The First Se


What’s more, past attempts to go pro had soured the public with unstable leagues whose players might jump teams from month to month and whose ball clubs often folded before a season ran its course. And that wasn’t all. In the words of the Washington sports columnist Francis E. Stann, those earlier teams “played not only in small dingy gymnasiums but they played typical old-time pro basketball, in which holding, pushing, hipping and tripping overshadowed clever ball handling, speed and good shooting. Undeniably a good many real pro fans threw up their hands in disgust.”

None of this discouraged the B.A.A., whose first game—the Knicks versus the Huskies—was played on November 1, 1946, in Toronto. Free admission was promised to any patron taller than the Huskies’ six-foot-eight George Thomas Nostrand. As it turned out, none of the seven thousand fans that night met the requirement, but at least the evening went off without a glitch. That was a definite plus, for in the early going the B.A.A. suffered any number of unsettling complications to challenge the notion that this was a major-league sport.

For instance, the first home game at Washington’s Uline Arena found a court so slippery from condensation due to the ice over which the floor was laid that the players kept falling. The surface so enraged Ken Loeffler, coach of the visiting St. Louis Bombers, that he stormed into the office of the Caps publicist Paul Rothgeb after his team’s 54–51 loss and warned that his club would not return to Uline unless Washington management produced a written guarantee that the floor would be dry.

In time the problem was solved: Waterproof paper was placed between the underlying ice and the basketball floor, and it held back the moisture. But as soon as one problem was solved, another would arise to taint the new league’s image.

A few nights after the folly at Uline, St. Louis and Washington met again. This time it was the Capitols who had a legitimate grievance: After their 70–69 loss J. Walter Kennedy, the league’s public relations director and a future N.B.A. commissioner, discovered a discrepancy in the official box score that showed that St. Louis had gotten only sixty-eight points.

So it went. Newspaper accounts from the time speak of baskets that swayed for lack of tight guide wires, of a game delayed for several hours when a glass backboard cracked and another one couldn’t be found, of a team losing its jerseys and wearing T-shirts with numerals made from tape that peeled off during the game, and in Pittsburgh of a scorekeeper who “twice gave enemy players free throws they missed, a habit which must certainly be discontinued if the Ironmen ever hope to climb out of the cellar.”

For all the amiable lunacy of the season, there was also competitive basketball to see—and for as little as a dollar a ticket in some places. The game was largely earthbound though. Its perfect expression was the now-defunct twohand set shot, which often was taken up to thirty-five feet from the basket- well beyond today’s three-point goal range—and with the shooter’s feet planted when he let the ball fly.

Because the shooter needed more time and room than, say, jump shooters do today, teams ran a weave around the perimeter of the floor that kept men in constant motion and that was calculated to free a player for the twohander or an easy lay-up. The man in the pivot sustained this flow, acting as a feeder to the teammates crisscrossing off him. When he chose to ignore his cutters, he might shoot a sweeping hook shot. Bear in mind, though, that the pivot man was no more apt to hang on rims than anybody else. Photographs and rare film footage from the season reveal a game conducted well below the iron and often with players at close quarters in the six-foot-wide lane—the demarcated alley from the end of the court to the foul line—then in use.

One legacy of an earlier era, when the game had been played with netting around the court, was the attitude of a few of the old-time coaches toward defense. Basketball in its early days had been played with unlimited fouls and no flinching. That was the spirit that the Celtics’ coach, John (“Honey”) Russell, espoused; sometimes in practices he revoked all the rules, so that anything—fists, cross-body blocks, anything—went. The idea was to toughen his men and make them defensive-minded.

What the defensive emphasis did do was make the game low-scoring that first season, especially when coaches resorted to zone defenses. The highest-scoring team was the Chicago Stags, which averaged seventy-seven points a game. Most of the Stags’ rivals scored fewer than seventy a game.

Typical of the conservative ways of some basketball men was the disdain with which they greeted the newfangled jump shot. As the Knick forward Bud Palmer, who joined the team after the season had started, recalled, “Early on, I played in one game where I took a jump shot and missed, missed two more, and got pulled out of the game by the coach, Neil Cohalan. He asked me, ‘What the hell kind of shot is that?’ I told him it’s a shot I use most of the time. He said, ‘Well, don’t use it any more on my club. Sit down.’ A while later—we had a couple of days off—I convinced him in a practice it was a pretty good shot.”