The history of the NBA is obviously something we here at Basketball Pantheon find very important to the overall understanding of the game. Learning about the past requires extensive research, which mostly boils down to reading. The first book that we are reviewing is an essential to anyone who wants to learn about NBA past.
The early days of the NBA featured low scores, a bunch of white guys and was actually a mix of two different leagues. How it has evolved is both good for the sport and socioeconomic relations. How it got there is a fascinating story.
Plenty of books have covered the history of the league in some way or another but Leonard Koppett’s, 24 Seconds to Shoot: The Birthplace and Improbable Rise of the NBA, covers the early portion of the league, basically 1946-1970. Koppett, a great New York sportswriter, mainly covered baseball but decided to chronicle the rise of the NBA with a book that would shed light on the most important figures, both on and off the court, of the first quarter century of the league.
After discussing the fallout of the 1949 merger, the book goes into a segment about the era dominated by former Minneapolis Lakers big man, George Mikan. Koppett then begins to explain how bad some of the pro basketball was in that day with fouling becoming more and more prevalent as a strategy and the overall lack of scoring. Finally a new rule would be put into place and it ended up saving the league; the 24-second shot clock. The new rule had some skeptics, because all new things do, but was a hit on the court right away. Immediately the fast break became key for every team to master and fans started to enjoy the game much more. The book goes into phenomenal detail on how and why the shot clock came into play.
The second half of the book revolves mainly around players and coaches who colored the league and made it the personality driven industry it is today. Koppett has entire chapters dedicated to Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Red Auerbach. He also mixes in stories about the players as well as results from each year’s playoffs. The writer does a great job of balancing stories with scores in a way that makes each playoff result sound interesting, even if you already knew who won that year.
By the end of the book stars like Rick Barry, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, Jerry West and Bob Pettit all have their day in the sun. One of the things I loved about the book was that it didn’t seek to say who was the best of all-time or things like that, it was just storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy some books that have tried to decide who the best ever was but for pure learning, this was a lovely departure from the ranking realm.
24 Seconds to Shoot closes with a chapter about change as Russell was retiring and Lew Alcindor was coming in. It also explains some of the origins of the ABA and what impact the first few years of that league had on the NBA. At the back of my version of the book is an 80-page chunk that has every team’s history and full stats. It also contains the results of every season as well as small write-ups about the most important characters of those first 25 years. All of this information could easily be found online but it was cool to see in print with 1970 as a cut off rather than today. This book is extremely well written for what it is and while it won’t have you rolling on the floor laughing there is a nice amount of levity in Koppett’s writing. This one passage on page 161 about the New York Knicks in 1963 could have easily been written today. It reads, “In the case of the Knicks, this was the same old mistake: choosing reputation and immediate publicity value over oncourt reality”. What a sentence. 24 Seconds to Shoot may not be the casual basketball fan’s favorite but for anyone who cares about the history of the NBA or wants to know more about it, I couldn’t recommend this highly enough.