Joe Fulks: Report on a Warrior, 1948

[In 1971, the NBA announced its Silver-anniversary team. Listed with Bob Cousy, George Mikan, Bob Pettit, and the other high-profile heroes of the early NBA was a real blast from the past named Joe Fulks. He was the 6-foot-5, jump-shooting star of the Philadelphia Warriors and the NBA’s earlier iteration known as the Basketball Association of America (BAA). The Sporting News called him, “the greatest basketball player in the country.” Bar none. 

Fulks, who had resettled in the rolling hills of his native rural Kentucky, was invited to the NBA All-Star game in San Diego to pose for photos with the other Silver Anniversary honorees. While there, Fulks reconnected with Eddie Gottlieb, the former general manager of Warriors. In 1946, the hard-bargaining Gottlieb offered Fulks a rookie contract with the Warriors for the lowball figure of $5,000. Fulks declined; Gottlieb eventually countered. They settled on $8,000. 

“I’d offer you $60,000 now,” joked Gottlieb in San Diego, “and probably would have to pay you $80,000.”

“I wouldn’t take it,” countered Fulks. “I’d go to the ABA.”

While making the rounds with the NBA greats, Fulks, trying to kick an alcohol problem, joined in the toasts and downed more than a few drinks. He reportedly returned to Kentucky back on the bottle. The drinking continued off and on for the next several years. Then, in the wee-small hours of March 21, 1976, the 54-year-old Fulks got into a sloppy-drunk argument with the adult son of his girlfriend inside her Eddyville, Ken. mobile home. The son finally grabbed his 20-gauge shotgun and pumped a round into Fulks’ neck. Jumping Joe was DOA.

This Sport Magazine article, from January 1948, captures the good times when Fulks was “the Babe Ruth of basketball” and the leading practitioner of a newfangled thing called the jump shot. Interestingly, as Philadelphia journal Herb Good recounts, Fulks was a second-generation practitioner, having copied his jump shot as a kid from his hometown hero Sanders Watkins. Nevertheless, Fulks almost certainly deserves more credit for popularizing the shot than Kenny Sailors, as the case is now being made in a recent documentary. 

Fulks has one more claim to fame. Almost a year after this Sport Magazine article appeared, Fulks got an unexpected knock on the door at his Philadelphia home. It was a local poolroom operator and gambler named Morris “Moxie” Fleishman and one of his lackeys. The lackey scooted Fulks’s son, Joe, Jr, down the street for an ice cream cone, while Moxie had a word in private with the Warriors’ star.

“Several other people are making money by off-getting [throwing games],” Moxie started in. “Why don’t you make some easy money while you are able. You can’t go on playing professional basketball all your life.”

“I’ll think about it,” Fulks finally answered, after retrieving his son.

Fulks hurried back into his house and called Gottlieb, who passed word onto the cops. Moxie was later arrested and admitted that he was fronting for bigger racketeers who were trying to infiltrate pro and amateur sports in Philadelphia. Fulks call turned out to be the start or, more likely, a turning point in what would be the college basketball betting scandals in the 1950s. In the above photo, Fulks (second from left) leaves the court in 1949 after testifying against Moxie. The arrow points to Moxie.]

Spare the rod, Dad, if that headstrong young son of yours insists on having his own way, especially in athletics. Don’t worry about his tantrums, or his refusal to follow your advice. Be patient. Let nature take its course, and one of these days you may find yourself with a world champion in your house. 

As a kid, Joe Fulks was stubborn and obstinate. He wanted to play basketball. Most of all, he wanted to shoot baskets. 

Neither fire, wind, nor flood could keep him away from the basketball. His parents said he was wasting his time shooting baskets when he should have been doing odd jobs around the house. So he went out and shot more baskets. After he wore out two pair of street shoes on an outdoor court, they tried to discourage him by saying they wouldn’t buy him another pair for a whole year. So he played barefoot. 

His first coaches scolded him for “being fancy”—for shooting with his left hand when he was naturally right-handed, and for trying tricky shots. So when they weren’t looking, he practiced them all the more until he had them down pat. 

His attitude was: “What’s the matter with these shots? They go in, don’t they—and they count two points each.”

As a result of this persistence, plus a complete belief in himself, Joe Fulks today is the most-feared and most highly respected marksman in basketball. He holds the all-time professional record of 1,611 points for a single season. Because of his tremendous wallop on the court, and appeal at the box-office, he draws a salary in five figures. In short, he’s acclaimed the Babe Ruth of the sport. 

Now, a quiet-mannered young man of 25, married, and the father of an infant, Joe Fulks looks back from his lofty position with the defending-champion Philadelphia Warriors in the Basketball Association of America and thanks his lucky stars for the German ancestor who endowed him with that singleness of purpose and desire for perfection that has lifted him meteorically to the top of his chosen sport. 

Without such endowments, the brown-haired, poker-faced, powerfully built chap, 6-foot-5, with broad shoulders and unbelievably long arms, probably never would have been able to hurdle the obstacles thrown in his way as a youth. 

When he was only 12 years old, living in the little town of Birmingham on the banks of the Tennessee river in Marshall County, Kentucky, his school burned down. When the temporary gym was built, it was promptly leveled by a cyclone. The new school was no sooner finished then the Tennessee overflowed its banks, and the homeless residents moved into the new gym. 

An outdoor basketball court was the only answer. But the boys of high school age took over this for their own. They chased the younger boys away and kept them from playing there. But young Fulks refused to be intimidated. Perhaps because he was in a better strategic position, living right next door to the court. 

He bided his time until the older boys went home for supper. Then he got in his goal-shooting with a brickbat or tin can. It was rough treatment for the nets, which usually were found in shreds the next morning, along with the high school coach’s blood pressure. 

Luther Goheen, the coach, finally hid in some bushes near the court and caught young Fulks in his brick-tossing act. But he was so impressed by what he saw that he shrewdly decided against a bawling-out. 

“Let’s see if you can make those shots with this,” said Goheen, and handed Fulks an old basketball. “And you can keep it. That’ll be better for our nets.”

And with that ancient basketball, Joe Fulks practiced and developed, virtually on his own, the great variety of shots that last year enabled him to win the BAA scoring crown with 1,389 points, exactly 463 more than any other player could amass over the regular season of 60 games. 

Long before he attained his perfection, Fulks’ name became a by-word in Kentucky basketball. When his parents moved unexpectedly from Birmingham to Kuttawa in Lyon County, Kentucky, at the start of his senior year in high school, Joe found himself the center of a lively controversy in the Kentucky Interscholastic Athletic Association. 

When Joe donned a Kuttawa uniform, Birmingham school officials, counting on him to spearhead a championship team, let out a “We wuz robbed!” cry that reverberated across the state. They charged he was ineligible; that he was being paid to play there; that Kuttawa High people had persuaded Leonard Fulks, Joe’s strapping father, to leave his job as ferryman at Birmingham for a position as assistant engineer at the State penitentiary at Eddyville, just across the river from Kuttawa. 

During the investigation, Joe’s father said he moved his family because the construction of a TVA dam meant the eventual flooding of the Birmingham area and the loss of their home. And Birmingham was unable to produce any proof of professionalism on Joe’s part. 

Joe has never quite forgiven certain Birmingham officials for this rumpus. But he got a measure of revenge when he led Kuttawa to the regional title to which Birmingham had aspired. He rubbed it in just a bit when he was chosen to play on the All-Kentucky team against All-Indiana at Indianapolis, and proudly came home with a gold wristwatch, his reward for being voted the outstanding player in that contest. 

Having the pick of any number of colleges, Joe enrolled at Murray State Teachers, which is only 65 miles from Kuttawa, where he thought he might like some day to be a coach. He won his first attention outside Kentucky when he led Murray to fourth place in the national intercollegiate basketball tournament at Kansas City as a junior in 1943. He was chosen on the all-tournament team, which was equivalent to a small-college All-American. 

Then Joe Fulks decided there were more important things at stake in the world. He enlisted with the Marines, but he couldn’t get away from the game he loved. When the Leathernecks found Joe was hotter with the basketball than with a rifle, they saw to it that he got plenty of chances to play. At San Diego, he was a member of an undefeated quintet. After seeing action on Guam and Iwo Jima, he became a member of the crack Fleet Marine Force team at Pearl Harbor. After VJ day, he toured the Orient and competed in the national AAU tournament at Denver with his club. 

Playing with such stars as Kenny Sailors, Andy Phillip, Bill Closs, and Ted Gossard, Fulks developed rapidly. He was pleasantly surprised to find he could more than hold his own with the biggest names in the game. When professional offers started coming his way, he refused to be swept off his feet. When one big-league club tried high pressure to get him to sign a contract $3,000 below what Joe thought he was worth, he laughed. 

Eddie Gottlieb, manager and coach of the Warriors, still chuckles at the recollection. 

“When I managed to reach him by phone, thinking I was talking to a hillbilly, I made him a hillbilly offer,” he recalls. “And when he came back with a startled ‘What!’ I thought, “Oh. my gosh, I’ve offered him too much!” But it turned out he was annoyed at the small offer and wanted to know whether I was serious. So, I asked him how much he wanted. Then it was my turn to be shocked!” 

Gottlieb suggested that Fulks come to Philadelphia and talk things over with Pete Tyrell, general manager of the Philadelphia Arena, which owns the Warriors. Fulks quietly drawled there was no sense making the trip unless they were going to agree to his terms, but he did promise to think it over. A later phone call convinced him he had nothing to lose by making the trip. But when he did reach the Quaker City, he was still adamant. No amount of persuasion could change his own opinion of his value. Tyrell and Gottlieb finally agreed to his terms. 

That gamble not only paid off in a championship but in turn-away crowds. At a Fulks Night at the end of the 1946-47 season, the owners of the Arena gratefully gave their Mr. Points a bonus in the form of a brand-new expensive two-door sedan. It is believed that this car, plus $2,150 from the postseason playoffs, and the $200 he received for being voted to the All-BAA team, pushed his total take for the first six months’ grind above $10,000. Not bad for a rookie, who in the ordinary course of events would still have been a senior at Murray State Teachers College back home. 

Yet the Kentuckian was no easier to sign for the current campaign. He is said to have held out for a hefty five figures, but finally relented when convinced that the league salary limit of $55,000 per club made it impossible for the Warriors to meet his price. The compromise figure agreed upon, however, is believed to be one of the highest ever paid a star in the satin-pantie world. 

You have assumed from all this that Joe Fulks is the swaggering, bragging Dizzy Dean or Bobo Newsom type. Nothing could be farther from the truth. 

He knows he’s good, all right, but he doesn’t brag about it. He hasn’t a trace of objectionable cockiness. Actually, he is retiring and has little to say about anything, although there is evidence he’s beginning to unbend a bit. In fact, he’s been known to add an occasional “How are you?” to his usual conversational limit of “Yes,” “No,” and “Whattya know?”

He’s good natured, has a sense of humor, and seems to enjoy the ribbing he takes as a “hillbilly.” In fact, he can more than hold his own in both locker-room repartee, and the jockeying among the players. 

Joe Fulks in 1975

He hates after-dinner speeches, has never expressed a fondness for radio interviews, but has never once complained about these extra duties that go with stardom. He appeared before a mike only once before joining the Warriors, but, by the end of last season, he was guesting on as many as four different air programs the same day. 

“I’ve never had an easier player to handle,” says Eddie Gottlieb, who has been coaching professional stars for more than 20 years. “Sure, he takes a lot of shots, but he rarely makes a bad one. Every player knows the success of the team depends on how often Joe can score for us.”

Joe was more of a problem in his early days in college, when he hadn’t yet mastered a wicked temper. On at least one occasion, he got so mad he turned in his suit and was going to quit the game for good. But then he reconsidered, and was first out for practice the following day. 

Today, Joe occasionally puts on a little scene. He’ll object violently to decisions of officials, and show annoyance at the beating he takes when three or more opponents gang up on him and spoil a shot. But he’s careful not to go too far, and at this writing has never been tossed out of a game for protests, nor been seen in fisticuffs. 

Sometimes, when it looks as if Fulks is cussing out the officials behind their backs, he’s actually giving himself hell with a beautiful Marine vocabulary for being so stupid as to be caught committing a foul. 

He’s been tabbed a prima donna in some cities because of these natural displays of temperament under stress. But the outbursts have endeared him to Philadelphia fans, who are convinced he could do no wrong. They are surprised he doesn’t object more vigorously to the physical beating he takes in every contest. 

A neat, conservative dresser with a leaning toward two-tone brown sports outfits, Joe Fulks follows no particular training rules or set diet. He likes to get between eight and 10 hours of sleep. Since he doesn’t go to bed until two or three hours after a game, he seldom rises before noon during the season. 

He prefers a meal of steak, creamed potatoes, and peas with salad or lettuce and a glass of milk or cup of tea, with ice cream or pie for dessert about three hours before a game. If there is a longer period than he figured before the start of the game, he eats a chocolate bar or two to be sure he’ll have enough energy. 

After the game, he usually stops somewhere on the way home for a sandwich. Then he hashes over the various plays with his cute, dark-haired wife, the former Mary Sue Gillespie, of Eddyville, Kentucky, who attended Western Kentucky and used to root against Joe in the big game with Murray. 

“She’s my severest critic,” says Joe. “She gives me hell when I need it, and praises me when I play a good game. She’s quite a fan. She roots so hard she’s more worn out at the end of a game than I am.”

Joe smokes only an occasional cigarette during the season. He prefers a pipe when lounging around home during the summer. He’d rather kibitz than take part in the card games always in progress among his teammates. You can’t drag him to a movie unless it’s a good musical. He is most content when reading the newspaper sports page or “stories about guys,” especially baseball players, in magazines. 

He’s a great baseball fan and has been a rooter for the St. Louis Cardinals as long as he can remember. He played baseball in high school and college. 

His main hobby is fishing. He’s been a confirmed angler ever since he and his Dad caught a 52-pound catfish in the Tennessee River while he was still in high school. He bought an outboard motor and spent almost all of last summer fishing at the best spots in Kentucky, including Russell Springs, Dale Hollow Lake, Kentucky Lake, the Cumberland River, and the Reel Foot Lake in Tennessee. He’s never done any deep-water fishing, but hopes to realize this additional thrill before 1948 is over. 

He also enjoys squirrel hunting, but gets little opportunity because of his basketball. 

Joe and his wife live in a six-room white clapboard house on an acre and a half of land in Eddyville during the offseason. They were amazed to find how much more expensive it is to live in a big city, but they are considering making their permanent home in Philadelphia if Joe can land a good offseason job there. 

With a little Joe to think about, they are convinced greater opportunity is available in or near a big city. But Joe wants no part of New York, where he feels lost in the constant hurry and scurry. “They can give this place back to the Indians,” he said during a recent visit to Manhattan. “I like to be near a cornfield where I know I can take off.”

The lanky Kentuckian, who has deceptively lazy mannerisms on the court and as a result is affectionately called Lazy Joe by some fans, has no explanation for his great yen for basketball. His parents did not become interested in sports until Joe started making headlines in high school. His only sister, Barbara Nell, like sports, but always preferred to sit and watch things from the balcony.

“It must have come natural,” says Joe. “Everyone around Birmingham always was crazy about the game because of our good high school teams. All of us kids had one ambition—to make the team.”

When Joe was in grade school, Birmingham High had a star by the name of Sanders Watkins, who specialized in an overhead jump shot. Joe worshiped the ground Watkins walked on. He decided he would master this particular shot if it was the last thing he did. Today this overhead jump shot, usually taken off the pivot, is Joe Fulks’ most devastating weapon. Because of his height and rubbery legs, the ball leaves his extended hand about 10 feet above the floor, which means that only a goon-type player has a reasonable chance of blocking it. 

But this is only one of the great variety of shots that keep opponents in a dither. Joe doesn’t recall ever being blanked in a regulation contest. He averages 23 points a game in the toughest competition in the sport. He connects with about one shot in every three he takes. 

He’s a great competitor and comes through with his most sensational goals when the opposition has ganged up on him and when the pressure is the greatest. He attributes his great desire to win as the reason for his flood of points, which reached a single-game high of 41 at Toronto a year ago. 

“To win, you’ve got to have points, so I fire away at every opportunity,” is the way Fulks puts it. 

He isn’t kidding about his desire to win. He can have the hottest night of his career and it doesn’t mean a thing to him unless the Warriors come out on top. Take, for example, a game with the Chicago Stags at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall last winter. 

The Warriors were behind by 19 points early in the second half and looked hopeless until Fulks suddenly started to hit from all angles. He fired a sensational rally that not only caught the Stags but put the Philadelphians ahead by a point. In the last minute, however, Chicago pulled itself together and managed to win.

It was a heart-breaker to lose. But the emotionally spent Quaker City fans consoled themselves by calling it the greatest team rally and the most remarkable individual sharp-shooting they had ever seen. 

But nothing could console Joe Fulks, who was the most distressed and depressed of all the Warriors. He banged his fist against lockers, kicked over chairs, and cussed himself out at great length. 

“I lost the game,” he groaned. “I should never have taken that last shot!”

But the scorebooks showed his futile efforts added up to exactly 36 points!

That’s Joe Fulks for you—a Warrior who’s never had enough until he’s won.

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