DunkOrThree > Basketball in the 1950’s: The Dawn of a New Era

Basketball in the 1950’s: The Dawn of a New Era

Publish Date:04.04.2024
Fact checked by: Jackson T. Pierce

In today’s world, few sports are larger or more popular than basketball. The NBA is one of the biggest leagues on Earth, and it seems as if it’s been around forever. However, that’s not true. The organization started from rather humble beginnings.

The NBA emerged in the 1950’s among a few other popular basketball leagues, and only gained prominence from that point forward. It eventually took over, but that wasn’t a smooth ride. The decade was one of innovation, and the NBA has come a long way since then.

The Formation of the NBA

In the beginning, basketball started out slow. While it was played across America in a variety of different towns, there was no official organization leading the charge. That changed moving into the 1940’s, when a few leagues began to pop up in the Northeast and Midwest.

A series of ice hockey owners, interested in expanding their horizons, were the first people to put together a basketball league where teams played in large arenas across major cities.

That was a distinct break from the American Basketball League and the National Basketball League, both of which only played in small courts and had regional leagues.

The formation, known as the Basketball Association of America, quickly took off. So much so, that just in a year’s time, they merged with a series of teams from the National Basketball League in 1949.

That move expanded the league to 17 teams scattered across a series of cities both big and small. To rebrand as they moved forward, the owners came together and changed the league name to the National Basketball Association. The NBA was born.

However, though many wanted to play basketball, supporting a large league wasn’t easy in the 1950’s due to a lack of funds and organization. The league went down to 11 teams after its first year, and then downsized to 8 in 1955.

That small size might have been the end of the NBA, but the league went through a large shift and introduced the 24 second shot clock to speed up play. That move made the sport much more enjoyable to watch and greatly improved the competition.

A faster sport led to higher scoring, which in turn laid the groundwork for the fast-paced game we have today. It also allowed new players to take the court and innovate in their own way.

Key Players and Legends

The NBA is a star-based league that puts a high emphasis on talent. That trend has been the league’s calling card for decades, and it all started back in the 1950’s. The decade gave rise to the power players and helped lay the foundation for future stars to shine.

The most notable player from the 50’s is Bill Russell, who teamed up with other hall of famer Bob Cousy to turn the Boston Celtics into a powerhouse. He and Wilt Chamberlain marked a shift in the NBA and showed how popular names were on the rise towards the end of the decade.

In contrast, the start of the 1950’s were led by big man George Mikan, who redefined the center position until his retirement in 1956, star sharpshooter Neil Johnston, and Bob Pettit. Those three brought an emphasis to the offensive side of the ball and helped shift the game.

Before the invention of the shot clock, the NBA was a much slower sport. As contests began to speed up, so did the players. While defense still mattered, the above all-stars led the league for a long time. And they did it on the offensive side of the ball.

Racial Integration and Its Impact on the League

The NBA went through many shifts during its early years, but by far the most impactful was the ending of the color barrier. That came about when Japanese-American Wataru Misaka played for the Knicks during the 47-48 season.

Just two years later, the Washington Capitols drafted Harold Hunter and brought the first African American into the league. Though Hunter never played, he was cut during training camp, the move changed the landscape when it came to race.

That year three other African-Americans (Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton) all started their hall of fame careers. They paved the way for others and made inclusivity the norm for basketball in almost all of America.

The Minneapolis Lakers Dynasty

The color barrier broke in the 1950’s and enabled more and more players to enter the league. Even so, none of the new talent could keep up with George Mikan. The center dominated the first half of the decade, leading the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles during his time.

That run is significant because it marked the first true dynasty in NBA history, and set the standard for what a team needed to thrive in the league. The NBA is still all about rings, and that began all the way back in Minneapolis in 1951.

The Rise of the Boston Celtics

Mikan’s Lakers were considered the best team of all time when they played. However, their time at the top was short lived due to an already strong Celtics team drafting Bill Russell in 1957. That move would kick off one of the most impressive sports runs of all time.

There have been many great teams throughout the NBA’s long history, but no franchise has even been as dominant as the late 1950’s/early 1960’s Celtics. Under coach Red Aeurbach, the incredibly deep lineup thrived in all facets of the game and had weak links.

Russell had an immediate impact, winning the Finals his first year. However, it wasn’t until the team drafted K.C. Jones in 1958 that they really took off. They won eight straight championships, followed by two more in 1968 and 1969.

That run is by far the most impressive in NBA history, and one that will likely never be broken again. In fact, it’s unlikely any one franchise will ever come close.

Global Expansion and the Growth of Basketball

The current NBA is a world-wide league. Basketball has a foothold across many countries and only continues to expand with each passing year. That rapid growth has helped it snag an international foothold, especially in European and Asian markets.

Such growth is great for the sport in many regards, and it’s a perfect example of how far the league has come since the 1950’s. Back then the owners had a much more narrow view, attempting to target regional markers with fewer teams.

Today’s NBA is vastly different. There is an emphasis on expansion in a way that those in the 1950’s could never imagine. Even so, the large market wouldn’t exist without that early brand of basketball.

The 50’s lacked a lot of the big time moments that make the sport so important today, but the modern NBA wouldn’t exist without it. The game appeals to a wide audience because of the excitement that started way back when.


The NBA has come a long way over the past 70+ years. Though most fans would not recognize basketball in the 1950’s when compared to today, there’s no denying that the league would not exist without the shifts that occurred during the decade.

Modern basketball had to start somewhere. The move to a shot clock, focus on superstars, big dynasties, and inclusivity are all what make the current game special. Those are the building blocks of today’s league, and they needed the 1950’s to flourish.

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