The Night when the NBA Made a Huge Turn for the Better

Sal Maiorana

The NBA moved out of Rochester, New York more than six decades ago, but the franchise that called Cincinnati and Kansas City home until its move to Sacramento, where it resides today, remains a part of the league’s lore.

It was in Rochester, on the night of Oct. 30, 1954, when one of the most important innovations in basketball, and for that matter, sports history, debuted at the Edgerton Park Sports Arena.

When the Royals hosted the Boston Celtics in the season opener, it was the first game in which the new 24-second shot clock was used, and the estimated 1,700 fans in attendance saw Rochester, behind 25 points and 11 assists from Bobby Wanzer, pull out a thrilling 98-95 victory that wouldn't have been nearly as exciting without the clock.

The Royals had opened a 17-point lead in the third quarter, and in that situation prior to 1954, the team with the lead could simply stall the rest of the game. The only way the trailing team could get the ball back would be to foul, or hope for a turnover.

With the institution of the shot clock, teams in possession had to attempt a shot within 24 seconds, and it opened the NBA to the possibility of great come-from-behind victories, not to mention the free-flowing, wide-open games we see today.

The shot clock was the brainchild of Danny Biasone, who owned the Syracuse Nationals, another long-lost franchise that relocated to Philadelphia and became the 76ers.

“The game had become a stalling game,” Biasone said in an interview several years before he passed away in 1992. “A team would get ahead, even in the first half, and it would go into a stall. The other team would keep fouling, and it got to be a constant parade to the foul line. Boy, was it dull!”

The NBA was struggling to make a name for itself, and it was largely due to the style of play. In 1950, there was a game between the Fort Wayne Pistons and Minneapolis Lakers that ended with a final score of 19-18. The Lakers had the great George Mikan at center, and Fort Wayne had no way of stopping him, so it employed the keep-away game, and the St. Louis Dispatch wrote, “They gave pro basketball a great black eye.”

A few weeks later, Rochester and Indianapolis played the longest game in NBA history, a six-overtime marathon, yet the score was only 75-73 in favor of Indianapolis.

And few years later, in a playoff game between Boston and Syracuse, 106 fouls were whistled, resulting in 128 free throws.

“You’ve got to have offense, because offense excites people,” said Biasone, a man clearly ahead of his time. “We needed a time element in our game. Other sports had limits; in baseball you get three outs to score; in football you must make 10 yards in four downs or you lose the ball. But in basketball, if you had the lead and a good ballhandler, you could play around all night.”

In the first season of the shot clock, NBA teams averaged 93 points per game, an increase of nearly 14 points. The Celtics, led by the great Bob Cousy, became the first team in history to average more than 100 points per game, and three years later, every team in the league was averaging at least 100 points per game, leading Celtics coach and executive Red Auerbach to call it, “the single most important rule change in the last 50 years.”