The game of basketball is one of the few that has always confounded me in the playing aspect- teammates tend to yell at me when I don't go this way or that. Still, one of my coaches in grade school did refer to me as a "great little hustler". But the city of Rochester has a rich history. The Rochester Royals won the NBA championship in 1951 before moving on to Cincinnati and subsequently Los Angeles- where they're now known as the Clippers. And the Rochester Zeniths of the Continental Basketball Association won two titles in just five years between 1979 and '83. Today, the most-recent edition of pro ball in Rochester features the Razorsharks, who won the championship of the revamped American Basketball Association in their innaugural season, 2005-06. This piece features one of the giants in the formation of the sport and the National Basketball Association, Hall of Famer: Lester Harrison- a superb area player in his own rite as a youngster. Warned of the crustiness of the 86-year old, I took the precaution of showing up for the interview with one of my NBA Guides- for an autograph. "Young man," the Rochester native said to me. "You're starting off on the right foot!" Basketball in a swimming pool?! Read on...
DECEMBER 1991 4:00
One hundred years ago this month, James Naismith is credited with creating the sport of basketball. LESTER HARRISON, a member of the game's Hall of Fame, as well as an innovator and developer of the game, recalls the early days, the present and how to keep it going into the future.
Exactly one century ago, James Naismith, a 30-year old instructor at what is now
Springfield College, Massachusetts was trying to fill the void between the baseball and
football seasons. It all began with peach baskets- for basketball. Holes weren't thought
of until 1906, to let the ball fall through. At first, a jump ball was held at center
court after every score. One rule that didn't last long awarded possession after an out
of bounds play to the first team to go get the ball- causing skirmishes like what would
come about with the fumble in football. Lester Harrison-
HARRISON: We had to come up with rims. We had to change the backboard. There's a lot of
things we came up with to improve the game. Naismith had an idea: shoot at a basket.
Fine. But that wasn't the whole thing- we had to start developing and adding rules and
The foul shot soon came along.. then the 10-second line, to get the ball past half
court. The designated free throw shooter was abolished- as was the chicken wire around
many courts to shield the spectators. The National Basketball Association formed in the
1940s, and Harrison claims it would be the play of his Rochester Royals that caused the
addition of the desperately needed 24-second clock-
HARRISON: We were beating the teams monotonously. If we had a four point lead we'd start
stalling the ball because there was no time limit. You could hold it as long as you want.
They couldn't take it away from us. I remember one night at Madison Square Garden, which
was the mecca of basketball, we had a six point lead and everybody started walking out
with about eight minutes to go. So if we had a fairly good lead, people would walk out-
they knew the game was over. You gotta give 'em continued action-just like in football-
you take the forward pass out and what have they got?
Lester Harrison starred for East High School in Rochester and once scored 16 of his
team's 20 points during a victory in 1923. He signed the first black player in
professional basketball, Dolly King in 1946. And was instrumental in developing the
National Basketball Association. He was owner and coach of the Rochester Royals, winners
of three basketball world championships: 1946 and '47 in the National League and in 1951
in the NBA. Six of Harrison's players went on to the Hall of Fame: including Red Holzman,
Bobby Davies, and Al Cervi. Lester Harrison was inducted into the Hall in 1979- honored
for his contributions to both the amateur and professional games. He recalls his youth,
and the early playing of basketball-
HARRISON: Many years ago, we played in small courts, in school rooms. You're not going to
believe this: we played in a swimming pool. And after the game was over, they let the
water back in. We played with a stove in the middle of the play, of the building. We
played in a church where they had pillars here and there. We played in a bowling alley,
too. You name it, we played in it..It's advanced quite a bit.
Basketball's popularity today may be at its all-time peak both on the pro and amateur
levels. And Harrison says you can explain it all with just two letters: TV.
HARRISON: As long as TV is interested, that's fine. That's the present , past and future.
You got your TV- it's on in houses all over the country. As soon as TV loses interest,
you got nothing. That's the name of the game: exposure.. visibility.
Harrison says just visit any American suburb and count the basketball hoops to guage
the sport's popularity. Kids watch the college or pro game on the tube, then go outside
to run through the moves themselves-
HARRISON: So, television really sold the game. Then they developed "super stars" such as
Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, the great Michael Jordon, Charles Barkley. We've had some
super stars.. there's a super star right there.. (points at photo).. do you know
who that is?
HARRISON: George Mikan, yeah. Davies was a super star. Jim Pollard was a super star. We
only had a half a dozen or so. Today, they're a dime a dozen.
Lester Harrison, Rochester's "Mr. Basketball". Bill Flynn, WXXI 1370.