How the NBA adapted to the shot clock

How the NBA adapted to the shot clock

Bill Calhoun was never much of a shooter. So before the NBA introduced a 24-second shot clock for the 1954-55 season, he worried about how he might fit in a changing game.

Or, rather, if he would fit at all.

“For everyone, the game was different in so many ways. For me, it was mostly different because now I had to take shots,” Calhoun said with a big laugh. He is 95 and played for the Milwaukee Hawks on Oct. 30, 1954, the night the shot clock made its long-awaited debut. More than anything, the NBA added it to increase scoring by eliminating stalling. The league did not, however, consider the rebounders and defensive bruisers such as Calhoun, who excelled at the popular strategy of holding onto the ball — sometimes for entire quarters — when in possession of a lead.

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The NBA, then, had similar motives to Major League Baseball, which adopted a pitch clock at the start of this season. Like the NBA owners and officials of 69 years ago, MLB wants to quicken the pace of games to raise ticket sales, boost television viewership and attract new fans. The clocks are different, of course, since MLB’s will shorten games and the NBA’s simply sped up action within the same time frame. But the parallels make Calhoun and his contemporaries the experts on at least a few topics.

Such as: How long does it take for a seismic rule change to feel normal? And what does one look like with decades of hindsight?

“I can tell you this: I don’t think there would be many fans of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson if the NBA doesn’t adopt the clock on us way back when,” said Calhoun, a San Francisco native. “As for the beginning of it, there was a bit of shock, sure, but a lot of players seemed like they already had a clock in their head. I feel like I was in that camp, like I knew when the 24 seconds was winding down without looking. To that end, it didn’t take long for the whole league to adapt and stop thinking about how much quicker each possession was.”

Maurice Podoloff, then the president of the NBA, echoed those sentiments on Nov. 1, 1954: “It’s like driving a car,” he said, according to a newspaper account at the time. “Once you get in the habit of driving, you can judge your speed pretty well. If you’re going about 40 miles per hour, you don’t have to look at the speedometer to know it.”

Unlike with MLB’s rollout, there wasn’t breathless media coverage about the new shot clock. In its story on the Syracuse Nationals’ season opener on Oct. 31, the Post-Standard didn’t acknowledge the clock until the sixth paragraph, saying the Nats “lost the ball only once in the new 24-second rule.” Neither Calhoun nor Bob Pettit, a Hall of Famer who debuted that year, remembered much of a fuss ahead of the regular season. Now juxtapose that to this spring, when videos of the pitch clock — 15 seconds with the bases empty, 20 with at least one runner on — took over social media.

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Max Scherzer, once fully against the pitch clock, found ways to use it against hitters. A violation ended a spring training exhibition and had its own news cycle. After opening weekend, games had finished about a half-hour faster compared to the first batch in 2022. The pitch clock is delivering the intended effects. That also happened in 1954-55, when average scoring jumped from 79 points per game to 93. It kept climbing, too, it just wasn’t discussed as much.

“The ball went up and we got after each other,” said Pettit, who scored 20.4 points a contest as a rookie, never knowing an NBA with stalling that could have slowed his dominance down. “I remember hearing about teams holding the ball forever, people leaving arenas in the third quarter, unhappy customers, that sort of stuff. But that wasn’t the basketball I played.”

“Now how on earth did you find me to ask about this?” 92-year-old Fred Christ said upon answering the phone. “I barely lasted a month in the NBA.”

Fair point. Christ was on the New York Knicks for just six games of the shot clock’s inaugural season. He averaged 3.3 points in eight minutes a night, then was replaced when the Baltimore Bullets went bankrupt, folded and scattered their players throughout the league. Nonetheless …

“There was really no downside to the shot clock, I don’t think, though I’m sure some players and teams were bothered by having to shift their strategies for the faster pace,” Christ said. “But with stalling, with fouling, the action was so slow it was downright unwatchable. That was the gist of it. Basketball had to become watchable again.”

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And his, Pettit’s and Calhoun’s thoughts on a pitch clock in baseball? Having lived through one sport’s reckoning with tradition, their answers won’t surprise you.

Christ: “It took them this long?”

Pettit: “Slow sports don’t work too well in this day and age.”

Calhoun: “You don’t want to sit and watch a guy hold the ball and spit on it or whatever they do, rub it up. It’s a more than reasonable rule. But let’s see if it works, you know what I mean?”

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