Quality Transcends Time

While working on my book Cinderella Ball about small college basketball in West Virginia, I kept hearing about a guy named Paul Baker. Despite the Americanized surname “Baker,” Paul was a full-blooded Italian (his true family name was “Mugavero”) from working-class Baltimore who grew up during the ‘40s and ‘50s listening to Perry Como, clapping to Poppy’s squeeze box, and sitting down for gigantic family dinners. 

Along the way, Paul fell in love with basketball and threw his heart into coaching. In the early ‘70s, he moved to Wheeling, WV, smitten with the idea of building a small-college powerhouse at newly opened Wheeling College (where he would coach John Beilein). Wheeling College was a proud member of West Virginia’s then-small-college conference, and West Virginians openly wondered, “Who the heck is this loud-mouthed, foot-stomping little Italian guy from Baltimore?” They nicknamed him “Pizza Man,” thinking Paul, who sometimes sported a rakish, razor-thin moustache, resembled the cartoon image of a dough-tossing Italian chef printed on pizza boxes.

Hoping to build community support for his team, Paul would often meet at a local restaurant on Saturday mornings with one athletic booster in particular. Several months into their Saturday morning sit-downs, the booster interrupted Paul in mid-sentence with a curious look and a pleading question, “What are you doing here?”

“What do you mean?” Paul answered.

“Why are you in Wheeling?”

“To build a winning basketball program.”

“Come on, you can tell me. Are you in the witness protection program?”

Nope, Paul was just a basketball nut from Baltimore. In this wonderful article, published in the Baltimore Sun on January 19, 1995, Paul remembers his childhood hero Buddy Jeannette while sharing a vivid picture of the Baltimore Coliseum, one of the decrepit facilities that birthed the NBA in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It was in these not-so-quaint settings that the NBA pioneers each night had to factor in leaky roofs, dead floorboards, and limited visibility on account of tobacco smoke. These are just some of the conditions that spawned Bob Cousy’s players’ bill of rights and his plea to the owners to clean up the pro game.

Paul Baker passed away in October 2013. This post is dedicated to his memory and a life well lived. 

Buddy Jeannette

Tonight at the Baltimore Arena, the Washington Bullets will honor Harry “Buddy” Jeannette. They used to be called the Baltimore Bullets and, in 1948, won the old NBA championship [that is, championship of the NBA’s precursor Basketball Association of America (BAA)]. Buddy was an inspirational player-coach of that squad. This past Spring, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

The game has changed so much since Jeannette’s days. It seems a lifetime ago. He was just a decade removed from the center jump after each basket. There was no shot clock, no dunking, no three-point line, no black players, and no television. Games were played in dingy, smoke-filled arenas and one of the prototypes was our own Baltimore Coliseum on Monroe Street. Still standing today, it was a square warehouse-like structure with a movie marquee posted out front. The Coliseum hosted wrestling, boxing, roller derby, public roller skating, and, in the ‘50s, rock and roll concerts. The place was dusty, ugly, and aged even then. The locker rooms were tiny, and nails served as clothes hangers. It had a hardscrabble persona all its own, right out of an old James Cagney movie. 

On game nights, the place would come alive with enchanting sounds of electric organ music (which is still used in the NBA today) and the cooking smell of the all-beef hot dogs (which don’t have that aroma today) permeating the air. On Saturday nights, I would hop a ride over to my West Baltimore neighborhood and spend a total of $3.50 for a ticket, a hot dog, and a Coke each half. We would always pick up a stray program in the corners of the building, where older men in heavy overcoats would be puffing on thick stogies, street talking, and behaving nefariously. Their blue language and the thick cigar smoke rose to the rafters, settled, then wafted over the court and in a sort of pregame benediction. The court was brightly lit, framed by the complete darkness of the surrounding bleachers. The courtside seats were arranged on risers with rows and chairs designated by chalk markings that rubbed off on people’s clothing. It was not a place to go dressed up. The boards of the court would rumble, squeak, or groan, according to the traffic of each fast break. Mice and rats lived in the building, and cats were set loose after games to regulate the cycle of life.  

Baltimore Coliseum, promoted as “Baltimore’s Fireproof Arena.”

It was in this setting that a 13-year-old boy learned about the game he came to love, and to see the greatest basketball players in the world. In addition to Buddy Jeannette, I saw 17 other players who performed in the Coliseum on their way to the Basketball Hall of Fame. They were Paul Arizin, Al Cervi, Bob Cousy, Bob Davies, Joe Fulks, Harry Gallatin, Bob Houbregs, Neil Johnston, Ed Macauley, Slater Martin, Dick McGuire, George Mikan, Andy Phillip, Jim Pollard, Dolph Schayes, Bill Sharman, and Bobby Wanzer. 

Buddy, in his era (1938-48) was a truly great player and leader of men—a rare combination. Standing a little under six feet and weighing around 175 pounds, he had long arms and big hands. He was a premier ballhandler. Not fancy like young Cousy, he threw precision two-hand chest passes. His passes set the team in motion. They were Buddy’s X’s and O’s. He was a strong driver who set his man up off picks and screens. He also possessed a soft shooting touch from the outside. His trademark was the two-hand, underhand foul shot. Harvey Kasoff, a retired local businessman who was the Bullets’ ball boy recalls, “Buddy was my idol. When he stepped to the foul line and took that deep breath, everybody in the Coliseum breathed with him. He was money in the bank from the foul line in the closing minutes.”

Paul “The Bear” Hoffman was the NBA rookie of the year with the Bullets in 1947-48, and he has made his home in Baltimore ever since. He recalls, “I have never seen a player win more games for his team in the final two minutes than Buddy. He would always find a way. Setting up the offense, driving to the hoop, stealing the ball, making foul shots. We always felt we would win with Buddy on the floor.”  

Robert “Jake” Embry, the Bullets’ owner who also had a piece of the [football] Colts, made Buddy the highest-paid NBA player of his day ($15,000 annually) and compared him with another two-minute miracle man. “Buddy was the greatest competitor I’ve ever seen. He is an inspirational leader and he had great determination to find a way to win. The only other athlete I would compare him with was Johnny Unitas,” stated Embry. 

Jeannette never averaged much more than 10 points per game. But point totals were much lower then. He was a winner everywhere he went. As one of basketball’s early pioneers, he played on five championship teams in four different cities. Buddy was revered here, but with the advent of modern basketball, his Hall of Fame bid kept coming up short. The Baltimore connection kept lobbying for his induction. Ex-Baltimore Sun sports editor Seymour Smith, who was the Bullet beat writer back then, along with sportswriters Alan Goldstein, John Steadman, and Bill Tanton kept the flame alive. Jeannette’s college roommate at Washington & Jefferson, Kenny Mason, lobbied for years from his position with Eastman Kodak. His induction last May was a greatly deserved triumph of the spirit. These people would not let the legend die. It was only fitting that Buddy got in “in the closing minutes.” 

The high point of his career came in Baltimore in the 1947-48 season when the Baltimore Bullets beat the New York Knicks in the Eastern semifinals, then finished off the Philadelphia Warriors for the old NBA title. The Knicks were the league’s premier team. Owned and operated by the great Madison Square Garden promoter and entrepreneur Ned Irish, they played to huge crowds of over 15,000 even in those days. Irish and his entourage came down by train to the Monroe Street Coliseum to see their boys whip the upstart Bullet team before going on to face the Warriors for the title. Comparing Madison Square Garden to the Monroe Street Coliseum was like Marilyn Monroe measuring up with Marjorie Main. But we had Buddy.

In the closing seconds, New York’s Carl Braun, who had this high dribbling style, was slowly burning time off the clock, protecting a one-point lead. All of a sudden Buddy lunged across Braun’s elongated frame and with those quick hands got a piece of the ball, caught up with it and drove in for the winning basket. I can still see, frozen in time, the haze of cigar smoke framing Buddy’s two-hand, underhanded layup. The place exploded. Ned and his big city boys got back on the train pronto. Baltimore got on the map by beating Philly for the title. Later, our 1958 Colts and [Earl] Weaver’s Orioles gave New York our calling card, but it was Buddy and his feisty Bullets, from Monroe Street Coliseum, that first put this town into the big leagues. 

Had he lived in another era, Buddy Jeannette would have been a household name. In the championship series with Philadelphia, the team was 20 down when Jeannette tore the locker room door off its hinges. Somehow they rallied to win. He had the competitive drive that all the great ones have. And for this he remains a player for all eras. 

This night for Buddy Jeannette forms a closure of sorts for both he and the Bullets. Buddy will be 78 in September. Truly a living legend, he resides with his wife Bonnie in Nashua, New Hampshire. The Bullets will be moving further into Washington with the construction of a $200 million arena in downtown Washington, D.C., and there is talk that they may change their name [to the Wizards]. The new arena is scheduled to open for the 1997-98 season, 50 years after the Bullets’ first world title in 1948. Time marches on and seldom looks back. 

But tonight in the Baltimore Arena, when Buddy  Jeannette is honored, clap a little harder. You’re not just looking down on an old man. You were looking at a guy who had the fire of a Bobby Knight and the competitive spirit of a Michael Jordan. I felt it a privilege to know him and to have seen him play. With all my experiences over four decades in basketball, Buddy Jeannette and his accomplishments still rank at the top. Quality transcends time.  

[Before moving on, let’s replay Paul Baker’s indelible memory of Buddy Jeannette’s big steal one more time. It’s compiled here from actual newspaper accounts of the game.]

Coach Buddy Jeannette certainly had the right man in the right spot at the Coliseum last night as the Bullets’ playoff hopes were dying a slow death against New York, and the official clock showed less than two minutes remaining in the game—probably in the season. 

Baltimore guard Chick Reiser made a free throw that made it 77 to 75 New York with a minute and 57 seconds remaining. Exactly 27 seconds later, after batting the ball away from young Carl Braun as the Knicks attempted to bring the ball up the court, Jeannette scooped up the loose ball and broke down the floor with no one to stop him, caged it for the precious two points that tied a game 3,242 fans thought New York had won.

That was the turning point. 

There have been better basketball games. There has been more excitement through nine-tenths of the play. But there have been none with a more-dramatic finish, particularly for the home forces. Or, as Sid Friedlander of the New York Post, put it, “That’s all there is, there ain’t no more,” for the 1947-48 Knicks.

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