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In the beginning of the NBA

February 15, 2013

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Chicago American Gears 1947 NBL Champions *photo courtesy of hoopedia

Way back in 1946, the only really prestigious post-college basketball league was the National Basketball League (NBL) which comprised teams of the Anderson Duffy Packers, Buffalo Bisons (which became the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in December, 1946.. they are now the Atlanta Hawks), Chicago American Gears, Cleveland Allmen Transfers, Detroit Gems, Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons (now Detroit Pistons), Indianapolis Kautskys, Oshkosh All-Stars, Rochester Royals (now Sacramento Kings), Sheboygan Redskins, Syracuse Nationals (now Philadelphia 76ers), Toledo Jeeps and the Youngstown Bears.

Good god! How many big cities do you see in that list? Chicago.. and then there’s Cleveland, Detroit, and Indianapolis (moderately big – but not exactly media darlings).  After that, if you’re not from the Midwest, you probably don’t know where many (if any) of these places are (Anderson and Fort Wayne are in Indiana, Tri-Cities is in Illinois.. mostly, Oshkosh and Sheboygan are in Wisconsin, Toledo and Youngstown are in Ohio, and Rochester and Syracuse are in western New York).  Could you believe that College Basketball was king at the time?  Ned Irish was booking double-headers at Madison Square Garden in New York which were big media events and big fan events because of betting (that betting influence will become a problem.. we’ll get to that).  The NIT Championship was more popular at the time than the NCAA because it was at the Garden.

The reason I brought up 1946 in the beginning was because it was the year that arena owners (including Irish) came together and formed the Basketball Association of America (BAA).  The league comprised of the Boston Celtics, Chicago Stags, Cleveland Rebels, Detroit Falcons, New York Knickerbockers, Philadelphia Warriors (now Golden State Warriors), Pittsburgh Ironmen, Providence Steamrollers, St. Louis Bombers, Toronto Huskies, and Washington Capitols (the Knicks and Celtics were the only teams that still exist in either league to stay in their city of origin).

Many more big cities! especially New York, Boston and Philadelphia.  However, the first game was played in Toronto (Basketball Association of AMERICA and their first game is in TORONTO.. OK I’ll ignore it) on November 1, 1946.  The Huskies would take on the New York Knicks.  The Knicks’ Ossie Schectman scored the first basket of the league and finished the game with 11 points (Leo Gottlieb led the Knicks with 14) as the Knicks beat Toronto 68-66 (leading scorer for the Huskies was big man Ed Sadowski at 6’5″ with 18 points – yes, big men were 6’5″ then).

FirstNBAGamePoster

Program for the first ever game, see I told you 6’5″ was big for the time *photo courtesy of hoopedia 

The National Basketball League though (being more established) had all the stars.  The only star in the BAA was Joe Fulks who had signed with the Philadelphia Warriors.  Fulks led the BAA with a 23.1 points per game average (the second highest scorer was averaging 16.8).  Not surprisingly, the Warriors won the first BAA Championship in 1947, with Fulks leading the way averaging 26.2 points per game in the Finals versus the Chicago Stags (this included 21 points in the fourth quarter of Game 1 which was a Finals record until 1988, he finished with 37 in that game and 34 in the Championship-clinching Game 5).

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Joe Fulks (who was shot and killed in 1976 by the son of his girlfriend, according to Wikipedia) *photo courtesy of NNBD

The big oddity though was the Playoff format that first year where the top seed in the East played the top seed in the West in the Semifinals, and the 2nd and 3rd place teams played each other in the 1st round and the winner of those series played in the Semifinals (which was an old hockey format).

In an attempt to un-confuse you after that last sentence, in the East the number 1 seed was the Washington Capitols (coached by Red Auerbach, yep same guy who is the face of the Boston Celtics) with a 49-11 record, the 2 seed was the Champion Philadelphia Warriors (35-25) and the 3 seed was the New York Knicks (33-27).  In the West, the top seed was the Chicago Stags (39-22), the 2 seed was the St. Louis Bombers (38-23) and the 3 seed was the Cleveland Rebels (30-30).  In the Semifinals, the top seed in the East, Washington, played the top seed in the West, Chicago, in a best-of-7 (best two teams record-wise playing before the Championship series).  While Philadelphia played St. Louis (the 2 seeds) and New York played Cleveland (the 3 seeds) in best-of-3 formats and the winner of those series (Philadelphia and New York) played another best-of-3.  The winner of that series (Philadelphia) played the winner of Washington-Chicago (Chicago) in the Championship series.  If you’re further confused, here’s a link to the 1947 BAA Playoffs on basketball-reference.com (if you’re still confused after that, there’s always Wikipedia – unlike professors, I encourage the use of Wikipedia in learning stuff!).

Meanwhile, in the NBL the Chicago American Gears won the Championship in 1947 with rookie big man sensation George Mikan fresh out of DePaul (Mikan was 6’10” ..so he could have gotten into the 1st BAA game for free!).  The Gears owner then tried to form the Professional Basketball League of America in which he would own all 24 teams and their arenas (the league and the Gears failed after a month).  The Gears weren’t the only team to leave the NBL, the Cleveland Allem Transfers were gone along with Youngstown and Toledo (poor Ohio).  The Detroit Gems became the Minneapolis Lakers and were able to acquire Mikan from the disbanded Gears.  The Lakers with Mikan teaming with Jim Pollard and Herm Schaefer were able to win the 1948 NBL Championship.

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George Mikan (he looks a basketball player, doesn’t he?) *photo courtesy of LA Times

After the first BAA Season, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Toronto disbanded.  The Baltimore Bullets came from the American Basketball League (seen as a minor league) and became the 8th team in the BAA.  In the East, Champion Philadelphia was the top seed, New York the 2 seed and Boston the 3 seed.  In the West, St. Louis was the top seed and Baltimore, Chicago and Washington (moved from the East after the first season because of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Providence being in the East) tied for second.  After a tie-breaking playoffs, Baltimore became the 2 seed and Chicago the 3 seed.

For the second straight year (and last time) the 1 seeds played each other in the Semifinals with Philadelphia beating St. Louis in 7 games (winning Game 7 in St. Louis 85-46.. wow! ..I think for once the best team was not the home team in a Game 7).  Baltimore beat New York and Chicago (who beat Boston) to advance to the Finals versus Philadelphia.

The Championship series was supposed to be a mis-match as the champion Warriors were going to dominate the ‘expansion’ Bullets.  Baltimore however won the series in 6 games (even winning Game 2 in Philadelphia, 66-63, after trailing 41-20 at the half.. that would be a helluva comeback now, but in the pre-shot clock era? unthinkable).

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1948 Champion Baltimore Bullets *photo courtesy of sportsgrid

After the 1948 Season, the best teams of the NBL (Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals, Fort Wayne Pistons, and Indianapolis Kautskys – who changed their name to the Jets) came over to the BAA to play in bigger arenas.  With that, those 4 teams joined the West along with Chicago and St. Louis (Washington and Baltimore got moved to the East) and there were 4 playoff teams in each conference and they only played teams in the same conference until the Championship series.

Minneapolis (who beat top seeded Rochester in the Western Finals) beat the East’s top seed, Washington, to win the Championship.  The Anderson Packers won the 1949 NBL Championship.

1949 was the last year of both the BAA and the NBL (can you guess what happened next?), they came together to form the National Basketball Association (ahh.. a professional basketball league that sounds familiar).

Providence and Indianapolis folded from the BAA but the other 10 teams joined up with 7 NBL teams (Anderson, Sheboygan, Syracuse, and Tri-Cities.. along with recently formed Indianapolis Olympians, Waterloo (Iowa) Hawks and Denver Nuggets – nope not the same team that’s around now).  They formed three divisions where the Central Division winner (comprised of the Western Division teams of the BAA in 1949) played the Western Division winner (comprised of all 7 teams from the NBL minus Syracuse, who was moved to the East) in the Semifinals, and the winner of that played the Eastern Division winner in the NBA Finals.  If confused, here’s the 1949-50 NBA Season Summary link from basketball-reference.com (and there’s always Wikipedia)

Minneapolis survived the Central Division playoffs (well maybe not exactly survived.. they swept both Chicago and Fort Wayne) and played Anderson (who upset top-seeded Indianapolis in the Western Division Finals) for the right to meet Syracuse in the NBA Finals.  Minneapolis beat Anderson 2-0 (by tight scores of 75-50 and 90-71) and then beat Syracuse 4-2 in the NBA Finals (Minneapolis won the first game in Syracuse, 68-66, when Bob Harrison hit a 40-foot set shot at the buzzer).

Anderson folded after the 1950 Season, along with Chicago, St. Louis, Sheboygan, Waterloo, and Denver (Washington folded 35 games into the 1951 Season) to leave the league at 10 teams and back to 2 Divisions.  The NBA’s popularity started growing after the public’s sourness to College Basketball after the 1951 point-shaving scandals (almost equivalent on the effect of College Basketball as the 1919 World Series was to baseball – almost ruined it).

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Junius Kellogg of Manhattan College kicked off the 1951 betting investigation when he admitted to authorities that he was offered $1,000 to shave points *photo courtesy of a great article on Kellogg at ethicsstupid.com

This is where the NBA Highlight footage that I’ve collected starts (I’ve put together compilation footage of 1946-50 but it’s about 2 minutes long – and no none of my collection footage is on the internet, sorry.. actually the only footage that I can put online right now is stuff I’ve gotten from online).  So my next blog will start my own review of highlight packages put together of the 50’s (mostly those ones narrated by Marty Glickman) that I have along with eventually full games.  I hope to put out a blog weekly.

With that, I say good-bye and recommend reading 24 Seconds to Shoot if you want to learn more about the early NBA and Basketball (heck, that’s where I learned a lot of this information!).

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