Akron, to Sheboygan County and Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, he commenced weaving the story together.
Originally formed in Akron, Oshkosh, and Indianapolis, the league operated mainly in the Midwest but extended as far east as Rochester and Syracuse and west to Denver, building major franchises with hometown loyalties. As Nelson amply documents, these professional teams held a unique spot in the history of the small cities that they represented. Unlike previous professional leagues, most of its stars were college graduates, and the NBL was the first modern professional league to integrate. The location of a National Basketball League franchise made the leaders and residents of these cities feel a greater sense of pride in themselves and their respective cities. Furthermore, according to Nelson, [End Page 477] players were readily identified in the community and easily integrated into these small cities. Nelson's book clearly and passionately describes "how for 13 years the NBL was a fixture in the Midwest and the acknowledged top league in professional basketball. It had the best players in the world and, for a section of the county that revered basketball, the result was packed gymnasiums and basketball excitement" (p. 10).
This thoroughly researched history of the National Basketball League is an enjoyable read and forms an important chapter not only in American sports history but also illustrates the salient role of sports in the social history of small towns and cities in Middle America. Professional basketball in the NBA has come a long way since the years immediately following World War II, but were it not for the foundation laid...