The Original Celtics (Part 2), 1949

[If you missed it yesterday, the blog ran part one of Tom Meany’s classic article on the Original Celtics, published in the February 1949 issue of SPORT Magazine. Meany, an author and an accomplished New York sportswriter who got his start in journalism during the 1920s, grew up in Brooklyn. And yes, he was a Prospect Hall kid, though he doesn’t cop to it in his story. With that as quick prelude, here’s part two of an article that has stood the test of basketball time.]


Most of the Celtics came from a rough, brawling neighborhood on New York’s West Side, a neighborhood which produced racketeers and statesman, hoodlums and priests. It also produced basketball players. In an area which ran north from 23rd Street to 29th Street and west from Eighth Avenue to Tenth Avenue, there sprang up at the same time some of the greatest basketball players the game has ever seen—Pete Barry, Johnny Witte, Ernie Reich, Johnny Beckman, Dutch Dehnert, and Nat Hickey. 

Of this group, Barry, White, Witte, Reich, Dehnert, and Beckman were with the “original” Original Celtics—the first group organized by Jim Furey to play together as a unit. All, except Reich, who died while still an active player, went on to distinguish themselves as coaches in the game—Witte with his old teammates, Barry with Kate Smith’s Celtics, Dehnert with teams in Detroit and Sheboygan, as well as an ex-G.I. team which won the Hearst Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago, and Beckman with Baltimore in the American League. All this talent from one section of the city—an area which a pedestrian could completely cover at a leisurely pace within a half-hour’s time.

One iteration of the Original Celtics (l-r), Johnny Beckman, Nat Holman, Pete Barry, Dutch Dehnert, Chris Leonard, and Joe Lapchick

The beginnings of the Celtics were rough. The leagues in which they played were rough. Once, their backer was a mysterious gentleman named Donovan. He had been unearthed somewhere by Witte to bankroll the club. Donovan met the players once and once only. He explained that the pressure of his “outside business” would prevent him from spending much time with them, that he knew little about basketball, but that he had confidence in Witte. Most of the Celtics thought that Mr. Donovan was an engaging little chap, even though he didn’t bother to explain what his “outside business” was. 

They were soon to find out. Crossing Tenth Avenue one night, a sedan whizzed by Mr. Donovan, and there was a lot of popping which didn’t come from the exhaust. Mr. Donovan was picked up full of lead and very dead. It seems he brewed and sold beer, a profession both profitable and precarious in those Volstead days. The gentlemen in the sedan were business rivals. And Witte went scurrying around to find a new backer, preferably one whose bankroll had been acquired in a more conservative business.

Pleasure was the order of the day with the Celts. Their roadtrips were not only business ventures but jolly good excursions as well. There was the night in Hudson, New York, when Beckman, on his way back to the hotel after the game, passed a delicatessen where several cases of milk were piled up in the doorway, with a huge cake of ice on top. Beckie picked up the cake of ice, which must have weighed 50 pounds, and lugged it into the hotel with him. “Check this,” Beckie said to the night clerk, as he slithered the block of ice along the counter of the desk. Instead of checking in the ice, the clerk checked out the Celtics. 

None of the sanitation connected with modern basketball was found among the Shamrocks. They wore their uniforms for weeks on end without washing them, simply because they never had time to have them washed. Each man carried his own equipment in a small handgrip. The soiled, sweaty uniforms were stuffed in after each game, never to see daylight or feel fresh air until the following night when they were pulled out of the bag for the next game on the schedule. Eventually, somebody would think of ordering a new set, and the old ones would be discarded.

Like the baseball Orioles, the Celtics thought that doctors were only for the rich. They had their own home remedies for everything, most of them devised by Beckman, who must’ve had a touch of faith healer—or witch doctor—in him. Lapchick recalls being clawed up pretty thoroughly in one of the rougher games the Celtics played. A day later, the scratches developed an infection. Beckman diagnosed, prescribed, and treated. He soaked a Turkish towel in steaming hot water and wrapped it tightly around Lapchick’s arm. Then he proceeded to rub the scabs from Joe’s arm with the towel. The final step was to pour a bottle of bootleg brandy over the open wounds. “You’ll be okay for tomorrow night, kid,” said Beckman lightly. After all, it wasn’t his arm. The odd part of it was that Lapchick was able to play in the next game, although he didn’t get much sleep after Beckie’s ministrations. 

But these were the Celtics, men among men. Basketball was their religion, and they set up alters in strange and faraway places. They spread the gospel through the Middle West and the South, playing professional, amateur, or college teams, and, when time permitted, holding clinics after the game. So widespread was their fame that high school coaches sent their squads as far as 150 miles to see the Celts play when the team was in their region.

It was the Celtics who brough the “switch” into basketball, a play which is now standard equipment even with scholastic teams, just as the pivot play is. Before the advent of the switch, a player, asked how he had fared in the game, was likely to reply, “I got three points, and my man only got one.” It was strictly individual, with each player being responsible for the player who lined up opposite him at the tap-off. 

Joe Lapchick

Not the Celtics, however. They played the game as a team, not as individuals. When the other side had the ball, the Celtic player always guarded the man nearest, whether he was his personal opponent or not. Lapchick found all this a little bewildering when he had served his apprenticeship with lesser clubs and was tapped for the Shamrocks. “The rules for a center in those days,” recalls Joe, “were for the center to get the tap and then get the hell out-of-the-way, so he wouldn’t get hurt.” The tap, of course, was important then, since the ball was centered for a jump after each score, instead of merely at the beginning of each half or after a technical foul as is done now.

“I found out it was all different with the Celtics. A center had to work along with the rest of the team. And your defensive duties entailed more than merely guarding the fellow who jumped against you. They were constantly switching on the defense, and I couldn’t figure out how they did it, except by instinct. Certainly, they never practiced it.

“As a result, I was always getting in somebody’s way. My teammates were getting picked off right and left. There was a time when the Celtics considered dropping me because of my inability to switch.

“It was Johnny Witte who saved me. I consider Witte one of the greatest psychologists I’ve ever met, although Johnny would laugh in my face and tell me I was crazy if I told him he was a psychologist.

“All the others on the team were giving me hell and telling me what a dope I was not to be able to understand a simple thing like switching. And then Witte would take me aside and tell me what a great basketball player I was going to be, with my physical equipment and my speed, as soon as I mastered the technique.

“’It isn’t how many goals you get, Joe,’ Witte used to say, ‘or how often you get the tap. We know what you can do with the ball. It’s how good you are without the ball that determines how good a basketball player you are.’ And there, I think Witte summed up the creed of the Celtics. It’s how good you are without the ball that makes you a basketball player.”


Basketball, as the Celtics played it, was a science. But their way of preparing for it was hardly scientific. Their summers were lazed away with no attempt to stay in condition. Some of the fellows followed the ponies. One, indeed, made himself a bundle as a bookmaker. He used a couple of his teammates as runners. That was in the days of what was euphemistically known as “oral betting” at the New York tracks. The duties of a runner were to find out what odds rival bookies were quoting and, when necessary, to bet off some of the wagers their bookies had accepted. It was exciting, but hardly a good way to keep in condition.

When the time came to start another season, the Celtics reported hog fat. They played themselves into shape during their first half-dozen games. Dutch Dehnert, for instance, usually reported at 210 but weighed only about 180 pounds when the season ended.

The basketball of the Celtic era, of course, was not as physically grueling as the basketball of today. The halves were 20 minutes, there was a center jump after each score, and there was no compulsion to bring the ball to the forecourt within 10 seconds. A team which was physically spent could stall in the backcourt with the ball. The courts averaged 60 feet by 40. They were bandboxes compared to the 90 by 50 courts prevalent now. In a game today, there are frequently more field goals than there were points in the days of the Celtics.  

Despite the handicap of not being in shape, plus the blithe disregard many of their members had for training, the Celts averaged better than five victories out of six starts, even when they started going downhill. What made them so truly great was that the Celtics literally won as they pleased most of the time. They rarely poured it on—first, because rolling up the score was bad business and had a deleterious effect upon the gate for a return game; and second, because it was exhausting. Some of the few defeats the Celtics sustained in a season—usually 15 or 20 losses against 100 victories—occurred because a team with which the Shamrocks were toying suddenly got hot in the closing minutes and poured through enough points to erase the Celtics’ lead.

Never, all the Celtics survivors are careful . . . nay, insistent . . . to point out, was the game lost because the Celts wanted to lose it. Nor was the score ever kept close merely to accomplish a betting coup. There is only one recorded instance of the Celtics betting on a basketball game— and then they bet on themselves to thwart a bookmaker they had reason to believe had double-crossed them. More about that later.

Replacements gradually came to the first Celtic team that Furey had organized, but the replacements were carefully screened before acceptance. Horse Haggerty, a giant of a man who had originally come from the coal-mining section around Scranton, Pennsylvania, but who reached the Celtics from Springfield, Massachusetts, was beginning to wear out. First, Joe Trippi and later Lapchick were hired as replacements.

Nat Holman (arm raised) in his days as coach of CCNY.

One of the most gifted of all the Celtic additions was Nat Holman, who came out of New York’s teeming East Side to win himself an education and fame through the medium of professional basketball. Smart and glib, the suave Holman also was one of the truly great passers in basketball history. He could thread a needle with his passes, throwing the ball with no spin, making it easy to handle. It was Holman who fed Dehnert in the pivot most of the time, and it was Nat who taught the Dutchman the trick of coming forward to take the pass. When Dehnert stepped forward to take the ball, he was able to return the pass without hindrance from the defensive player. 

While much of the magic of Holman’s passing went unappreciated, his superb faking did not. Nat could feint basketball players into knots as easily as the wily Benny Leonard could tie up opponents in the ring. And when the Celts were in a tight game, where one point meant a great deal, Holman was a master at drawing a foul. Dribbling up the floor, or cutting to take a pass, Nat would recoil from an opposing player like a man who had just been hit by a truck, although actually there may have been no bodily contact at all. Or, if there was, it was Holman who established it. 

Holman, who came to the Celtics from the New York Whirlwinds, was eager to get ahead in the world. He studied at Savage Institute, received a degree as a physical instructor, and, while still playing pro ball, became basketball coach at the College of the City of New York, more familiarly known as CCNY.

Holman took up college coaching early. Lapchick didn’t until 1936, when his playing days were behind him. And, although the rivalry between City and St. John’s got to be among the most intense in the metropolitan area, the two men always remained firm friends. As a matter of fact, when Nat, a bachelor until he was 49, found the charms of Miss Ruth Jackson irresistible, it was Lapchick, his old Celtic teammate, who officiated as best man at Nat’s marriage on November 2, 1945.

There was a certain shy aloofness about Holman when he first joined the Celtics. He couldn’t quite see their way of playing after the game, but he certainly could appreciate their way of playing during the game. And he added much to it with his skillful passing and feinting—to say nothing of his accurate shooting.

Davie Banks

Later, long after Lapchick had joined Holman with the Celtics, there was another addition to the Shamrocks worth mentioning. That was Davie Banks, a chunky little fellow built like a Shetland pony, who could run all night. Banks, with a barnstorming team featuring Bob McDermott (one of the best of the latter-day professionals to come from New York), and Polly Birch, the Duquesne center, kept the name of the Celtics going well into the 1940s, touring the country and meeting all comers. Not, however, with the same success as the old Celtics. 


There were two phases of Celtic greatness before the team petered out. The first was with Haggerty, Barry, Beckman, Dehnert, Holman, and Witte. The second was with Lapchick, Banks, Leonard, and Hickey teamed up with Barry, Beckman, Dehnert, and Holman. One team merged into the other—overlapping, as it were. They kept the Celtics booming until the American League split up the team in the late 1920s. And even after that, the barnstorming performances by Holman, Dehnert, Barry, Lapchick, and Banks as a unit kept green the memory of the great Shamrocks clubs.

Something new was added to basketball in the mid-1920s when George Preston Marshall, the Washington laundry tycoon, decided to take the professionals out of the dance halls and make the sport big-league in every sense of the term. Marshall, current owner of the Washington Redskins of the National Football League, is an unpredictable genius with a flair for the colorful and the unusual. Marshall was simply ahead of this time with the American Basketball League. The idea was good and the promotion sound, but there was no way to cope with the Original Celtics, who continued to play exhibition games, beating the tar out of the league teams and making more money than any of the players on the league teams.

The late Joseph Carr, who was to become president of the National Football League, finally solved the problem by blacklisting the Celtics. No league team was allowed to play exhibitions against the Celts, who thus found their revenue sharply curtailed. The cold war worked, and the Celtics went into the league in its second season, taking over the defunct Brooklyn franchise—and, with it, the poor record Brooklyn had compiled. The Celtics won the second half of the schedule and might have won the first half, too, had not Cleveland been too far in front when the Celtics assumed the Brooklyn burden.

Cleveland, whose representatives played under the tradename of Rosenblums, succumbed before the Celtics in the playoffs in three straight games. The next year, the Celtics won both halves of the pennant race. Since they couldn’t very well play themselves, the league arranged for them to meet Fort Wayne, the American League’s top Western team. The Celtics won that series, too. By then, the league was fresh out of ideas.

So superior were the Celtics to the rest of the league that they were threatening to bring about its dissolution. In Washington, Marshall’s Palace Club, named after the laundry he operated there, had cost him $65,000 in an ever-changing stream of high-salaried personnel. And still he wasn’t able to beat the Celtics. “We’ll break you yet, George,” Dehnert used to yell at Marshall on the sidelines as the Celts rolled to another victory.

With attendance falling off in the cities where the clubs trailed the Celtics, which was in all the cities in the league, a drastic move was made. The Celtics were broken up and their members allocated to other cities in the league so that some semblance of balance might be achieved. It was an action unparalleled in professional sport. The great Beckman left to become player-coach of Baltimore. Banks, who had replaced him, and Holman were sent to the New York Hakoahs. Dutch Dehnert and Pete Barry went to Rochester. Lapchick was slated for Cleveland, and Chris Leonard retired. Johnny Witte, the manager, was out of a job and out of a team.

One threat of separation was enough for the Celtics. Barry, Dehnert, and Lapchick jumped the league, signed up Scrill and Conaty, looked up Witte, and put him back on the job as manager. After a few games, however, Witte called the whole deal off, as has been related earlier in this story. Johnny didn’t want to make money if it meant making a monkey out of the Celtics’ name and tradition.

Although this was before the Invention of radio’s popular package deal, Lapchick, Barry, and Dehnert sold themselves to Cleveland as a package. The Rosenblums, who had lost their first two games, won the next eight with the combination of the three Celts, Nat Hickey, and Carl Husta. Once again, the race had been blown wide open. The league was confronted with the same old Celtic problem—this time under the name of the Rosenblums. So, the league amputated Hickey and awarded him to George Halas’ team in Chicago.

The Rosenblums won one-half of the race in each of the next two seasons and grabbed the playoff each time. It was too much for the league. The losing teams moved their home dates to the courts of the opposing teams in an effort to escape the flow of red ink, which was inundating their box offices. That meant that in the cities where basketball had been drawing, there was a falling off because fans were getting double doses of the poorer teams. The crowds of 7,000 in Cleveland, for instance, dwindled to 1,500. Cleveland dropped out of the league, and its players were transferred to Toledo in 1929, as the American League made one more stab at keeping afloat.

The players were cut $500 a month at Toledo, which meant a reduction of 50 percent in many cases. And the management piled barnstorming games on top of the 44-game league schedule in an effort to get its investment back. Barry, Dehnert, and Lapchick had to drive 200 miles to play an exhibition game in Dayton, Ohio, then drive right back to play a league game that same night in Toledo. It wasn’t much fun, and it showed in the play of the Celtic survivors, who finished last as the league folded with a resounding crash.

Thus it was that the Celtics, broken up lest they break up the league, finally broke it up anyway. Although it was financially disastrous, it was in many ways quite the greatest compliment any team in organized sport ever received. The teams the Celtics were beating were not teams representing whistlestops on a barnstorming junket, but the best professional basketball players in the country. The best of the rest simply wasn’t good enough for the Celtics.


The Celtics hit the road. Barry, Dehnert, Lapchick, Banks, Hickey, and Husta returned to the old grind of barnstorming. They found it wasn’t quite the same, though, because in the early 1930s there was something abroad in the land called a Depression. The Celtics used to play road games for a set guarantee of $400, with the privilege of taking a percentage. Invariably, their share of the gross amounted to more than the guarantee. And they weren’t traveling first-class anymore. It wasn’t Pullmans now, but an old jalopy which cost a couple of hundred bucks and had room for seven passengers—provided the passengers were relatives of Singer’s Midgets. It made for crowded going. Lapchick not only had to jump center, but also keep the bus moving.

For six years, these remnants of the once great Celtics traveled in this gypsy fashion. It is to their credit that they managed to keep the Shamrock reputation alive and to win as high a percentage of their games as the old Originals had. From 1930 until 1936, when Lapchick quit to become head coach at St. John’s, the Celtics kept on the go—and kept the opposition on the go, too.

There was still magic in the Celtic name. Lou O’Neill, sports editor at the Long Island Star-Journal, and one of the metropolitan district’s finest horse handicappers, discovered that magic when he took a fling at basketball promoting in the early 1930s at a time when, as he himself expresses it, “a buck was scarce.” O’Neill thought he would go Jim Furey one better in promoting. He lined up a basketball squad and made it his object to keep the players busy every night in the week and twice on Sundays. But not under the same team name. They represented Long Island City one night, other spots on Long Island other nights, but always as the “home” team. Lou paid them less per game than they had been in the habit of receiving, but kept them so busy that they actually made more per week.

One of the spots represented by O’Neill’s club was West Sayville, Long Island. They played there as the West Sayville Volunteer Firemen and played their games in the spacious firehouse, using the half not being used as a garage for the fire apparatus. The chief was on the level about it, too. He had them all sworn in as volunteer firemen, although all the players lived 50 for 100 miles from the town of West Sayville, and any conflagration there could have burned out the town before these “volunteers” reached it.

When the team, on successive weeks, defeated Rody Cooney’s Brooklyn Visitations and Eddie Wilde’s Jewels, (the team which had been the St. John’s “Wonder Five” before graduation), the chief was tremendously enthused. “Get us the Celtics,” he demanded. The Celtics demanded $300 as a guarantee. To meet this, it was decided to tilt the admission price from 75 cents to a dollar and a half, a stiff price in those depression days of the early 1930s.

“The night the Celtics were scheduled to play us in West Sayville,” recalled O’Neill, “was one of the coldest that section of Long Island had ever experienced. It was one above zero. Yet the Celtics were such a drawing card that we had to close the doors a half hour before game time. One of the local cops decided that the crowd represented a fire hazard. Can you imagine that, when there were two fire engines in the other half of the hall?”

And what about the game?

“They beat us,” Lou admitted. “But I learned one of the Celtics’ tricks that night. As soon as the first foul was called against them, all five of them charged the referee, demanded to know if they were getting a jobbing, where he got off to call such a foul, and so on. I realized later that this was standard operating procedure with them. They played in so many strange courts, and with even stranger officiating, that they had to protect themselves right from the start by jumping the referee. After that first blast, the whistleblower usually thought twice before he called a foul.”


The Horse

Elmer Ripley, a great set shot who has coached at Columbia, Yale, and Georgetown, served his time with the Celtics. He remembers distinctly their troubles with officials, particularly in the pre-Lapchick days when Horse Haggerty was the center. The Horse was 6-foot-4 and weighed 240 pounds when he was in shape, which was all the time. Haggerty, who could palm a basketball in one of his ham-like hands, was such an attraction that the personal foul rule was usually waived so the spectators could get a full-time view of the Horse in action.

“One night, we were playing in Lancaster, Ohio,” recalled Ripley with a chuckle, “and the opposition wouldn’t waive the rule. That made Horse mad. On the opening tap, he deliberately fouled the center jumping against him. Three times more he jumped, and each time Horse fouled the fellow. He was out of the game before a minute of playing time had elapsed.

“Then the promoter pleaded with Haggerty to stay in the game. ‘Not me,’ said the Horse, a stickler for playing the code when it suited him. ‘Rules are rules.’”

One of the great basketball officials of those rough and ready days was Herman Baetzel, who had his share of troubles with the Horse. He called a foul on Haggerty which Haggerty didn’t like, it being one of his quaint delusions that he never committed any fouls. “If you call one more like that, I’ll kill you,” threatened Haggerty, looking as though he meant it. 

A few seconds later, Baetzel’s whistle tooted again and play halted. “This may be the last act of an honest career,” declared the official bravely, “but, Haggerty, I’m calling a foul on you.”

Far from assaulting the referee, Haggerty laughed out loud. The Horse appreciated courage and personal integrity when he saw it. 

Before Haggerty and Nat Holman played together on the Celtics, they played against each other. Holman’s slick faking caused an official to call a foul against Haggerty, who, for a change, was wholly innocent of a foul this time. Horse was outraged. “You won’t fake me again like that,” he declared. But Nat did. A few seconds later, Holman was missing, out cold on one end of the floor, where Haggerty had left him.

“As long as I’m going to be charged  with fouls I don’t commit,” explained the Horse, “I may as well get my money’s worth.”

Despite the stormy beginning, Haggerty and Holman became fast friends in their six years on the Celtics. ”Horse was my personal bodyguard,” Nat recalled. “Any time I was hit, and I was hit a lot in those early days, Haggerty would go over to the fellow who fouled me, give him a robust nudge in the ribs and say, ‘Now we’re even.’ They always knew what he meant, too.”

Lapchick, who succeeded Haggerty as the Celtics’ center, played against him. He still remembers the beatings he used to absorb. “Horse would be a tattoo on your ribs, and it would be a couple of days before you can breathe properly,” recalled Joe with a shudder. “And strong? I remember one time a fan kept riding Haggerty all through the game. After we dressed and the left the arena, Horse spotted the guy outside on the sidewalk and grabbed him.

“The fellow held Haggerty by the coat lapel, pleading with Horse not to hit him. When the Horse let him have it, the fellow shot 20 feet into the gutter—with Haggerty’s lapel still in his hand!”


Although the Celtics traveled the country, all that I talked to about this story agreed unanimously that the roughest court they ever played on was Prospect Hall in Brooklyn. It was known, and not with affection, to visiting basketball players and officials as “The Bucket of Blood.”

“Even the kids among the rooters were tough,” relates Dick Meehan, another of the truly great officials of basketball’s early days. “I remember reporting there to work as a referee one night. As I’m walking into the hall with my handgrip, a kid comes up to me and asks, ‘Let me carry your bag, so I can get in to see the game, mister.’

“I told him he could carry my bag. Then he asked me if I was playing with the Visitations, the home team. I told him I wasn’t, and then he looked a little hesitant. ‘Playing with the visitors?’ he asked.

“I told him I wasn’t, and a great light dawned in the kid’s eyes. He put the bag down on the ground and edged away from me. ‘You must be the referee then,’ he said. ‘Before you even start, I’ll bet two to one that you’re lousy.’ That’s the way the kid fans were at Prospect Hall. You can imagine what the grown-up rooters were like!”

Prospect Hall was, and still is, a dance hall in South Brooklyn. It has housed some great players in its day—Red Cooney, Joe Brennan, Swede Grimstead, Harry Knoblock, Red Conaty, Willie Scrill, and many others. It was always packed when the Celtics played there. There was dancing before and after the game and between the halves.

“I used to wonder how they could get so many people into the place,” remarked Dutch Dehnert. “It seemed as though they were hanging from the rafters. And the guys in the rafters thought nothing of shying a bottle at you when you were trying to shoot a foul. That was bad enough, but the fellows sitting on the sidelines would trip you up when you were going down the court. Once a fellow stuck a lighted cigarette into the back of my legs as I was trying to pass a ball in from out of bounds. They were holy terrors.”

Under such conditions, it isn’t remarkable that tempers often ran short. And when a fight broke out, whether among the players or the spectators, the management had one set solution. That was for the orchestra leader, Professor John J. Nolan, to break out with a lively dance number. “I think the number was ‘Dardenella,’ mused Lapchick. “Believe me, Professor Nolan got a lot of practice playing that one.”

It was not at Prospect Hall but over in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, that the mighty Haggerty met his comeuppance. Arthur Daley, talented sports columnist the New York Times and an authority on the escapades of the Horse, tells the story this way:

“The Horse gave it out, but he could also take it. At Perth Amboy one night, Haggerty was indiscreet enough to put the slug on a local official, to the great indignation of the assembled populace. The game was played in a garage with a sink in the corner serving as a shower room. Last to trudge down toward the waiting automobile was Haggerty. He never made it. Some 30 wild-eyed fans mobbed him. The other Celtics didn’t miss him until he showed up a half hour later, his clothes torn and his face bloody. There wasn’t a whisper out of him. He dismissed it with a shrug of his broad shoulders. 


One of the idiosyncrasies of the Celtics was that they played a tie game on occasion. A tie game in basketball today is unheard of, unless both teams happen to drop from exhaustion after playing umpty-nine extra periods. Lapchick explained the tie games in the Celtics’ record to Dick Young, sportswriter of the New York Daily News.

“Tie games weren’t uncommon in our barnstorming days,” said Joe. “If the game was tied at the end of the regulation time, our manager would enter into hasty negotiations with the local promoter on the sidelines. If the promoter agreed to pay us extra for the overtime, we’d keep on playing. If he refused, the game ended right there with no decision. We had originally contracted only for 40 minutes—and, besides, a tie was good for business. It left the fans talking and brought them out in droves when we returned there later that season or the following year.”

It was the aftermath of a tie game which led to the only recorded instance of the Celtics betting on a game. During the season of 1921-22, the Shamrock five played a tie with the Coffee Club in Pittsburgh. The tie wasn’t played of, and there was great excitement the next winter when the Celts returned to play the Coffee Club again. The day before the game, Johnny Beckman received a wire from a friend of his in Pittsburgh saying he could get big odds betting that the Celtics would win by 20 points. Right away, Beckham began to get the fever.

“If we can’t beat them by 20 points,” commented Holman, “we ought to hang up.”

Dutch Dehnert nodded in agreement. So did all the others, except Joe Lapchick, then in his first year with the Celts and getting $50 a game. He liked the idea of getting $300, but he couldn’t see risking his week’s pay against a team which had held the Celtics even the year before. “We took it easy on them last year, kid. They just happened to get hot,” assured Chris Leonard. “It won’t happen again.”

The decision was made to bet the bundle to win by 20 points, and the game wasn’t very old before Lapchick realized his fears had been groundless. At halftime, the Celtics were in front by more than 20 points and in a position to win as they pleased.

There was a rude awakening before the second half started. Beckman’s friend burst into the dressing room with the startling news that the bookie hadn’t been able to place all of the $2,000 he had been given to bet—only $250 of it. The Celtics realized immediately that they had been caught in a swindle. Their first reaction was to loaf through the second half and win by fewer than 20 points, but they were hooked there, too, for $250 of their own money was at stake. What happened, of course, was that the gambler had placed the bulk of the money for himself. If the Celtics failed to win by 20 points, he was sunk but so was their $250.

It was Beckman who finally solved the puzzle. The plan was to take the Coffee Club in stride and protect the $250 and then hang the gambler out to dry the next night, as the Celtics were remaining over in Pittsburgh to play the Loendi Club. Becky told his friend to tip off the gambler that the Celts wouldn’t beat Loendi by more than 11 points. On the basis of this supposedly inside information, the welcher would be a cinch to bet his previous night’s winnings. And the Celtics planned to cover these bets through a middleman. They did, and they walloped Loendi by more than 30 points.

That lesson, learned the hard way, taught the Celtics that betting on basketball games was more uncertain than playing in them. Actually, the Shamrocks did nothing wrong in betting, since they bet on their own skill and didn’t juggle the points. As a matter fact, there was little betting on basketball games in the 1920s. The first price lines and “point-spreads” on basketball bobbed up during the season of 1930-31 around New York City and then the betting was confined to college games, there being very little of it done on professional games.

Hackneyed, even corny as it may sound, with the Celtics the game was the thing. In the matter of salaries, they were born too soon. But they averaged around $7,500 a season, with the minimum being about $5,000 and with some of the better players getting as much as $10,000. They looked on this as ample, which it was in those low-cost days.


Like all great athletic groups, the Celtics had to come to the end of the trail sometime. After Johnny Witte had abandoned the barnstorming tour with the plain statement that the receipts didn’t justify dragging the great name of the Celtics into the dust, they made one more stab in the 1930s. They were to play a team of former collegians, kids in the first year of pro ball, at New York’s Seventy-first Regiment Armory, the scene of the Celtics’ first organized success.

Now, college kids were meat and drink to the Celtics. When Vic Hanson, the Syracuse star, first came into the American League, the Celts made him look silly, although before the season was over Hanson developed into one of the league’s best players. And then there was the case of Homer Stonebreaker, the gangling longshot of Fort Wayne, who had an uncanny eye. Homer made six goals against Chris Leonard the first time he played against the Celtics, but the next night Chris blanked Stonebreaker and scored five or six times himself. He had analyzed Homer and discovered that he brought both hands almost to the ground before starting a shot. Leonard played the Fort Wayne ace close, and he never got a shot off.

It was always like that with the Celtics. They spotted a weakness in an individual and exploited it to the hilt. Coming up to the game with the ex-collegians, however, Dehnert was a little dubious. He and Lapchick talked over a plan of action. Dutch regarded Ralph Kaplowitz, a former Long Island University player, as a positive menace because of his speed and shooting skill. “Joe,” said the Dutchman to Lapchick, “these kids have too much speed and stamina for us. They’ll run us bow-legged before the night is over. Here is what I think we should do. Let’s break fast on them and jump into the pivot and hold the ball out on them. That’ll save our legs and force them to play our game.”

Lapchick listened and thought it sounded all right to him. Once the Celtics got in front, the college boys would be under pressure and would be bound to make mistakes. 

“What happened,” related Dehnert years later, “was just the reverse. The kids jumped into the early lead instead of us, and they went into the pivot with a big boy from NYU, Irwin (King Kong) Klein, in the bucket. You couldn’t get the ball away from them. They made us look silly. We wanted them to play our game, and they were playing it, all right, better than we could ourselves at that time!”

It was the last stand of the Celtics. They had not only built well, but too well. They were beaten with weapons that they had forged themselves. Once that happened, there was nothing to do but quit. They were left only with memories—but what memories!

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