Boston Celtics: Remembering the Backboard-Shattering 1940s

[The NBA celebrates its 75th season this year. NBA TV continues to roll some grainy, black-and-white video of early 1960s vintage showing Boston’s legendary Bob Cousy dribbling in circles and his equally legendary coach Red Auerbach firing up a victory cigar. Judging from the video, you might think the NBA started with the 1961 Celtics raising Cain and championship banners in the old Boston Garden. Not so, quite obviously if you do the math. 

In fact, when the NBA celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1970, the old-timers in the old Boston Garden had plenty to say about the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the precursor to the NBA. They waxed nostalgically of those first Celtic teams, piloted by the legendary Honey Russell, and seeing them trot out for the first time in 1946 on a brand-new $11,000 hardwood floor in . . . Boston Arena, near Fenway Park over on St. Botolph Street. Russell lived during the season in a tiny room at the top of the arena. 

To mark the NBA’s 25th and those good old days over on St. Botolph Street, Boston Globe columnist Francis Rosa ran the column below on November 3, 1970. In our current age of billion-dollar NBA revenue streams, it’s worth remembering just how humble things used to be in the BAA and in Celtic Nation.]


Ed Sadowski sans cigar.

Is it possible that 25 years ago the Celtics played their first game—at Boston Arena—and that the score was 57-55 ??? Sure, but some funny things happened on the way to the greatest dynasty in the history of pro sports. 

Yesterday some of the people who were involved in those early and amusing days were kicking up some old traces. Let’s begin with Hughie McHowe—I mean Howie McHugh. “I was the publicity man,” said the one-time goalie. And wouldn’t that frost you, a hockey man becoming a publicity man for a basketball team. 

“I remember we had played one season,” McHugh said, “and we had used pretty much a pick-up team. For our second season, we had the first college draft. The Celtics drafted Eddie Ehlers and Gene Stump, who looked like the all-American boys, clean-cut, clean-living. One of the guys on the team was Eddie Sadowski. He had played basketball so long he looked like a basketball. And one day, Ehlers and Stump go to the late [team owner] Walter Brown and tell him, ‘Mr. Brown, we can’t play on this team . . . There’s that Eddie Sadowski out there practicing his hook shot with a cigar in his mouth.’ Well, anyway, they didn’t quit.”

And Howie recalls the Christmas morning when Coach Honey Russell called him from Cleveland to tell him the Celtics had made a trade for Dutch Garfinkle. “To begin with,” said Howie, “it was bad enough having a guy named Garfinkle playing for a team called the Celtics. But then my daughter Barbie, who was about three years old, has to answer the phone and right away starts in by telling Honey, ‘Santa brought me a teddy bear and a doll . . .’ And Honey’s screaming at her. So I pick up the phone, and he’s still sputtering about the cost of calling me from Cleveland. All he wants me to do is tell the Boston papers about the trade.”

Those were the days, my friend, when the Celtics worried about every penny—long before the dynasty was even in the making. 

“Walter Brown,” McHugh went on, warming up to the old, fun times, “bought a whole team, the Providence Steamrollers, just so we could get Ernie Calverly—the old Rhode Island State star. And guess what Doggie Julian (the coach at the time) does. He cuts Calverly and keeps Joe Mullaney.”

And Eddie Powers, now president of the Garden, was the treasurer and a close friend of Walter Brown’s. “We had lost $462,000 in four years when Walter and Lou Pieri took over the team,” said Powers. “And one day, Walter picks up a paper in the North Station and spots a headline that says, ‘Mass. Corporations Owe $7 Million.’ He says to me, ‘How much do we owe the Internal Revenue Service? We’re liable to go to jail.’ And I tell him we owe around $7,000 and get me 90 days—it’ll be the best rest I ever had.”

Then Powers tried to make a deal with the Internal Revenue Service. “I used to have a running discussion with a fellow from the bureau, and one day I told him if he really wanted more money from us, we’d have to file bankruptcy papers and auction off 12 pairs of sneakers, 12 basketballs, a box of Anacin, a box of aspirin, a few rolls of adhesive tape, and a dozen jockstraps. He might get $29.95. And then when the team was sold for about $3 million, he used to rib me about the auction.” 

The classic story is well-known to everyone who has been around the Celtics for a few years. “On opening night (against the Chicago Stags) at the Boston Arena,” said Powers, “Chuck Connors smashed the backboard with his last warm-up shot.”

“That wasn’t too bad because we had a spare at the Garden,” said McHugh. “Except the rodeo was in town. Where do you think the spare glass-backboard was stored? Right behind the pen for the Brahma bulls, and we couldn’t get anyone brave enough to go in and get it. We looked around for some drunken cowboys, but no luck.” 

“We finally got the glass, and the game was held up for only an hour,” said Powers to complete the story. 

Ah, those were the days my friend—when we were young and sure to have our way.

The shattered glass backboard on opening night.

Walter Kennedy was present in the Boston Arena on opening night in his capacity as the BAA’s chief of publicity. In November 1970, now NBA commissioner, Kennedy offered his version of the classic Connors story to Seymour Smith of the Baltimore Sun. According to Smith, Kennedy started off with a hearty chuckle, then said:

They’re opening the pro season in the Arena, and the Celtics are playing Chicago. The place is mobbed. They had all kinds of ceremonies lined up, and at 8:15, everyone goes off the floor so [the game] could start. 

Everyone, that is, except Connors. He’s got the ball, and he’s going to show the natives some fancy dribbling and a stuff into the basket. So, he takes the ball and down the court he goes and dunks one. But he hits the rim, and he must have done something to the backboard because it starts to turn milky and crack into a million pieces. 

No one is hurt, but now they need another backboard. The crowd starts to holler, and the Boston people put on all kinds of shooting contests and things like that while someone starts making phone calls. We find out there’s a backboard at the Boston Garden, where they are having a rodeo. So, they hustle some people over there. 

It’s there all right, but it’s back where they’re keeping the Brahma bulls, and now they are having quite a time getting it out. Finally, they get the backboard out on the street, and they grab the first cab they spot. It doesn’t make any difference that there’s a fellow and his girl in it. They put the backboard on the roof, and everybody goes to the Arena.

Well, we got the game going at 11:20, and, from the 9,000 when we started, there’s about 400 people left. All the rest have gone, and the Celtics have given them refunds. A lot of people claim that killed basketball in Boston until Red Auerbach started putting together the Bob Cousy-Bill Russell powerhouses. Connors? He played 49 games (227 points) and switched to baseball.”

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