by Chris Foss
For a decade after World War II, the professional basketball world was dominated by George Mikan, a burly 6’10 center who stood—literally—head and shoulders above his competition. From 1948 to 1954, his Minneapolis (now Los Angeles) Lakers won six of the seven championships in the National Basketball League/Association. The opposition, powerless to stop Mikan, could only slow him down. In a 1950 game, the Fort Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons took to an extreme tactic of stall ball to keep the game out of Mikan’s hands. The result was a 19-18 Pistons win that still stands today as the lowest scoring game in NBA history.
Stalling tactics spread to other teams in the ensuing years. The New York Times later noted that “slow, boring, foul-riddled, low-scoring games became commonplace as teams sat on the ball” and that talented point guards would “simply kill time by dribbling into the backcourt until they were fouled.” The Times noted that the Pistons’ extreme tactic was never repeated, but even so, “it was not uncommon in seasons to come for at least five minutes to pass without a shot being taken from the field.”
NBA owners, their ranks reduced in the early 1950s by a perhaps-not-coincidental contraction in the league’s number of teams, sought radical solutions posed to the stall-ball problem to save the league, none more game-altering than the adoption of the first shot clock. Popularized by Danny Biasone, the owner of the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) and adopted first by the NBA in 1954, then the NCAA in 1985, the shot clock’s benefit is obvious: it forces the offensive team to take a shot that either goes through the basket or hits the rim, with the penalty for failing to do so being a turnover at the expiration of the clock. It almost is obvious that college and professional basketball would be unrecognizable today—or out of existence—without this major rule change.
A look at the history of the shot clock, however, shows that its application throughout the sport has been, and continues to be, haphazard. The NBA has stayed steady with a 24-second clock since 1954, but college men’s basketball’s 2015 change from a 35-second shot clock to a 30-second clock highlighted the inconsistency across the sport. International basketball adopted a 24-second clock, but most U.S. high schools keep the shot clock out of the game, while women’s college basketball and professional basketball follow men’s college and pro differences of 30 and 24 seconds, respectively, in their shot clocks. The game unquestionably needs a shot clock. But is the inconsistency across levels of the sport in terms of its length a bad thing?
Arguments for Standardization
One argument is that players would learn to play at a consistent speed throughout their development. This would especially be true for point guards, who must adjust between high school and college from having unlimited time to develop a play to going up against a clock. A high school shot clock might speed the development of the game’s floor generals, and could also help high school coaches and assistants looking to make the leap to the next level, in terms of their in-game management skills. For those who think this would be too difficult for high schoolers, there is precedent: as of 2011, the state athletic associations of California, Massachusetts, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Washington had adopted 30 or 35-second shot clocks in high school boys’ basketball, and Maryland’s girls’ teams had a 30-second clock.
Such change could also make for a better prep product. Anyone who has been to a high school game knows that there are the occasional teams who go into the four-corner stall when they think they have the game in the bag and just want to take the air out of the ball. A shot clock could make high school games across the country more competitive, forcing stalling teams to innovate offensively and to play to the spirit of the game, just as has happened in the NBA and college.
Arguments Against Standardization
Expense is an understandable hurdle, especially at the prep level. Not all high schools are created equal, and forcing all to have a shot clock would break the bank for some. Even if all schools could buy a shot clock, they require occasional maintenance, adding to the budget for athletic departments. Having an official keep track of the shot clock via iPhone is an option, but it sounds like a recipe for disaster in an era in which officiating is already under the microscope; and besides, it would not be a good idea for the “haves” to play with a shot clock while the “have nots” rely on hired timekeepers. Some school principals would rather, understandably, try to save the arts than go out and get a shot clock.
There’s also the theory of baby steps. High schoolers (and younger) are meant to have more time to develop plays before the stakes get higher, as the ones who are lucky enough to advance move up the ranks. Having no high school clock, then a 30-second clock in college—as opposed to the NBA’s 24-second clock—gives would-be pro guards steps of adjustment, while the vast majority of merely-average high school players still have the requisite time necessary to run technically sound plays. If a truly elite player in Oregon, for example, wants a shot clock experience, they could transfer to a school across the border.
Basketball should not standardize its shot clocks, and should not force high schools to adopt them. High school players are boys and girls who are still learning how to play the game. To add a shot clock may do harm to their learning processes. Leaving the shot clock out also keeps from adding the real expense to the sub-professional level—in many cases, just having a working scoreboard and a reliable statistician is tough enough for some high schools. Individual states should decide—as is already customary—whether they can afford the expense, and whether it is worth it to sacrifice a slower pace of on-court development to avoid “stall ball”.
The college/pro difference is a bit trickier. The difference between the clocks heightens the distinction between the more deliberate, coach-oriented pace of college and the more free-flowing, talent-friendly pace of the pros. It may be that college ends up adopting a 24-second clock at some point. The trend is already in that direction—the original college shot clock was 45 seconds in 1985, then 35 in 1993, before going down to 30 in 2015. The reduction to a 30-second clock was precipitated by a rash of low-scoring games, and a similar circumstance might occur again in a few years. History tells us a change is likely: the American Basketball Association had a 30-second clock from 1967 to 1975 before adopting a 24-second clock shortly before its 1976 merger with the NBA; while the WNBA started off with a 30-second clock before later going to 24 seconds.
The shot clock is rightfully memorialized in Danny Biasone’s Syracuse, and it is arguably the rule change most responsible for having made basketball into a global powerhouse. The entertainment at the professional level and the profits generated from that entertainment has trickled down to fuel the sport’s popularity at the high school level and across the world, if not at the college level. Representatives from high schools, colleges, professional leagues, and international basketball will and should continue to discuss rule changes, such as adding shot clocks to more high schools and maybe reducing the time on the shot clock. For now, though, allowing individual associations and leagues to make the decision about their own shot clocks, as opposed to having that decision imposed upon them by an outside governing force, is the proper move.
 As then-NBA President Maurice Podoloff later recalled, “The games were interminable. Attendance was suffering. We were in a desperate situation.” Charles Paikert, “When Biasone Took 24 Seconds To Save The NBA,” New York Times, Oct. 28, 1984.