Game Changer

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

When Basketball was invented, as an indoor sport that could be played during the long New England winters, the basket was literally a peach basket. And that basket was quickly replaced by a metal hoop with a rope net, but it was still closed at the bottom, so every time a player scored a basket, the game had to stop and someone pulled out a ladder and retrieve the ball. You could also sometimes knock it out of the
hammock with a long stick; but it took over a decade for someone to come up with the brilliant idea of cutting a hole in the bottom of a net and it finally put an end to the practice of manually retreating basketballs every time a goal was scored.

That took a decade.

Maybe it’s a testament to how fun basketball is to play, that the game can endure ten years of such bad game design. Regardless, had someone not invented open ended nets, basketball would sure suck to watch on TV. But it’s a more subtle development that came decades later that made basketball the sports juggernaut that it is today.

EM: Okay, I appreciate that not everyone listening as a sports fan.

RM: On loan from the radio program Backstory our reporter, Eric Mennel.

EM: But but put your feelings about basketball aside for just a few minutes, and listen to the raw human emotion in this.

(Buzzer Beater Montage)

EM: This in basketball is called a buzzer beater.

(More Buzzer Beater)

EM: From the Game winning shot made just as time expires, It’s exhilarating, It’s heartbreaking, It’s a moment of pure anxiety that millions of people can share as one.

RM: And the fact that a 48 minute game of basketball can still be won in its final microseconds thereby keeping you on the edge of your seat chewing your fingernails to bits until the final buzzer? That my friends, is what we call good design.

EM: Yeah it is good design, but it’s not the way basketball was originally designed. In fact, the drama of the game clock really only became relevant after the advent of another clock. The twenty four second shot clock.

RM: This is the story of how a smaller, less visible clock…

(24 second shot clock running out)

RM: Created the reaction to this clock….

(Buzzer Beater)

EM: For the uninitiated, a shot clock is the smaller clock that you sometimes see counting down in the bottom corner of the TV screen. In the NBA when a team gets the ball they have 24 seconds to make a shot or it’s a violation and they lose the ball.

RM: But this hasn’t always been the case. In the early 1950’s during pro basketball’s infancy, there was no shot clock. Nothing forced the player to actually shoot the ball.

EM: And if a team was winning and they wanted to keep their lead, they could literally hold on to the ball for 10 minutes.

RM: That means you could turn off the game and listen to this entire podcast and then go back to the game and not miss a thing.

DS: I mean the game stunk. It was boring it was stupid.

EM: This is Dolph Schayes. He’s in the NBA Hall of Fame. A former player and coach whose career spanned 2 eras of basketball before the inception of the shot clock, and after. He says this problem of players running time off the clock by just dribbling the ball around can really be summed up in one 1950 game between the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers.

DS: It was a good game; near the end of the season and the Lakers, they have like a dynasty at that time and so the Pistons…

EM: Who were ahead…

DS: Decided to have a slow down.

EM: Meaning run time off the clock.

DS: When the game ended up 17 to 16

EM: As the final score?

DS: The final score was something like that, it was in the teens.

EM: Actually it was 19 to 18. Go pistons!

DS: And of course the crowd was booing, I mean it became real farce.

EM: It was such a joke that in 1953 NBC decided to forego coverage of the NBA championship. They thought the game would be too boring.

DS: Finally it became a crisis. So basketball needed a rule change.

EM: 1954: enter Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals; The team Dolph Schayes played for. Biasone crunched the numbers and he believed that some simple arithmetic could save basketball.

DS: And Danny Biasone said “Look I have this formula, why don’t we try it out?”

EM: Biasone figured that the best games of basketball, the ideal games, had teams scoring 80 or more
points each.

RM: A score that Biasone figured was high enough to retain the audience’s interest.

EM: Right, so Biasone started tracking how many shots a team needed to make to score a requisite 80-something points.

DS: Each team averaged 60 shots per game.
EM: And there’s 2 teams, that means 120 shots.

DS: And the game was still 48 minutes long; and 48 minutes equates to 2,880 seconds.

EM: So you divide the number of seconds in a game

DS: 2,880

EM: By the number of shots,

DS: 120

EM: And you get:

DS: 24

RM: 24 seconds per shot.

EM: And to hold a player to that standard you need a 24 second shot clock. Biasone invited a bunch of league officials to Syracuse to watch a practice game using the shot clock. Our man Dolph Schayes played in that game.

DS: Everybody felt that 24 seconds was a very short period of time. So when we got the ball, we said “shoot it! shoot it! shoot it!” and everybody felt like, “Oh my god you guys shoot it.”

EM: The entire team’s sense of time had become compressed. The old game didn’t seem slow to the players, but with this new clock everything felt rushed.

DS: And the owners loved it. They thought, “Wow this is gonna be great.”

EM: Even in these practice games there was a new sense of suspense. The owners felt it, and the players learned to love it too. The clock became official in the 1954-55 season.

(Radio Announcer): Other changes in the pro game is limiting the offensive team to 24 seconds of possession with the basketball. If that offensive team does not try a shot in that space of time, it loses possession of the ball.

DS: Immediately, the scoring went up.

(Basketball announcer): Schayes passing behind his back to Seymour who puts it away! The Pistons are up against one of the longest sports jinxes, They’ve never beaten an (x) on the Syracuse Court.

EM: This is audio from the 1955 NBA Finals known then as Basketball’s World Series. It’s the first year the clock was instituted. Schayes’ team, the Syracuse Nationals made it to the finals that season.

(Basketball announcer): His shot is off, but Schayes gets the rebound! And only 10 seconds remaining!

DS: The shot clock did play an important part in our winning because with the old rules, the Pistons probably would have held the ball for most of the second half. But because of the shot clock, we were able to claw our way back and finally win it in the last couple of seconds.

(Basketball announcer): Rocha’s one handed clutches it! And that’s the story of basketball’s World Series. Syracuse proves unbeatable for Fort Wayne on it’s home court. The Nats knicked the PIstons in this game, 87-84, and they go on from here to win the 1955 pro championship.

EM: The next year the NBA finals were broadcast on television for the first time. Teams scored almost 30 points more a game those next few seasons. And shortly after that, attendance jumped by 40%.

DS: That 24 second clock, that little idea that was started in 1955 revolutionized & saved the game of basketball.

EM: So let me just list for you the reasons I actually like watching basketball. You can turn on a game of basketball in between commercial breaks of something else and still feel like satisfied that you saw something happen. It is the fastest paced, hands down. Like in a baseball game, you’re not guaranteed to have that. I love baseball, don’t get me wrong, I love baseball; but there’s a lot of sitting around in baseball.
But if you go to a game of basketball you’re almost certain that something is going to be happening is so fast paced. I mean that’s wonderful right? And I love how athletic basketball players have become. I mean the things you see LeBron James do are like, out of this world. It’s mind blowing what he can do with a ball and even the worst guy on the court now is like, a crazy athlete in ways that I never thought like, human beings could be.

RM: The players have to be stronger, and faster because they have this set period of time. They have 24 seconds to get the job done.

EM: But like, before doing the story I never would have thought that like the one thing that really made me love the game, that made the game worth watching was some guy in Syracuse 60 years ago with a pen, and paper, and some long division. He is the reason that this game is thrilling.

This one little innovation not only made this game so much better, but made the players better themselves. Like, it created better athletes; it pushed human potential to a totally different limit than ever would have been possible before, you know? It’s all thanks to the shot clock.

(Basketball announcers at the buzzer): He scores! He scores at the buzzer! It’ll have to be reviewed, They’ll review it. Oh my God! We’ve gotta take a look at it, but I’ve gotta tell you, live, it looked good.

RM: But according to Eric there is yet one more thing that basketball does a pretty good job on.

EM: I also really love halftime shows.

RM: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Eric Mennel, based on his original story from the great, great radio show, Backstory with the American History Guys. He had some help from Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. We are project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

Support for 99% Invisible comes from our listeners who supported us during our record breaking Kickstarter campaign. You are lovely, lovely people. Support is also provided by the Facebook design team who believes that design can bring positive change to the world. Visit them at Facebook.com/design. And by Tiny Letter, email for people with something to say. My boy Mazlo always has something to say. He’s working on a new story which is kind of an old story.

MM: If I published a book, this is what it would be about. Some guy, that went out, and he went to a place, and he didn’t know why, and he became a warrior, and he fighted a war and he won. (Roman in background) I just have to say huge. HUGE. Now I just add it in, just add it in like he said a huge war. Just add in. For war just add it in.

RM: Has anyone in the history of being right, been more right than Joseph Campbell?

Tinyletter.com, It’s free, easy, minimal, and powerful. The simplest way to send an e-mail newsletter from the people behind MailChimp. We are distributed by PRX: The Public Radio Exchange; making public radio more public. Find out more and listen to the best of independent public radio at PRX.org You can find the show, like and the show on Facebook. I tweet at @romanmars but will have links to pictures and more information about our story today and all the stories in the 99% Invisible catalog which I hope you have downloaded and listen to all of them, right? I really think you should download and listen to all of them at 99pi.org

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