NBA

NBA 75: Taking a trip down memory lane to revisit the NBA 50 years ago

The NBA introduced its now traditional red, white and blue logo 50 years ago during the 1971-72 season for the 25th-anniversary celebrations.

Those celebrations included several tributes to the league's then-short history and also featured many of the league's first great superstars. The 75th-anniversary celebrations in 2021-22 will be similar, so before that, let's hop into a time machine and look back on what the NBA looked like 50 years ago.

The league had almost half the number of franchises that participate today with eight in the East and nine in the West for a total of 17, three fewer than the 20 that participate in the playoffs right now (play-in tournament included).

Going into the 1971-72 season, the reigning champions were the Milwaukee Bucks, one of multiple teams that formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In 1967-68, the Seattle SuperSonics and San Diego Rockets joined the league. In 1968-69, the Bucks joined along with the Phoenix Suns (Hawks moved from Saint Louis to Atlanta) while in 1970-71, three franchises were added in the Buffalo Braves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers (the Rockets also moved from San Diego to Houston).

Basketball was exploding in the United States, however, it wasn't yet a product that could be exported worldwide as it had a domestic rival in the ABA.

The American Basketball Association had 11 franchises including four that later joined the NBA in the Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets (in New York), San Antonio Spurs (then Dallas Chaparrals) and Denver Nuggets (they played in Denver but were the Rockets).

There were also franchises present in Miami, Utah and Memphis. Although they aren't related to the current NBA franchises in those cities, the Heat, Jazz and the Grizzlies have paid tribute to those teams.

MORE: Story of the active players named to NBA's 50 Greatest

Players like Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore and Rick Barry were in the ABA, among others who would later make NBA history. Even so, the vast majority of talent was in the NBA, a league that captured the media attention with already established successful franchises in the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks.

Team owners were already beginning to anticipate the NBA's absorption of the ABA, an intuition that would come true in the form of a merger in 1976.

Sports Illustrated magazine dedicated the cover of its Oct. 25, 1971 issue to Gus Johnson, power forward for the Baltimore Bullets (now Washington Wizards), battling for position with Dave DeBusschere, power forward for the New York Knicks. Both players were All-Stars in 1970-71 and later Hall of Famers.

They were highlighted by the magazine as two of the best defensive forwards of that time and two players who put together a magnificent individual duel in the league. Other head-to-heads featured in the magazine were games between Jerry West and Jerry Sloan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Nate Thurmond.

The All-NBA First Team for the 1971-72 season included Abdul-Jabbar (Bucks), West (Lakers), Walt Frazier (Knicks), John Havlicek (Celtics) and Spencer Haywood (Seattle SuperSonics). That's five future Hall of Famers, all of whom won an NBA championship at some point in their career. Although every one of the five players on the All-NBA First Team was from a different team, the parity in the league wasn't the same with some teams far superior to the others.

MORE: Ranking the 30 best players for NBA's 75th season

Milwaukee brought together a very young Kareem with an experienced veteran in Oscar Robertson; the Lakers had West, Gail Goodrich along with veterans like Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor; Boston featured Havlicek, JoJo White and Dave Cowens while the New York franchise included Frazier, Jerry Lucas, DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Willis Reed and Earl Monroe, who was traded from Baltimore in November 1971.

The 1971-72 season was the first season in Philadelphia franchise history that it failed to make the playoffs. Coming off a 47-35 record the prior year, their disappointing 30-52 record led to the departure of head coach Jack Ramsay.

He would win an NBA title later in Portland in 1976 but he had stated "I honestly think we can win the championship" before the start of the season. The team failed despite averages of 23.3 points, 12.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists from Billy Cunningham, a star who would transition to the ABA at the end of the season. The departure of point guard Archie Clark, via trade to Baltimore, further led to the team's downfall.

At the top of the East in 1971-72 were the Celtics with a record of 56-26. Yes, 82 games were played even back then with teams playing each other up to six times. The C's were led by a phenomenal Havlicek with averages of 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists.

The Knicks were the other team in the East to post a winning record. Their long roster was led by the physical presence of Lucas and DeBusschere alongside the magic of Frazier (23.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game). This season seemed like the C's to lose for the first time since Bill Russell's retirement in 1969 but the Knicks stunned them 4-1 in the East Finals.

Back then, the playoffs only had two rounds before the Finals. Only four teams reached the playoffs from each conference, there were no 3-pointers and a jump ball at center court tipped-off each quarter.

Baltimore with Clark and Wes Unseld, Atlanta with Lou Hudson and future Hall of Famers Pete Maravich (who was in his second year in the league but already had a reputation as a star in the media) and Walt Bellamy completed the playoff teams in the East. The worst team of the league was in the West in Portland, a team that only won 18 of their 82 games. In Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks, they were led by two players below the age of 23.

The Trail Blazers would pick No. 1 in the 1972 NBA Draft but they would squander it by picking LaRue Martin, a center who barely lasted four years in the league.

MORE: Can you guess NBA's 50 Greatest that were announced in 1996?

The No. 1 pick from the 1971 NBA Draft was Austin Carr, but the Rookie of the Year Award went to Wicks. The duo are the only members from the first round of this draft class that got inducted into the Hall of Fame with Haywood getting picked 30th overall and Artis Gilmore going 117th as it was already known that he was going to go to the ABA. He joined the NBA in 1976 at the age of 27.

The four teams from the West to make it to the 1972 NBA Playoffs were the Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks and one of the best teams in the history of the league, the Los Angeles Lakers. The purple and gold franchise won 69 games that season including a 33-game win streak, a record that still stands as the NBA's best ever.

The Lakers achieved these amazing records despite Baylor - a future Hall of Famer - deciding to stop playing in October 1971. With Goodrich and West averaging 25 points each and Chamberlain contributing 14.8 points and 19.2 rebounds, they dominated the postseason by first defeating the Bulls 4-0, then the defending champions 4-2 and finally the Knicks 4-1 in the NBA Finals.

On May 7, 1972, their Game 5 victory over the Knicks brought them their first title since shifting to Los Angeles, the only one of West's career and the last of two for Chamberlain, who won the Finals MVP award that year.

The 1972 All-Star Game was held in January at the Forum in Inglewood with the West Team coming out on top courtesy of a last-second shot by West. The Lakers guard was the All-Star Game MVP in a game that was played in front of 17,000 and televised nationally on ABC. The All-Star squads in that game included a combined 15 future Hall of Famers, 11 of whom eventually made it to the NBA's 50 Greatest List in 1996.

In December of 1971, the NBA would announce its first-anniversary team to celebrate 25 years. It was decided that a total of 10 players would be voted on from the previous 25 years with no active players being considered.

Bob Cousy, Bob Davies, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, Joe Fulks, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, Paul Arizin, George Mikan and Bill Russell were chosen, with Russell being the only one unanimous. Eight of the 10 were eventually elected to the NBA's 50 Greatest in 1996. Fulks and Davies, who retired in the mid-1950s, were the only ones left out.

Sharman, who won Coach of the Year for the season, was the head coach of the Lakers. Led by West and Goodrich, he implemented a fast style of play that revived the Lakers, a team that played at a rate of 116.9 possessions per game according to Basketball Reference.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the reigning Finals MVP, was named the league's MVP. At the age of 25, he averaged 34.8 points, 16.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

More from NBA.com

Reggie Perry signs with Toronto Raptors
Fast facts on Raptors' latest training camp signing
Kyle Irving
Svi Mykhailiuk is reportedly joining the Raptors on a two-year deal
Mykhailiuk can fill a need for the Raptors
Scott Rafferty
Ben Simmons brings the ball up the court for the Philadelphia 76ers
What Ben Simmons would bring to a team
Scott Rafferty
Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers
The latest on Ben Simmons
Scott Rafferty
Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers
Report: Simmons will not report to training camp
NBA.com Staff
Josh Primo, San Antonio Spurs
Canada's Josh Primo is ready to work in San Antonio
Gilbert McGregor
More News