The First Sehttp://www.americanheritage.com/node/59366/editason

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To Horace Albert (“bones”) McKinney, listening over the phone in his parlor on Fourth Street in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the words of Arthur Morse sounded just fine. Morse, who was part owner of the Chicago Stags franchise in the brand-new Basketball Association of America (B.A.A.), was saying, “My friend, if Yankee Stadium was built for Babe Ruth, then Chicago Stadium was built for Bones McKinney.”

 

To Horace Albert (“bones”) McKinney, listening over the phone in his parlor on Fourth Street in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the words of Arthur Morse sounded just fine. Morse, who was part owner of the Chicago Stags franchise in the brand-new Basketball Association of America (B.A.A.), was saying, “My friend, if Yankee Stadium was built for Babe Ruth, then Chicago Stadium was built for Bones McKinney.”

The Babe and Bones in one mouthful. Not bad, even if Morse was laying it on a bit thick. But in this autumn of 1946 McKinney didn’t mind the blarney. Working as he was in the personnel department of Hanes Hosiery and in off-hours playing for the company basketball team, he found the idea of a pro game appealing. But the prospect of flying to Chicago to wrap the deal—that was another story. If the good Lord had wanted him to fly, Bones liked to say, he’d have provided wings. So McKinney left by train, stopping en route in Washington, D.C.

He had told Arnold (“Red”) Auerbach, the twenty-nine-year-old coach of the Washington Capitols, that he had already committed to the Stags. But Auerbach persuaded him to lay over a few hours in Washington, saying that a couple of boys McKinney had played against in the service, Bob Feerick and John Norlander, were already under contract to the Caps, so why not stop in and say hello.

After disembarking at Union Station, McKinney watched the team practice and then joined Auerbach at the bar of the Blackstone Hotel. The coach proceeded to work a hard sell that Bones found awfully tempting. He was not sure what awaited him in Chicago, but if he chose to throw in with Norlander and Feerick—good as those two were—the Capitols were bound to be a contender. A ticklish situation.

Excusing himself, McKinney headed downstairs to the hotel’s washroom to think things over. But Auerbach was not about to leave this to chance. He followed McKinney straight to the John, talking as he went. Money? No problem: He’d match Morse’s seven-thousand-dollar offer. As for the rest, figure it out, he told Bones. Washington was closer to Winston-Salem than Chicago ever would be. He could move the family up here. Red ticked his points off and made an impression. Auerbach seemed an okay guy to McKinney. Which was why, on October 15, 1946—two weeks before the B.A.A. season was to begin—Horace Albert (“Bones”) McKinney became a Washington Capitol in the men’s room of the Blackstone Hotel.

So it went in the B.A.A.’s first season, which occurred fifty years ago—an anniversary that the National Basketball Association is now celebrating. The best-laid plans of the B.A.A., renamed the National Basketball Association (N.B.A.) in 1949, often went awry in that first year—and rarely with the happy results that Washington was to manage with McKinney, who wound up an all-league forward that year.

The pro game then was nothing like it is now. Imagine, if you will, a fan of today’s game sent speeding backward in time to 1946–47, the first season of the B.A.A. That time traveler would be in for a severe case of culture shock: He would find a pro game played exclusively by whites—blacks were restricted to barn-storming outfits like the Harlem Globetrotters—and at a pace and with an attitude that contrast to the modern game as, say, the fox trot does to the watusi.

B.A.A. players did not and could not jump to the ozone. Nor was there a twenty-four-second clock. Teams had unlimited time to set up a shot. The jump shot was a radical notion, and those who took it defied the belief of some coaches that nothing but trouble occurs when a fellow leaves his feet. From the ball itself, which players say was larger then, to the trouble they had shooting it, the contest was a markedly different one. In 1946–47 only one B.A.A. player, Washington’s Bob Feerick, made 40 percent of his tries from the field. Most other B.A.A. pros hit 30 percent or less of their shots, many of them ill-advised by today’s standards and resulting in an inordinate number of air balls and backboard-rattling caroms.

Actually, basketball as a pro spectacle was only a few steps removed from the game played decades before in ballrooms on whose slippery floors patrons danced afterward. In 1946–47 the game that had been an adjunct of people’s social lives would try to make it on its own. The impetus for the formation of the B.A.A. came from a group made up mostly of members of the Arena Managers Association of America. These men controlled indoor stadiums in many major American cities, and their past experience in professional sport had been with hockey. Most of them saw pro basketball simply as something to keep their calendars filled and their profits flowing through winters previously given over to hockey, ice shows, rodeos, and college basketball.