I still love to watch professional basketball. I have stayed up late at night to see the conclusion of Laker-Nuggets games and still thrill to the final few minutes when all is decided. It’s been like that for as long as I can remember holding a basketball. I have a picture of myself over a water fountain, at age five, clutching a baskeball. The only times that I every played hookey was when I stopped at Hester Park at lunch and never went back to school.
I played schoolyard ball and freshman basketball at Queens College. I was never good enough to be a starter anywhere, but I was a good coach. I coached at the junior high level and in the Army.
When I go to the gym these days, I cannot really take a decent jump shot. When I come down on my feet, I have this awful feeling that I have just disrupted every vertebrae in my back. I can however, still dribble with both hands and take a 2011 version of the set shot. I sometimes even get one in. When I tire, I go to the foul line and still have the ability to put in a few in a row.
The NBA and its forerunners- the NBL and the BAA have been a part of my life since 1949. I was in the hospital during my polio experience and would listen to some of the games on the radio. I had no idea who any of the players were, but the announcers made the games so exciting.
There was nothing like going to a game at Madison Square Garden. We got these G.O. (General Organization) cards from our school and could get in to the Garden for 50 cents. We would, of course sit in the nose bleed section, but could see all of the action and scream our fool heads off.
1949 was a seminal year in the pros. The BAA and the NBL merged to become the NBA. They elected Maurice Podoloff as the Commissioner ( although I don’t remember if that was his original title). A number of the teams in the two leagues folded, usually because of a lack of funds. The NBL had been around since 1937 and has some established cities, while the BAA was a three year old newcomer.
The name of the teams were emblazoned on this eleven year old. I can remember them to this day-the Chicago Stags, Philadelphia Warriors, Providence Steamrollers, St. Louis Bombers, Washington Capitols, Baltimore Bullets, Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, Indianapolis Jets, Rochester Royals and later, the Syracuse Nationals, Anderson Duffy Packers, Sheboygan Redskinis, Tri-Cities Blackhawks, Waterloo Hawksand the Minneapolis Lakers.
There are other teams that did not make it with some great names- the Pittsburgh Ironmen, Oshkosh All Stars, Detroit Vagabond Kinds, and the Toronto Huskies. These were teams in small cities and towns across the Eastern part of the U.S. The far West had not been discovered, not until the Lakers moved to L.A., but there was a team in Denver called the Nuggets.
Since I was a Knick fan, I hated the Syracuse Nats, the Minneapolis Lakers and the Rochester Royals. The Lakers had this huge fellow, George Mikan who was 6 ft. 10”. He was a moose with thick glasses and sharp elbows. When the Knicks played the Lakers, a 6 ft. 4” Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton would guard him with no success.
The Knicks had a coterie of decent players. Max Zaslofsky acquired from the Chicago Stages, Vince Boryla ( he of the great set shot), Harry Gallatin ( reputedly had the hardest ass in basketball) was the rebounder, Ernie Vandewegh ( who later was a dentist) and Connie Simmons ( from my Forest Hills High School). These were the names that I heard on the radio.
The Boston Celtics had not yet reached their nadir. However, Bob Cousy was a magician. It is said that when he played for Andrew Jackson H.S. in Queens, he once scored 100 points in one game against Forest Hills H.S. I have never been able to verify that.
Most of us knew that there were a bunch of black guys who could play in the NBA. It was obvious when the Harlem Globetrotters came to town to play some of the NBA teams and beat them that they should get a shot. When Chuck Cooper began to play with the Celtics, there was no hoopla at all. I don’t remember any remarks by any of the announcers. Cooper was followed quickly by Nat Clifon and then a host of other ballplayers. It culminated with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and finally the Big O, Oscar Robertson.
We might have seen one of the greatest of all time for just a little while, Maurice Stokes of St. Francis. He was struck down as a young man and remained in a wheelchair till his death. He played with Cincinatti and teamed with Jack Twyman.
The Syracuse Nationals played in Onondaga County War Memorial Stadium. It was a small place that fit the needs of guys like Dolph Shayes, Al Cervi, Ephaim “Red Rocha” and Earl Lloyd ( later on). The place was not fit for any visiting team to contend. At certain moments when Vince Boyla of the Knicks would be waiting for a foul shot, the fans would shake the backboard. It was close enough for the fans to touch the wires that held it and make it almost impossible to sink.
Somewhat later, the Phildelphia Warriors and Wilt moved to San Francisco and lo and behold, the Syracuse Nationals became th Philadelphia 76rs. By that time, I had moved to the Philadelphia area and had become estranged from the Knicks and am still a 76er fan today.
The early years of the NBA with no 24 second clock and a 6 ft. lane under the basket made for a slow and methodical game. Players would dribble the ball incessantly or hold it toward the end of the game. I believe that there was a game in which the Ft. Wayne Pistons won by 17-15, or something like that.
The invention of the 24 second clock (invented by Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nats) and the creation of the 12 ft. lane, made the game faster, higher scoring and somewhat less dominant by a big man. There would be no more George Mikans, but there would be Wilt, Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond, Kareem and many more to take their place.
It is a fond memory that I still relive when I watch pro games today. Sure, they are taller faster and more accurate ( look it up). However, they play the game with the same gusto and organization. Good players, good coaching and a plan is what makes the NBA of interest to me.