The First Se


It was an era when the balance of power lay with the coach. That would change, slowly, inevitably, as money monkeyed with the game’s hierarchy. Things were very different then. The game was not the rich-for-life proposition it is today. And with the war only recently ended and a peacetime optimism prevalent, the players, many of them ex-GIs, had a more innocent outlook than today’s athletes have. A recurring line in conversations with those pioneer pros is: “I would have played for nothing.” While that may be exaggeration, remember that most of the players then were working stiffs, not yet elevated to a capitalist elite by the soaring salary scale we know today.

So as the regular season counted down, the players carried on, enduring the public’s indifference, not to mention uncertainty as to the league’s future. The sixty-game schedule ended with Auerbach’s Capitols winning the Eastern Division by fourteen games, their margin of victory nearly ten points a contest. By contrast, Chicago—the winner in the Western Division—had an average edge of fewer than four points a game.

But in that antic first season what else would the fates decree but for Washington to be eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs? The Warriors, led by the jump shooter Fulks, won the B.A.A. title, and the team’s tee-totaling coach, Eddie Gottlieb, celebrated by consuming the five martinis he had vowed to drink in one sitting if his Warriors triumphed. Knocked them back with no apparent effect.

That too was as it should be. For in the first season nothing added up. Things were always just a bit out of whack. Measured against seasons in the distant future—in terms of monetary and artistic success—1946–47 could properly be viewed as a colossal failure. The B.A.A.’s own president, Podoloff, would see it that way years later. And by his standards, it was.

Yet the league survived—and grew. In 1948–49 the B.A.A. absorbed the Fort Wayne, Rochester, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis franchises from its chief rival, the National Basketball League, and in August 1949 it was formally renamed the National Basketball Association. The following season, 1949–50, more surviving N.B.L. teams—from places like Anderson, Indiana; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and Waterloo, Iowa—were added. The loss of those teams effectively killed off the N.B.L. and left the N.B.A. as the pro basketball league. Its recognition and financial success would grow slowly, making a quantum leap in the 1980s, when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson captured the public’s fancy and league marketing strategy exploited their popularity at the same time Madison Avenue did.

So 1946–47 remains connected in time to all basketball, linked to men like Honey Russell, who stood for the two-fisted approach of an earlier game, and to Red Auerbach, who was already out in front of the new game. The first season was a beginning—and a bumpy one. But beginnings are like that. For those who were part of that season, the spirit of it is what matters. It was, as Chuck Connors put it, “a night in the flower of a guy’s youth and enthusiasm. Where could he have had it better than to be among a bunch of ballplayers and playing ball? With people yelling and screaming for him.”