Lebron, Kobe, KG, Moses . . . and Bones Graboski?

Most prep-to-pro conversations start with the tacit understanding that Moses Malone was the first high schooler to make the leap when he signed with the ABA Utah Stars in 1974. There’s just one problem—it’s not true. 

In 1948, a tall teen named Joe “Bones” Graboski got his start with the Chicago Stags of the newfangled Basketball Association of America (BAA), the precursor to the NBA. The 6-foot-8 Groboski, later “Grabbo” to his teammates, had been an accomplished Chicago prep with whispers from Iowa, Indiana, and other top Midwestern colleges. But with no high school diploma, he soon ended up as the ballboy for the Stags, where he and his soft, two-handed shot caught the eye of the team president. Mr. Big offered Grabbo a two-year deal, reportedly guaranteeing him $5,000. Still underage, Grabbo passed the pen to his mother. She signed for him. 

Grabbo logged a solid 13-year career in the BAA/NBA, tallying over 9,000 points and averaging more than 30 minutes of burn per game. He also got a championship ring with the 1956 Philadelphia Warriors, dropping in 29 points in the deciding game of the series against Detroit.  

“In those days, nobody endorsed sneakers,” recalled the Warriors Tom Gola. “U.S. Keds were the giant until Converse came along. We all wore Converse, except Grabbo. The only way we’d get a second pair was if ours wore out, but he’d tell the Keds guy he needed a couple pair for the summer, that he needed wading shoes for fishing, and he’d get them. He got free rein, the first guy.”

There’s not much about Grabbo on the web. But pulling from our vast physical library of basketball magazines, here’s a chance to meet him digitally a few years out of high school. In fact, the image above shows Grabbo (center) as a new member of the Stags dropping in on his high school coach Jim Tortorelli (left) and former prep teammate Seymour Morris (right). 

Grabbo suffered a series of strokes and passed away in 1998. Toward the end, he said of his pro career, which included playing for several troubled franchises, “I kind of felt like that Al Capp character who walked around with a cloud over his head,” he said. “It never rained on me, but it seemed to rain on every team I went to.”

Without further ado, here’s Grabbo, the prep-to-pro before Moses Malone. The article comes from the August 1950 edition of the magazine Sports Stars. Journalist Ray Robinson is on the call. 

Joe Graboski is a boy playing in a man’s league. Joe won’t be 21 years old until January 15, 1951, but he has already put in two seasons in the National Basketball Association, an amalgam of 17 teams that engages in a playoff system after a back-breaking schedule of 68 games. 

In a league like the NBA, 20-year-old Joe “Bones” Graboski more than holds his own—without any college experience to fortify him—and minus even a high school diploma. It may be only a matter of time before he develops into a genuine star for the Chicago Stags, an NBA Central Division team for which Joe does his dribbling. 

Normal procedure in the NBA, which has approximately 187 men huffing and puffing to earn reasonably enticing hunks of cash, is to sign athletes who have demonstrated court prowess in three or four years of college apprenticeship. There aren’t more than a half-doesn’t men in the loop today who have climbed into President Maurice Podoloff’s complicated circuit without the aid of university sheepskins. The Stags happen to have two non-college entries—Graboski, and his roommate Stan Miasek.

Graboski played his first year with the Stags when he was just 19. Still the youngest man in the NBA, Joe may do more growing, though he has already reached 6 feet, 8 inches. His weight hovers between 298 and 215 pounds. 

Shy, but with a grin that reveals the kind of malocclusion that used to endear Mickey Rooney to America’s mothers, Joe definitely does not belong in the “goon” category. Though he has a gorilla-like arm reach (37 inches), and the slightly awkward gait of a Li’l Abner character, Joe is mild-mannered and articulate at interview-time. He has acquired the poise usually associated with professionals who have been through the college and postgrad mill. 

Joe gave up Tuley High School—in Chicago—as a pretty bad deal in his senior year. He played out his three years of high school eligibility as a basketballer, and saw no precise reason for remaining around in school, considering that “I never cared too much for books anyway.” Another impelling reason for his retirement from lower echelon academic surroundings was that his family needed his partial financial support. It was imperative that Graboski find some means of developing an income. 

Joe hung around the Chicago Stadium, where the Stags play ball, then soon became the team’s ball-retriever, a position in life that usually nets the owner about 50 cents an hour. This job, of course, enabled the basketball-crazy kid to see all the games he wanted for free. It also meant an all-important entry to the office of Judge John A. Sbarbaro, who is President and Treasurer of the Stags. Joe often got the chance to practice with the team, and the Judge got more than one gander at Graboski’s 16 ½ inch neck. What he saw impressed him enough to sign the lad to a regular contract in 1949. 

“I expected that I’d play with the Steers (a farm team),” recalls Joe, “but the contract actually called for me to play with the Stags. Gee, I was a pretty happy guy.”

The increase in salary that the contract permitted was enough to make Graboski a bona fide version of the prosaic rags-to-riches story that has been rolling off typewriters since the Horatio Alger plot was invented. But whether the plot was hackneyed or not, it was still the biggest thrill in Graboski’s young life, and enabled him to give partial support to his mother and stepfather. When he isn’t touring the hoop world with the Stags, Joe still lives at home with his parents at 1505 North Hoyne Avenue, Chicago. 

When you ask Joe the figure he signed for, he prefers saying, “Oh, just tell people about ten times what I was making as a ballboy.”

Joe has simple tastes. He, and 25-year-old roomie Miasek, just a shrimp next to Joe at six feet, five inches, like to take in movies together when they have a few spare hours. (Pro basketball teams in the NBA play on an almost nightly schedule. When they aren’t playing regular games, they are called upon to do plenty of practicing.) Joe prefers musicals. He once played first base in the CYO softball tourneys in Chicago. 

“I have a girl in Chicago,” answers Joe to the query about the women in his life. 

He hasn’t even started to give much thought as to what he’ll do after his career in sports is over. 

Gum-chewing is currently Joe’s most-persistent vice. He may have drawn inspiration for the avocation from fellow-Stag Max Zaslofsky, a great player who couples an eagle-eye with the most extraordinary jaw motion ever perpetrated on a chiclet. 

Graboski has smoked only a few cigarettes in his life, but never puffs at all during the season. He doesn’t drink beer or hard liquor, and never even touches a cup of coffee. His sandy hair is usually rumpled in the fashion of a boy who neglects to run a comb through his locks after a shower. 

Joe still dresses like a youngster. He wears a knitted tie, multi-colored socks, a conservatively perforated size 14 shoe, a powder blue sports jacket, slacks, and a pork-pie hat. 

Coach Phil Brownstein, the Stags’ mentor, hasn’t yet fitted Graboski into any specific Stag pattern. Max Zaslofsky, and veteran Andy Phillip, a consistently brilliant floorman, are the two standouts on the club. Notre Dame’s Leo Barnhorst, Kentucky’s Ken Rollins, and Kleggie Hermsen of Minnesota, the only man on the club taller than Graboski, are the other fixtures. 

Sooner or later, Joe will permanently replace one of these men, for the pace in the pro game is enervating, and youth must be served. In his first couple of years, Joe has started only a few games. Nevertheless, he manages to get into most of the contests the team plays. 

Not often permitted the opportunity of warming up sufficiently during a game, Joe has still been able to maintain a fairly respectable rate of shot-success promise from his position at center or forward. He notched over 200 markers in 1950, almost doubled his output for the previous year, but is hopeful that he’ll do much better once he’s taken out of cold storage for good. 

Despite his minute-man function with the Stags, Joe had a couple of 16-point nights this past campaign. He managed this feat once against the Baltimore Bullets when the Chicagoans were playing at Baltimore. This isn’t half bad for a fellow who’s just a few kangaroo steps away from ball-boy bondage.

“Everybody on the team has helped me a lot,” says Joe. “I just sit around and listen and watch when I’m not in there. And when I’m in there, I’m still learning all the time.”

And that’s the way it’s got to be with a boy who’s playing in a rugged man’s league. 

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