24 Seconds to Shoot
Legend: Why the NBA
uses a 24-second shot clock to limit a team's possession of the ball.
Origins: To most fans of the major professional team sports in the U.S. (i.e., baseball, football, basketball), the competitions they follow have pretty much always been the same as they are now. Over the years the strategies have changed, the equipment has gotten better, the athletes have become bigger, stronger, and faster, and the leagues have tinkered with the rules a bit now and then (generally to maintain fan interest by increasing scoring), but the basic conditions and rules under which the games are contested were established long ago (baseball in the 19th century, and football and basketball in the first half of the 20th century).
One of these sports has changed considerably within the lifetime of its older fan base, however. The NBA (formed in 1949 from two earlier professional basketball leagues, the National Basketball Association and the Basketball Association of America) didn't always feature the high-scoring, "run and gun" type of games that have become so familiar to modern fans. In the early 1950s, basketball contests were too frequently boring, slow-moving, low-scoring affairs in which one team grabbed an early lead and then spent the rest of the game simply holding on to the ball until the clock ran out. The league predictably tinkered with the rules a bit (primarily by expanding the lane from six feet to twelve feet in width, thereby reducing congestion under the basket and forcing teams to rely more on distance shooting), but by 1954 the NBA's economic viability was in serious trouble as paying customers began walking out of some dreadfully dull games. The New York Times reported that "professional basketball's existence was in jeopardy" as fans became disgusted with the "continual stalling and intentional fouling," losing interest as teams sometimes required half an hour to play out the final four minutes of a contest. As John Taylor wrote in The Rivalry, his survey of the "golden age of basketball":
[The] game was still frequently boring, degenerating all too often into what were known as "freeze-and-foul" contests, with the team in the lead playing possession ball to run out the clock and the losing team fouling to try to recover, the game stopping each time it succeeded. In one notorious example of "stall ball," as it was also known, on November 22, 1950, between the Minneapolis Lakers and the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, the final score was 19-18. The Pistons coach, Murray Mendenhall, had decided not to run the ball but simply to hold it and wait until the end of the game to score the winning point. He succeeded, but fans were reading newspapers in the stands; some walked out and demanded their money back, others swore never to buy another ticket to a professional basketball game.1
The solution to this dilemma was another rule change, one which
might seem simple and obvious to today's fans, but which was revolutionary for
professional basketball at the time. Danny Biasone, the owner of the NBA's
Syracuse Nationals franchise, argued that the league needed to place a limit on how
long a team could hold the ball, thereby preventing one side from stubbornly
hanging onto the ball until they were fouled (or until the clock ran out) and
forcing both teams to play the game at a faster pace. The implementation of
this change — what Taylor described as "the single most important
innovation in basketball since James Naismith invented the game" — was the
24-second clock. From 1954 onwards, every time a team gained possession of the
basketball during a game, they had to attempt a shot within 24 seconds or turn
the ball over to the other team — no more hanging on to the ball for minutes on
end to run out the clock or force the other side to commit fouls.
The new rule was implemented a little crudely at first (typically by giving a recruit a stopwatch and having him stand on a sideline and yell "Time!" whenever 24 seconds elapsed during a possession), but by the end of the season all the teams in the NBA had set up 24-second shot clocks around their courts that made the timers visible to players, officials, and fans. The innovation was an immediate and obvious success: In 1953 and 1954 combined, only three times did a team score as many as 100 points in a playoff game; in the 1955 playoffs alone, one or both teams scored 100 points or more in over half the contests (eleven out of twenty-one games), and over the course of those two years attendance at NBA games jumped by 50 percent.
Surprisingly, though (or perhaps not, since every alteration to something familiar usually prompts at least a few objections, even when the changes are clearly for the better), the new rule had some detractors, such as New York Post sports columnist Milton Gross, who complained that "Movement is no longer necessary. Ballhandling now becomes a liability. The strategic freeze is outmoded ... It's become a game for mathematicians, statisticians, clock-watchers, and coaches who are afraid to attack their problem at its sources." But NBA president Maurice Podoloff offered an opposite opinion of basketball's recent rule revision in 1955, claiming that the league "adopted the twenty-four-second rule and it has worked so well that I firmly believe it has proved the salvation of professional basketball. So far this year attendance receipts at our games have increased 57 per cent."
The question we want to consider here, though, is "Why 24 seconds?" Given our penchant for favoring round numbers, why didn't the NBA adopt a 30-second clock, or at least a 25-second clock? What's so special about the 24 seconds?
The answer is that Danny Biasone, the aforementioned owner who pushed for the adoption of the 24-second rule, based his proposal upon his observations, experience, and simple arithmetic. In Biasone's judgment, basketball was most exciting when it was neither a stalling contest nor a wild shootout, but a well-paced game in which team took 60 shots apiece. Since professional basketball games were 48 minutes long, Biasone divided 2880 (the number of seconds in 48 minutes) by 120 (the total number of shots taken per game when each team attempted 60 shots) and arrived at an optimal figure of one shot every 24 seconds. From such a simple formula came a change that completely reinvigorated professional basketball, a rule it is now hard to imagine the game ever did without.