- Historic Sites
50 YEARS AGO serious pro basketball was born. Or at least they tried to be serious.
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
JOE FULKS WAS a revolutionary figure: He took jump shots. Time called him the Babe Ruth of basketball.
In the years immediately preceding the B.A.A., there had been lesser attempts at pro basketball. The best-known leagues were the American League, a weekend operation with teams in cities including New York, Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, and Trenton, and the National Basketball League (N.B.L.), a full-time entity with teams largely in Midwest cities like Fort Wayne, Sheboygan, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis. Before that, the most prominent teams—the Original Celtics, the SPHAs (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), and the Cleveland Rosenblums—had barnstormed or played in transient leagues.
The B.A.A. was officially founded on June 6, 1946, and set a regular-season schedule of sixty games, with a championship playoff to begin less than five months later. In contrast with the forty-minute college game, B.A.A. contests were to run forty-eight minutes, on the overly optimistic notion that the public would feel it was getting more for its money.
There were to be eleven franchises in two divisions: the Boston Celtics, New York Knickerbockers, Philadelphia Warriors, Providence Steamrollers, Toronto Huskies, and Washington Capitols in the East; the Cleveland Rebels, Detroit Falcons, Pittsburgh Ironmen, St. Louis Bombers, and Chicago Stags in the West. Each team paid the league a ten-thousand-dollar franchise fee, the money going for operating expenses, which included the salary of the B.A.A. president, Maurice Podoloff, who, like the arena owners who had hired him, was a hockey man first. In fact, he was president of the American Hockey League at the same time as he headed the B.A.A. The owners saw nothing odd in this.
Once the league was established, each franchise set out to fill its roster, trying to lure players with salary offers generally ranging from thirty-five hundred to sixty-five hundred dollars. That was decent money for the time, though not enough to keep most B.A.A. players from needing off-season jobs. The approach teams took to secure talent varied. Auerbach, at Washington, had coached the Norfolk Naval Training Station team during World War II, and he worked the phones that summer to sign up players who had impressed him during intramilitary competitions. It didn’t trouble him that these men lived all over the country. For other teams, though, geography was a factor. The Providence franchise relied heavily on Rhode Island College players; Pittsburgh chose its men mostly from within a hundred miles of its city; the Knicks grew top-heavy with talent from New York-area colleges.
As the teams sorted out their personnel that summer, salaries were quibbled over and contracts signed. In one instance, that of the Detroit Falcons’ Tom King, the job category was expanded. King, who would average 5.1 points per game in fifty-eight contests the first season, later recalled: “When I reported to the Falcons’ training camp, it was obvious to me they had a coach and a gym and the uniforms were ordered. What they didn’t have was a publicity director or business manager. I had a B.S. in business administration. I knew how to write and type, and I knew how to keep the books. So I asked for the job of publicity director and business manager of the Falcons and was hired by Arthur Wirtz and James Norris [who owned not only the Falcons’ Olympia Stadium but also Chicago Stadium and St. Louis Arena, the home courts of the Stags and Bombers]. They had paid me an eight-thousand-dollar salary as a player and a five-hundred-dollar bonus to sign. I said I would do this other, additional work for eight thousand dollars more.” With a deal worth $16,500, King, who later became president of the Merchandise Mart and Apparel Center in Chicago—the largest wholesale-buying complex of its kind in the world—made more than any other player in the league that season.
BY October the B.A.A. teams were trying out in a variety of settings—from high school gyms to a Catskills mountain resort. The resort, the Nevele Hotel, in Ellenville, New York, had an outdoor court on which the Knicks’ coach, Neil Cohalan, worked out his squad over a two-week period, two grueling sessions a day, before narrowing the team to the requisite ten men. Many of the hotel’s guests had been raised on the college basketball doubleheaders that were a regular feature at Madison Square Garden, and they wondered aloud if this pro team was good enough, in fact, to beat their beloved undergraduate quintets from CCNY, LIU, St. John’s, and NYU.
That was typical of the skepticism that greeted the launching of the new league. To some extent this was merited, given the lack of basketball tradition in this country. In 1946, basketball’s constituency lay almost all in Eastern urban locales, with pockets of interest elsewhere; it had nothing like the hold of baseball and football on the popular imagination.