The First Se


The public was lukewarm to the B.A.A.’s largely conservative brand of ball. There were evenings in some arenas when fewer than a thousand fans would appear. Cleveland’s general manager, Roy Clifford, was at the turnstiles the night a patron turned up with four complimentary tickets and was advised of a sixty-cent tax on each. Incredulous, the fan told the gate employee: “Sixty cents? The hell with you. Keep your tickets.” Over the course of the season, only Philadelphia and New York managed better than one hundred thousand paid admissions. In all, the net receipts for the first season totaled $1,089,949—the salary of an N.B.A. reserve these days.


Given the sparse crowds, gimmicks to boost the gate became inevitable. Tom King, the player-executive at Detroit, offered to admit any party of twelve that had an individual in it named Miasek, the surname of the Falcons’ high-scoring center. When no Miasek appeared, he made the same offer for fans whose last name was identical to that of another Falcon, Bob Dille, and this time he found takers. In Pittsburgh ladies were let in free some nights. Ladies’ nights in Washington cost fifty cents and might be summarily called off for games that attracted large crowds. Scorecards contained a “lucky number” that in Detroit could win a fan ten free oil lubrications at any Lincoln-Mercury dealer and a chance at a 1946 Mercury, and in Philadelphia, a cigarette box, a hat, chocolates, or a ten-dollar clothing certificate.

Newspapers and radio were the main media the B.A.A. relied on to spread word of its existence. In Detroit King tried to spread the gospel about the Falcons. “When the Falcons would go on the road,” he remembered, “I would carry my old portable Remington typewriter with me and write advances for the papers back in Detroit and sometimes game accounts for the wire services, which paid by the word. There were photos taken of me back then writing stories after ball games while still in uniform.”

For all the promotional hustle the public resisted B.A.A. ball. By New Year’s Day of 1947 it was obvious to Podoloff and the arena owners that changes were in order. On January 11 the league outlawed the zone defense, hoping to speed up the game and increase scoring. Soon after, Chicago and Detroit tried sixty-minute games to give fans extra value.

Neither tack noticeably improved attendance. Even in Washington, where Auerbach’s Caps were the runaway B.A.A. leader, the team was averaging only three thousand fans a game in an arena that held fifty-five hundred.

For those fans who paid their way in, the Caps provided topnotch basketball as well as McKinney’s comic relief. Sometimes when he was on the bench, Bones, spying a vendor selling popcorn or peanuts, would commandeer the man’s basket and walk through the crowd hawking his wares. Other times, like one night when the Caps led New York by ten points in the final minutes, the fun came while he was on the court. As the Knick broadcaster Marty Glickman remembered, “Bones was fouled in the act of shooting. So he went to the foul line and, with this big grin, turned his back to the foul line and shot the ball backward. The crowd howled when it went in. He did the same with his second shot, and when it went in too, he ran back on defense, waving like a politician. Waving to his right and to his left. Grinning ear to ear. It was such a joy to see.”

By January 27, about midway through the regular season, Bones’s Caps— who had been 2–3 early in the year— led the Eastern Division with a 28–6 record, far ahead of New York (18–14) and Philadelphia (18–16). In the Western Division, St. Louis (24–10) and Chicago (22–14) were the only teams over .500.

While the Capitols were the talk of the league, their success surely owed as much to their coach as to their players. In later years Red Auerbach would coach the N.B.A.’s dominant team, the Boston Celtics, winning nine division titles and nine league championships between 1951 and 1966. But in 1946 he was a long way from being the Hall of Fame supercoach of stars like Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. Yet short as he was on credentials—he had coached at St. Alban’s prep school and Roosevelt High—Auerbach did not let that undercut his legitimacy. He made it plain who was in charge, even though he was as young as some of his players. He’d say: “Hey, I hired you. I’ll fire you. You just play, I’ll coach. I won’t listen to any crap.”

Auerbach pushed his team, using his reserves sparingly while running up the score when he could. He worked the referees too, baiting them and rallying the home crowd. “Yelling and screaming,” remembered Howie McHugh, the longtime Celtic publicity man. “All the time. Stomping on the floor. Spitting. Doing everything. Oh, Jesus. Spitting: p-tooo, p-tooo. It was awful the show he put on. Get the fans screaming mad. They’d think they were being cheated.”