A Brief History of Basketball before the NBA

Despite what many on TikTok may believe, there was professional basketball long before Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. Yes, I am talking about a history before Magic and Bird. A history even before Russell and Chamberlain. Professional basketball leagues began to crop up in 1898 primarily along the East Coast of the United States.

While the early history of pro-basketball is difficult to track, the National Basketball League which debuted December 1st 1898 is widely considered the first pro-basketball league. The NBL salaries have not been confirmed but one team is rumored to have paid its players $2.50 for home games and $1.25 for road games. Which means if you have ever won $50 in a Gut Smacker tournament without adjusting for inflation you too could consider yourself a professional basketball player. The NBL would disband by 1904, but basketball fans would not have to look far for other pro-sports leagues.

After humble beginnings the game caught on and sunk its teeth into American audiences. There were mad dashes to start teams. Business owners would sign up players to promote their business, amateur teams would decide they liked playing together and form their own team. High school buddies could find sponsors, and the better leagues might even recruit a whole college squad to join.

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Establishing a team was never enough. Banding them together into a united league was the real difficulty. These early teams more often than not would run into financial troubles. With no history to rely on, struggling teams would disband or move to weaker leagues when they could not attract fans to watch them lose. Imagine the New York Knicks saying “We can’t sell tickets, and are sick of losing in the NBA, we are joining the Euro League.” That was commonplace for teams and given the Knicks current roster that may not be a bad move. Julius Randle might be able to make an All-Euro League team. Conversely successful teams often sought out stronger competition leaving their league after winning for a more prominent league.

As a result, much of early pro basketball history is more team focused than league focused. This flexibility allowed the cream to rise to the top. Power houses like the Original Celtics from New York rose to power in the late 1910s. The Philadelphia SPHAs, an all-Jewish team lead by Eddie Gottlieb won 10 championships, 3 in the Eastern Basketball League, 7 in the American Basketball league in the late teens through the early 40s.

Philadelphia SPHAs, Photo courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

For a time in the 30s and 40s two of the best teams were the all-black New York Renaissance and the Chicago/Harlem Globetrotters, both of whom competed and won championships against premier leagues of their days.

Professional basketball in its infancy was not integrated but it is fair to say they were not fully segregated either. While most teams were all white or all black or as mentioned in the case of the Philadelphia SPHAs all Jewish, it was common during the barnstorming era for all white teams to play against all black teams.

When it came to integrating professional leagues, basketball was slightly more progressive than their counterparts. The most prominent basketball league in the 40s, the National Basketball League (NBL) had majority white teams but a few did sign African American players as early as 1942-43. Eventually when the New York Rens stopped barn storming they would settle in Dayton Ohio and join the NBL.

Teams were hardly the only ones to jump leagues. Players commonly would be signed from one league to another. Sometimes they even played in multiple leagues at the same time. Since contracts were not exclusive, players would leverage playing for multiple teams against management to raise their game rates, saying to management “I’ve got multiple games today, how much will you pay me to play for your squad?” If you thought LeBron holding teams hostage by signing 1 plus 1s was bad, imagine negotiating contracts on a game-by-game basis.

With players playing for multiple teams in multiple leagues, and teams forming, moving and disbanding more quickly than most anyone could keep track of it was near impossible to establish a dominant league like the modern NBA. Many teams took to the road. Some never played in organized leagues instead challenging the best teams around the country to games. The Harlem Globetrotters were renowned for competing against anyone and everyone playing upwards of 150 games per year, at times.

Before a unified single league was established multiple leagues and independent barnstorming teams came together to compete in the World Professional Basketball Tournament starting in 1939. Here basketball fans were treated to a single elimination competition with all the best teams from around the United States. The tournament ran for 10 years up until the formation of the NBA. Tournament Champions include the New York Rens, Harlem Globetrotters, Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers.

New York Renaissance, Photo courtesy of CW39 Houston

Teams from the NBL eventually took over the basketball world. Outside of the Rens, Globetrotters, and NBL only one other team would win the World Professional Basketball tournament was won by an offshoot of former New York Rens players known as the Washington Bears. The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons could claim to have the first dynasty decades prior to the Boston Celtics. They three-peat in the World Professional Tournament in 1944, 45 & 46. Barnstorming teams were not finished but certainly on their way out.

That is when a new league appeared, The Basketball Association of America, which would go on to become the National Basketball Association.

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Podcast host for Hoops Temple and blogger for Temple Entertainment and Media. Studied Kinesiology with an emphasis on sports psychology and coaching basketball at Michigan State University. Coached at the High School level for 8 seasons.