Bobby McDermott: Blast from the Distant Past

[Drop the name Bobby McDermott on anybody who knows his or her early pro basketball history, and the likely response will be, “McDermott was the Babe Ruth of pro basketball in the 1930s and 1940s.” Some can even point you to newspaper articles and quotes that detail McDermott’s illustrious past. Like this late-1930s quote from Tom Meaney, then a nationally respected sportswriter: “I saw the best basketball player in the world the other day. And you don’t have to take my word for it, either. Ask Paul Mooney, the Columbia coach. Ask Nat Holman. Ask any competent judge who has seen Bobby McDermott in action.” 

But the legend of McDermott, unlike Ruth’s enduring stardom, has mostly fallen through the historical cracks. A tangle of social, geographic, and personal reasons explains why the name McDermott doesn’t run chills up the spines of America’ basketball-happy masses. Among them is McDermott’s belated 1988 enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, which came 25 years after his tragic death. Imagine the Hall holding off 25 years before enshrining Kobe Bryant. 

While on the Web a few days ago, I happened upon a fairly recent newspaper article and appreciation of McDermott that was penned by none other than his brother Jim. In 2016, Jim was 95 years spry, and he wrote a long piece about his big brother for the local newspaper, the Fort Wayne (Ind,) Journal Gazette. In it, Jim explains the Hall of Fame’s inaction:

On May 3, 1988, Bobby was inducted posthumously into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s 21st Annual Enshrinement Ceremony and Banquet held at the huge Civic Center in Springfield. In addition to Bobby, players Clyde Lovelette and Wesley Unseld and coach Ralph Miller were duly honored.

At this affair, I had an opportunity to chat with George Mikan, who at this time was a member of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee. A question he posed during our conversation really stunned me. He asked if I knew why it took so long for Booby to be selected. I said I didn’t know. I already knew that Mikan had enormous respect for Bobby as a player and teammate, but his affection for him as a friend and mentor quickly became apparent. He proceeded to tell me the following story.

The obstacle to Bobby’s enshrinement was the head of the selection committee, Nat Holman, a great player of the 1920s, considered the patriarch of professional basketball and a Hall of Famer, himself. Holman blocked Bobby’s nomination and told the other committee members that he did not want youngsters to think that they could achieve this honor without attending college. Mikan told me that he forcefully objected to Holman’s position and told the committee that he would never resign from the committee until Bobby was given an affirmative vote. Eventually, Holman retired, and Bobby was voted in.

On the face of it, Nat Holman’s objection was incredible, preposterous, and just plain stupid, and I told Mikan so. I went on to say that despite Bobby’s incomplete formal education, he clearly spoke and understood English and mastered the necessary skills to manage his own affairs, something that many of the current players have trouble doing, despite having gone to college for a year or two of basketball training, while taking bogus courses. These guys are practically inarticulate in television interviews and need the help of legal and public relations staffs to keep them straight. Today’s college basketball and football programs are corrupted by the vast amounts of money generated by these sports, and the administrations of the schools are all too happy to turn blind eyes on the abuses of the athletic programs. In Bobby’s day, at the height of the Depression and the onset of World War II, you did what you had to to survive. In his case, it was drop out of school and earn a living doing what he did best.

Here’s Jim McDermott’s full recollection of his brother, which I highly recommend reading. But first, you’ll definitely want to read the excellent article below from New York-based freelancer Sheldon Sunness. His story was published in the Sporting News Pro Basketball Yearbook, 1988-89, to mark McDermott’s entry into the Hall.] 


At the height of his career, Bobby McDermott was voted the greatest professional basketball player of all time. For five consecutive seasons, he was named the National Basketball League’s Most Valuable Player. He was regarded as the greatest shooter of his era, compared with Babe Ruth for his offensive feats—and carousing—and with Ty Cobb for his demon-like intensity. Yet when McDermott was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame last May, those accolades, along with several scoring titles and team championships, barely lingered as dim shadows of his illustrious past. 

In the age of two-handed set shooters, McDermott was a threat from anywhere inside halfcourt, dazzling players and fans with the stunning accuracy of his 30- to 40-foot shots (“rain makers,” his contemporaries called them).

“I’ve never seen anyone who could shoot from so far out, so accurately, like Mac could,” marveled George Mikan, a rookie on the 1947 Chicago Gears squad that McDermott led to the NBL playoff championship as player-coach. 

Al Cervi, a Hall of Fame guard with the Rochester Royals, said that defending McDermott was a no-win situation. “Because he shot the ball about eight inches closer to his body, you had to play him tighter,” Cervi explained. “But if you played him too tight, he’d use his speed to drive around you and take it to the basket.”

Mikan also remembered McDermott warning his team. “During a game, you have no friend,” but reminding them just as quickly, “After a game, buy ‘em a beer.” It was the least McDermott could do after running roughshod over anything that stood between his team and victory.

“Once the ball was up in the air, Bobby would box your head off,” recalled Hall of Fame coach Frank McGuire. Dolph Schayes, the Hall-of-Fame forward, remembered McDermott as a “volcano waiting to erupt.”

McDermott, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound guard, simply was nothing like the typical ballplayer in an era when the play was physical (“When you got hit underneath the basket, it seemed as if the house fell on your head,” McGuire said) and scorers were a treasured commodity. News of McDermott’s uncanny two-point touch spread quickly in the New York area after he quit Flushing High School following his freshman year and began playing semipro ball with his brothers. 

Born in Queens, McDermott had played many of his early games on the sly at the Warlow Athletic Club, sneaking onto the court with his young friends whenever possible. That court, with a long horizontal bar suspended low from the ceiling, explains much about McDermott’s shooting. While most players flattened their shots to overcome this uncanny shotblocker, McDermott arched his shots over the bar, thus developing the game’s greatest shot. 

McDermott quickly advanced beyond the semi-pro leagues—a collection of community teams organized along steamy ethnic rivalries—and in 1934 joined the Brooklyn Visitations in the reorganized American Basketball League, now a regional operation along the Eastern seaboard. He led Brooklyn to a championship in 1934-35, then captured the league scoring title the following season, averaging 9.6 points per game. 

The best money and best players of the period, however, could be found on the barnstorming teams, and no touring club was more prestigious than the Original Celtics. Organized about two decades earlier, the Celtics we’re aging but still powerful with the likes of Dutch Dehnert, Nat Hickey, Paul Birch, and Davey Banks, a superb passer and showman known as “The Shetland Pony.” When they needed a sixth man to begin a vast Southern junket in 1936, the Celtics signed up McDermott. 

Barely 22, McDermott became the team’s top scoring attraction, sometimes pouring in more than 50 points per game. Such efforts prompted Dehnert, the coach and “father of the pivot play,” to call McDermott the “greatest of a long list of great ballplayers.”

“Bob is just a carbon copy of the old master Nat Holman,” Dehnert said.

The money was as good as the travel was chaotic with the Celtics. Eventually, the grind affected even the young McDermott. He returned to the ABL for the 1939-40 season, winning a scoring title with the Baltimore Clippers, and, after a brief tour with the Celtics in 1940, prepare to settle down, raise a family, and play out his basketball days in ordinary fashion. But Fred Zollner had other ideas. 

Zollner, the owner of a growing piston plant in Fort Wayne, Ind., was seeking top-notch talent for his new entry in the National Basketball League for the 1941-42 season. McDermott, enticed by a five-figure salary, readily offered his services. 

For five straight seasons, the Pistons terrorized the league. They won nearly 80 percent of their games, three consecutive regular-season titles (1943-45) and playoff championships in both 1944 and 1945. 

McDermott, who would become the team’s player-coach, was virtually unstoppable with the Pistons, leading the league in scoring in 1943-43 (13.7 points per game) and finishing second four times, including 1944-45, when Cleveland’s Mel Riebe averaged 20.2 points to top McDermott’s 20.1 average. McDermott was named to seven consecutive NBL All-Star teams, received five consecutive MVP awards, and led the club to three straight championships (1944-46) in the World Tournament in Chicago, which brought together the nation’s best professional teams.

It came as little surprise in 1945 when a panel of the league’s coaches voted McDermott the greatest player in professional basketball history. “McDermott is my choice,” said Dehnert, now coach of the Sheboygan Redskins, “because he is such a great offensive and defensive star . . . His fakes and changes of pace to get shots are practically unguardable, making him a constant scoring threat from any position on the floor.”

One of the rewards a club received for winning the World Tournament was an exhibition match against a team of college all-stars. Prior to 1944, no team had defeated the collegians, but the Pistons did it twice, in 1944 and 1945. Bill Hassett, a Notre Dame All-America who guarded McDermott in the second contest, vividly remembers the experience. 

“I was scared—terrified, really—because I knew how well he could shoot,” Hassett said. “The game starts, and Mac throws up three airballs, just misses everything. I felt relieved. Then, out of the blue, he shoots five from around midcourt, and they all go right through. Swish, swish, swish . . . There was nothing I could do to stop him. I was in awe.”

Such stories contributed to the impressive court legends surrounding McDermott. Understandably, he was regarded as basketball’s Babe Ruth, a comparison that held up away from the game, as well.

McDermott was a flamboyant personality who loved to live life in the fast lane. “Money burned a hole in his pocket,” remembered Hassett, who later found life somewhat easier as McDermott’s teammate. “It went out as fast as it came in.”

Sometimes faster. While basketball remained his first love, McDermott also loved the horses. “It was a religion with him,” Hassett said. He also liked his beer, which he could hold. 

It was a life filled with eventful times. Hassett remembered McDermott telephoning him at a hotel in the middle of the night, ordering the clean-cut rookie to take the team’s travel money he had been entrusted with, jump in a cab, and head to a specified address. 

Following instructions, Hassett rode through the seamy side of town, arrived at a less-than-reputable bar and shuffled into a dimly lit backroom, where he found McDermott and two teammates engaged in a hotly contested poker hand with a host of shady characters. Hassett’s  appearance enabled the trio to call the bet. McDermott had two pair, but one of the locals laid down three eights. 

Having failed at one bluff, McDermott wasn’t above trying another. “Go out to the car and get the gun,” he barked at one of his friends. “But Bobby,” the naive player replied, “don’t you remember? We came in the cab.”

Because Zollner worshipped McDermott’s abilities, he tolerated his star’s excesses. But even the owner’s patience had a limit, and it was exhausted on a disastrous train ride on a snowy Saturday night in January 1947. 

The mood, already ugly due to a rare Piston losing streak, degenerated into a bloody brawl in which McDermott punched out 6-foot-9 center Milo Komenich. Three players were suspended, and McDermott was traded to the Chicago Gears. 

McDermott (white jersey, middle) battles for a rebound while with the Chicago American Gears.

The move to the Windy City united McDermott with 6-foot10 center George Mikan—once the heralded rookie ended his contract holdout. The three-year All-America from DePaul sat out the first six weeks of the season, and the Gears, expected to challenge for the NBL title, were mired in fifth place when McDermott arrived—as the team’s fifth coach of the season. What followed was one of the greatest comebacks in basketball history. 

With McDermott as “Mr. Outside” and Mikan “Mr. Inside,” the Gears won 17 of their final 23 games to edge the Anderson Packers out of a playoff spot. In the playoff finals, they needed only four games to dispose of the Rochester Royals, owners of the best regular-season record. 

McDermott missed the season finale due to a suspension levied for shoving an official, an action that reflected a longstanding bias. “He hated the officials,” Hassett recalled. “He thought they were blind. It was nothing personal—just that they were zebras.”

His attitude toward rival players wasn’t much better. “The first thing Mac did in a game was to smack a rookie,” Schayes once recalled. “And if you didn’t retaliate, he worked you over like a butcher cutting up a slab of meat.”

Despite his hard-nosed play, McDermott was violently opposed to tripping, a common defensive ploy during the period. When an opponent’s vicious trip dropped Hassett and sent him to the hospital, McDermott became livid. He demanded to know the name of the aggressor. Sensible teammates, fearful of what would inevitably follow, wisely kept silent—until McDermott tied up an opponent for a jump ball. 

“The man you’re jumping against is the guy who tripped Hassett,” a player whispered. As the ball went up, McDermott held his ground. And when the man came back to the floor, McDermott cold-cocked him. 

The temperamental side of McDermott’s personality made him a forerunner to the Billy Martins and Bobby Knights, although Buddy Jeannette, his outstanding backcourt mate with the Pistons, noted, “Compared to Mac, Bobby Knight is a saint.”

Some speculated that he was driven by the rough style of play. Others contended McDermott, having never attended college, resented the clean-cut college players who were beginning to dominate the game. 

Whatever the theory, no one was truly troubled, especially in Chicago, where fans were too busy celebrating what some pundits were proclaiming “the greatest team ever.” With McDermott and Mikan, the Gears loomed as modern pro basketball’s first great dynasty, and McDermott seemed assured of an honored place in the modern game. Nothing could stop them now. Nothing except Maurice White and his Professional Basketball League of America. 

In what some regard as one of the most greed-soaked schemes ever, White, the Gears’ owner, envisioned the PBLA as a 16-city extravaganza that would blanket the country. He would own all the teams and arenas, financing his venture with the fortune he had made selling gears to the Navy during World War II. Chicago withdrew from the NBL, over the protests of league officials and prepared for its 1947-48 inaugural as the flagship of the new league. 

The PBLA went great—for about three weeks. The league came crashing down with the thunderous force of a slam dunk, and McDermott, Mikan, and the other Gears were parceled out to the NBL clubs. The fledgling Minneapolis Lakers were awarded Mikan, and McDermott became property of Sheboygan. 

Instead of becoming a household word, linked with Mikan as pro basketball’s first great  tandem, McDermott faded into obscurity. After a few quiet seasons, he concluded his career with Grand Rapids in the 1950-51 NBL season. There were occasional brilliant flashes, lingering reminders of what once was. At 36, playing for Wilkes-Barre in the American Basketball League, McDermott scored 48 points in an exhibition game against the New York Knickerbockers. But when he left the court for the last time, he carried his reputation with him. Soon, he was all but forgotten, fading as fast as the two-handed set shot. 

The adjustment to civilian life was anything but easy for the high-living McDermott. After drifting through several jobs, he returned East, where he settled into a job with the security force at Yonkers Raceway. In 1963, McDermott died of injuries suffered when his car hit a pole as he left the track. He was 49. 

In death, as in life, nothing about McDermott was simple. Insiders contended he had been the victim of a mob rub-out for failing to pay substantial gambling debts. They wondered why his stomach had been pulverized, how he could have been so severely injured when he had been slowly traveling on an off-ramp. One theory suggested that McDermott had been the beneficiary of a tip on a fixed race and was killed for failing to kick back part of his winnings. Yet another theory suggested that McDermott had uncovered a racetrack scam and was murdered before he could blow the whistle. 

For nearly 25 years, few mentioned the exploits—and the daring—of basketball’s greatest star of the 1930s and ‘40s. As his contemporaries marched into the Hall of Fame, McDermott remained overlooked for his faults—not his personal shortcomings or temperamental nature, but for being born too early; enjoying his success in the media-limited Midwest; bypassing college; and not staying with the game in a coaching or administrative job once he retired. 

Those oversights were rectified in May 1988 when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame along with Clyde Lovellette, Wes Unseld, and Ralph Miller. His feats were honored during a dignified ceremony in which his friends toasted his place in the game. Then no one paused to ponder why there was so much Ty Cobb in this Babe Ruth.

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