The early clocks sat on the floor in most arenas, often obscured by photographers and fans. Defenders found ways to put their bodies between dribblers and the clock. How much time? Malfunctions happened often—customers tripping over wires on the way to courtside seats. The NBA was much more like a traveling circus in those days, and the clock was one of the oddities that came along with the show.
"You played all over. It was the home team's responsibility to provide the clocks, even on a neutral floor," says Marty Blake, publicity man for the old Milwaukee Hawks. "I had two clocks, three bags of wires. It took up a whole cab. One night Minneapolis and Philadelphia played in Chicago, and I came down from Milwaukee to run the clocks for them. I had the bags of wires, the boxes, the whole thing. So I get there. Somebody forgot to bring the balls."
The number of controversies generated by the rule was low. Who can argue with an alarm clock? The only complaints were with the man who ran the clock. He would sit with his finger poised over the reset button, waiting for a shot to hit the backboard or rim or go through the basket. Sometimes visiting coaches would find the home finger slow when the home team got the ball.
"I think there used to be some slow-fingered timers in the league, but even that stopped," Utah Jazz president Frank Layden says. "You know why? The world of gambling won't let that happen. Point spreads are too sacred. The oddsmakers wouldn't tolerate slow clocks. With the taping of games and everything now, I'll bet they test the clocks all the time."
Teams tried little strategies, like bouncing the ball off the backboard to reset the clock, but they soon found that the best strategy was to keep playing. If the clock was winding down, a man simply had to free himself and take a shot. One-on-one. The roads that Michael Jordan would travel were established. All he had to do was be born.
"I look at films of the old games, and they look like slow motion," says Buddy Jeannette, who coached the 1947-48 champion Baltimore Bullets of the Basketball Association of America, an NBA precursor. "We took our time back then."
The highest-scoring team in the league in 1947-48 was the Chicago Stags (75.8 points per game). The NBA average in the '54-55 season was 92.6.
"The amazing thing to me is that no one has tampered with the number," Biasone says. "It's still the same. Twenty-four seconds."
Other numbers have been appropriated by other levels of the game. In college ball the men have a 45-second clock and the women have a 30-second clock. The international amateur game has a 30-second clock. The professionals have kept 24, institutionalizing it, covering it with a certain amount of moss, making it a familiar number. The NBA. The 24-second clock.
"It's one of those intrinsically perfect, wonderfully illogical, perfectly imperfect numbers, like nine innings in baseball and 18 holes in golf," says broadcaster Mike Newlin, a former NBA guard. "It's an orphan number that fits perfectly into the family of basketball. I know. I've played the game, and 24 seconds is perfect, providing just enough comfort to get off the shot."