Technological Innovations That Changed the NBA Forever
A ball, two baskets and a court.
How much more low-tech could a sport be?
The simplicity of basketball is what allowed it to catch on like wildfire when it was introduced. Hoops flourishes across all classes and income strata because it requires virtually no equipment and no technology.
And yet, NBA basketball has been significantly altered through the years by technology. Some of the alterations we take for granted now and barely notice. But oh, how the game would be different—was different—without these advances.
The shot clock
No technology transformed NBA basketball like the shot clock, added in 1954. The high-scoring duels we see now would have never existed. Even the low-scoring affairs would have been a figment of the imagination.
Consider this: The lowest-scoring NBA game since the shot clock was added featured the Boston Celtics defeating the Milwaukee Hawks, 62-57. A mere 119 points were scored.
In the lowest-scoring game before the shot clock, the Fort Wayne Pistons beat the Minneapolis Lakers, 19-18. That's 37 points total.
In other words, Kobe Bryant (get well soon, Black Mamba) outscored both teams combined the other night in New Orleans.
How ironic that his jersey number is 24?
That's the kind of difference the 24-second shot clock has made. Before, teams could and did play keep-away the entire game. Now, less than a half-minute of keep-away costs you a turnover.
The pre-shot clock era wasn't just points-poor either. One game, featuring the Rochester Royals against the Indianapolis Olympians, went 78 minutes and six overtimes—the longest game in NBA history—because both teams used stall tactics, like winning the overtime tip and then immediately holding onto the ball for the last shot.
Former Boston Celtics Hall of Fame guard Bob Cousy explained the pre-shot clock era this way on nba.com:
"Before the new rule, the last quarter could be deadly. The team in front would hold the ball indefinitely, and the only way you could get it was by fouling somebody. In the meantime, nobody dared take a shot and the whole game slowed up.
With the clock, we have constant action. I think it saved the NBA at that time. It allowed the game to breathe and progress."
I'm not nearly old enough to remember the pre-shot clock era, but I am just old enough to remember the NCAA before the shot clock. Anyone who thinks basketball is ever boring now should be forced to watch one of those games.
Triangle offense? This was the pentagon offense—five guys passing to each other over and over and over again.
It was so unimaginably stultifying, I'm surprised fans didn't run on-court and knock the Spalding out of the ball-handler's hands.
I can only imagine pre-1954 NBA fans desperately resisting the impulse to claw their own eyes out.
How did the NBA powers-that-be land on such a seemingly arbitrary number as 24? Inventor Danny Biasone explained:
"I looked at the box scores from the games I enjoyed, games where they didn't screw around and stall. I noticed each team took about 60 shots. That meant 120 shots per game. So I took 48 minutes – 2,880 seconds – and divided that by 120 shots. The result was 24 seconds per shot."
In the 2011-2012 season, the shot clock was modified to display tenths of a second once it hits the five-second threshold. The seemingly minor change can dramatically alter game strategy: Because the game happens at such a fast pace, a player can look at the clock and see, say, 2.8 seconds versus 2.1 seconds—and know how much more he can accomplish.
Maurice Podoloff, the NBA's first president, probably said it best:
"The adoption of the clock was the most important event in the NBA."
Believe it or not, there was a time in the not-so-distant past where no basketball players wore Nikes.
You know why?
Because there were no Nikes.
From the early '20s until 1984, Converse, not Nike, ruled the NBA.
The canvas sneakers with rubber soles—called Chuck Taylor All-Stars after a famous basketball player of the 1920s and his all-star team—were what the pro basketball players, as well as their fans, wore until the mid-'70s, when Converse came out with their Pro Leather shoe.
Chuck Taylor All-Stars are the best-selling sneakers of all time.
In 1978, however, a burgeoning shoe company called Blue Ribbon Sports changed its name to Nike. Four years later, the other shoe dropped. (Wow, I just astonished myself with my own pun.)
The 1982 all-white Nike Air Force 1, with their air-filled soles, were the original pumped-up kicks. They were an instant hit, and made Nike the top-selling basketball shoe.
But in 1985, Nike became a household name when it made possibly the smartest business decision ever in the history of capitalism: signing a player named Michael Jordan, fresh off his rookie campaign, to a shoe endorsement deal.
"Nobody expected the mass hysteria created by its release."
- Michael Jordan, on Nike Air Jordan shoes
Up until that time, NBA shoes were white, with team colors as trim accents. Air Jordans's red and black Chicago Bulls colors, instead of being merely trim, dominated the shoe.
The look shocked the world.
Because they didn't conform with other NBA shoes, Air Jordans were originally banned by the NBA. Jordan wore them anyway—and was hit with a $5,000-per-game fine, which Nike sprung for.
It was money well spent. The fine, and Jordan's ostensibly wanton disregard for it, just added to the shoes' mystique—and the public's frenzy for them.
Like designer jeans in the '70s, Air Jordans were fashion statements. If you had them, you were in the in-crowd. Release dates were moved to weekends, because kids were skipping school to get the newest pair. Air Jordans were so prized that people actually and horrifyingly murdered each other for them.
Fortunately, Nike shoes also had a myriad of positive impacts on the game itself.
First, the shoe technology arguably improved game play, giving rise to the famous and brilliant advertising slogan, "It's gotta be the shoes."
Nike further enhances play by creating shoes for players according to their positions. Power players with an inside game like sturdier shoes, for more support. Guards and perimeter players opt for lighter shoes which allow them greater movement and cutting ability.
Second, Nike's overwhelming success—and Jordan's first retirement in 1994—gave rise to the now-common multi-million dollar athlete sneaker contract.
With Jordan absent from the game, Nike feared their shoe sales would collapse—and other shoe manufacturers saw the opportunity.
Other superstar players like Charles Barkley, Penny Hardaway and David Robinson were pursued and richly rewarded for their endorsements. Soon, shoe endorsements often became more lucrative than player contracts.
Today, an NBA athlete getting his shoe deal is almost expected—but still a sign that you've made it.
Heck, they even added shoe commercials and deals to NBA 2K12.
Oh, and if you're looking for an original pair of Air Jordans, you can pick 'em up on eBay...if you can scrounge up $1,500 from between your couch cushions.
Technology to improve officiating
Used to be that when the buzzer sounded as a shot was fired, the referees had no precise way to determine whether a player got the shot off in time. Still, whatever they called, stood.
This haphazard manner of officiating reached its nadir in the unforgettable 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings.
In Game 4, the Lakers' Samaki Walker made a three-pointer at the first-half buzzer. Television replays showed Walker's shot left his hand after time had expired, but the shot counted. The Lakers went on to win the game 100-99.
Those three points would have given the Kings the series victory (which was stolen from them in other ways, but that's for tomorrow's article).
The season after that fiasco, the NBA implemented instant replays to view multiple angles of plays which occur at the end of each quarter. Any basket or foul at the quarter-ending buzzer is automatically reviewed to see whether the action went down before or after the quarter ended.
In 2008 and 2009, instant replay was expanded. At any point in the game, referees could replay a shot at the three-point arc to determine whether a player is behind the line or not. This allows them to accurately award teams two points or free-throw opportunities vs. three.
Because the ends of games are the most critical, the league has over the years instituted other advances to help the refs make the right call. For example, all backboards now have a red LED light that glows when the game clock expires.
In addition, lighting along each sideline near midcourt helps referees spot precisely where the ball was when the horn went off.
The precious seconds on the game clock have gotten more accurate too. In the old days, the sideline timekeeper would have to listen for a ref to blow his whistle, and then shut off the clock. That left plenty of room for human error.
To improve precision, the NBA installed a sensing device on referees' whistles. When a ref blows his whistle, the clock automatically stops. When play resumes, the ref just presses a tiny button at their waist to restart the clock.
Even with all this technology at their disposal, NBA referees still manage to miss their share of calls. But it would be a lot worse without these advances.
So Sacramento, take heart: Your beloved 2002 squad didn't lose entirely in vain.
You think a dunk is an emphatic statement? Then you've never witnessed a backboard-shattering dunk.
To the chagrin of anyone who's ever seen a Darryl Dawkins flush, breakaway rims were implemented in 1983. Before these rims, which bend as a player grabs onto them, and snap back into place when they're released, Chocolate Thunder (that was Dawkins' awesome nickname) shattered backboards twice in the 1979 season.
He wasn't the only one. Backboards had been shattered in the NBA and the NCAA since the 1960s. As cool as they were to watch, the shattered glass made for potential injuries, huge delays in games and even cancellations in some cases.
Something had to be done.
Randy Albrecht, an assistant coach at St. Louis University, had an uncle named Arthur Ehrat, who held two patents for farming equipment. Albrecht asked Ehrat if he could come up with a way to stop backboards from breaking.
His uncle wasn't much of a basketball fan. Which is probably why he said yes, and killed those glorious glass showers of power.
Now you'll generally only see a backboard-breaker in a video game. But it sure sets the mind to wondering:
Can you even imagine how many backboards Shaquille O'Neal would have broken?
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