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A Growing League (1951- 1956)

Following the first year of the National Basketball Association, six teams (Chicago, St. Louis, Anderson, Sheboygen, Denver, and Waterloo) had bowed out before the start of the 1950-1951 season, relegating the league to 11 teams in 2 divisions. Washington, coached by Red Auerbach would disband midway through their losing season.

The 1950-51 season was significant for the reason that the league had allowed black players into the league. Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted (to Boston), and Nat Clifton was the first to sign an NBA contract (with New York), and Earl Lloyd was the first player to play in an NBA regular season game with Washington. In this season, the Joe Fulks-led Philadelphia (40-26) won the Eastern division, while the George Mikan-led Minneapolis (44-24) won the West. However in the playoffs, it was the New York Knicks (36-30) who made it to the finals from the East, going against the Rochester Royals (41-27), who had upset Minneapolis along the way, to temporarily interrupt their dynasty.

In the finals, Rochester who was led by 6-9 Arnie Risen and backcourt star, Bob Davies leapt out to a seemingly insurmountable 3 games to 0 lead. But the Knicks stormed back with some inspiring team play, and the series came down to a deciding seventh game. Rochester prevailed 79-75, in a close, exciting finale.

Before the start of the 1951-52 season, the NBA had widen the lane from 6 to 12 feet, primarily to minimize domination by big men. This rule was specifically targeted for George Mikan, Minneapolis’ center. This year was also significant as all 10 teams who had finished the season last year, also finished this season. The first time this had happened for professional basketball - a sign that the league was becoming more stable. The Tri-City Blackhawks had changed their names to the Milwaukee Hawks. The story of the season was the rise of young Paul Arizin of Philadelphia, who in his second season wrested the league scoring title from George Mikan with 25.4 ppg. Arizin is credited with popularizing the jump shot, and he was absolutely deadly, also leading the league in field goal percentage (44.8%)

By the end of the season, Syracuse (40-26) had captured the East, and Rochester (41-25) the West. The playoffs once again saw the New York Knicks (37-29) repeat coming from a third place regular season finish to reach the finals again for a showdown against mighty Minneapolis (40-26), who had reasserted their power, defeating Rochester along the way. The thrilling finals came to another decisive seventh game, and the Lakers put the home-court advantage to good use, winning Game 7 easily, 82-65. This marked the Lakers’ 3rd championship in 4 years.

In the 1952-53 season, Minneapolis (48-22) continued their domination, romping through the regular season winning the West, while New York (47-23) finally won the East. Both teams cruised through the playoffs to set up a rematch of last season’s final. Minneapolis flexed their muscle, behind George Mikan, on their ways to their 4th championship in 5 years, ousting the Knicks in five games. Other notable developments of the year saw Neil Johnston, Philadelphia’s 6-8 rookie, leading the league in points (22.3 ppg) over George Mikan. This would be the first of three consecutive scoring titles for Johnston. Paul Arizin spent the first of his two years abroad with military service.

Before the start of the 1953-54 season, Indianapolis had folded their franchise leaving the league with 9 teams. Another rule was implemented to reduce the excessive fouling that was taking place in the game. Each player was limited to two fouls per quarter; if he committed a third, he would have to be removed for the remainder of that quarter.

The season followed predictably with the powerhouses Minneapolis (46-26) and New York (44-28) winning their respective West and East divisions. The main stories of the season saw George Mikan at age 30, limited in action, as the franchise planned to save his efforts for the playoffs. The Boston Celtics (42-30) were beginning to show signs of greatness led by their point guard Bob Cousy. Neil Johnston won his second consecutive scoring title with 24.4 ppg.

The NBA utilized a new round-robin playoff format for the opening round to determine whom would play in the division championships. Minneapolis would rise from the West to meet Syracuse (42-30) in the final. Led by mighty Mikan, the Lakers had a hard-fought series with the Nationals as the title came down to the 7th game in which the Lakers prevailed 87-80, capturing their 5th, and what would be their last title.

Prior to the onset of the 1954-55 season, two historic events had taken place. George Mikan, the league’s first superstar, and the face of the new basketball league, had announced his retirement, diminishing any title hopes for his Minneapolis. The second event has shaped basketball into the game it is today - the 24-second shot clock. Syracuse owner Danny Biasone and his GM, Leo Ferris, came up with the shot clock idea, to make the game more exciting to fans, and to prevent the usual strategy of holding the ball towards the end of the game if your team was in the lead. Scoring shot up significantly from an average of 79.5 to 93.1 ppg. Unfortunately, the NBA lost another franchise in Baltimore after they began the season with a horrendous 3-11 start. This wilted the league to 8 teams. Neil Johnston had won his third consecutive scoring title with a surprisingly low (given the new shot clock rule) 22.7 ppg. The season also exhibited a future star in Milwaukee’s Bob Petit, an explosive rookie with a wide repertoire of scoring moves.  He was awarded the NBA’s first individual award – Rookie of the Year. 

During the season, Syracuse (43-29) and Fort Wayne (43-29) had captured the East and West Division titles respectively. The playoffs went back to each original format, with the division champions receiving a bye. Syracuse and Fort Wayne easily won the divisional championships, setting up a meeting in the finals. In a tightly contested series that went to the 7th game, Syracuse, led by Dolph Schayes, won with a last second steal to seal the victory. This would be the National’s only championship for Syracuse.

The following season (1955-56) saw Milwaukee moving the St. Louis. The arrival of the 24-second shot clock had allowed more quick and athletic players to flourish. This was evident in this season as the league scoring average rose to 99 ppg. During the regular season, the incredibly well-rounded Philadelphia Warriors (45-27), led by the dynamic duo of Paul Arizin and Neil Johnston, easily captured the Eastern division. Fort Wayne (37-35) won their second straight West division title. St. Louis’ Bob Petit led the league in scoring with 25.7 ppg.  For his efforts, he was awarded the NBA’s first MVP.  Philadelphia cruised through the playoffs, finally winning the championship over Fort Wayne in 5 games.