Remembering the Early NBA

Yesterday, we profiled broadcasting legend Marty Glickman and his tips from 1949 on broadcasting a basketball game. Today, we present Glickman’s memories of the original Basketball Association of America (BAA) and early NBA. These memories are pulled from the 1996 book Vintage NBA: Pioneer Era (1946-1956). If you don’t know the book, you should. It’s “a mostly oral history” highlighting about 30 BAA and NBA pioneers. The interviews were compiled by Neil Isaacs, now in his 80s, who several years back offered me much-appreciated guidance about navigating the old publishing racket. What a good man he is.

Neil published Vintage NBA in tandem with Bill Tosheff (or just “Tosh”), co-founder and president of the Pre-1965 NBA Players Association. They used the book to raise awareness and funds for the Pre-1965 NBA Players Association and its ongoing efforts to compel then-NBA Commissioner David Stern to provide them with a pension. This clip from a 1998 Mother Jones article lays out the fight:

“In 1965, the league unionized and established a pension fund giving post-1965 players who played a minimum of three years a monthly pension of $285 multiplied by the number of years played. The plan also required pre-1965 players to have racked up five seasons in order to qualify for a $200 per month pension (also multiplied by the number of years played). Tosheff has spent the past nine years lobbying the NBA to close that loophole and include the pre-1965 three- and four-year players.”

In 2005, Tosh announced mission completed. Here’s Tosh for the next four paragraphs:

“Since 1989, the start of our Association, our Mission Completed in 2005, at the Collective Bargain Meetings. Both the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association, agreed to bring in and included the Pre-1965, 3 & 4 Year Pioneer Veterans into the Pension Program.

“The original roster of 3 & 4 year veterans was 85. When the agreements were reached, 40 remained. The financial payments were scheduled as follows: The 3-year veterans received $900.00 per month for the remaining years of their lives. When a player passed away and had a remaining spouse, the spouse received 50% of the players pension amount.

“The 4-year veterans received $1,200 per month. When that player passed away, the surviving spouse received 50% of his pension amount. The first payments were distributed in August of 2007. Since the bargaining agreements were in 2005, a retroactive back payment representing 24 months since the agreements were signed, the 3-year men received a lump sum check in the amount of $21,400.

“The 4-year men received a lump sum check in the amount of $28,800. In addition, if the 3-year or 4-year player passed away after 1988, and the surviving spouse was still alive after July 2005, then the spouse received 50% of the would have been players pension had he not passed away.”

As Neil Isaacs used to tell me, “Somebody needs to do a book on Tosh. He knows a lot of things that nobody else does.” Too late. The amazing Tosh passed away in 2011 from cancer. Here’s to you, Tosh, and here’s to these wonderful memories in Vintage NBA from the great Marty Glickman.

Marty Glickman

It was all fun, sensational fun. Those were the days when we felt that everything we did was great. Basketball was not broadcast until December of 1945, and I persuaded WHN to broadcast the college basketball doubleheaders from Madison Square Garden. Those were major events, tickets always in demand, and now the broadcast became an instant success. 

During World War II, as a Lieutenant in the Marines based on the Marshall Islands, I used to spend time thinking about how to broadcast basketball. Baseball and football, I reasoned were good to broadcast because they’re sports that have set geographies. To set the scene in baseball, you give a pitch count, the number of outs, what runners are on which bases, and everyone can visualize the scene of the action. In football, you give down and yardage, set the line of scrimmage and the formation, and the stage is set for the audience to see. 

Basketball, however, is a fluid game, without the pauses between pitches or plays, so I had to set up the geography of the court, using the vernacular of the game, to set the scene. Then I could describe dribbling to the top of the circle, cutting from the sideline through the lane, passing to the baseline, right-hand hook off the glass, and the listeners could visualize the action just as it happened. 

In 1946, before the first season of the BAA, there was a meeting at Toots Shor’s, with Ned Irish of the Garden, his assistant Fred Podesta, Burt Lee, who was my program director at WGN, and me. The question on the table was, what about broadcasting Knicks games? Ned Irish asked, “How much would it cost me?” and Burt said, “Not only will it cost you nothing, but we’ll pay you $250 per game.” That’s how it came to pass that we did Knicks games, even in that first season. It was very successful, too, and the price went up in time to $1,750 per game. 

There were eleven teams that first season, the western-most being the St. Louis Bombers and the Chicago Stags. We didn’t do all the games, because if there was a conflict with the college doubleheaders, we’d do all those games in the Garden. We didn’t do the first BAA game, either, the Knicks at Toronto, because there was a conflict with the hockey broadcast. We did the second Knicks game, from St. Louis. 

It was Irish’s idea to form the Knicks team from New York City players. So he put together a team that had Bob Mullins from Fordham, Dick Murphy from Manhattan, Ossie Schechtman from LIU, Ralph Kaplowitz and Frank Mangiapane from NYU, Sonny Hertzberg from CCNY, Tommy Byrnes from Seton Hall and Leo Gottlieb from DeWitt Clinton High School. They didn’t have any size at all, so later he got Bob Cluggish, 6 feet 10 inches from Kentucky. He was awful. We used to call him Sluggish Cluggish. 

There were other pro leagues and there were AAU leagues, and teams in places like Buffalo and Scranton were often part of loosely organized leagues that kept shifting members and franchises. But everybody loved it because the players all loved to play. There was a kind of joy almost always present. 

Talk about fun. I remember broadcasting a Knicks game against the Washington Caps in Uline Arena, the Caps up nine or 10 in the final minute of play, and Bones McKinney at the free-throw line. We’re broadcasting from the baseline, looking under the basket. Bones has this big grin on his face, turns around and shoots backwards through the hoop. Still grinning, he does it again and then runs back on defense waving side to side to the crowd like a politician in a parade. 

The Washington Capitols, with Bones McKinney (17) and coach Red Auerbach (front center)

The game was rough and the officiating very loose, though there were some good ones, like Pat Kennedy, Sid Borgia, and later Stan Stutz when he quit playing. One of the league’s goals from the start was to clean up the pro game, make it more like the popular college game. In the final minute or two, games turned into a parade from foul line to foul line. It was the primary role of players like Al McGuire to come in and commit fouls in the last minutes. Fouling was the only way for a trailing team to get the ball back, give up one point for a chance at two. The leading team would do the same. As a result, there was a parade from baseline to baseline, and the final minute of play was almost interminable in the final minutes. I put a clock on it and timed it as long as 25 or 30 minutes. I’d say, “Ball put in play—foul, ball put in play—foul.”

Danny Biasone, a nice, bright guy who had the Syracuse franchise, came up with the idea of the 24-second clock. Along with the idea of a limit of team fouls, that changed the game and saved it. My personal point of view was that it should have been 30 or 35 seconds, so there could be more than one play and one shot per possession, but the clock idea was absolutely necessary. 

The game was played in a number of remarkable arenas. I broadcast a Knicks game against the Waterloo Hawks from Waterloo, IA. Waterloo in midwinter gets pretty damn cold, and the armory was heated by hot air blowers at one end. They would turn up the blowers when the Knicks were shooting fouls at that end, and it would give a knuckleball effect to the shots.

At the Edgerton Park Arena in Rochester, the seats were only on the sides. Not far behind the endline of the court, there were doors to the outside, so that if a driving player got pushed, he could run right out the door into the snow. In Syracuse, if a visiting player got pushed on a drive and went into the crowd, the fans would hold on to him and not let him get back on the court. Playing at the County Fairgrounds there, Red Auerbach would get jabbed by a woman wielding a hat pin as the Celtics walked up the runway from the locker room to the floor. Red lost his cool once and went into the stands after her. That was the building where the backboards were suspended by cables from the ceiling with four corners of the boards anchored by cable to the balcony. When the Knicks shot fouls, fans would reach over and shake the cables to try to shake the shots out of the basket. 

When the Knicks went to Philadelphia, at first they played in the Philadelphia Arena, which seated maybe 5 or 6,000. An elevated [train] ran by the building, and smoking was allowed at the time. The smoke would get so heavy during the broadcast that I’d have to look behind me to see the scoreboard for the time and the score, because I couldn’t see the scoreboard in front of me across the floor. And the Knicks would have to bring their own towels and soap with them, because to save a few bucks, [Philadelphia owner] Eddie Gottlieb wouldn’t provide them. 

When the NBA landed its first television contract with the DuMont Network, the first Game of the Week was going to be played in Rochester’s Edgerton Arena. [NBA president] Maurice Podoloff called Les Harrison and told him in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to see any local ads on the walls of the arena where the camera would pick them up. When he arrived, there was a big ad for a local haberdashery strategically placed. Podoloff was furious, and he personally climbed up to tear down the paper signs while Harrison watched. 

The competition was terrific, despite the difficulties of travel and playing conditions. I remember sitting in the Garden a few years ago with Carl Braun. I said to him, “As captain of the Knicks, perennial all-star and holder of the then single-game NBA scoring record of 47 points, what did you make in your best year?”

“I made $19,000,” he said, “and I would have played for nothing.”

That was the kind of joyful attitude that made the game so attractive. I remember Ernie Vandeweghe, who was in medical school when he played for the Knicks. He could make most games at home and some on the road. Once he dressed in the toilet on a DC-3 on his way to Indianapolis to play the Olympians. Lapchick saw him coming into the arena and waved him right into the game. He reported onto the floor and immediately called timeout so he could tie his shoes. That’s the kind of warm-up he had. 

When the scandals broke, they knocked college basketball out, and the pro game was there to take up the slack. It’s almost unbelievable now, but from 1946 to 1951, there were no Blacks in the NBA. I have strong feelings about racial integration in the league. I believe that Red Auerbach was the Branch Rickey of basketball. He signed Chuck Cooper for the best of reasons, because he was a hell of a basketball player, and that opened the door for Earl Lloyd, Sweetwater Clifton, Don Barksdale, and the others who followed. We didn’t realize it until we compared notes years later, but my James Madison team played against Red’s Eastern District team. 

Back in the first couple of years, the Knicks had Lee Knorek and Stan Stutz, who were able to speak Polish with one another. There was one trip to Washington, when the players were wearing derby hats, just for fun. Their hotel was walking distance from Union Station, and on the way over, Knorek and Stutz were fooling around and traded raincoats and derbies. So here was Knorek, a big 6-foot-7, with a little derby perched on the top of his head and his arms sticking out of his coat up to his elbows, and 5-11 Stutz with his hat down over his eyes and his coat dragging on the ground. Then they storm into the hotel, claiming to be the Polish ambassador and his assistant, and in Polish and broken English making a scene with the desk clerk who cannot find any reservations for them. Everyone else, of course, is breaking up.  

The most famous travel story of the early years in the league is shared by many. It concerns a peculiarity of scheduling that had teams playing on Saturday in Rochester and then in Fort Wayne on Sunday. They would leave Rochester late Saturday evening, catching the 20th Century Limited headed toward Chicago. Then at 5 a.m., they’d be awakened in their sleepers for a non-scheduled stop in a prairie in the middle of Indiana. The only thing there was an uncovered wooden platform. 

Green Parrot Restaurant (not cafe), Waterloo, Indiana, where Carl Braun once pinged his pebbles

Traveling with the Knicks, I knew that our instructions were to walk on a two-lane blacktop road toward a blinking yellow light a half-mile away. That turned out to be the only light at a crossroads, where there were 10 or 12 buildings, nothing taller than two stories. Then we were to look for the plate glass window with the sign of the Green Parrot Cafe. Carl Braun was our designated shooter of the pebbles up to the second-floor window, because he had the softest touch. After two or three pebbles hit the window, a frowsy-haired woman would look out and say, “Oh, the Knicks.”

She’d get on the phone, and in a little while four or five cars would gather and drive us the 40 miles into Fort Wayne. We’d go right to bed and get up for the game that day or night. That was the only way to get to Fort Wayne from Rochester. Sometimes, there’d be a writer or two along, but usually it was just me and the team. We’d pick up a local engineer for the broadcast wherever we played. Leonard Koppett heard the story and didn’t believe it, so he came along once. 

I remember very vividly the fourth NBA All-Star Game, which I broadcast from Madison Square Garden with a standing-room-only crowd. That was the game that the East won in overtime, with Bob Cousy scoring 10 of the East’s 14 overtime points to win the game. They had to revote to give Cousy the MVP, because they had voted for Jim Pollard before the end of regulation. But what I remember best was what sent it into overtime. The West was down two points with seconds remaining when Mikan was fouled. The East called timeout, and there was Big George walking around smiling. He never stopped grinning during the timeout and made the first free throw. The East called another timeout, and George was still smiling when he made the second to tie the game. I’ll never forget him jumping up and down like a little kid.    

Another vivid memory is the basket that didn’t count in the Knicks’ championship series against the Lakers. They were playing the game in St. Paul, and, in the second quarter, Al McGuire shot from the head of the circle. Sid Borgia was underneath the basket looking for fouls on the rebound and didn’t see the ball go in. Stan Stutz was the other official, and he saw McGuire fouled, whistled it, but didn’t watch the shot go through and called a two-shot foul.  

Lapchick goes out of his mind, and Johnny Most, who was my associate broadcaster at the time, is screaming at them. There’s a 10-minute delay, while the officials try to decide what to do. They even asked Podoloff, who was watching from the stands, but he said, “It’s not my business to make a call.” They stuck with the decision, because, no matter what anyone else said, they hadn’t seen the basket made. McGuire made one of two, the game eventually went into overtime, the Lakers won, and they went on to win the title in a seven-game series.  

Boston was just a hockey town through the early years of the NBA. I can remember a Celtics game with the Knicks when the attendance was so sparse that there were more people involved in the running of the game—ushers, vendors, and so on—than fans in the stands. I remember sitting with Red Auerbach and Walter Brown before a game in Boston, when we started talking about the broadcasting rights fees. I asked Walter what he was getting, and he didn’t want to tell me. “It’s embarrassing,” he said. Finally, I got him to tell me that it was $5,000. “That’s pretty good,” I said, and he said, “For the season.” I was getting paid $100 a game at the start, by the way. 

I was asked by an ad agency to come up with a phrase like Mel Allen’s “Ballantine Blast” or Russ Hodges,’ “There it goes, into Chester-field.” I was already using “Good!” to announce a shot went in, so it was a natural thing to say, “Good—like Nedick’s.” The broadcast booth was as much of a joy for me as the court was for the players. And often I wasn’t alone. 

Johnny Most was my associate, Connie Desmond worked with me until spring training started in February and Curt Gowdy was my associate. When they weren’t coaching a game in the Garden, Joe Lapchick, Claire Bee, and Nat Holman would often be in the booth with me. Bud Palmer, when he was playing with the Knicks, thought he wanted to be a broadcaster, so I would have him do 1/4 of a game if there was a doubleheader at the Garden. If he was playing in the second game, he’d do one quarter of the first. If he was in the first game, he’d stay to do one quarter of the second. That’s how he learned, and in time was hired to do the Knicks games on television. 

Then there was Marv Albert, whom I remember as a ballboy, one of the shyest, most reserved kids I’ve known. But he was serious about wanting to learn the business and would ask if he could sit in the booth. He followed in my footsteps by going to Syracuse University, then when someone was needed to broadcast the Knicks games in the ’68-69 season, I strongly recommended him. They said no at first, because they wanted someone with the name. But when things didn’t work out, they came back to him and gave him a shot. Good—like Nedick’s! Yes! And it counts.     

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