50 YEARS AGO serious pro basketball was born. Or at least they tried to be serious.
To Horace Albert (“bones”) McKinney, listening over the phone in his parlor on Fourth Street in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the words of Arthur Morse sounded just fine. Morse, who was part owner of the Chicago Stags franchise in the brand-new Basketball Association of America (B.A.A.), was saying, “My friend, if Yankee Stadium was built for Babe Ruth, then Chicago Stadium was built for Bones McKinney.”
The Babe and Bones in one mouthful. Not bad, even if Morse was laying it on a bit thick. But in this autumn of 1946 McKinney didn’t mind the blarney. Working as he was in the personnel department of Hanes Hosiery and in off-hours playing for the company basketball team, he found the idea of a pro game appealing. But the prospect of flying to Chicago to wrap the deal—that was another story. If the good Lord had wanted him to fly, Bones liked to say, he’d have provided wings. So McKinney left by train, stopping en route in Washington, D.C.
He had told Arnold (“Red”) Auerbach, the twenty-nine-year-old coach of the Washington Capitols, that he had already committed to the Stags. But Auerbach persuaded him to lay over a few hours in Washington, saying that a couple of boys McKinney had played against in the service, Bob Feerick and John Norlander, were already under contract to the Caps, so why not stop in and say hello.
After disembarking at Union Station, McKinney watched the team practice and then joined Auerbach at the bar of the Blackstone Hotel. The coach proceeded to work a hard sell that Bones found awfully tempting. He was not sure what awaited him in Chicago, but if he chose to throw in with Norlander and Feerick—good as those two were—the Capitols were bound to be a contender. A ticklish situation.
Excusing himself, McKinney headed downstairs to the hotel’s washroom to think things over. But Auerbach was not about to leave this to chance. He followed McKinney straight to the John, talking as he went. Money? No problem: He’d match Morse’s seven-thousand-dollar offer. As for the rest, figure it out, he told Bones. Washington was closer to Winston-Salem than Chicago ever would be. He could move the family up here. Red ticked his points off and made an impression. Auerbach seemed an okay guy to McKinney. Which was why, on October 15, 1946—two weeks before the B.A.A. season was to begin—Horace Albert (“Bones”) McKinney became a Washington Capitol in the men’s room of the Blackstone Hotel.
So it went in the B.A.A.’s first season, which occurred fifty years ago—an anniversary that the National Basketball Association is now celebrating. The best-laid plans of the B.A.A., renamed the National Basketball Association (N.B.A.) in 1949, often went awry in that first year—and rarely with the happy results that Washington was to manage with McKinney, who wound up an all-league forward that year.
The pro game then was nothing like it is now. Imagine, if you will, a fan of today’s game sent speeding backward in time to 1946–47, the first season of the B.A.A. That time traveler would be in for a severe case of culture shock: He would find a pro game played exclusively by whites—blacks were restricted to barn-storming outfits like the Harlem Globetrotters—and at a pace and with an attitude that contrast to the modern game as, say, the fox trot does to the watusi.
B.A.A. players did not and could not jump to the ozone. Nor was there a twenty-four-second clock. Teams had unlimited time to set up a shot. The jump shot was a radical notion, and those who took it defied the belief of some coaches that nothing but trouble occurs when a fellow leaves his feet. From the ball itself, which players say was larger then, to the trouble they had shooting it, the contest was a markedly different one. In 1946–47 only one B.A.A. player, Washington’s Bob Feerick, made 40 percent of his tries from the field. Most other B.A.A. pros hit 30 percent or less of their shots, many of them ill-advised by today’s standards and resulting in an inordinate number of air balls and backboard-rattling caroms.
Actually, basketball as a pro spectacle was only a few steps removed from the game played decades before in ballrooms on whose slippery floors patrons danced afterward. In 1946–47 the game that had been an adjunct of people’s social lives would try to make it on its own. The impetus for the formation of the B.A.A. came from a group made up mostly of members of the Arena Managers Association of America. These men controlled indoor stadiums in many major American cities, and their past experience in professional sport had been with hockey. Most of them saw pro basketball simply as something to keep their calendars filled and their profits flowing through winters previously given over to hockey, ice shows, rodeos, and college 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
For nonstop antics, though, nobody topped Chuck Connors, a six-foot-six Celtic forward who would end up becoming better known as a movie actor and television’s “Rifleman.” Those who played with or against him in that first season remember him as a garish character who was forever theatrically on. In the stands during a preliminary game, in a railway station, or in the aisle of a plane, Connors would without prompting start spouting Shakespeare, or “The Face on the Barroom Floor.” In Boston’s first season he was a publicity man’s dream, ever ready to spread the then-dubious name of the Celtics to servicemen’s clubs or radio audiences —any place where a ham would do. “‘Casey at the Bat,’ twenty minutes on Boston, little jokes, and stuff,” Connors later said. “I was the original Garagiola. I never got paid then. I just went wherever Howie McHugh told me to go. I was kind of making up for my bad basketball by offering that service to the Celtics during the day.”
Indeed, his game was not much to speak of. Connors could run, and he could rebound, but he was a poor shot, averaging 4.6 points a game while making only 24 percent of his field-goal tries at a time when 28 to 30 percent was respectable. His teammate Harold Kottman, who often guarded him in practices, would slack off Connors so noticeably that Connors was obliged to warn him: “Kottman, guard me, you son of a bitch or I’m gonna knock every tooth in your head out. You’re making me look bad.”
Al Brightman, another Celtic teammate: “He wanted to be an actor. And he was plying his trade on everybody all the time. He’d get on top of those lockers in train stations and even denounce Roosevelt. Which was real sacrilege in those days. But for Chuck, anything to get a crowd. ‘Now that I have you here’—and he’d go into his spiel.”
John Simmons, Celtic teammate: “I saw him once in a train station go up to this short guy—total stranger—four foot ten, maybe. Walk up to him and lift up the guy and say, ‘Dad, where have you been? I haven’t seen you in a while.’ Six foot six, Chuck was, and had this big booming voice, and everybody would be laughing at this little guy that’s his ‘father.’ Or if he saw a girl in a department store, he’d come out with a quote like, ‘Glory be to God. And there she is—dawn on the hills of Ireland.’ And then he’d be off on his big routine with her.”
Connors: “Another one was: ‘Have you heard this, my dear...?’ And then I’d lay one on. ‘If I were king— ah love, if I were king! / What tributary nations would I bring/ to stoop before your scepter and to swear / Allegiance to your lips and eyes and hair. / Beneath your feet what treasures would I fling: / The stars should be pearls upon a string, / The world a ruby for your finger ring / And you should have the sun and moon to wear. / If I were king.... But honey, I haven’t got any dough. Let’s go to your place.’ What poem? It’s one by FranÇois Villon. But I added some lines to it. His was too short.”
Connors and the Celtics often stumbled during the first season, and it sometimes drove their coach Honey Russell half-crazy. In St. Louis, when his team blew still another late-game lead to the Bombers, Russell left and made his way back to Boston on his own. His players wound up stranded in Buffalo, New York, during a blizzard. With time on their hands the Celtics proceeded to drink liberally at the train-station bar and then decided to huddle around a civic monument—a life-size bison built of cement and coated in bronze. In the tomfoolery that followed, the creature’s tail was severed from its body, an incident that made the newspapers and compounded the ill will Russell already bore his charges. When the players finally reunited with him back in Boston for a team practice, the coach was in a foul mood.
“And Honey was a rough man in his day,” said Connors. “Behind his back we used to call him the Chicken Hawk; his nose had been broken about six times. It looked like an S-turn in the road. But we loved the guy. He was tougher than nails. So anyway, he had all of us on the bench. And he started up about the antics in the St. Louis game and all the things we’d gotten into on the way back. And then he got into the fact we used to go to this bar called the Blue Moon a lot. It was right around the corner from the gym. And one of the players that went there was Harold Kottman. Kottman was six-eight, and he was very young. He was from Glasgow, Missouri, a real small town, and he wasn’t used to big-city life. He used to go down to the Blue Moon and cry in his beer to the bartender, saying what a sh— coach Honey was. Which somebody passed on to Honey. And God, mad as Honey was at all the rest of us, he was even madder at Kottman. So thank God for Harold. He saved all our asses. It didn’t make Honey so mad that somebody had pulled the tail out of the buffalo and all the other things we had done. But Kottman saying he was a sh— coach—that got him crazy. What he did was he told Harold if he’d get that six-eight ass of his up off the bench, he’d drop him right there. Well, no need to tell you, Harold stayed right where he was. Didn’t budge.”
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.”