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  • The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David G. Surdam
  • Murry Nelson
Surdam, David G. The Rise of the National Basketball Association. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012. Pp. 247. Appendices, notes, selected bibliography, and index. $79.95 hb, $25 pb.

This is not a history of the National Basketball Association (NBA), but it focuses on the beginnings of the NBA, from the Basketball Association of America (BAA) through the beginnings of expansion in 1962, and examines the economics of the league that enabled it to finally go from a "podunk" league to an internationally respected professional entity. Surdam uses the most noted NBA histories—notably, Leonard Koppett's 24 Seconds to Shoot (1968), and Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia (2003), Terry Pluto's Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA (1992), and NBA-endorsed histories of the league—as historical guideposts but embellishes these through a more thorough economic analysis, often subjecting key sociological events to such economic examination. Surdam explains, "Economic analysis helps explain the rise of the NBA. Professional team sports are prime candidates for applying economic analysis" (p. 3), and Surdam does this very well, at times overwhelming the non-economist reader with thirty-three tables in the appendix to "prove" his analysis. Some are pretty straightforward such as the effect top rookies had on their team's winning percentages, while some of the tables are a bit more arcane, such as the "Fixed-Effects Regression Equation for NBA Gate Receipts, 1950-51" or the "Ordinary Least Squares Regression Equation for NBA Gate Receipts, 1950-51." The author does not let these data affect the well-presented narrative, referring to the tables, but not letting them interfere with a good story.

As noted earlier, this volume does not present the conventional notion of a league's history; there are few game accounts and league champions are noted only in passing but for the consistent successes of the two early league giants, the Boston Celtics and the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers. Those successes are credited to a number of factors that Surdam also subjects to both sociological and economic scrutiny, including demographics of the league cities, the integration of the league, revenue sharing, league innovations (especially the introduction of the twenty-four-second clock) and television. [End Page 512]

There is a lot of comparisons to the leagues of the other major sports—baseball and football, primarily, and how they dealt with similar issues, which the NBA then either copied, modified or ignored, most times for better and sometimes for worse. Because of the real lack of long traditions in either basketball or, especially, the professional game, the NBA was not as locked into historical precedents and was willing to experiment to improve the game (i.e., revenue for the NBA and its owners). These included games with twelve-foot baskets, doubleheaders, six fouls, back court fouls drawing greater penalties, among others. Some stuck, some did not, and Surdam always views these from the perspective of their economic benefits.

There are some shortcomings in the book. There are a few useful books not included in his research or bibliography, most notably John Christgau's Tricksters in the Madhouse: Lakers vs. Globetrotters, 1948 (2004) and John Schleppi's Chicago's Showcase of Basketball: The World Tournament of Professional Basketball and the College All-Star Game (2007). Surdam also reveals that he has done excellent research but not always "drilled down" to the microdata (to borrow and bastardize an economic term). For example, he discusses the way the Chicago Packers were "helped" by the other owners in the drafting process when the Packers entered the league in 1961 but does not fully contextualize the rationale for the draft process that was followed then notes that the Packers failed to succeed, despite the presence of second-round picks, Don Kojis and Doug Moe. Neither, however, was on the Packer roster during the 1961-1962 NBA season, the former because he failed to make the team and the latter because of Commissioner Podoloff banning him because of point-shaving questions while in college. In addition, other top Packer draft picks like Bill Bridges and Roger Kaiser...


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