In March of 2017, I received an email from a man named Christian Figueroa. He told me his great uncle Leo Ferris was the co-creator of basketball’s shot clock. But for reasons Figueroa didn’t understand, Leo never got the credit.
(Editor's note: check out Karen's story about Leo Ferris, re-broadcast in 2018.)
Some say the shot clock "saved" the NBA. And that's not a stretch.
"Just to give you the importance of this thing," Journalist Sean Kirst explained, "Bill Himmelman, the NBA historian for many years, once said, 'There are two moments of importance in basketball history. There's the moment when Dr. Naismith nails a peach basket to the wall. And there's the moment when they turn on the 24-second clock.'"
But as I dug more into the story, I realized that Leo Ferris was important for more than just “saving” the NBA. He helped create it, by forcing the merger of two rival leagues — the NBL and the BAA — on August 3, 1949. Neither league would likely have survived if they continued to compete against each other.
"So you can argue that if a meteor had fell on Leo at that moment, he should be in basketball's Hall of Fame," Kirst said.
When Sean Kirst and I spoke in 2017, I didn't really understand why Leo hadn't gotten the credit he deserved.
But last year, Kirst decided he wanted to write a story about the NBA's 70th birthday.
"And so I contact the NBA," Kirst told me later. "And I say, 'What are you doing for your 70th anniversary?' I'm totally naive. And I'm initially met by silence. And then I get an e-mail back that says, 'Well, our 75th anniversary is in 2021.' So I do some math, and it doesn't compute.
"You know, it's like, 'No, it's not.' And it's utterly nonsensical. It makes no sense."
(Editor's note: Check out Karen's story about the NBA's birthday discrepency.)
In 1949, the NBA was billed as a brand new league, and Leo Ferris was lauded as the orchestrator of the merger. But beginning in the 1960s, the NBA started to change the narrative.
"I would say, unfortunately, as time has gone on, the people associated with the NBL — that half of the NBA's parentage — they slowly lost, I guess, their power to help keep alive and tell these stories," historian Curtis Harris told me. "And the folks from the BAA side of things, they got greater and greater power over the narrative and have been able to just, in essence, rewrite the origins of the NBA."
Former NBL teams won the first six NBA championships. But while those small city NBL teams were dominating on the court, Sean Kirst says big city BAA owners were dominating in the boardroom.
"The real crime of this, the real shame of it, is that it's a 70 year old grudge that's still being played out," Kirst says.
A Chance To Set Things Right
The Naismith Hall of Fame underwent a $23-million dollar renovation this year. And Christian Figueroa hoped the Hall might take this opportunity to better recognize his great-uncle.
Figueroa first visited the Naismith a few years ago. He thinks it was 2017.
"And immediately when we went to the history of basketball section, my wife spotted Leo in one of the pictures," Figueroa says. "Then I looked over a couple of pictures over and I spotted him again. And I was like, 'Oh, my God, this is wonderful. How cool.' "
But Figueroa’s excitement didn’t last long. Because as he looked at the captions for those two photos, he realized Leo’s name wasn’t listed.
"Not everybody was listed in the pictures, but there were other members that were listed,"Figueroa says. "So I was like, 'Oh, OK. When I get home, I'm going to reach out to them and say, 'Hey, is there any way you can include his name?' "
Next, Figueroa checked out the exhibit for the 24-second clock.
"There was no mention of Leo Ferris. It was very specifically just Danny Biasone, full 100 percent credit," he recalls.
Figueroa figured that the Hall just didn’t know about Leo’s contribution. And he didn’t expect them to take his word for it.
"Evidence. I needed to submit evidence," he says.
So Figueroa gathered together photos and newspaper clippings and photocopies of contracts, letters — anything he could find that proved his uncle’s place in history. All told, he sent the Hall 150 pages of evidence.
But he didn't receive a reply.
The Hall Reopens
A couple of months ago, when the Hall reopened after that $23-million renovation, Figueroa immediately went for a visit.
He made a beeline to the History of Basketball section. But when he got there, he discovered that the two photos of Leo were gone.
"So I went to the virtual exhibits and I started plugging in names. I started clicking in buttons, clicking on pictures," he says. "And long story short, most, if not all of the the National Basketball League portion of the history was basically taken down. It was very shocking. It was. It was very frustrating."
'Sidekick Leo Ferris'
Figueroa kept plugging away, clicking on names in the virtual exhibit, and finally, he found mention of the shot clock in a short blurb about Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes. It said, "Syracuse owner Danny Biasone and sidekick Leo Ferris pushed for a shot clock."
"They didn't use the word executive. They didn't use the word general manager," Figueroa says. "And, you know, as a family member, regardless of what their intention was, I couldn't help but feel insulted. My antennas were like, 'Wait, is this a jab?' Like, we've been communicating for five years. In this moment he was reduced to the word 'sidekick.' "
Christian Figuroa is careful with his words. He doesn’t want to embarrass the Naismith Hall of Fame and hurt his great uncle’s chances of being inducted. And who can blame him? By forcing the merger that created the NBA, Leo Ferris embarrassed the powerful men in charge and in return, they tried to write him out of history.
I only have the platform that Only A Game has given me for a short while longer, and I’m going to use my time to say this:
You might not actually care about who gets inducted into a sports hall of fame — especially with everything that’s going on right now. Lots of people don’t. And that’s okay.
But truth matters.
History is important.
And a 70-year old grudge shouldn’t keep Leo Ferris from getting the recognition he deserves.
This segment aired on September 26, 2020.