Saturday, July 25, 2009

The NBA Celebrates Birthday #60 Next Week

The NBA Celebrates Birthday #60 Next Week By Evan Weiner

July 25, 2009

11:30 AM EDT

The National Basketball Association celebrates birthday number 60 on August 3. David Stern's NBA of 2009 is made up of smoke and mirrors, lasers and loud music, dunks and ballet. Its cell phones at courtside, luxury boxes with waiter service and wired seats, arenas with wide concourses for customers to buy merchandise and in-arena restaurants and food courts.Maurice Podoloff's NBA of 1949 was the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals in first and featured game of a doubleheader with the home team against an opponent as the night cap along with double headers at Madison Square Garden featuring four teams. Eventually half of the league’s teams, four squads, could be found in one arena on certain nights at the Garden.

August 3, 1949 is the date that Podoloff’s Basketball Association of America completed poaching National Basketball League franchises and unified “major league” professional basketball under one umbrella. The BAA started in 1946 with teams in the United States’ big east coast cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston while the NBL began life in 1937 in the American Midwest "We had doubleheaders just to get the people into the Garden," said Jerry Fleishman who played with the BAA New York Knickerbockers. In fact the Knicks didn't even play a full schedule of games at the Garden as they also used an armory as a home court. Today, if the Knicks are good, the waiting list for a Knick ticket is long and the team, when if it is good, can sell out for years. "One day the Warriors played the Boston Celtics and the Knicks played the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons named after Fred Zollner the owner."We used to play in a high school in Fort Wayne and if you went into the stands after a lay up, you'd come out chewed up" Fleishman was also in the forerunner of the Continental Basketball Association, the Eastern Basketball League which was a weekend minor league. He played for Scranton on Saturday and Sunday and was in business the rest of the week. Fleishman's NBA stories are pretty much the same as other league pioneers. The BAA and the NBL were rag tag collection of teams that were poorly financed and made moves based on finances not talent.

“In the first couple of years, nobody knew whether this thing was going to last,” said Ralph Kaplowitz who played in the BAA’s first game as a member of the 1946-47 Knicks. “As you look back, all the teams really had trouble, as a matter of fact a couple of the teams dropped out after the first year.”

Kaplowitz was sold to Philadelphia in the middle of January 1947.

“I was fortunate because I was instrumental in helping the team win the World’s Championship at that time with Joe Fulks, Howie Dallmar, George Senesky, Angelo Musi and Jerry Fleishman. We had a great team.”

The Philadelphia Warriors may have been the best team in the BAA and the BAA may have had the big cities but the NBL had the talent and one talent in particular, George Mikan. The BAA wanted Mikan in its league and to get him they had to entice the Minneapolis Lakers to leave the NBL. Podoloff and his owners looked at the Minneapolis team and saw an opportunity to make money.

“I was probably part of it because the BAA was getting started at the time and the old league was the National League and they (the BAA) went in and took four of the top teams,” said Mikan. “I was with the Chicago American Gears and then I was drafted by the Lakers and played with them before the merger. The merger came in 1949.”

The BAA and NBL needed the Harlem Globetrotters to help with recognition and on February 19, 1948, Abe Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters took on the National Basketball League’s Minneapolis Lakers in the first game of a doubleheader at Chicago Stadium. The Basketball Association of America’s New York Knicks and Chicago Stags played what was thought to be the “main” game but the 17,823 fans who attended the game wanted to see the Globbies and the Lakers. The Lakers weren’t in the BAA, so it was just an “exhibition game” that featured Goose Tatum and Marquis Haynes. The Lakers had Mikan. Mikan started out his career with the Chicago American Gears of the Professional Basketball League of America in 1947-48. The league never made it past November 12, 1947. The 16-team PBLA folded and Lakers ended up with the big guy from DePaul University.

The first Lakers-Globetrotters match up was still on the mind of the Minneapolis coach in 1947 John Kundla decades later. He was still smarting over the 61-59 Globetrotters win.

“The first two games they beat us,” said Kundla. “I will tell you, I am not making excuses but (Jim) Pollard didn’t play in the first game and I think Don Carlson didn’t play in the second game, but what happened too was that Abe Saperstein had both of his officials. Another thing, Jim Pollard mentioned it to me, it was an exhibition game. We didn’t get a cent for it. Like Jim Pollard said, we didn’t even get a cup of coffee for it.

“I didn’t mean any thing, it was sort of a resting fun game. But when they beat us twice in a row, we had pride and they never beat us again. And I will tell why, Max Winter, our general manager, said when we were going to play them a third time said, Abe you have one of your officials and the NBA will have one of our officials and we didn’t have any trouble with them since.”

The Lakers-Globetrotters games were pretty devoid of the Globetrotters stock and trade fancy dribbling and wise cracks except for one routine at the end of one of the games which still bothered Kundla.

“No they didn’t except Marquis Haynes dribbled once in a while,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “He dribbled for the last part of part of the (second) game when they had a four or five point lead for a little while. When he got to Minneapolis (on March 14, 1949), we had the biggest crowd ever there, Slater Martin did the same thing, he repaid him for that dribbling.”

The Globetrotters beat the Lakers for a second time on February 28, 1949 before 20,046 people at Chicago Stadium. The 49-45 win would be the last time the Globetrotters would beat the Lakers.

A healthy Lakers team defeated the Globetrotters 68-53 two weeks later.

“Yeah, we had a little pride, because we won the championship the first two years too,” said Kundla on finally beating the Globetrotters. “We weren’t going to take that anymore. After the humiliation, they started playing ball. I think the last game we played (January 3, 1958) Abe Saperstein left the Chicago Stadium and disappeared for two days.

Bobby Wanzer was the 10th pick overall by the Rochester Royals in the 1948 BAA draft. He was older than most first year players being 27 years old but had been in the Marines during World War II and then went to Seton Hall University. Wanzer just wanted to play some ball and then get on with his life. Instead he ended up playing nine years in Rochester and only quit because of a knee injury at the age of 36. He was a player-coach with Rochester and coached with the Cincinnati Royals. He became a basketball lifer until he was 40 which was totally unexpected.

“A lot of us came out of the service and we figured we play a few years and then go to work. But it beat working. We all loved the game and probably would have played it for nothing,” Wanzer said. “Coming out of the service, you missed three years out of your life or four. It was just great to be able to play ball.”

Wanzer was joining a Rochester Royals squad that had just left the National Basketball League along with Minneapolis, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis to joining the Basketball Association of America. Wanzer thought the National league was the stronger of the two “major” professional leagues at the time and the shift of the four franchises probably saved the BAA.

Rochester’s Les Harrison brought athletes to Rochester, his collection included baseball players Del Rice and Chuck Connors and an eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer, Otto Graham who led the Cleveland Browns to championships in both the All American Football Conference and the National Football League. Graham is the answer to a trivia question. He is the only athlete to win “major league” championships in basketball with the 1945-46 Royals and the 1946 Cleveland Browns of the AAFC in the same calendar year.

The NBL was not a fulltime enterprise. Graham ended up with the Browns. And quarterbacked Paul Brown's championship squad. Graham became a football superstar and one of football’s highest paid performers, something that was no going to happen in Rochester playing basketball. "We won the championship in all four years there," said Graham. "We played in the championship game six straight years in the NFL and won three of the six there. I went to college on a basketball scholarship. I didn't even play football I played intramural football," he said. I played with the Royals the season before the All American Football Conference had started. My teammates were Del Rice, Chuck Connors, the Rifleman of TV fame (both of whom also played Major League Baseball Bob Davies, Red Holtzman, Fuzzy Levane and we won the championship. "I think I'm the only guy to have played on a championship basketball team and football team in the same year (1946). I played in Fort Wayne, Indiana and in fact they did dominate professional basketball at that time. We knocked them off. It was fun. But basketball took up too much time and I couldn't play football and basketball both, so I stuck with football. "The NBL was the best league in the world. The Browns hadn't started yet and the Browns and the All American Football Conference didn't start until the fall of 1946. So I had nothing to do at that time, so after I started football, it overlapped with basketball and I didn't go back."

Both Wanzer and Graham agreed. The NBL caliber of ball was better than the BAA.

“Actually our league (the NBL) had the best teams,” Wanzer explained. “Us, Fort Wayne, Minneapolis, that was the savior.”

Rochester had been a strong basketball outpost. The Rochester Seagrams basketball team was one of the strongest independent operations in the United States and the team barnstormed the nation. The Seagrams became the Pros and the team was asked to join the National Basketball League in 1946 after the end of World War II. The team was renamed in Royals in a name the team contest and won the NBL Pennant in 1946-47. The Royals took home another flag in 1947-48 but lost a playoff game to Chicago and went home. The following season, the Royals finished with the best record in the NBL but lost to George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers in the NBL Finals three games to one.

The Royals and Lakers were BAA powerhouses. The Royals were 45-15 in 1948-49 but the team’s playing facility, the Edgerton Park Arena was strictly third rate and possibly dangerous for opposing players finishing lay ups. If the arena’s side doors were open, the player might have ended up in his uniform in the parking lot freezing during a cold and snowy Rochester winter.

“It was a regulation court but there was very little space between the end of the court and the swinging doors, you can run right out and end up in the snow,” Wanzer laughed. “You were lucky if it didn’t lock on you, you were out in the snow. The arena was a little way from the lake (Ontario) but it wasn’t the coldest building.”

Wanzer’s Royals did win a BAA championship despite the presence of Mikan in the league. The Royals beat the New York Knickerbockers in seven games in 1951. Mikan’s team had eliminated the Royals in the previous three playoffs.

“Well we had to beat them once in a while,” Wanzer laughed. “He (Mikan) was a great player. As I said the two best teams in basketball in those days was Minneapolis and us. Each year we would win the division or they would win it. In the playoffs, they always managed beat us but the one year we beat them and we went onto win the championship.”

Otto Graham might have continued his basketball career if the money was right with Rochester in the NBA although his teammate Fuzzy Levane said Otto planned to play just two years of pro basketball.

Graham was the highest paid player in the NFL when his career ended in 1955. He made $25,000. In mid-1990s dollars, that $25,000 would be worth about $400,000 according to Graham. The Browns received less than a $1,000 per man for winning the 1946 AAFC championship. Graham said the entire the 1950 NFL championship season was the highlight of his career. Travel was limited to buses and trains in both football and basketball. "Rochester is now out in Sacramento after going to Cincinnati and Kansas City and Fort Wayne is in Detroit. I remember one train trip. We played a ballgame in Rochester; we spent the night on a train, not a sleeper but sitting up all night long. I was so mad and we had to go to Oshkosh two nights later. That's the way it was in those days. Our owner (Lester Harrison) wanted to save money. "It's tough to do both sports," he said of Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson who played Major League Baseball and were in the NFL at the same time in the 1990s. "But if I was paid they kind of money they got, I would be tempted."

In today’s NBA, virtually every player has a guaranteed contact. In the BAA, there was no such thing as a guaranteed contract. Players would come and go like Bill (Butch) van Breda Kolff who joined the Knicks in February 1947.

“I think all the pro players now should spend a year the way it was then,” van Breda Kolff laughed as he recalled the formative days of the NBA in the mid-1990s. “Then they would appreciate their lot. The absurdity of the thing nowadays is that these players don’t have any idea of how good they have it.

“And yet, we didn’t complain in those days either because we were doing what we wanted to do. We wanted to play basketball, we loved to play and we got paid anyway. We got five dollars per day, per diem when we were on the road and if you were going on a train, you can’t eat for five dollars in a day. But that was the way it was and we did it.”

Basketball players had other careers to pursue, no one was going to get rich off of the basketball industry, not the owners, not the general managers, not the coaches and not the players. The NBL and BAA was loaded with young guys either out of college or fresh from fighting in World War II and basketball was a way station for a couple of years to kick back and then get on with life.

“I don’t whether it was the NBA or the BAA or the NBA again, I don’t know, I think more of it, we had a lot of fun,” said van Breda Kolff. “And if you lose a few games in a row, then we would start singing. ‘Someone’s gotta go.’ Because if you lose a few, they were always looking to pick someone up. There is no such thing as guaranteed contracts, no cuts. You were there day by day.

“We’d sing it right in the locker room before a game. You lose four in a row, you’d said hey fellas we got to win one because ‘Someone’s gotta go!’ We would get together, all we have to do is play better defense, look for each other a little bit more, play together a little but hard, do everything, the fundamentals and then we would win a few games.”

There was very little money that was lost if a player got cut.

“The first year, I don’t think anybody got paid more than five or six thousand dollars or something like that,” said van Breda Kolff. “Multiple that by 12 people and the payroll would be at the most $100,000. Train, train, train and then in that one year they put in Denver, Anderson, Indiana, and Oshkosh, and Sheboygan and those, I think we flew a couple times to Chicago but most of the times it was train.”
The Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League buried the hatchet and merged entities on August 3, 1949. The United States Congress didn’t have to approve the business transaction and President Harry S. Truman didn’t have to sign legislation that created a professional basketball monopoly. The owners just merged their leagues.

“The National Professional Basketball League and the BAA merged in 49-50. The year before that, four teams from the National Professional Basketball League, Rochester, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne jumped the National Basketball League and merged with the BAA,” said Levane. “The next year, they (the BAA) wanted Syracuse and another team, Anderson but the heads of the National Professional League said either you take every team or you don’t take any.

“Leo Ferris from Syracuse with Danny Biasone signed up the five Kentucky kids to own the Indianapolis franchise and that was the thing that set up the whole thing.”

The NBA became a 17 team league but it remained just a step above minor league levels.

“All the old guys, Ned Irish (Knicks), Les Harrison, Gottlieb from Philly would turn over in their graves if they saw what is going with a $2.4 billion TV contract and guys like Ewing and Jordan making $20 million a year, it was inconceivable,” said Levane nearly 50 years after the merger took place. “The last guy on the Knickerbockers making the minimum salary which is $250,000 which was ten times as much as the whole Rochester Royals payroll in 1945-46 which was a championship ball club.

“I will tell you the names on that ball club, Al Cervi, Red Holtzman, Bobby Davies, Otto Graham, Chuck Connors, Fuzzy Levane, Dutch Garfinkle and so on. That was a pretty good crew.”

Those names mean next to nothing to most NBA fans although Holtzman is still treated as a deity in New York for winning two championships as the New York Knicks coach in 1970 and 1973 and his protégé Phil Jackson has had a stellar coaching career. Graham is in the Football Hall of Fame and somewhere, someone is watching old Rifleman TV shows on the web that feature Connors who is remembered as an actor not as a basketball or baseball player.

The NBA at 60 bears no resemblance to the entity that was formed six decades ago on August 3.

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