Monday, November 24, 2014
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When Pro Basketball Debuted in Philadelphia

With another NBA season about to begin, here's a look back to 1947, when this city's professional basketball team won the initial championship of a league that would soon be renamed the NBA.

When Pro Basketball Debuted in Philadelphia

Fans, mostly men in hats and ties, filled the musty corners of Philadelphia's Arena the night of April 22, 1947. Though the old West Philadelphia building had only 7,900 seats, the announced attendance would be 8,221. As the 9 p.m. start time neared, many of the 5,000 fans who were turned away lingered outside, beneath the El stop at 46th and Market Streets.

That night, the Philadelphia Warriors were playing in Game 5 of the first championship series of the Basketball Association of America, a league that two years later changed its name to the National Basketball Association.

Eddie Gottlieb, the South Philadelphia native who was the Warriors' coach and part owner, had been associated with numerous failed pro leagues. Surveying this enthusiastic crowd, he sensed that this one was going to make it.



But even Gottlieb, who died in 1979, would have been amazed at how that league, scheduled to being its lockout-shortened season on Christmas Day, has grown and prospered in the subsequent 64 years.

 He had been one of the Philadelphia Sphas -- a team of players from the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association --  who dominated the Eastern League in the 1920s and '30s. They'd played games at the Broadwood Hotel (later the Philadelphia Athletic Club) on North Broad Street, where Gottlieb lured fans by allowing women to enter free or by scheduling postgame dances.

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College basketball, on the other hand, boomed in the 1930s and '40s. Its big games were played before packed houses at Madison Square Garden, Philadelphia's Convention Hall and other big-city arenas.

The National Basketball League, founded in 1937, lent some credibility to the pro game when in 1946 it signed 6-foot, 10-inch DePaul all-American George Mikan to an unprecedented five-year, $60,000 contract.

But the NBL was destined to fail. Owners put teams in out-of-the-way places like Sheboygan, Oshkosh and Akron. Several played in YMCAs or basement gyms.

Yet it wasn't until 1946 that the NBL was seriously challenged.

That year, at a New York meeting of the Arena Managers Association - operators of big-city arenas - several members supported the idea of Boston Garden owner Walter Brown, who wanted to form a pro basketball league.

They met again June 6 at the Commodore Hotel, just down 42d Street from Grand Central Station. They were, by their own admission, not great basketball fans. But they were shrewd businessmen with sports backgrounds - 10 of the 11 also owned hockey teams.

Ned Irish, manager of Madison Square Garden, told them that his arena had hosted 29 college basketball programs in 1945-46 and that the Garden had been filled to 98 percent of capacity.

Irish said the NBL was not much of a rival, based entirely in smaller Midwestern cities. More important, he pointed out that a new league was a way to use arenas when there was no hockey game, no circus, no ice show.

With the arena owners convinced, the Basketball Association of America - which three years later would sweep up what remained of the dying NBL and rename itself the NBA - was born.

Philadelphia Arena manager Pete Tyrell and 10 other league investors put up a $10,000 franchise fee and agreed to limit total payrolls to $50,000.

Maurice Podoloff, a 5-foot-2 lawyer from New Haven, Conn., who held the same position with the American Hockey League, was named commissioner of the league. The original 11 teams were the Warriors, Toronto Huskies, Chicago Stags, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Rebels, Detroit Falcons, Pittsburgh Ironmen, Providence Steamrollers, St. Louis Bombers, Washington Capitols, and New York Knickerbockers.

The new league proclaimed its desire to showcase fresh faces - which meant it didn't want a salary battle with the NBL for stars.

"Remember, these owners were arena managers, and that was their first concern," recalled Red Auerbach, who was the 29-year-old coach of the Capitols that first year. "Basketball came way down the line, and they weren't eager to invest too much. But they made the right move by hiring Podoloff. He was a damn good administrator."

Podoloff quickly took charge, firing off almost daily memos. He scolded owners for failing to supply biographical information to the league's publicity director, standardized the paint color for rims and prodded them to develop attendance-boosting formulas.

The traditional 40-minute game, he said, would have to be extended to 48. A 40-minute game, he told them, would conclude in less than two hours, and a public used to doubleheaders and double-features liked to be entertained for more than two hours.

Several teams complained of the shabby treatment they were getting on the road, even being denied practice basketballs. An angry Podoloff memo demanded that at least five basketballs be provided for visitors.

But the BAA's big problem was attendance, especially in Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh. Podoloff experimented with 60-minute games in Chicago and Detroit.

"I attended the first 60-minute game at Chicago on Wednesday evening, Dec. 11," the commissioner wrote in yet another memo. "The game was not a good one."

*

Early BAA games were plodding and brutish. Scoring was limited (teams averaged 67 points a game), and shooting was horrible (a team total of 29 percent led the league).

Fans loved Philadelphia's Joe Fulks, who led the league in scoring, averaging 23 points a game (more than seven points higher than his nearest competitor), and helped change the game with his jump shot.

"Fulks wasn't a great jumper, but the fans loved the novelty of his shot," teammate Howie Dallmar said. "No one had ever jumped while shooting from distance before. But because of the novelty of it and the fact that he took the ball way back over his head, the shot was impossible to stop."

Fans came out to see Fulks, but attended few other games in great numbers. Philadelphia led the league in attendance with 128,950 fans for 30 home games, but Detroit (37,195), Pittsburgh (40,970) and Boston (50,454) struggled.

Noticing that the public liked Fulks' scoring, owners began to tamper.

Hoping to increase scoring, they took an important step in the league's development Jan. 11, 1947, by abolishing zone defenses. On July 28, they adopted the three-second violation.

The most important change came April 22, 1954, when, at the urging of Syracuse owner Danny Biasone, the 24-second clock was adopted.

One team that played a more contemporary style in 1945-46 was Auerbach's Capitols.

"We ran the same fastbreak that year that the Celtics [ran for years]," Auerbach said. "We had some talented players. People like Bob Feerick and Bones McKinney."

Auerbach's team went 49-11 - losing just once at home - and finished 14 games ahead of second-place Philadelphia in the Eastern Division.

But the Capitols became victims of an ill-conceived playoff system. Using the same formula he had employed in the AHL, Podoloff determined that the first-place team in the East would meet the first-place team in the West and so on down to the fourth-place teams.

The Western champion Stags eliminated the Capitols in the opening round.

With Fulks regularly hitting for more than 30 points a game now, the Warriors hit their stride late. They beat St. Louis and New York in three-game series to set the stage for the best-of-seven championship series against Chicago.

The Warriors won the first two games, then split two games in Chicago to set up the title-clinching game on that night in April. Before a wildly enthusiastic crowd, Fulks scored 34 and Philadelphia won the relatively high-scoring game, 83-80, to take the league's first championship.

The winners received no postgame calls from President Truman but earned an extra $2,150.

"I hope to get out of here soon," Fulks said afterward. "I'm two weeks behind in planting potatoes."

That first season hardly ensured success. Toronto, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit dropped out, and struggling Boston survived only because Podoloff wanted to keep solid owners like Brown. Baltimore joined for the second season - and won the title - and the next few years were marked by frequent franchise shifts.

Then, in the summer of 1947, the BAA and NBL signed a truce, promising to respect the contracts of each other's players. Before the 1948-49 season, four top NBL teams - including Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers, who went on to win the title that year - jumped to the BAA. The following year, the BAA absorbed five other NBL teams and adopted its new name - the National Basketball Association.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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