Jun 27, 2023 | Blog

Who Were the First Professional Basketball Teams?

Before the NBA, there was a professional league that started in 1898. The organizers called it the National League, but it only had six teams that were near Philadelphia.

Fred Cooper coached Team Trenton, which won the first two championships that the National League held. Five years later, the league closed as many players went to the Philadelphia League instead.

This was when the Eastern League and the Central League started. There was also the Hudson River League, which eventually became the New York State League.

These early leagues didn’t have much organization, and there weren’t any contracts tied to the players. Most of the players would play for whoever paid more money. However, this led to a mess in the lineups, and it was unbalanced and unknown who would end up playing for who.

For example, in 1919, Joe Lapchik was one of the hottest players in basketball. He was 6 foot 5 inches and played for four different teams in four different leagues during his career.

He earned a lot of money and eventually became a coach after retiring as a basketball player. He was making deals with different managers and was paid well above the national standard at the time.

This was what the basketball leagues looked like in the early 1920s. In the beginning, it was a league of a few random teams with no organization or loyalty. However, that would all change when the National Basketball Association (NBA) began.

The First NBA Teams

The NBA started becoming more popular in the 1940s. It started first as the BAA, but by 1949, it was known as the NBA. 

They changed their name after merging with the National Basketball League. When it merged, it had seventeen strong and organized teams that were actually located across the country. They divided these teams into three different divisions: 

  • East
  • West
  • Central

In 1950, only a year later, six different teams ended up leaving the NBA. This left the league with just eleven teams, and they continued to try and create new teams to maintain their official identity. 

However, the teams kept dwindling. By 1956, they were down to eight franchise teams. However, these eight teams still exist today, even if they are referred to by different names. 

The eight teams that are left today include: 

  • Boston Celtics
  • Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers)
  • Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks)
  • New York Knicks
  • Minneapolis Lakers (now the LA Lakers)
  • Philadelphia Warriors (now the Golden State Warriors)
  • Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings)
  • Ft Wayne Pistons (now the Detroit Pistons)

These are the original eight franchises, starting in 1956. In the 50s, the Boston Celtics were dominating the league. From the 50s through the 60s, the NBA was very popular.

However, starting in the 70s, the NBA became less popular. The interest eventually came back because of some prominent players. For example, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were two places that made the public pay attention. 

In the 1980s, Michael Jordan joined the scene through the Chicago Bulls. He became popular and dominated the NBA. Then in the 90s, other basketball stars like Larry Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal helped the NBA gain even more popularity.

Some of the First Professional Basketball Teams

While the original NBA teams helped start the NBA, it became more popular as other early teams started cropping up.

In addition to the first eight teams, these are also some of the oldest basketball teams. 

Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder was originally known as the Seattle SuperSonics. This was an expansion team that ended up joining the NBA in 1967. 

They remained in Seattle for years. Later on, they moved down to Oklahoma City, thanks to Clay Bennett and other investors. 

The city of Seattle actually filed a lawsuit against Clay because he was trying to break the lease that the Sonics had with the arena. The trial went to federal court, and the agreement made allowed the team to move to Oklahoma City and become known as the Thunder.

Once they moved to Oklahoma City, they became the only major professional North American sports league team that is actually based in Oklahoma. 

Sacramento Kings

The Sacramento Kings actually date back to 1923. They were originally a somewhat professional team originally called the Rochester Seagrams. 

The Kings have always been around in some capacity, which also makes them the NBA’s oldest and continuously operating team. 

The Kings play out of Rochester, New York, and they’ve been located there for many years. That’s also where they originally started playing. However, back then, they were also known as the Rochester Royals. 

Even though they’ve been around for so many years, they’ve actually only won one of the championship titles. They won it while playing against the New York Knicks in 1951. 

Detroit Pistons

The Detroit Pistons are also one of the teams that started their history before the NBA formed. They were originally founded in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they were known as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons. 

They were a member of the National Basketball League that we had mentioned earlier. However, they later joined the Basketball Association of America. They remained in the league through the merger that ultimately created the NBA. 

Later after they joined the NBA, they moved to Detroit, and they’ve been playing from there ever since. They’ve actually won two championships in the NBL, and then they’ve won three NBA championships as well. 

Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks go back to 1946 when they were originally the Buffalo Bisons. The Buffalo Bisons played in the National Basketball League, but they were only playing in Buffalo for a little over a month.

After that, they moved to Moline, Illinois, and changed their name. However, after the merger that formed the NBA, they joined that league. 

They then decided to move to Milwaukee and changed their name again. They would finally move to Atlanta in 1968, and they’ve been there ever since. 

Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards, now managed by Monumental Sports and Entertainment, became a team in 1961, but they were known as the Chicago Packers. Like many of these other teams, they’ve also changed their name a lot. 

They also moved around, playing out of Chicago and Baltimore and eventually ending up in Washington, D.C. 

In 1997, they changed their team name from the Bullets to the Wizards. The Bullets had violent undertones, so they held a contest to have their fans pick a new name. While there was some controversy with their new name, it ended up sticking. 

Even though the Wizards have been in four NBA finals, they’ve only won one of them since 1978. If you want to catch one of their games, you can find them playing in the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.

Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets originally started as the San Diego Rockets in 1967. The NBA wanted more teams on the Western side of the U.S., and Robert Brietbard helped found the Rockets.

However, they didn’t do too well in San Diego, and they eventually moved to Houston in 1971. The Rockets did better in Houston, but they didn’t have a winning record for years. 

Eventually, in 1976, they were able to trade for Moses Malone, one of the best All-Star players. After acquiring him, they started getting other great players, like: 

  • Charles Barkley
  • Tracy McGrady
  • Yao Ming
  • James Harden
  • Clyde Drexler

The Houston Rockets are the team that is famous for using advanced statistical analytics. This style of play was popular thanks to Daryl Morey, but these statistics helped drive the style of basketball play along with what players to acquire for the team. 

Today, Tilman Fertitta helps manage the Rockets, and they play in the Toyota Center in Houston.

Discover More About Basketball

These are only a few things to know about the history of professional basketball teams that you might be familiar with today. 

It’s quite an interesting history, but this article only scratches the surface. There is so much more to learn at the Basketball Museum of Illinois.

If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the history of basketball, visit our Hall of Fame today!

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