Online Archiving: How the NBA Strives To Make Sure No Finals Are Forgotten

Jim Rogash

Ever wish you could sit down and re-watch that first Blazer game you saw in person? The NBA is striving to make that happen.

Earlier this week, CBS Sports' Ken Berger posted a wonderful piece about the 1994 seven-game showdown between Patrick Ewing's Knicks and Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets (with a cameo from a fleeing OJ Simpson), which he dubbed The Forgotten Finals. If you haven't read it, I fully recommend doing so. Don't worry, go ahead, I'll be here when you get back.

Through the rose-colored glasses of Blazers fandom, it's hard not to have a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase "Forgotten Finals". It happened to me. "What? That is what you consider the Forgotten Finals? People actually remember that series. Meanwhile almost nobody outside of Portland and Philadelphia have any idea Portland ever won a championship! Come on Ken!"

That's when the enormity of the situation truly hit me: Do many fans realize that the Washington Wizards (well, Bullets) are former NBA Champions? The Golden State Warriors? The Seattle Supersonics? Even the aforementioned Philadelphia 76ers? But it cuts even deeper. If you watched the NBA in the 80s, you remember the Lakers/Celtics rivalries. But how many of their epic Finals games do you actually remember? Probably the Memorial Day Massacre, and Magic's baby sky-hook at the buzzer. Beyond that? Memories get hazy. It's hard to remember the ongoing storylines and flow of those series. Especially when you can't easily sit down to enjoy them again..

The NBA possesses one of the greatest archives in the world. And for decades, it's been sitting on the bench like Meyers Leonard in overtime. During that time, most NBA Finals, and in fact entire seasons, have been forgotten by all but the fans of the teams who played in them.

Want to revisit the 1977 Finals? Good luck with the remaining fuzzy footage available on YouTube that hasn't been taken down. How about that legendary Blazers win in the Boston Garden, the "1" in the Celtics' 40-1? Nope. That was taken down from YouTube awhile back. What about Portland's comeback thriller against the Sonics in the Tacoma Dome? You can only see a short clip of Terry Porter's memorable three-point play. Maybe you want to re-watch that entire magical 1989-90 season, where the Blazers went from "Buck Williams should be an upgrade", to "Wow, these guys are really good," to "Wow, we're in the Finals instead of the Lakers!". You won't have any luck. Few games are online, and the quality of the footage is questionable.

But that won't be the case for much longer.

A Brief History

In the 1980s and '90s, VHS recordings of classic Blazers games (done without the expressed written permission of the NBA, sorry Mr. Stern) were the jewels of my collection; the tapes that could be worn out after repeated viewings. This was a product of the time: With limited broadcasting options, scarcity of old games was inevitable. There was simply no way to rebroadcast them on the 50 available cable channels, an official VHS release was cumbersome, and the Arpanet wasn't exactly ready for NBA action. If you missed one of the few televised games, you'd better hope your friend down the street recorded it on his VCR. If you were lucky, your team released a couple season recaps on VHS featuring a few hilariously-cheesy music videos.

Go further back to the 60s and 70s, and recording television was mostly a dream. You were just happy the NBA Finals were televised, while they may be tape delayed, it wasn't a big deal because you couldn't learn the score before it aired. Plus, the network might not even bother showing the trophy presentation for a golf tournament. And re-watching games? Unless you had a Cartivision or Kinescope lying around, you're just relying on your memories.

The NBA had no such issues, though. They kept of a copy of every game they could, night by night, month by month, season after season. By the 2000's, they had 50 years worth of game footage, including every superstar, every old venue, every defunct or relocated team. However, despite the rise of YouTube eliminating the concept of video scarcity, all this footage was still unavailable, much of it sitting in a warehouse on physical tape and film.

This problem isn't unique to the NBA. Major League Baseball has even more footage, and of course the NFL has famously filmed major events since the early days of the league. However, broadcast ownership rights vary for each league, unlike the NBA, who owns all their footage. And none of them have have their histories online. Online game archives are the last remaining sports frontier.

Digitizing Fifty Years

Over 8 years ago, the NBA decided it was time to save all their footage before it decayed in the warehouse. They went into partnership with SGI to sort and digitize their entire game archive for online viewing. At the time, they estimated the task would take 6 years.

The real world has a habit of getting in the way with the best laid plans, of course. A few eyebrows were raised when SGI was named as a partner, and it was soon clear why. Six months after the partnership began, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Three years later, they were de-listed by NASDAQ and filed for bankruptcy again. Eventually they were purchased for a fraction of their peak value, in a classic Silicon Valley "rise and fall" story.

But despite all the turmoil, the NBA's project with SGI slowly continued, even after the company was purchased. In 2012, 7 years after the "six year project" began, the NBA revealed that over 250,000 hours of game footage had been digitized, with another 250,000 to go. And that's on top of the 25,000 hours of footage added from every new season. The good news was that the remaining 250,000 hours of footage should take considerably less time to complete. A year and a half ago, they estimated 2-4 years left on the project. Which means the archives could be complete as early as this Fall.

A fascinating detail: They confirmed that some of the archived footage is on film. Depending on the quality of the film, it's possible those games could be scanned in high definition, not unlike motion pictures from the '50s and '60s. Imagine footage as clear as this picture from the 1968 NBA Finals. We'll have to wait and see.

What's It Worth To You?

This surely cannot be an inexpensive venture. But in some ways, it pays for itself, as the NBA can use this remastered footage to redesign their own history. Suddenly any fan could see Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Bill Walton in their primes. Fans can reconnect with their own memories for the first time since watching a game live a lifetime ago. Giving fans the ability to revisit their own love of the sport can pay dividends for years to come. Plus, one of the NBA's goals for the project was to allow fans to create their own mixes and compiliations, and perhaps their own playlists. This could become the streaming service that makes every other league green with envy.

So, Blazer's Edge, that leads to the big questions for debate:

What historical footage do you truly want to see, and how much are you willing to spend to see it?

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