What’s Wrong with Big-Time Basketball, 1955

[In Neil Isaacs’ gem of a book Vintage NBA: The Pioneer Era (1946-1956), he starts with his interview of Harold Rosenthal. The name is largely forgotten these 21st century days, but Rosenthal worked on the sports page at the New York Herald Tribune during pro basketball’s pioneer era. In this interview, Rosenthal remembers his first brush in the mid-1940s with the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to the NBA: 

“My paper, The Herald Tribune, was a big basketball paper at that time, even though (editor) Stanley Woodward and (columnist) Red Smith didn’t care for it. Woodward called it “round ball,” and Smith called it “dump ball.” But (sportswriters) Irving Marsh and Everett Morris were interested. They invented the six-column box score for basketball, an innovation that first appeared in the Trib.

“It was largely because of Ned Irish’s friendship with Marsh and Morris and a lot of writers in the city that basketball got the kind coverage it did. Marsh said to me, “Go do a story on this new league.” Walter Kennedy was their press agent, and he was delighted. He had been the Stamford, Connecticut, correspondent for The Sporting News. I went over there, and he said, ‘Let’s go to lunch—there’s a nice little place around the corner.’ I’m expecting one of those fine French places in the neighborhood, but he had in mind a luncheonette where each of us takes a stool at the counter, where we had sandwiches and I did the first interview with Maurice Podoloff about the Basketball Association of America. That’s the kind of shoestring operation it was then.”

Shoestring operation, and a league and pro sport bound to endure plenty of growing pains. In this article, published in the January 1955 issue of the magazine Argosy, reporter Milton Gross takes up the growing pains of the now-fledgling NBA. Gross was one of the best basketball scribes around back then, and his article, “What’s Wrong with Big-Time Basketball” remains fun reading nearly 70 years later. Enjoy!]

Basketball is a sport that is played all over the world, but nowhere is it played better than by the pros in the United States. Technically, there has never been anything like it for ballhandling finesse, shooting accuracy, precision team play, and inexhaustible stamina. Every man is a specialist, no defense is impregnable, no offense is unstoppable. For outright quality, the game never had it so good.

That is why it is so horribly painful to contemplate the National Basketball Association, the framework housing the finest talent ever assembled. To be perfectly frank, the NBA is run like Mulligan’s Stew House, by a bunch of boobs who seem intent on keeping their offspring eternally in knee pants.

NBA president, Maurice Podoloff, dangles like a puppet at the end of strings manipulated by the club owners. It is a league whose owners resemble the war lords of the Kremlin in their distrust of one another. It is a league which gives its referees less authority than a village constable, and turns its back on its officials when the going gets rough. It is a league which changes rules with whimsical abandon. In short, it is a league which, despite the brilliance of its performers, is monumentally snafued.

All this is piteous to behold because professional basketball could be what the spectator has been seeking for so long—a sport that will satisfyingly bridge the gap between the baseball and football seasons. Almost in spite of itself, pro basketball has been gaining nationwide popularity. It is estimated that by March 12, almost 130 million people will have watched the game (most of them through the courtesy of NBC-TV, which is televising 20 games over its 70-station network this season). Thanks to the impact of television in the small community, games can be booked in such remote spots as Fargo, North Dakota; Hibbing, Minnesota; Spencer, Iowa, and other assorted flyspecks on the map. It is a substantial fact that the overall excellence of the pro game has eclipsed to a larger degree the hold college basketball once held in some sections of the country.

It has even reached the stage where the Saturday TV games have become the clinics for college coaches and their teams around the country. At the University of North Carolina, Coach Frank McGuire calls his players together every Saturday to watch how the pros do it. Coaches Dudley Moore of Duquesne, Taps Gallagher of Niagara, and Everett Case of North Carolina State have transported their teams hundreds of miles to the nearest available channel which televises the professional games.

“My boys see more good basketball over TV than they are able to see watching the other college teams in action in and around Raleigh,” says McGuire. “The pros play the game like men, not like boys.”

Exactly the opposite may be said of the NBA wheels. With the best players that can be hired, the finest arenas in New York, Boston, Syracuse, Rochester, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Fort Wayne, and all the trappings that make for a big-league operation in theory, the NBA remains bush league in practice.

Take, for instance, the 24-second rule, a dandy little gimmick that was inaugurated this year by NBA deep thinkers. It requires a team to shoot for its own basket within 24 seconds after getting possession of the ball. If the ball is taken out of bounds or gained while in play anywhere in the backcourt, the team has 10 seconds to bring the ball into the forecourt, and 14 more seconds before it must shoot. If possession is gained in the forecourt, then it has a full 24 seconds.

To enforce the rule, and help keep confusion to a minimum, a special 24-second clock is being used and a special timer employed to keep track of the fleeting seconds. This oh-so-punctual way of playing basketball was designed, league officials said, to hold deliberate fouling to a minimum. 

In the same breath, they hailed it as a millennium, which probably means that by the time you read this, the rule will have been killed. They further stated that the rule had the unequivocal blessing of all nine coaches. Well, it turns out that Ned Irish, owner of the New York Knickerbockers, asked his coach, Joe Lapchick, what he thought about it. “I’m agin’ it,” replied Lapchick in so many words. Irish promptly voted for the rule.

Logically, the next up is for Lapchick and his fellow coaches to find a way to render the rule inoperative. They’re good at this. They’ve toyed with every rule that’s come along since 1949 (some 14 major ones, at last count) and it would be presumptive to expect them to change their habits at this late date.

Just to give you an idea of their adroitness, the coaches have managed to beat these rules: special pairings between men of comparable size for jump balls following fouling in late minutes of the game; the two-shot penalty for committing a foul in the backcourt; the same penalty for deliberate fouling, and the complicated arrangement giving a team possession of the ball if one of the opposition fouls for the third time in either the third or fourth period.

When they tried out this last rule one night in 1952 at Madison Square Garden, it worked beautifully. There were only 23 fouls called in the entire game, 10 in the second half when the new rule was applied. The fact that President Podoloff had visited the dressing rooms of both teams and put the players and coaches on their best behavior received little notice. But after the game, referee Phil Fox told reporters, “The coaches are thinking already how to beat it. Let’s see what happens next week.”

A week later, the Celtics and Knicks took one hour and seven minutes to play the last 14 minutes of their league game. Fifty-six points were scored in that time, 38 of them on foul shots. The coaches had concluded that giving up one foul shot for the chance at a two-pointer was worth the risk. After viewing the performance, Podoloff polled the owners and coaches about dropping the rule. He could get no unanimity of opinion, so he did nothing. The rule languished on a full season before dying a rather drawn-out death.

Podoloff is notorious for the indecisiveness with which he handles league crises. Only once has he made a major decision independently of the club owners. That happened last year when he banned Jack Molinas of Fort Wayne from playing because it had been discovered that Molinas was betting on his team’s games. What could have developed into a major scandal was nipped at the source, and Podoloff deserves much credit for his prompt action.

Unfortunately, he seldom acts so firmly. The events which led to the resignation of referee Johnny Nucatola last January give a truer indication of Podoloff’s executive capacities.

On November 22, 1953, Nucatola and Sid Borgia officiated at a game between the Knicks and the Syracuse Nationals in Syracuse. Throughout the affair, Coach Al Cervi of Syracuse set up a continuous howl against the refs’ calls. By the time the game had ended, with the Knicks winning in overtime, Cervi’s antics had steamed up the customers to dangerous proportions. It was necessary for the police to escort Nucatola and Borgia to the dressing room; even then, several punches were thrown at the two through the cordon of bluecoats.

Immediately, Nucatola reported the incident to Podoloff and recommended that Cervi be slapped with the biggest fine in league history. Podoloff received the report, but remained silent.

The incident might have ended there, except that the forthright Nucatola took his case to the public. Speaking before a meeting of the New York basketball writers on January 7, he repeated the recommendations he had made to Podoloff. He also accused Cervi and the other coaches for being directly responsible for the rowdyism rocking the league.

This time, Nucatola got a reaction from Podoloff. His name was secretly removed from the NBA’s referee assignment list. As if to compound the damage already done, on January 25, Dan Biasone, president of the Syracuse team, made a statement charging that the referees who live in the New York area were prejudiced in favor of the Knicks. He said he was asking Podoloff not to assign any of them to the three-game series to be played between the Nats and Knicks that week.

This was too much for Nucatola, a resident of New York City. He immediately notified Podoloff that he was resigning as NBA referee. “If the league is so weak-kneed,” he said, “that referees must wait until the buttons are pushed for them before they can blow a whistle, then it is no league for an official who takes his work seriously.” And he added significantly, “The owners who criticize the referees as being prejudiced are creating the forces which must destroy their business.”

What was Podoloff’s reply to this blast?

“Nucatola is a good official,” the president said, “but he was slightly indiscreet in singling out individuals for approbation and adverse criticism. He has created a certain amount of tension between referees and coaches. I’ve decided to withhold assignments from him while this tension exists.”

Since Nucatola had already suggested what the league could do with the $50 each referee is paid for an assignment, Podoloff’s reply was a bit superfluous. Incidentally, the next time Syracuse and New York met in Syracuse, the referees were Jocko Collins of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Mendy Rudolph of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Instead of being censured for his intemperate remarks, Biasone got what he wanted—two non-New York officials.

Nucatola wasn’t the first and is hardly likely to be the last official to have his head chopped off for trying to do his job. The axe fell on Pat Kennedy, who was supervisor of league referees, soon after the 1951 playoffs between the Knicks and the Boston Celtics. In essence, Kennedy lost his job because the Knicks managed to defeat the Celtics in an overtime playoff in Boston.

Kennedy was to basketball officiating what Bill Klem was to baseball umpiring. He gave the game solidity and responsibility. He was somewhat of a ham, but he was also basketball’s voice of judgment. He allowed no nonsense on the court while he was blowing the whistle. But when Walter Brown, owner of the Boston Garden and president of the Boston Celtics, saw the way things were going in the playoff, he joined forces with owners of several Western teams who had suggested that too many Eastern refs were being employed. Soon after, Kennedy was unceremoniously canned.

Actually, all the blame for these injustices shouldn’t rest entirely on Podoloff. He has to answer to the Board of Governors, which is made up of the nine club owners. It is the owners who vote on league policy, set that policy, in fact.

Maurice Podoloff (right)

The reason that Podoloff got the job in the first place was an accident of real estate more than anything else. The 65-year-old Yale graduate had a scant basketball background in 1946 when the Basketball Association of America was formed. But he was president of the American Hockey League, and the same arenas which ran hockey in Podoloff’s league also went in for basketball. So Podoloff was made president of the new association. Since then, because of his easy acquiescence with the owners, he has managed to maintain a delicate hold on his office. Last spring, to show how much they appreciated his “cooperation,” the owners rewarded Podoloff with a new five-year contract calling for some $15,000 a year.

Who are these club-owning demigods? Generally speaking, they are a combination of shoestring operators, such as Eddie Gottlieb of Philadelphia and Ben Kerner of Milwaukee; corporate fronts for arenas, such as Irish of Madison Square Garden and Brown of the Boston Garden; and industrial millionaires, such as Fort Wayne’s Fred Zollner. It is said that Zollner runs his club as part advertising gimmick for his Zollner Piston Works, part welfare for his employees, and part amusement for himself.

On the surface, it would appear that the club owners work together in rippling harmony. Such, unfortunately, is not the case. At the top, the NBA is filled with feuds and wild intrigues. Fort Wayne and Rochester are two clubs which have been battling since their National Basketball League days. The battle simmers on today.

Last season, general manager Carl Bennett of the Pistons accused Les Harrison, Rochester’s president, of sending out his players to deliberately mess up the Pistons. Following an early November game, Bennett wrote Podoloff asking that the president attend the next meeting between Fort Wayne and Rochester. Then he demanded the Royals’ players and the management be fined for surly behavior. He charged Harrison with trying to retaliate for an incident that took place in Rochester during the 1953 playoffs.

What happened then was that Paul Birch, Fort Wayne coach at the time, challenged the height of the baskets. The playoff game was held up while Podoloff was tracked down and consulted. The president gave permission to have the hoops measured. They were found to be lower than the regulation 10 feet from the floor. Since that time, Bennett claims, Harrison’s main goal in every game on the Fort Wayne court has been to deliberately foul at the onset and to continue until the final whistle to disgust the customers.

Only in one consideration have the owners consistently been in agreement. That is the postseason playoff, a miserable item which demeans their product, cheapens their championship, and adds unnecessary games to a season that is already overlong.

The excuse club owners gave for this nonsense last year was that the weaker franchises could not continue to exist without the extra revenue brought in by the playoffs. On the surface, logical enough. However, the explanation overlooked the fact that the teams that are weakest financially are usually the same in the standings and cannot make the playoffs anyway. Also, why sustain weak teams which can’t sustain themselves?

Last season, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, the teams most in need of financial help, were the only teams excluded from the postseason dollar-grab. The Knicks, who were Eastern Division winners during the regular race, were eliminated in three-straight games in the preliminary round robin. By rights, they should have met Minneapolis, the Western Division winners, immediately in pro basketball’s world series. This season, the playoff setup is being changed again. The division winners draw a bye while the second and third team in each division meet in the best out of three series. The winner then meets the division champion in the best out of five, and the two division winners meet in a best out of seven series for the NBA championship.

Certainly, it’s a better system than last year, but what happens next season if the owners decide that this isn’t profitable enough?

Thus, it is the owners who growl at each other, who set the pattern for the coaches who growl at the referees. At midpoint last season, even the coaches were aware they were ruining their own racket with their machinations. 

Joe Lapchick, who had seen the old American League die against a background of indiscriminate fouling, best put it in words during a luncheon preceding the all-star game when he warned his fellow coaches they must mind their manners.

“I took stock of myself,” Lapchick said, “and realized I was remiss. There have been referees you have to shout at. Like the wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the grease, the coach who yells the loudest got the edge. This year, the refereeing has been as good as we’ve ever had it, but we’re still complaining just as loud and not helping the game, the league, or our teams.

“I began to appreciate that if we lost, it was I who did something wrong or maybe my players did. When I complained about the refereeing, I was only looking for an alibi myself or applying my players with a ready-made one. It’s about time we coaches sat back, crossed our legs, and enjoyed the game—or there may not be games to enjoy.”

Joe should know. As a ref baiter, he ranks alongside Boston’s Red Auerbach and Syracuse’s Cervi. The one-time Celtic center has been known to spray the court with small change in protest over a ref’s decision. He also has a variation to his act. Sometimes, he threw chairs, water buckets, drinking cups, or warm-up jackets.

Lapchick, however, is mild compared to Auerbach, whose disposition matches the color of his thinning hair. In his time, the Boston coach has pulled out great chunks of it to exhibit his displeasure.

In a game at Philadelphia last January 19, Auerbach’s hired hands showed that some of Red’s habits have rubbed off on them. First, Bob Cousy, the best player in the league, was thumbed to the bench for using profane language on referee Borgia. Then Bob Donham, a Celtic reserve, was chased off the bench for heckling. During the game, three technical fouls were charged against Auerbach and, as the game ended, Ernie Barrett threw the ball into the stands.

The lucky customer who caught the ball would not return it. Eddie Gottlieb, owner-coach of the Warriors, who counts his customers on his fingers, added up $17 basketball costs and demanded restitution from the Celtics. They may have given it to him—it is not known—but Auerbach probably laughed up his sleeve at the thought of a mere $17 bill. When it comes to paying off, Auerbach is way ahead of his contemporaries. Once, Red was slapped $250, the heaviest fine in NBA history. He had been banished from the game by the referee, but instead of retiring like a gentleman, he took a seat in the stands, ostentatiously lit a cigar, posed for photographers, and signed autographs. The next day, the fine was announced.

“I want to hearing,” Auerbach grunted. “I refuse to pay without a hearing. It’s my money, isn’t it?” he added mournfully. It soon became the league’s money. Red didn’t get his hearing.

As an antidote against the aggressiveness of the coaches, the Board of Governors during the 1952-53 season adopted an “honor” system. Each coach agreed that he would no longer counsel deliberate fouling, and each owner held himself directly responsible for the behavior of his coach. No penalty, however, was imposed for coach or owner who didn’t hold honor above all else, and the flagrant fouling continued through the entire season and the playoff. This season, the rule is still on the books, but the 24-second mishmash has pretty much superseded it—until something wackier comes along.

It seems incredible that the NBA could be such a bush-league operation, considering the fact that no other sport in America had professional teams so soon after a game’s birth. Then again, no sport has had to endure the growing pains that have been pro basketball’s lot.

The sport was originally tried on an organized basis in 1898, just seven years after Dr. James A. Naismith invented the game. Four teams from Brooklyn, Philadelphia, New York City, and Southern New Jersey formed the National Basketball League, but it lasted only two seasons. In 1898 also, a New England League was born, but it died in its infancy the same year. The American Basketball League was formed in 1925, and thanks to the Original Celtics, pro basketball gave indications of being a drawing power. Once, the Celtics drew an unbelievable crowd of 23,000 in a game against the Cleveland Rosenblums. The success was apparently too much for the league, because they soon cut their throats.

They did it by busting up the Original Celtics—Nat Holman, Davey Banks, Pete Barry, Dutch Dehnert, and Joe Lapchick—because they were too good. They parceled these stars out to other teams in the league, thus ending a brief period of prosperity.

The presents American League has continued to operate on a hit-and-run basis. But it wasn’t until the Basketball Association of America, formed in 1946, merged with the National Basketball League, that the pros could create a big-league atmosphere. At least this merger ended the costly operation for player talent.

Even then, the problems were manifold. In its opening schedule in 1949-50, the new league presented 17 teams, three divisions, a schedule of more than 550 games, a woeful structure, and too many weak sisters. Since then, through sheer apathy at the box office, Toronto, Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Providence, Indianapolis, Sheboygan. Waterloo, Denver. Anderson, and Washington have all passed on. In fact, the 1954-55 season has been the first one which opened with the same teams that started and finished the previous season.

Undoubtedly, this is progress. But is it enough? We don’t think so. The NBA could do much to improve its league. The president, for instance, should be given absolute, unquestioned authority. The league must settle on a permanent and simple playoff system. It must dispense also with the haphazard way of assigning referees to a game. Instead of employing officials who fill their schedule with college assignments and then allow the league the leftovers, the NBA could form a permanent staff of full-time referees, such as employed in pro baseball. And they must be paid well enough to insure their loyalty to the league. They must also be backed 100 percent on the court, so as to avoid the spasms of anarchy that sometimes occur in NBA games. The rules must be precise and constant. Continuous experimentation only makes for confusion and an uneasy sense of impermanence. The never-ending bickering among the coaches and club owners has to stop.

Make these reforms, and pro basketball will have taken a long step toward that maturity it so sadly lacks today.

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