The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949. Murry R. Nelson. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-00786440061 and 0786440066.
The only full length treatment of the National Basketball League (NBL), this book belongs in every basketball fan’s collection. Its importance and contribution to basketball literature cannot be overstated: as the only major treatment of one of the precursors to today’s NBA, the book fills a vital niche in written basketball history. For those reasons, I included it in my Reader’s Advisory: Basketball Books (10 Aug 2015). It’s a book that helps fill in the whole of professional basketball history along with others mentioned in that advisory.
That stated, the book nonetheless is not without its problems and difficulties for the reader. One of the biggest issues I take with the book is that it seems to presume some decent amount of knowledge of both the teams in the league (which seemingly changed annually) and also of the players who made the league formidable and unforgettable. Neither is especially true; indeed, many of the teams are long forgotten and most of the players who made little impact beyond the league or even for that long within the league. Certainly, some exceptions apply. For example, Leroy “Cowboy”Edwards, one of the biggest stars in the game during the NBL era, let alone as a member of the NBL itself. No less a figure than George Mikan mentions Edwards as a top flight player and one of the best players of his time. It’s almost criminal that Edwards is not in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Another example is Bobby McDermott, who also played a key role in the NBL and by all accounts is one of basketball’s all time greats (and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame). By and large, however, the teams and players are, sadly, largely forgotten. One cannot presume readers recognize those player names.
A second issue related to this is that Nelson mentions teams and their nicknames and seems to expect the reader to recall these names throughout each chapter. For those teams that later ended up in the NBA (or Basketball Association of America, BAA, and then the NBA, such as the Zollner Pistons and Minneapolis Lakers), that is not such an issue. But for other teams, such as the Oshkosh All Stars, that is a huge issue. It’s simply too hard, for this reader at least, to follow each team’s name from paragraph to paragraph. It becomes even more difficult when the names overlap with other entities, such as the College All Stars that Oshkosh played in or at the end of the NBL season. When an author references “the All Stars” it is imperative that which of the two teams that can claim the moniker be identified. Even without that, it’s still tough to follow a given team’s games without a solid, long term frame of reference.
As to the difficulties for the reader, these are with regard to the infinite amount of detail that is related. I’m not entirely convinced that readers need or want an almost game-by-game breakdown of each team in each season. That’s overstating what happens in the book, but it’s not too far off. We get a huge amount of detail, down to scores for a given game. I suspect that’s because personal details about teams or players was especially lacking so the book had to be fleshed out somehow. Where that fleshing information comes from will inevitably be game scores, shooting percentages, and individual player performances in each game (as noted in newspaper clippings). That level of detail is almost overwhelming and makes for a tedious read.
Another issue, this one small, probably petty and incredibly minor, is that Nelson doesn’t seem to grasp a couple of simple key statistical figures in sports. One is how the “games behind” the division leader in sports leagues are figured. Here’s a primer: say the division leader has a record of 11 wins to 4 losses. The second place team has 9 wins and 4 losses and the third place team has 8 wins and 7 losses. The second place team is 1 game behind (11-9 = 2, 4-4 = 0. 2+0 = 2. 2 divided by 2, representing the wins and losses categories, is 1) and the third place team is 3 games behind (11-8 = 3, 4-7 = 3. 3+3 =6, 6 divided by 2 = 3). Nelson makes this error frequently in the beginning of the book, but cleans up the problem later.
The scoring leader is an issue that continues throughout; only towards the end of the book does he acknowledge both the per game scoring average along with the total points scored leader. Most fans of sport care more about the averages than the totals. In baseball, the leading hitter is typically gauged by his batting average rather than total number of hits (though often the hits leader will be the batting average leader; they’re not mutually exclusive). It’s the same in basketball: the leading scorer is the person with the highest per game scoring average (so long as he has played a minimum number of games).
All this to say the book is very dense and a difficult read. When one dedicates ample time to reading the book, the flow isn’t as bad as it seems to be reading a chapter daily (as I did). However, it still reads as though it was written by a college history professor for other historians (the former being Nelson’s background). Nelson covers important, almost crucial ground for basketball fans and basketball historians. It’s a pity, though, that the readability isn’t as good as the ground covered.