The Evolution of the NBA: From Scrappy Upstart to Global Sporting Empire

NBA History

The National Basketball Association (NBA) that exists today scarcely resembles its humble beginnings over 75 years ago. The journey of the NBA reflects monumental changes in technology, society, economics and globalization across three quarters of a century. Tracing the history of the NBA provides perspective on how a fledgling organization transformed into a dominant global sports league and media powerhouse valued at around $90 billion.

The Early Years of the NBA: 1940s-1950s

  • Basketball developed as an indoor sport in 1890s YMCAs as an alternative to rugby and football
  • The first professional basketball leagues emerged in the late 1920s to early 1930s
  • Many early leagues struggled financially, particularly during the Great Depression
  • In 1946 the Basketball Association of America (BAA) formed with 11 teams, beginning the path to the NBA
  • The BAA and rival National Basketball League (NBL) merged in 1949 to create the NBA
  • In 1950 the NBA had 17 teams but financial issues plagued many franchises
  • By 1955 only 10 NBA teams remained as weaker markets were shuttered
  • The addition of black players in the early 1950s forever changed the complexion of the NBA

Rapid Growth and Change in the 1960s

  • The Boston Celtics dynasty led by Bill Russell won 8 consecutive NBA titles from 1959-1966
  • Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game in 1962 set an unbreakable single game scoring record
  • Influx of stars like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson boosted NBA excitement
  • Expansion to Chicago, Phoenix and other big markets expanded the NBA’s footprint
  • The rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers captivated the sports world
  • TV broadcast rights fees enriched NBA coffers and increased exposure

The NBA Comes of Age in the 1970s

  • ABA merger in 1976 brought innovative style of play and talents like Julius Erving
  • League expanded to 22 teams by the end of the decade through cautious growth
  • Arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1979 set the stage for their epic rivalry
  • The NBA faced challenges retaining fans during transitions between top stars
  • Playoff and Finals games began airing in primetime on major TV networks
  • League entered a new era as critics claimed the 1970s NBA was too volatile

Soaring Popularity in the 1980s

  • NCAA basketball surged in popularity in the 1970s, feeding talent to the NBA
  • Magic Johnson and Larry Bird headlined a renaissance for the NBA
  • The 1984 draft added instant superstars like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley
  • Jordan became the face of the league through the 1980s with his incredible talent
  • Intense rivalries between dynasties like the Lakers, Celtics and Pistons highlighted the decade
  • Marketing and corporate sponsorships grew, previewing today’s commercialized era

The NBA Becomes a Global Phenomenon in the 1990s

  • Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six titles in the 1990s as a global icon
  • International stars like Hakeem Olajuwon and Drazen Petrovic entered the NBA
  • Retirements of Magic, Jordan and Larry Bird focused the NBA on developing new stars
  • Expansion into Canada with the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors initiated the NBA’s global focus
  • The 1992 USA Olympic “Dream Team” of NBA stars signaled the league’s worldwide reach
  • Jordan’s second retirement in 1998 created uncertainty about the NBA’s future direction

The Modern NBA Era: 2000s to Today

  • Larger-than-life stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James dominated the 2000s NBA after Jordan
  • International players like Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol thrived in the NBA and abroad
  • Social media and the internet allowed the NBA to connect with a new generation of young fans
  • League expansion into New Orleans in 2002 showed intent to broaden American footprint
  • Efforts to develop international talent pipelines increased global player pool
  • Enormous new TV broadcast rights deals brought billions into the NBA
  • Today’s NBA features both domestic superteams and true global champions


In just over seven decades, the NBA has experienced exponential growth in size, wealth and cultural influence. However, the core appeal of basketball action and superstar talent has anchored the league through decades of sweeping change. As the NBA continues its ambitious expansion overseas and across multimedia channels, the rich history of the league provides perspective on its roots. With astute leadership and vision, the future of the NBA appears just as bright as any previous era, while still building on its remarkable legacy.

  • August 20, 2023