The (Short-Lived) Life of a Rookie, 1971

[In 1958, writer George Plimpton took the mound at New York’s Yankee Stadium to pitch to the National League All-Stars before a post-season exhibition game. Earnest Hemingway characterized the bangs and kabooms that followed as “the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty” But Plimpton turned his shellshock into the best-selling book Out of My League. Plimpton later wrote another best-seller Paper Lion about attending the training camp of the NFL Detroit Lions. And just like that, participatory journalism was off and running as a popular sports subgenre in the 1960s and 1970s.

In September 1971, the subgenre came to the NBA. Mike Janofsky, a young sportswriter with the Baltimore Evening Sun, got the okay to attend training camp with the hometown Bullets then head out on the road in uniform for a handful of preseason games. To mark the caper, the Bullets even held an official signing ceremony at team headquarters. 

“Before you sign, Mike,” Bullet coach Gene Shue deadpanned, “I want to tell you that I just traded you to the ABA.”

Janofsky reached for the nearest pen, adjusted his oversized glasses, and scribbled his name on a non-guaranteed one-year contract. His scribble entitled him to $50 a week during training camp at Maryland’s Fort Meade, plus $19 a day for meal money during the exhibition season.

“This is the first Jewish player the Bullets have had since Mike Bloom,” announced the team’s forever upbeat general manager Jerry Sachs. What Sachs didn’t say is Janofsky had never played a lick of organized basketball, though the recent University of Maryland grad did claim to be “a playground legend.”

Janofsky was then ushered off to the nearest barbershop for a mandatory haircut. As one of Janofsky’s journalist buddies wisecracked, “Unlike some of the Bullets who wear Afros, Janofsky wears an Isro.”

Janofsky, now minus the Isro, was no intrepid George Plimpton. The young journalist sometimes had to drive back to Baltimore to man the sports desk for a few hours, drawing friendly fire from his Bullet teammates. “All I can remember Mike doing for two hours is showering,” critiqued Bullet veteran Kevin Loughery tongue firmly in cheek. “How much can a veteran stand? Here’s what Mike The Rookie gets away with:

“Not only does he choose which drills he’d like to participate in, he tells coach Shue when he’s had enough (if I opened my mouth once, instant fine). He missed one entire practice—last Saturday—because Texas was playing UCLA on TV . . . During scrimmages he stool-pigeons on his teammates. He had Shue remove Jack Marin because Marin refused to clear the side for him. He complained to Shue once after a Wes Unseld outlet pass soared over his head. ‘Have Unseld watch a few Bill Russell movies,’ Mike yelled over to the coach.“

Then Loughery wrapped up his roast with this zinger, “It’s really a pleasure having him around. I just hope the trade rumors I heard don’t become reality. Somebody said Mike was offered for George Plimpton and 1,000 copies of Paper Lion to be sent later.”

Here is Mike Janofsky’s account of his brief career as a Bullet, published in Complete Sports’ 1971 Pro Basketball Edition. The original version of his story appeared in the Baltimore Evening Sun on September 27, 1971, and I’ve reinserted a few lines that got cut from the shorter Complete Sports’ version.]

Mike Janofsky joins the Baltimore Bullets

The clock read 1:21, and the 5,542 fans sensed the possibility of an upset. The Carolina Cougars led, 103-94, but stranger things have happened in basketball than blowing a sure lead. 

A Baltimore Bullet inadvertently kicked the ball out of bounds. The clock stopped.

“This is it,” said Gene Shue turning to me sitting beside him on the bench. “Go in for Gary Zeller.”

“Oh my God,” I thought during the 2.5 seconds before my professional debut. “All the training, the laps, the wind sprints, the three-man weaves, the scrimmages. Finally, it’s gonna pay off.”

I sprinted two yards from the bench to the scoring table. “Janofsky for Zeller,” I barked, Wheeling around and ripping off my warm-up pants. I almost knocked over Zeller, who instinctively knew he was being replaced. 

“Entering the game,” the P. A. announcer began, “is Mike Janofsky, No. 23. He’s also a sportswriter for the Baltimore Evening Sun.” The crowd reacted confused at first, but then amused. 

Carolina had the ball inbounds under the basket. I was to guard (?) Larry Miller, a 6-foot-5 guard who enjoyed a four-inch height advantage. My extra 20 pounds, I figured, would account for the difference. 

Miller took the pass in at the right of the key. He faked me to the left; I fell for it. He skittered around right and laid the ball up. I went up with him and I swear I got a piece of the ball. Unfortunately, referee Joe Gushue also saw me get a piece of Miller’s chest. Three points. 

“Don’t worry about it,” I thought. “At least the fans weren’t laughing, like last week when you dribbled the wrong way in a team scrimmage. Good thing you barreled over your own teammate before getting a chance to score in the wrong basket.”

Anyway, our ball. Rookie John Novey dribbled down the left side and suddenly I realized the score had ballooned to 106-94 with a minute remaining. I was rumbling down the right side, the “offside,” as we say in pro basketball. My teammates from the bench were screaming for Novey to get me the ball. Best shooter in clutch situations, you know. But instead, Novey (figures it’d be a rookie) hit Stan Love for a layup. 

Time was waning, and I hadn’t done anything yet. 

Cougars’ ball. Gene Littles bounced the ball upcourt, and Shue yelled “Green,” the cue to give an intentional foul. I did. 

Great. So far, 45 seconds in the game, no points and two fouls. 

Between Little’s two successful free throws, I called a timeout. For once, at least, I was sitting during a timeout. The other players huddled around me. This was the first time in five exhibition games I couldn’t use timeouts to full advantage—clocking girls in the first three rows. 

Gene set up a play for me. “John Novey,” he began, “bring the ball down the left side and hit George Johnson high. Mike, you come across and fake your man left, cut right, and George will hit you. If your man is still on you, come back and get the ball.”

“Wow,” I stuttered to myself, “the ‘1’ play. Never run for anyone before but Earl Monroe.”

Time in. The clock started ticking. Novey performed expertly as Gene directed. Littles, a whippet-quick, 6-foot-1 guard, was checking me, but I had no difficulty eluding him. (I thought I heard Cougar coach Tom Meschery scream, “Let him shoot.”) Whatever, I lost him in the crowd. 

There I was. Ten seconds to play, the game hopelessly out of reach (I conceded by now). I could (1) drive for a layup, (2) pop it from where I stood, or (3) retreat three steps for a three-pointer. “Don’t be a glutton,” I reasoned. “Wing it.”

The events transpiring from then are history. Needless to say, the shot was perfect: a 20-foot unintended bank shot. The crowd roared in delight. My teammates picked me up, and carried me off the court. We lost, 108-98, but we celebrated my stellar performance until the plane took off the next morning. 

That afternoon I was cut. 

Bitterly, but expectedly, my career as a professional basketball player had abruptly ended. I realized the magnitude of the task all through training camp and the five preseason games by simple mathematics. Besides myself, seven other players were vying for jobs in the Bullet backcourt. Eddie Miles was waived four days after I was. 

I had an advantage, though. My job as sportswriter with the Baltimore Evening Sun still awaited me. It was, however, slightly embarrassing when I walked into the office the next afternoon. “Too bad,” the copy editors consoled. “You had a great career.”

And I did. How many other players were retired after shooting 1,000?

If anything, my stint with the Bullets, whom I happen to cover during the season, was an unbelievable learning experience. Fans should have the same opportunity. They’d be more hesitant to criticize. 

The exhibition season was as arduous a job as any nine-to-fiver ever had. Basketball buffs in tiny cities dotting the country dole out $5 to see a 48-minute scrimmage between two teams whose coaches are trying desperately to piece together workable combinations for the approaching season. What the five bucks doesn’t buy them is the chance to know how teams prepare for, arrive at, and depart from those meaningless games. Same goes for the regular season and the playoffs. Only then, the emotion is 1,000 times more intensified and the teams are playing for keeps. 

The four days of the Bullets’ official training camp was as difficult a physical grind as any Marine drill. Coach Gene Shue’s regimented procedure never failed to leave players gasping. Above all, Shue believes in physical fitness. No one less than 100 percent plays for him. 

Except maybe me. I wasn’t quite in top form as camp opened. Fifteen pound over would be a fair evaluation of the situation. As for my basketball abilities, people say guts, hustle, and determination will oftimes compensate for specific inabilities. Never having played college or high school basketball, I clamped a patent on guts, hustle, and determination: Guts for avoiding nausea after workouts. Hustle for getting into the cafeteria early for lunch. And determination for being first into and out of the shower. 

Our first game was with the New York Knicks in Alexandria, Va. The day before, Gene instructed each rookie to sit down with a veteran to discuss the opposition at your position. I cornered Earl Monroe later that afternoon, asking him for hints on how to check Walt Frazier. Earl only laughed. It didn’t matter because I didn’t play. We lost. 

The following morning, we had an 8 AM flight to Louisville where are we played the Kentucky Colonels. We switched planes in Cincinnati and finally made it to the hotel by noon. A quick team meeting before lunch materialized and Gene stressed the importance of winning. He always stresses the importance of winning, even when you’re winning. 

Like the rest of the Bullets, I was totally unfamiliar with the Colonels. We played them, like everyone else in the preseason, without a 100 percent Wes Unseld, without Gus Johnson, and sometimes without Earl Monroe. The Colonels creamed us. I didn’t play. 

After the game, I experienced something I had only heard rumors about: A frenetic rush to catch an awaiting plane. Miraculous how 16 basketball players can shower, dress, jump into cabs, and beat most of 13,000 fans onto the streets. The traffic was so congested, the city of Louisville arranged for a police escort to the airport. No sooner had we lost our second straight game, than we we’re jetting to Miami, with stops in Atlanta and Orlando, for a game less than 24 hours later with the Floridians. 

A quick count revealed we had been in six cities inside a day. 

To spare the details, we lost again to the Floridians. The only two significant aspects about the game I remember were the four beer-bellied slobs who heckled me all night and the beautiful, bikini-clad Floridian ball girls. 

The slobs first. I used to think it’s funny when I heard fans razzing a player. Some of the comments are downright witty. But don’t think for a minute a player doesn’t hear the remarks, or from where they are coming. In basketball especially, a quick glance will always reveal which loud-mouthed boozer has reached the saturation point. The player says he’s insensitive to the catcalls. Sure. He ignores the remarks, but they penetrate. Down deep they hurt. I know. 

As for the scintillating ball girls. Wow! One even sits on the bench. It’s doubly hard to stand during a timeout, watch females returning to their seats, and still keep an eye on the nearest bikini. 

The plane next morning left at 6, headed for Greensboro, N.C. Oh well, the tired players thought, arrive at the hotel and sleep the entire afternoon. Oh yeah? We were informed a bus with the Carolina Cougars aboard would be waiting at the hotel to cart us off to a luncheon in nearby Winston-Salem to promote the game that night. 

You should have heard the groans. But it’s just another nagging activity pro basketball players live with during a season. The luncheon would not have been so bad—ham, Southern fried chicken, roast beef, etc.—except, besides the Cougars and the Bullets, only 14 people showed up. 

Most of us slept the 40 miles back to Greensboro and did the same at the hotel until the five o’clock bus ride back to Winston-Salem for the game . . . which we won by a basket. Not mine. I didn’t play. 

What was to be my final game, was in Greensboro the next night. I had grown a bit despondent because only I and Dorie Murrey, our backup center, hadn’t played. I was a recluse all afternoon. We rode over to the Greensboro Coliseum around 6 o’clock, and I wondered if I’d ever play. 

It’s difficult to describe what goes through a rookie’s mind. “When am I gonna play?” How will I do? Will I play enough time to make a favorable impression on the coach? Will my teammates be critical of my play? Will my first shot be an airball? All along the trip, the other rookies admitted having the same thoughts. The tension mounting before a rookie’s first entrance is nerve shattering. 

In the dressing room, a half-hour before we took the floor, the coach made the announcement, “Mike Janofsky will definitely play tonight.” Kevin Loughery, who has since been traded, nudged me with his elbow to awaken a throbbing heart, iced fingertips, and a running nose, I was as calm as a Southern breeze for my debut. 

I’ve already described what happened. The elation was like none else I’ve experienced. When I hit that basket, I might have lost consciousness momentarily. And would you believe it? After the game, walking out to the cabs, I got tired of signing autographs!

What my brief experience proved to me more than anything, is basketball players are as human as anyone. The only difference is they are finely tuned machines, walking. They have trained and studied to perform a highly meticulous job. They’re high strung, sure, years of fame and the accompanying publicity have made them so. 

Okay, so they tire of signing autographs. Or they may resent answering, “How’s the weather up there?” Or they cringe when somebody cracks, “Hey, are you guys jockeys?” But overall, they’re as sensitive and feeling as you and the guy sitting beside you while you both watch your favorite team play. 

As for me, I honestly miss the life as a professional basketball player. People constantly quiz me on what part of the routine I sorely longed for—the practices? Chumming around with the players? Visiting cities around the country? The girls?

Thumbs down to all those things. What I really miss is the $19 a day meal money. Most satisfying!

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