Like what it did in 1996 for its 50th anniversary, the NBA announced plans for a 75 greatest players list to coincide with next season’s 75th-anniversary campaign. The list will provide new fodder for talking heads, columnists, social media personalities, and everyone else who loves the never-to-be-decided arguments on how to rank the best athletes in any sport.
The debate over the 75 greatest players will overshadow one of the most obvious flaws in the NBA’s plan to celebrate its anniversary. 2021 is not, in fact, the 75th anniversary of the NBA. We’ll dig more into that in a bit. But first, about that list.
The NBA’s 50 greatest players list caused quite a stir back in the 20th century
A blue-ribbon panel of media, former players and coaches, current and former general managers, and team executives picked the members of the 50 greatest players list back in 1996. A similar group will be empaneled, according to the NBA’s press release announcing the new list.
An aside for a moment: If one joins a blue-ribbon committee, must they wear an actual blue-ribbon for the meetings? Are you disqualified if you haven’t won a blue ribbon? These are the questions that keep America up at night!
But back to the topic at hand.
The GOAT debate is exhausting enough; ask LeBron James. But now we’ll get to have passionate arguments about the 73rd GOAT as well. The best part is you know it will happen. Some Skip Bayless clone will be railing about the virtues of Player A over Player B and how the blue-ribbon panel couldn’t tell its gluteus maximus from a funnel. And will we be here for all the fun? Absolutely.
The NBA has already released a diamond-shaped 75th-anniversary logo, and the 75 greatest players reveal in October will follow the script the league followed 25 years ago. But there’s still that one little problem. 2021 continues not to be the 75th anniversary of the NBA.
In NBA math, 2021 minus 1949 equals 75
Since its merger with the National Basketball League in 1949, the NBA has steadfastly held to its beginning in 1946. That was the first year of the Basketball Association of America. The NBL was founded in 1937, nine years before the BAA. But for the NBA, this year is the 72nd anniversary. That’s impressive but not diamond-worthy.
Maybe since there is no official gemstone for 72 (because we have an unnatural fascination with numbers ending in zero or five), we could just pick an unaffiliated gemstone. Someone in authority should nominate grandidierite. It’s a great name, and that gemstone never gets enough publicity.
But the math doesn’t work for the NBL either. That would mean the NBA is doing all sorts of diamond anniversary stuff for its 84th anniversary. That doesn’t add up.
It came down to money and influence (because really, doesn’t it always?). Arena owners who wanted to fill dates between hockey games in their large buildings in large East Coast and Midwest cities launched the BAA. Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Providence, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh made up the league’s initial season.
The NBL in 1946 was a 12-team circuit with some larger cities, Chicago and Detroit among them, but mainly were smaller towns. Fort Wayne, Toledo, Oshkosh, and Sheboygan were all stops on the NBL itinerary.
But where the math particularly fails to add up is when it comes to the origins of the NBA.
Eight franchises survived the upheaval of the late 1940s and early 1950s
When the NBL and BAA merged, there were 17 franchises for the NBA’s first season in 1949–50. That number fell to 11 the following year, 10 in 1951-52, and nine by 1953–54. When the old Baltimore Bullets abruptly closed up shop on Nov. 27, 1954, that left a core of eight teams from which the modern-day NBA emerged.
While the NBA claims the origin of the BAA as its roots, only three of the eight franchises that survived came from the BAA. That would be the Boston Celtics, the New York Knicks, and the Philadelphia (now Golden State) Warriors.
Meanwhile, the NBL was the origin point for the other five clubs. Not all of them arrived in the 1949 merger. The Fort Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons jumped in 1948 along with the Minneapolis (now Los Angeles) Lakers and the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings). The other two, the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks), were part of the merger.
The National Football League includes long-lost franchises such as the Tonawanda Kardex in its history. That the NBA can’t recognize an NBL pioneer club such as the Kankakee Gallagher Trojans from 1937–38 makes no sense.