- 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
He kept his players off-balance too. “It was the way he acted,” said Fred Scolari, a starting guard for Washington. “Even though I thought I was having a good year [12.6 points a game], he’d say something like, ‘Hey, you little bastard. You think you’re pretty good. But I could take you. You’re not that good. I could take you.’ [Auerbach had played at George Washington University.] The better night I had, the more he’d say it. ‘Oh, those guys, they can’t take you. But I’ll take ya.’
“So one day I made him play me. I didn’t want to hear any more. Do you know we played one-on-one and I shut him out? I was so mad at the guy that I murdered him. I wouldn’t give him a chance to breathe. I think it was 24–0. But of course that didn’t change his attitude. He was still the cocky little coach after that anyway. That didn’t bother him one minute.”
As the best team in the league, Washington commanded a big share of the press’s attention, but no more than did the league’s leading scorer, the Philadelphia Warriors’ Joe Fulks. Fulks, one of the few jump shooters in the B.A.A., was called the Babe Ruth of basketball by Time magazine. He finished the year with a 23.2 scoring average—very ordinary by today’s standards, but to his peers he was a revolutionary figure. He had the ability, as many of them did not, to get off a reasonable shot any time he wanted. In the first season this self-described hillbilly took 1,557 fieldgoal tries, an average of nearly twenty-six shots a game at a time when there was no twenty-four-second shot clock. The league’s runner-up in scoring was Feerick, who averaged 16.8 points, more than 6 points less than Fulks.
Remarkable though Fulks’s scoring totals were for those times, it must be noted that he played in a game not yet dominated by big men. In fact, the B.A.A.’s all-league center, Stan Miasek of Detroit, was only six feet five, 210 pounds, and had no high school or college basketball experience. “Most big men then,” Miasek said, “were considered on the clumsy side. At six-five, I’d outrun the majority of centers I played against.”
There were two players that B.A.A. teams that year billed as seven-footers, height that was rare enough to draw customers into the arena. One of the men, Elmore Morganthaler, of Providence, was probably a couple of inches under seven feet and is remembered less for his pivot play than for his way with a stick of chewing gum. He would keep it balled behind his ear, from time to time retrieving it to chew. He played only eleven games for the Steamrollers and averaged 1.4 points per game. Ralph Siewert, seven-one, was called “Timber” by his St. Louis Bombers fans for his resemblance to a cut tree when he fell to the floor during the action. He played seven games with St. Louis, was sent on to Toronto, and ended up with a 1.0 point average over twenty-one games.
For players of any size, the B.A.A.’s road life took its toll. Teams flew then, but rail was the common mode of travel. For players raised on the weekend-only schedules of the American League or the shorter season of the collegians, B.A.A. life took getting used to. By March, the final month of the regular season, with the Caps continuing to dominate in the East and the Bombers and Stags battling in the West, most players had figured how to cope with the endless travel.
“We would have what we called thousand-miler shirts,” said Bones McKinney. “That was a shirt you could wrench out and hang over a bathtub. You didn’t take but two with you on the road. You didn’t have room in your suitcase. You only had one uniform. And say you played in St. Louis on Saturday and Sunday afternoon in Chicago. Your uniform would stand tall in the corner, it was so full of salt. I mean, you got the jock itch early in the year so you wouldn’t have to worry about it, just kept it for the rest of the year.”
The train rides stretched on for hours, and many pros killed the time at card tables. In railcars occupied by the Pittsburgh Ironmen, that meant putting newspapers on the floor so that tobacco-chewing cardsharps like Press Maravich —the father of the future N.B.A. star Pete Maravich—and Stan Noszka could spit without soiling railroad property.
A year earlier, when Maravich had played for the Youngstown Bears in the National Basketball League, he had allied himself with his teammate Frank Baumholtz against the club’s card-playing coach, Paul Birch. It was Maravich’s habit to fold his hand, then casually look over Birch’s cards and reveal their contents to Baumholtz by singing in Serbian, “ Un ima kral ” (He has a king). Afterward he and Baumholtz would divvy up Birch’s losses and laugh over their conniving.