As the basketball season begins this week, it’s hard to imagine that 50 years ago the sport was in jeopardy. Potential fans could expect low-scoring games with lots of free throw shots, little contact and a very boring final quarter. A team with a small lead at the end of the game would hold the ball for as long as possible, essentially stopping play. The only thing the losing team could do was foul, which they did, and the final minutes of all close games would be drawn out into a free-throw shooting match. No quick layups, no desperation threes, no buzzer beaters. Just free throws.
How bad was it? In 1950, the Fort Wayne Pistons squeaked out a win against the Minneapolis Lakers 19-18, a score that today only occurs in middle school junior varsity games. In a playoff game—a playoff game—in 1954, Syracuse beat New York 75-69, and 75 of the points scored were from free throws.
Unsurprisingly, nobody was buying tickets to watch a sport with even less action than baseball. Desperate, owner of the Syracuse Nationals Danny Biasone came up with a plan: a shot clock. Each team would get 24 seconds to put up a shot. If they didn’t, they’d lose the ball. They rule was put in place for the 1954-1955 season.
It was immediately effective: NBA teams averaged 93.1 points that season, 13.6 more than the year before. “The new rule…has made the pro game a better, faster, more exciting sport,” TIME Magazine wrote in 1954. “Under the new rule, in some games this year a team that was behind in the last quarter has managed to pull out to win.” Imagine that!
But not everyone immediately took to the shot clock. “Some college coaches (freezing is still very much a part of the college game) are eying it with misgivings,” reported TIME. March Madness wouldn’t be very mad at all without that clock. Luckily, college teams came around.
So as you tune in to the Dallas Mavericks tipping off against reigning champions San Diego Spurs Tuesday night, thank Danny Biasone for saving the sport of basketball.
Read TIME’s 1998 cover story about Michael Jordan, here in the archives: The One and Only