[The NBA celebrates its 75th season this go-round. Of course, dating the NBA’s birth has always been a little complicated, starting doggedly with the formation of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in 1946. It’s the longstanding gloat of Mo Podoloff, the BAA’s president, that his upstart association forced into a merger the established National Basketball League (NBL), founded in 1937 into a merger. From the NBL perspective of the NBL, the NBA is celebrating its 84th season.
Either way, the legendary New York Times sportswriter Arthur Daley published this hello to the BAA in the January 1947 issue of SPORT Magazine. His article is a fun read and, in this anniversary NBA season, it’s a good time to look back at the state of modern pro basketball in the 1940s. Daley also reflects back to the 1920s and 1930s and the Original Celtics. Daley’s reflections are a little overstated in places. There were, for example, several talented pro teams touring the East and Midwest after the Celtics lost their vigor. But he’s right that the barnstorming pro game ran out of gas, literally in some cases, with the start of World War II.
What emerged after the War was a different game. Military basketball had served as a great mixing bowl that brought together all of the distinct regional styles and swished it into a hybrid of strategies and skills. Of course, the game’s evolution had already begun in the 1930s with the first regional college double – and triple-headers at Madison Square Garden. But the War supercharged the evolutionary process.
What Daley doesn’t mention is the BAA was started by arena owners who mostly weren’t particularly enamored of basketball. They owned hockey teams first and needed a second attraction to keep their arenas booked and their popcorn machines popping while their gladiators on skates were on the road. Seeing the success of the college basketball promotions, the arena owners thought they could leverage the popularity of former college players, hopefully, to break even.
Well, 75 seasons later—and as Daley attests—these arena owners were on to something special, even if most of them didn’t really know it.]
Nat Holman cut for the basket, as fleet and as purposeful as always. “Here, Horse!” he called peremptorily. The fabulous Horse Haggerty, responding instinctively with the obedience of long association, passed the ball to the scoring wizard of the immortal Original Celtics. A dribble, a twisting hook shot, and Holman had registered the winning basket for the Celtics against the Washington Big Five.
A perfect play? Not quite. There was one fly perched embarrassingly in the ointment. For this particular engagement, the mighty Mr. Haggerty had switched allegiance and was performing his chores for Washington instead of the Celtics. He and Holman no longer were teammates, but opponents. Hence, his pass play was as monumental an error as that of the fellow who ran toward the wrong goal line.
However, the incident does serve to illustrate how essentially haphazard and loosely organized a sport professional basketball was when it blossomed a generation ago. That blossom was to wither and almost die. The play-for-pay game faded from the glory and strength symbolized by the Celtics to a struggling, almost-forgotten off-shoot of the biggest spectator sport of all.
At the time, college and schoolboy basketball was soaring to heights of unprecedented prosperity. When Ned Irish, a reformed sportswriter, rented Madison Square Garden in 1934 to serve as the site for collegiate double-headers, he gave the dribble diversion a push of incalculable value.
It had all the cumulative effect of a snowball rolling down a mountainside, gaining size and speed as it rolled. The Garden soon became the basketball capital of the world. Teams from the Pacific Coast, the Midwest, the South, and every other section of the country poured into New York in an unending stream. Sectional differences and rules interpretations disappeared. Before the stimulating force of Garden play—the Garden financial returns—the sport reached an undreamed-of peak.
It was inevitable, of course, that the professional game, which was the tail of the dog, would begin to wag again. The war held it back, but now the play-for-pay boys are beginning to flex their muscles. They predict a strong revival that will give it the corresponding stature of the National Football League. Someday, the tail may even wag the dog.
Let’s take a closer gander at that pro football parallel. The first pro grid game was staged at Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1896. It caught on only fitfully, mostly in the coal regions and then spread to wider fields. Finally came the formation of the National Football League in 1921, a decade or so of constant struggle while the companion collegiate game rocketed to the heights in the Golden Twenties and then—boom!—sudden prosperity and crowd appeal.
The professional court game presents a similar picture. The sport began, roughly, at about the same time as pro football—around 1896—but got nowhere, mainly because the college game was going no place, either. But now that the collegians have blazed a wide attractive trail, the pros have an easy path to follow.
The main reason that the cash-and-carry set has reached the it-can’t-miss stage is due mostly to the formation of the Basketball Association of America (BAA). There are other major or near-major leagues in any number of cities, but the BAA is the one to watch.
The chief difficulty every circuit has had in the past has been in finding arenas large enough to make them paying propositions. But the newly formed BAA has distributed its franchises to the owners of major stadia. The New York Knickerbockers belong to Madison Square Garden with the tremendously successful Ned Irish pulling the strings behind the scenes. Other franchises are the property of the Chicago Stadium, the Cleveland Arena, the Detroit Olympia, the Boston Garden, the Providence Arena, the Toronto Maple Leaf Garden, the St. Louis Arena, Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Garden, the Philadelphia Arena, and Washington’s Uline Arena.
Those are impressive auspices for the launching of any project. It starts out with the advantages of sound financial backing and prestige. But the telltale sign to a sideline observer is the fact that the immensely shrewd Mr. Irish is behind it. He was the visionary who foresaw the future of college basketball long before anyone else. He was the one who started enterprises similar to his Garden undertakings at both Philadelphia and Buffalo. And he’s also the man picked by the astute Board of Directors at Madison Square Garden to be the executive vice president for the multi-million-dollar investment. He’s never made a bad guess in his life.
The BAA is operating on a budget of $2 million for this season, a figure which will give you some idea of the serious way these franchise owners are going about the business. Don’t get the notion, however, that it will click overnight. It won’t. Nor do the promoters expect it to.
The Garden, for instance, is so overburdened by a full schedule of college basketball and other sports that its Knickerbockers will play only four games at the huge arena. The other 26 home games are listed for a New York armory. In the future, however, room will be made at the Garden for the Knicks.
Besides the BAA, there is a National League with membership in Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Oshkosh (Wisconsin), Anderson and Fort Wayne (Indiana), Rochester, Toledo, Youngstown, Buffalo, and Syracuse.
The American League has teams in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Trenton, Brooklyn, Paterson, Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth (New Jersey), and Troy (New York), and Baltimore. There are other new circuits on the Coast and in the South.
The extraordinary rise in college and schoolboy basketball has been progressing so fast that the dribble diversion now attracts an estimated 90 million persons a year—and up. So, the time is ripe for the play-for-pay phase of the game.
Twenty or 30 years ago, most sports fans regarded basketball as sissy stuff fit only for genteel young ladies in fashionable seminaries. But few of those critics had ever seen or played the game. As a matter of fact, basketball then was a far rougher and more rugged pastime than it is now, especially among the professionals playing before the most rabid and wild-eyed fans ever assembled. There were grim-faced coal miners who thought nothing of spraying a stream of tobacco juice at enemy shot-makers. There were vicious female fans ready to stab out-of-town stars with hatpins. Embryo lynching parties seemed always set to perpetrate mayhem on unwelcome visitors.
Some of the pioneers participated in as many as 150 games in a season. One night they’d play in a rope cage with open baskets and no backboards; next, a steel cage with baskets a foot out from the boards; then a court with wire backboards and the baskets only six inches out.
There were dancehall sites with slippery floors and church basements so low-ceilinged that every shot would have to be a line drive to keep the ball from ricocheting off the ceiling. There were all sorts of different conditions, and all sorts of different rules.
The wage scales never were constant. They varied from $25 to $75 a game, but the early pros did not fare too badly. If they were lucky enough and diligent enough, they could pick up as much as $300 a week. But it was hard work—riding the buses and day coaches to Wilkes-Barre on Monday, Albany on Tuesday, Scranton on Wednesday, Springfield on Thursday, Holyoke on Friday, and Brooklyn on Saturday. Sunday, no day of rest in basketball, might take in three places in succession.
By contrast, the modern professional will play only three times a week for a guaranteed salary ranging from $5,000 to $9,000 for a five-month season. These wages compare favorably with the pay of pro footballers. Basketball travel will be mainly by airplane. The players will stop at the best hotels and work only in the best arenas. The crowds are not expected to throw bottles, chairs, or tables as the old-time dancehall patrons did.
Nor will the referees have to worry. They, too, will be protected on every count, which was more than anyone could say for their predecessors a generation ago. Even the Celtics, the most glamorous team in basketball, we’re not above putting an official in his place—if he needed it.
There was one whistle-tooter who did need it. He was at hometown lad who had taken it on himself to help the hometown team win. But the Celtics got wind of the plot and decided to “hang him on the trapeze.” On what was supposed to be a jump ball, Johnny Beckman hit him high and Dutch Dehnert hit him low. The referee collapsed on the floor. Thereupon the colorful Horse Haggerty (6-foot-4 and 240 pounds) cheerfully dumped a pail of water over him.
“Where am I?” gasped the official.
“In the ash-can,” growled the Horse. “Call ‘em right the rest of the way or we’ll go to work on you.”
He called ‘em right thereafter.
Once Herman Baetzel, an honest man but an incorrigible showoff, called a foul on Haggerty. With eyes closed, he shook his head violently from side to side. The Horse just couldn’t resist the temptation. He socked him. When Herman was revived, he pointed a trembling finger at Haggerty and gestured him out.
“Why?” asked the Horse with an air of injured innocence.
“For hitting me,” moaned Baetzel.
“You don’t know that I hit you,” mischievously protested the Horse. “You didn’t see it. You had your eyes closed. You couldn’t see a thing.”
The huge Celtic center was not just an umpire-baiter. He was a terror toward other players and rough on the fans. Through the years, he acted as guardian angel for the smaller Nat Holman, protecting him if there ever was a fight, a riot, or a free-for-all. Yet when Holman twice tricked him with fake foul claims while on a rival team, Horse walked over to him and knocked him out with a punch.
It was only a gentle punch, however. The best he ever threw was at some big local yokel who tormented him verbally all during a game. Haggerty had him spotted, though. After the fray, he dressed hurriedly and went after him. The victim grabbed the Horse by his coat lapels and begged for mercy. But when they picked the big farmer up off the ground 20 feet away, he still had Haggerty’s lapels in his hands. That’s how hard he’d been hit.
The Celtics were not above playing tricks on Haggerty themselves. One night, Holman whispered to Messrs. Beckman, Dehnert, and Leonard, “The next time these reindeer sprint down the floor, let’s stay under the other basket and give the Horse all five of them.”
Mr. Haggerty was like an animated puppet as he danced frantically from side to side, guarding the basket from the five attackers. But he was such an artist at gathering in rebounds that he eventually came out of the melee with the ball and cast a reproachful glance at his teammates.
The Celtics were so overpoweringly good that they could afford such antics. They used to enjoy cutting it fine, never humiliating a rival but winning by just a point or two. Occasionally, they cut it a bit too fine and lost. But not often. One year, when Joe Lapchick had succeeded Haggerty at center, the wearers of the Shamrock won 118 and lost only 6.
However, only the class players could afford to be frisky with either opponents or teammates. There was a team in New Jersey in those days which had one of the finest guards in the pro game in the person of Skeets Wright. So proud was he of his defensive ability that he took it as a personal insult if any forward scored on him. Usually he’d shake hands with his foe before the initial jump and race down the court for a field goal, “I got my field goal. Let’s see you get yours.” None of them ever could get it from the zealous Wright.
But Lapchick once took care of him. They were teammates, scrambling under the basket, when Joe called, “I’ve got your man, Skeets. Switch to mine.” Obediently, Skeets switched, and Lapchick, stifling a smile, unconcernedly permitted Wright’s man to score. Skeets was furious. When the same thing happened a moment later, he was white with rage.
For the third time, Lapchick called, “Switch, Skeets. I’ve got your man.” But the unsmiling Wright didn’t switch. “So have I,” he said grimly. That third basket was never scored.
Possibly the revival of professional basketball will bring back to the sport all of the glamor, color, and appeal that it had when the Celtics ruled supreme. Certainly, it can hardly miss surpassing the old play-for-pay days in financial stability and success. It’s on too solid footing to fail. But the intangible things that the stars of the past generation contributed to the game may not be equaled soon.
There was an incident at Chattanooga many years ago which demonstrates, even today, what demi-gods these ancient heroes were. A big Irishman insisted on entering the Celtic dressing room. He stood beaming in pride.
“Shure ‘tis great to see a shamrock,” he said, staring rapturously at the shamrock emblems on their shirts.
Lapchick, quick to help along the illusion, introduced himself as “O’Toole.” Holman became “Callahan,” Dehnert became “O’Shaughnessy,” and so on down the line. The Irishman was overcome with delight.
“And the champions, too,” he gushed.
They were, at that.
But these are all pages plucked from the legendary past. The immortals of the future will be patrolling the hardwood floors this season, discovering for themselves that there’s gold in them thar hills. Never before past former college stars had such vast opportunities to go prospecting.
Who is the Horse Haggerty of the present? Which team will emerge as the successor to the Celtics of old? At this writing, it’s too soon to give the answers, but the chances are that you will find the glamor boys and the headline catchers among former collegiate wizards. Yet, you can’t be sure. The New York Knickerbockers have a lad in Ace Gottlieb who never went to college, but is supposed to be another Nat Holman.
The easiest way to get an inkling of what this new professional basketball is like is to scan the various rosters. On them, you find such standouts as Kenny Sailors of Wyoming, Frankie Baumholtz of Ohio U., and Bob Faught of Notre Dame with the Cleveland Rebels; Ernie Calverly of Rhode Island with the Providence Steamrollers; Wyndol Gray of Bowling Green and Harvard with the Boston Celtics.
Also Stanley Stutz (nee Modzelewski) of Rhode Island. Ossie Schechtman of Long Island U., Forest Weber of Purdue and Ralph Kaplowitz of NYU with the New York Knickerbockers; Bob Dille of Valparaiso with the Detroit Falcons; John (Brooms) Abramovic of Salem (the all-time college scoring record holder) and Moe Becker of Duquesne with the Pittsburgh Ironmen; George Senesky of St. Joseph’s; Howie Dalmar of Penn and Stanford, and Fred Sheffield of Utah with the Philadelphia Warriors; Bob Doll of Wyoming with the St. Louis Bombers; Bones McKinney of North Carolina with Washington; Tony Jaros of Minnesota, and Charlie Halbert of West Texas with the Chicago Stags—and so it goes.
Those are just a few brief samples of some of the contestants in the BAA. Yet Harry (Buddy) Jeannette, one of W & J., is supposed to be the highest-paid pro star with the Baltimore Bullets of the American League.
The National League, with a number of industrially sponsored quintets, has plenty of name players of its own. The Rochester combination will be difficult to surpass for well-publicized attractions. On its roster are such standouts as Red Holzman of City College, Fuzzy Levane of St. John’s, George Glamack of North Carolina, Bob Davies of Seton Hall, Dolly King of LIU, and such magnets as Del Rice, the St. Louis Cardinal catcher, and Otto Graham, Cleveland Brown T-formation quarterback who was a court and gridiron ace at Northwestern. And don’t forget that huge George Mikan of DePaul is playing for the Chicago Gears.
It’s quite a lineup that professional basketball presents, star-studded in almost every team of every league. And this generation of fans is sitting in a front-row seat watching a new sport grow to fame and popularity.