Political Entrepreneurs

The Economic Engine of Political Change

The Italian Immigrant Who Saved the Game of Basketball — From Dean Smith

February 9th, 2015 by Edward Lopez

ShotClockIt was March 7, 1982, and the cold drizzle falling on Greensboro, North Carolina, was no match for college basketball fever. The hottest ticket in the country was the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) men’s basketball championship, with nationally ranked number-one North Carolina taking on number-three Virginia, in a rematch of their two-game split of the regular season. This game had it all. Both teams had come in with only two losses all year. A total of five future National Basketball Association (NBA) players, three of them future all-stars, would take the court, and the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, was in his debut season for Carolina.1 A rare national television audience was about to tune in. And inside the Greensboro Coliseum, 16,034 screaming fans felt lucky just to be there when the game tipped off. The anticipation was palpable. The excitement could not have been greater.

But, by the end of the game, the fans were booing, the players on both sides were disappointed, and both coaches were taking flack for thinking too much and playing too little. With seven minutes and thirty-three seconds left to play and his team ahead by one point, North Carolina’s coach, the legendary Dean Smith, told his team to play keep-away. With Virginia’s coach Terry Holland keeping his squad close to the basket in a zone defense, the North Carolina players were free to dribble and pass and stall and do everything but shoot. As the game clock ticked away, and a glorious game turned foul, the chorus of boos rose in crescendo beyond the rafters of the Greensboro Coliseum. One thoughtful sportswriter summed up the despair: “Imagine the final 12 minutes of Hamlet if the cast started reciting the Congressional Record. Or Hemingway writing the last chapters of his classics in pig Latin. Coaches abused basketball again today, ruined what could have been a game for the ages by thinking.”2

The ACC championship wasn’t the only “slowdown” game that year where fans booed; it was just the biggest. Average scoring nationwide had been declining for seven straight years and had reached its lowest point in more than three decades. The various conference leagues were becoming increasingly worried about the quality of play and a possibly shrinking fan base. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began looking into the rules of the game and how “stall-ball” was not only possible but in fact a winning strategy too tempting for coaches to pass up. Desperate for a good idea, they turned a figurative eye to Danny Biasone, an Italian immigrant who had settled in Syracuse, New York, and in 1954 invented the twenty-four-second shot clock.

Danny Biasone owned a bowling alley and had built up enough of a fortune to start a professional basketball team. In 1946, his Syracuse Nationals began to play in what would soon become the National Basketball Association. In 1950 the NBA had its own “stall-ball” fiasco, when the Fort Wayne Pistons beat the Minneapolis Lakers by the dubious score of 19–18. A shrewd businessman, Danny Biasone protected his investment by inventing the shot clock. Like many revolutionary ideas, his was simple. He divided the 2,880 seconds of a forty-eight-minute game by the average number of shots per game, which was 120. He arrived at an average of one shot taken every twenty-four seconds. By the new rule, if the team on offense failed to shoot the ball within twenty-four seconds of taking possession, the whistle would blow, and the other team would get the ball. When the NBA introduced Biasone’s rule in 1954, the number of shot attempts and average scoring increased by 15 percent—in one year!3 The idea rescued pro basketball and ushered in its modern era.

Chances are the NCAA brass didn’t actually consult Biasone in 1982. It didn’t have to. By that time the NBA was a very successful sports enterprise, and the shot clock for college basketball was on everyone’s mind. But the idea hadn’t gone anywhere yet (except for one minor college league, the Sun Belt Conference, which had recently begun using a forty-five-second shot clock). In fact, basketball coaches around the country hated the idea. Just twenty days after the Carolina–Virginia letdown, the NCAA rules committee held a survey, and coaches voted against a thirty-second shot clock by a whopping 343 to 53. Even so, the NCAA rules committee pressed on, saying the shot clock was necessary “as a result of a decrease in scoring, what many people thought was an excessive use of zone defenses and because some teams were holding the ball a little too long . . . ”4 After a few years, as different leagues experimented with different rules, the NCAA eventually settled on a thirty-five-second shot clock. The days of stall-ball and angry fans were over. College basketball became immensely popular—and profitable. By 1989, CBS television paid $1 billion for the right to broadcast the postseason tournament, and by 1999 the network upped the ante to $6 billion, making college basketball one of the biggest revenue sports in U.S. history.5


1. The future NBA players in the game were Othell Wilson, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, and Ralph Sampson, the latter three of whom were to become NBA all-stars.
2. Ken Denlinger, “North Carolina Stalls off Virginia for ACC Title: A Classic Example of Overcoaching and Underplaying,” Washington Post, March 8, 1982, C1.
3. Richard Goldstein, “In 1954, Shot Clock Revived a Stalled N.B.A.,” New York Times, December 25, 2004; retrieved on December 4, 2011, from www.nytimes.com/2004/12/25/sports/basketball/25clock.html.
4. James A. Sheldon, “Basketball Rules Experiments May Net Results,” NCAA News, June 16, 1982, 1.
5. Jeremy Gerard, “In $1 Billion Deal, CBS Locks up N.C.A.A. Basketball Tournament,” New York Times, November 22, 1989; retrieved on December 4, 2011, from www.nytimes.com/1989/11/22/sports/in-1-billion-deal-cbs-locks-up-ncaa-basketball-tournament.html; and “March Money Madness: CBS Sports to Spend $6 Billion over 11 Years for Basketball Tourney,” Money Magazine, November 18, 1999.

Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change (Copyright 2013 Stanford University Press).

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.189, ch.7)

The most successful entrepreneurs know what they do well, they know the market and the opportunities within it, and they choose those activities that create the most value. This is true in economic as well as political markets.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.178, ch.7)

[W]hen the right elements come together at the right time and place and overwhelm the status quo, it is because special people make it happen. We call them political entrepreneurs.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.176. ch.7)

While we started this book with Danny Biasone saving basketball, we end it with Norman Borlaug saving a billion lives. These stories are not that different. Both faced vested interests, which were reinforced by popular beliefs that things should be a certain way—that is, until a better idea came along.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.174, ch.6)

Because there was a general belief that homeownership was a good thing, politicians found the public with open arms.... Everybody was winning—except Alfred Marshall, whose supply and demand curves were difficult to see through the haze of excitement at the time, and except Friedrich Hayek, whose competition as a discovery procedure was befuddled... In short, once politicians started getting credit for homeownership rates, the housing market was doomed.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.166, ch.6)

Everyone responded rationally to the incentives before them. In short, the rules that guided homeownership changed over time, which in turn changed the incentives of these actors. And bad things happened.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.153, ch.6)

They understood the economics. The ideas had already won in ... the regulatory agency itself. All that remained to be overcome were some vested interests and a handful of madmen in authority.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.146, ch.6)

If the idea for auctions of spectrum use rights had been part of the public debate since at least 1959, why didn’t the relevant institutions change sooner? What interests stood in the way?

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.121, ch.5)

When an academic scribbler comes up with a new idea, it has to resonate well with widely shared beliefs, which in turn must overcome the vested interests at the table. Many forces come together to explain political change, even though it may seem like coincidence of time and place.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.120, ch.5)

It’s the rules of the political game that deserve our focus, not politicians’ personalities or party affiliations.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.119, ch.5)

In short, ideas are a type of higher-order capital in society. Like a society that is poor in capital and therefore produces little consumer value, a society that is poor in ideas and institutions will have bad incentives and therefore few of the desirable outcomes that people want.

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