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Time keeps on slippin'

29 August 2010

     In the August 26th Sports section of the WSJ, there is a side-bar on page D8 that discusses the practice of fouling late in close NBA games.  In particular, the article talks about whether or not a team that is up by three should foul the opposition in order to keep them from launching a three pointer and tying the game.  According to John Ezekowitz at the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, it doesn’t really matter.  

     Clock management will continue to be a metric on which coaches and players are judged.  Several of the major NBA statistics sites have a category for "crunch time" shooting percentage, which is, how well does a player shoot in the waining seconds of a close game.  Of course, baskets scored in the first quarter count just as much as baskets late in the game, but the excitement isn’t the same.  It makes sense to take clock management in the waning seconds of a game seriously, but it was not always so.  At one time, end game clock management started a lot sooner.  Sometimes at the beginning of the 4th quarter.  Sometimes midway through the third.  Let me take you back to a time when the game moved...a...whole...lot...(wait for it)...slower.

     On November 22nd, 1950 fans of the NBA were treated to the lowest scoring game in the history of the league.  Final score: 19-18.  That's four full periods of professional basketball.  The record still stands.  The court was narrower than it is today, the players were bigger and there was little finesse to the game.  Conservative coaching styles made it worse.  Players such as Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics were masters at holding the ball and dribbling out minute after mind numbing minute.  During that futile game, each team scored four baskets (the rest of the points came from the free throw line).  Four total points were scored in the final twelve minutes.  

     Enter Danny Biasone, the owner of the Syracuse Nationals.  In addition to having the perfect last name for an NBA owner, Mr. Biasone knew that something needed to change.  If things kept up, parents were going to start sending their kids to NBA games as punishment.  Groups of Zen students started showing up to games for Zazen in the gym nights (notice the thought, return to the game, notice the thought, return to the game...) He felt the game needed to be sped up.  A lot.  So, rather than allowing a team to hold onto the ball for as long as it literally could hold onto it, he decided a team had to attempt a shot within a predetermined amount time.  The device he came up with that tracked how many seconds remained before a team had to take a shot was called the Secondary Horologicaly Optimal Timepiece or S.H.O.T. clock.   

     According to the article History of the Shot Clock on, Mr. Biasone came up with 24 seconds as the magical, league saving interval, by taking the total number of seconds in an NBA game and dividing that by the average number shots attempted by both teams.  This is incorrect.  What Mr. Biasone did was look through the box scores of games that he had enjoyed immensely, and took the average number of shots attempted in those games.  Masochist disasters like the like the one that happened on November 22nd, 1950 were not used.  Mr. Biasone calculated that exciting games that people enjoyed watching were ones where each team attempted about sixty shots each.  That came to one hundred twenty shots per game.  Take 2,880 seconds and divide by 120 and you get...24 seconds.  

     Twenty four.  It was perfect.  It was the number of hours in day, the number of carats in pure gold, the number major and minor keys in Western tonal music.  It was the number that saved the game of professional basketball.

     By the end of the 1958-1959 season, every team in the league was averaging at least one hundred points.   The NBA never looked back.  It was not long before NCAA basketball games had shot clocks as well.
Had it not been for the genius of Mr. Biasone, we would not have the excellent game we have today. Without the shot clock the NBA would have probably died out somewhere in the 60s with the final few games resembling the movement of tectonic plates.  Thanks to Mr. Biasone we no longer confuse the final score of basketball games with baseball and hockey final scores.  The history of the shot clock everyone.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s article.  

     What will we have next time?  The die roll is a...10.  Coming up, a short fiction piece.

By Jon Wear