Long-forgotten Leo Ferris helped devise NBA's 24-second clock, first used 61 years ago today

On Aug. 3, 1949, representatives of the National Basketball League and Basketball Association of America agreed to merge, forming the NBA. Leo Ferris, part of the NBL, has his arms around Maurice Podoloff, the NBA's first president. AP Photo/John Lent

The NBA played its first game with the 24-second shot clock 61 years ago today, but the man whom many credit with devising the formula for the current shot clock and helping found the NBA in 1949 has been long forgotten.

Chances are you have never heard of Leo Ferris. It's understandable. He walked away from the NBA in 1955 when he was just 38 years old to go into real estate and never returned to sports. That was 60 years ago, and time has a way of eroding or, in the case of Ferris, erasing memories.

Depending on which story you've read or heard about the shot clock or the NBA's history, there's a good chance Ferris' name wasn't included. He doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, the modern-day barometer of historical significance, to tout his accomplishments. But his place in basketball history is undeniable.

Christian Figueroa had no idea who Ferris was 30 years ago when he was just 6 years old and watching basketball on television, but he would quickly learn about "Uncle Leo." "I was watching a basketball game one day when my mom stopped and said, 'You see that 24-second shot clock? One of the people that came up with that was my Uncle Leo,' " Figueroa said. "I just thought that was so cool. I went to school and told all my friends, and no one believed me."

Figueroa's mother, Joan Sponyoe Figueroa, was the daughter of Ferris' sister, Edna Marie Ferris Sponyoe, and would often brag about her uncle to Christian, now a singer and actor living in Brookline, Massachusetts.

"He was very, very, bright," Joan Figueroa said of Ferris. "He would always play tricks with us mathematically. He would always ask us to figure out math problems. He was always testing us, but it was fun. We all looked up to him and what he did. He was very innovative and always ahead of his time."

Ferris founded a National Basketball League franchise in Buffalo with Ben Kerner and B.W. Grafton in 1946. The team was later moved to Moline, Illinois, and was renamed the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. The current Atlanta Hawks can trace their roots to that team.

Seven months before Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ferris helped usher in a new era of racial integration for professional basketball when he signed William "Pop" Gates, who made his debut for the Blackhawks in October 1946. Gates, along with William "Dolly" King, were the first two African-American players in the NBL.

"When Leo Ferris came to me, it was like a godsend," Gates was quoted as saying in the book, "Pioneers of the Hardwood: Indiana and the Birth of Professional Basketball." "It was a real highlight of my career to be accepted by the NBL as one of only two blacks in the league."

Ferris would become vice president of the struggling NBL in 1948 at just 31 years old and later sold his percentage of the Blackhawks to Kerner. In his new role, Ferris convinced four of the starting five players from Kentucky's national championship team in 1949 to join the NBL that year. It was a revolutionary deal that allowed the players to have ownership rights to a new NBL team, the Indianapolis Olympians. It was a bold move that one month later forced the NBL and rival Basketball Association of America to negotiate a merger that would result in the formation of the NBA on Aug. 3, 1949.

After the merger, Ferris became Syracuse Nationals general manager, and along with team owner Danny Biasone, he helped build a championship team by 1955. Ferris had built a fast-break team and wanted the Nationals to run, but that was impossible without a shot clock, which Ferris advocated. According to Sean Kirst, a columnist for The Post-Standard in Syracuse, Jack Andrews, a longtime basketball writer at the paper, "often recalled how Ferris would sit at Biasone's Eastwood bowling alley, scribbling potential shot clock formulas onto a napkin."

Ferris, who loved mathematics, ended up dividing the number of seconds in a 48-minute game (2,880) by the average number of shots taken in a game (120) to get to the 24-second time limit per possession. While he and Biasone often share in the credit for the shot clock, it was Ferris who was singled out during a team banquet at the time.

"I found this clip, and the Nats had a team banquet in 1954 where their business manager Bob Sexton credited Leo with pushing the [shot-clock] rule," Kirst said. "It was in the papers, too. He was integral, there's no question about that."

The first NBA game to use the 24-second shot clock was Oct. 30, 1954, when the Rochester Royals beat the Boston Celtics 98-95. Scoring increased during the first season of the shot clock from 79.5 points per game to 93.1 points per game. The addition of the shot clock saved the NBA in the eyes of many players, coaches and executives. In 2005, a shot-clock monument was erected at Armory Square in Syracuse, giving Ferris, along with Biasone, credit for devising the formula for the 24-second shot clock.

Ferris' abrupt departure from the Nationals in 1955 and the negative perception of some who dealt with him at the time may explain why he is absent from not only the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame but even the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame.

"He was like a comet, his career in sports lasted only 10 years, but he accomplished a lot," Kirst said. "It's baffling that he's not in the hall of fame locally. But some players didn't really like Leo because he was a tough negotiator who pinched pennies, and there was speculation he was involved in an effort to try to move the team, so that may have worked against him. He paid for a long time, but he deserves the recognition regardless of whether his generation liked him."

Ferris died in 1993 at 76 after suffering from Huntington's disease. In his later years, his wife, Beverly, and daughter, Jamie, who stayed by his side until his final day, pushed to get him recognized by local media outlets and organizations.

"Aunt Beverly would approach any and every person that she could talk to," Figueroa said. "She would write reporters, she would make phone calls and send out packets. She would even carry in her car pictures and clippings of Uncle Leo to show people. She tried and tried and tried until the very end."

Beverly died in 2010 and Jamie died in 2014 after her own battle with Huntington's disease. It seemed as if Ferris' legacy would die with them. Then earlier this year, while Figueroa was at home, he noticed his 5-year-old son, Christian Charles, intently watching a Celtics game. He smiled as he thought back to his mother telling him about her Uncle Leo.

"The same thing happened to me as I turned to him and said, 'Christian, you know the 24-second shot clock? That came from my great Uncle Leo,'" Figueroa said. "He thought it was as cool as I did when I was his age."

Christian took to social media and began writing the accomplishments of his great-uncle, collecting old stories and photos and contacting some of the same reporters Beverly once did. Ferris' legacy may have been forgotten by many, but it wasn't going to be forgotten by his family.

"I hope one day Uncle Leo gets into the hall of fame," said Figueroa in reference to the hall of fame in Syracuse. "He deserves it, but if nothing else I want to keep Leo's memory and Beverly's memory and Jamie's memory alive and let my son know about his family."