Thursday, February 28, 2013

the Rhapsody interview, with Tiger Rag author Nicholas Christopher

"But he was crazy at that point. He talked to himself. He wouldn't speak to anyone. And supposedly one day out of nowhere, he picked up a cornet and played . . . "

the latest Rhapsody interview, this with Tiger Rag author Nicholas Christopher.

like, jazz, man.


the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt six)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

The opening games at Kezar Pavilion confirmed the preseason prognostications. Decked in modish new warm-ups with gold capes, USF stretched its winning streak to twenty-nine games by dismantling Chico State, University of Southern California, and San Francisco State. Russell looked dominant. On offense, he operated more from the high post, opening space for drives through the wider lane. He averaged nearly a point per minute played, and Woolpert pulled him out halfway through each rout. On defense, he delighted the hometown fans with effortless swats. “It was like a big boy playing keep-away with small boys,” marveled Sports Illustrated. USF seemed nearly invincible.

After final exams the team embarked on a sixteen-day, seven-game tour across the country. It began in Chicago at the DePaul Invitational Tournament, the old stomping grounds of George Mikan. The great center had attended DePaul from 1941 to 1945 before joining the pros. When Russell was a fifteen-year-old third-string center for the McClymonds junior varsity, he watched his first professional game, an exhibition featuring the Minneapolis Lakers. After the game, Mikan saw the gangly black kid outside the locker room. “How ya’ doin’, big fella?” asked Mikan. He talked to Russell for fifteen minutes, urging him to keep playing basketball. From that day on, Russell idolized Mikan.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt five)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Russell led USF from anonymous underachievers in a weak-sister conference to the reigning titans of college basketball. As the Dons won, they effected a fundamental transformation. Before their winning streak, a snapshot of big-time college basketball revealed white players focused on deliberate, earthbound offensive patterns. After the streak, that picture showed a racially integrated unit, playing a premium on speed and aggressive defense, controlling not just horizontal but vertical space. If one man was the avatar of this transformation, it was Bill Russell.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt four)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

As basketball evolved, it drifted from its original ideological underpinnings. “Games demanding team play are played by the Anglo-Saxon peoples, and by these peoples alone,” declared Luther Gulick, who ran the Springfield YMCA and trained James Naismith. But the new immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embraced basketball. The original Celtics, the greatest professional teams of the 1920s, contained an ethnic hodgepodge led by the Jewish star Nat Holman. By the 1930s basketball was “the Jewish game.” The South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, known as the SPHAs, captured copious league and tournament championships. Basketball provided a vehicle of assimilation, contradicting stereotypes of Jews as weak intellectuals. Into the early 1950s, Jews still composed a significant percentage of professional basketball players.

African Americans played basketball, too, but the sport did not always occupy a central place in black culture. Basketball was rooted in patterns of city life, and when Naismith invented the sport, blacks were the least urban group in America. The Great Migration quite literally changed basketball’s complexion. Black urban areas became centers of sporting life. Elite clubs steeped in the ideals of Muscular Christianity, such as St. Christopher in New York and Loendi’s Big Five in Pittsburgh, staged games on Friday and Saturday nights, often followed by dances. Black youths could play in YMCAs, athletic clubs, and schools. Washington, DC, established the first black high school athletic association in 1906, and a national black high school tournament in 1929. Basketball teams at prestigious schools featured African Americans, including Paul Robeson at Princeton and Ralph Bunche at UCLA.

Monday, February 25, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt three)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Russell still needed a means of self-expression, and he ultimately found it in basketball. But that discovery never occurred during high school. He played the sport, but without distinction, and only by the good graces of a stern, thickset, buzz-cut white man named George Powles. With a knack for fostering children’s self-esteem, Powles coached sandlot and semipro baseball teams, supervised youth leagues, and invited gaggles of kids to raid his wife’s refrigerator. He coached an astounding number of future professional athletes, including baseball major leaguers Vada Pinson, Billy Martin, and Joe Morgan, professional football players Ollie Matson and John Brodie, and Bobby Woods of the Harlem Magicians. Powles also coached three extraordinary barrier-breakers: Frank Robinson, the first black manager in the Major Leagues; Curt Flood, who challenged baseball’s reserve clause; and Bill Russell.

Powles had been Russell’s junior high homeroom instructor, and he transferred to McClymonds when Russell was in tenth grade. Despite no basketball experience, Powles coached the junior varsity. He found a place for Russell on the end of the bench. The sixteenth player on a squad of fifteen, Russell shared a uniform with the second-worst player. “We want Russell!” fans would chant at the end of blowouts, only to hoot and jeer at his awkward efforts.

Yet Powles recognized something in Russell—maybe potential, maybe desperation. He mentored the benchwarmer, insisting that Russell would improve. Powles urged team members to challenge Russell in practice, stirring Russell’s competitive juices. Powles even lent him two dollars to join the Boys Club and play pickup games. Russell remained so awkward that senior members of the Boys Club excluded him. The 6’2” high schooler thus endured the humiliation of playing with younger children.

Powles got promoted to varsity coach before Russell’s junior year. He knew little about basketball fundamentals or strategy, so he coached a fast, free-flowing style that exploited his players’ creativity and athleticism. The players appreciated his trust, care, and honesty about the racial politics of sport. “You’ve got an all-Negro team here,” he told them. “If another team has a fight, it will be called a melee. If you get into a fight, it’s a riot.” The players learned not only self-discipline, but also that black athletes lived by higher standards. Their on-court actions had off-court implications.

Meanwhile, Powles kept an eye on his pet project. Russell had sprouted four inches in one year, and though his height later paid dividends, it now made him even clumsier. Powles encouraged Russell to believe in himself. He also lent an unorthodox coaching tip, suggesting that Russell improve his coordination by playing table tennis. The new jayvee coach cut him, but Powles had him practice with the varsity team. That promotion validated the sensitive young man. “The very fact that I made the high-school squad changed my whole outlook on life,” he reflected. Joining a team delivered a sense of belonging.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt two)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Then, in the fall of 1946, Katie Russell died. Charlie Russell had come home from the hospital, woken his children in the darkness, and simply told them, “Your mother died tonight.” She had been hospitalized for two weeks with a mysterious flu-like sickness, and then her kidneys failed. Her death surprised her doctors. “We’ll have to stick together now,” said Charlie.

Bill was twelve years old. For months afterward he dreamed of his mother hugging him, rocking him awake in the morning, telling him that she would never leave. During the funeral back in Louisiana, he refused to look at her corpse. He could not accept her absence. No instance in Bill Russell’s life molded him more than his mother’s death. She had implanted him with his sense of self and a sense of security. Even as an adult, he sought to protect himself from the pain of personal loss.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt one)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Education opened one path to marketable skills, critical-thinking abilities, and slipping the fetters of Jim Crow. But after World War One, local whites burned down the original black schoolhouse in West Monroe. Charlie Russell went to school in a church, funded by parents who paid a teacher one dollar a week. During the Depression, Governor Huey Long discoursed about educating Louisiana blacks, but parish school boards hoarded state funds for white schools. Bill attended school in a ramshackle barn propped up by poles.

The Russell family nevertheless implanted values of self-improvement, upward mobility, and independence. Neither middle-class hoity-toities nor dirt-shack poor—just “average-type people,” according to one cousin—they earned the esteem of Monroe’s black community. The Old Man, as Bill called his grandfather, was something of a community patriarch. Choosing jobs that preserved his independence, he worked as a farmhand, drayman, and trader. Mister Charlie, as Bill called his father, worked at the Brown Paper Mill Company. This large, imposing, gregarious man commanded respect. He built Bill’s sense of dignity. He said that it was fine to dig ditches, so long as you became the best ditchdigger in Louisiana. Bill had role models in his father, grandfather, and also his brother Chuck, who was two years older.

But no one shaped Bill’s early life more than his mother, Katie Russell. “When I think about my mother for any reason,” he recalled, “what first jumps to mind are memories of her telling me that she love me more than anyone in the world.” She doted on him, washed him in affection. She also told him that some people would always hate him for his black skin. Her integrity complemented her warmth—once, when Charlie got too drunk and rowdy, she bashed him with an iron pipe. Bill felt safe around her. Katie Russell embodied the resistance of black women in the Jim Crow South: women who endured the double prejudice of race and gender, who worked and raised children, who envisioned a better life for their families. Katie insisted that Mister Charlie open college funds when the boys were still babies. Charlie and Katie also resisted the custom of large families, so they could properly feed and educate their two sons.

Friday, February 22, 2013

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt twelve)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

Between the territorial picks and regular drafts, a team could aspire to improve its record pretty quickly if it acquired a top-flight rookie. While baseball rookies rarely led the American or National League in major statistical categories such as home runs, batting average, wins, or earned run average, professional basketball rookies sometimes vaulted to the top of statistical categories. Wilt Chamberlain led the NBA in scoring and rebounding during his rookie season while Oscar Robertson led the league in assists as a rookie.

Although George Mikan’s retirement heralded a shift in the league’s balance of power, talented rookies such as Pettit, Russell, Baylor, Chamberlain, Robertson, and West became the league stars who remain in the public’s consciousness. (Really, how many modern fans know of George Mikan, Bob Cousy, Dolph Schayes, Bob Davies, and a host of other early NBA stars?)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt eleven)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

The league passed the rule adopting a twenty-four-second shot clock a month later. Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone devised the rule by dividing the complete game time of forty-eight minutes by an average number of field goals attempted during a game. Apparently Biasone had tried earlier to convince his fellow owners that a shot clock would alleviate many of the woes occurring late in the game. Biasone was not alone in advocating for a shot clock; referee Eddie Boyle and Boston Celtic Ed Macauley both urged implementing some sort of time limit on possessing the ball. Macauley told a luncheon audience: “Make us shoot the ball within a certain time and you’ll see a better game. Imagine the feeling of fans at the game or at home listening on the radio, when they know the other club has to shoot the ball and their team can get possession late in a game with a resultant chance to tie or win.” As with baseball’s choice of ninety feet between bases, the NBA’s twenty-four-second rule seems a perfect choice in balancing offense and defense. Olympic and college game eventually chose variations on the rule, with college basketball waiting decades before implementing a shot clock. The league also changed the number of team fouls per quarter before assessing penalty free throws. Initially the rule stipulated that a team would be allowed two free throws for every foul committed on the team over six in any quarter (with suitable adjustment for overtime periods). Owners, coaches, players, and fans quickly embraced the new rules.

Within a year the twenty-four-second shot clock received praise such as, “It is this rule that can be singularly pointed to today as re-establishing the spectator interest that has now been rejuvenated in America’s most popular wintertime activity.” Sportswriter Harold Rosenthal commented in 1958: “The freeze and its various stalling overtones were putting the game ‘on ice’ in more ways than one. The proceedings had degenerated into an ugly exhibition of late hacking and fouling. . . . [Implementation of the shot clock means that] today no lead is safe in the last two minutes. Few indeed are the customers who will leave before the final buzzer, no matter how cock-eyed the margin seems to be at the moment.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt ten)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

Pro coaches eventually took the infinite loop that passed as basketball’s fourth quarters to extremes. While NBA teams possessed greater parity than many college teams, coaches of inferior teams usually wanted to reduce the number of possessions in any game rather than let the “law of large numbers” shrink their hopes of victory. The game that supposedly forced the NBA to implement its twenty-four-second rule occurred on November 23, 1950. The Fort Wayne Pistons decided to stall against the hometown Minneapolis Lakers, who were the defending champions. The Pistons’ stall tactics worked, as they snapped the Lakers’ streak of twenty-nine consecutive wins at home and won their first game of the young 1950-51 season. The final score, 19-18, though, was an embarrassment to the league. Readers should note, however, that the NBA’s twenty-four-second shot clock did not debut until the 1954-55 season. Red Holzman, New York Knicks coach, recalled a game with six overtimes played in 1951. He thought that was the game that helped instigate the shot clock. According to him, whoever got the ball at the start of an overtime period held it for the last shot. “It was usually us, and I held the ball while the fans booed the shit out of us. Finally we lost 75-73.”

The evil twin of stalling was a roughhouse fouling in hopes of getting possession as the game waned. Between stalling, fouling, and marching to free-throw lines, NBA action languished. The owners, aghast at their coaches’ antics, initially tried a “gentleman’s agreement” against stalling and fouling. Even a contributing writer to a team program excoriated the owners’ inability to curb their coaches’ tactics, writing: “[The owners] called it the Honor System and they were proud of the maneuver that was to drown the complaints of the paying customers who didn’t like their basketball dragged out. It seems to me that this solution lasted about two weeks before the hammering and howling started all over again.” The writer’s scorn was justified. An earlier article in the New York Times described the league’s action taken in January 1954: “The NBA board of governors decided last night that putting its coaches on an ‘honor system’ was the best way to reduce excessive fouling. . . . Unable to agree on any of the numerous suggestions advanced to curb deliberate trading of fouls in the closing minutes of games, the board put upon the coaches the burden of controlling the foul situation.” The reporter ended with the laconic observation, “It will be interesting to see if this works.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt nine)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

The owners voted to widen the free-throw lane for the 1951-52 season. Observers attributed the change to a “stop Mikan” sentiment. Mikan responded, “It’s the best thing that’s happened to basketball since the elimination of the center jump.” Though Mikan professed to be pleased with the wider free-throw lane, his statistics fell between 1950-51 and 1951-52. In the latter season he scored 4.6 fewer points per game and hit only 38.5 percent of his shots compared with 42.8 percent the season before. He also grabbed fewer rebounds. Whether his statistical deterioration was a result of the rule change is unclear. His 1950-51 season may have simply been his peak. Fellow centers Ed Macauley and George Ratkovicz saw some declines in their statistics, too, although Nat Clifton, Larry Foust, and Don Otten had improvements. In any event, Mikan’s Lakers regained the league championship with the rule change.

Some people advocated neutralizing the taller players’ advantage by raising the baskets, a somewhat illogical suggestion. There was one official NBA game played with twelve-foot baskets; the Minneapolis Lakers and Milwaukee Hawks battled to a 65-63 score on March 7, 1954. The Lakers reportedly had difficulty hitting the basket, and layups were an adventure. Center Clyde Lovellette laconically noted, “He [the tall player] was still closer to the basket than the six-foot guy.” This game also featured an experiment whereby free throws in the first and third quarters were shot at the end of those quarters.

The NBA was not unique in grappling with the issue of dominant big men. Some international basketball officials called for an informal agreement to limit players to a maximum height of 6’5”. The international basketball community naturally failed to enact such an agreement. Longtime pro player Al Cervi suggested a quota on “big men.” Each team could have two men 6’6” or taller on the court. “There’d be a lot more action, because the little man is faster, you’ll have a faster game, and there’d be more play-making.” One can only imagine Cervi’s chagrin when giant Wilt Chamberlain would rewrite the record books. Thus, while fans may have professed to dislike big men’s dominance, the league did little to stop them.

Monday, February 18, 2013

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt eight)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

Gamblers were not reticent about their presence at college basketball games throughout the country, and they were especially notorious at Madison Square Garden. Only the most naïve could believe there was not potential for an unseemly scandal. Fixing a basketball game was not too difficult. Because the bets were based on point differentials, gamblers could convince players that they weren’t actually throwing games, just manipulating the score. Clever and skillful players could shave a point or two here and there without too much suspicion, especially when there were few game films to check their behavior.

As early as 1944, college coaches were sounding the alarm that a scandal was imminent. Famous Kansas coach Forrest “Phog” Allen warned that Madison Square Garden was rife with trouble, citing an attempt to fix an NCAA championship game between University of Utah and Dartmouth College. Ned Irish, the Garden’s acting president retorted, “If Allen has any proof of dishonesty in basketball games at the Garden, he’d better come through with it.” Allen apparently sent Irish the name of a player who had sold out and been expelled from college. Irish’s response was to increase police presence at the game, with orders to prevent all known gamblers from entering the Garden.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt seven)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

The bizarre scheduling and divisional lineups of 1949-50 help explain the disparities among teams for that season. Teams had lopsided proportions of games at home, on the road, and at neutral sites. The 1949-50 schedule was bizarre on another dimension. The clubs played sixty-two, sixty-four, or sixty-eight games, with the Sheboygan Red Skins, Waterloo Hawks, and Denver Nuggets, perhaps mercifully, having just sixty-two each, while all of the Central and Eastern Division teams (aside from the Syracuse Nationals with sixty-four) played sixty-eight games. Essentially, the established NBA clubs tried to avoid playing the newcomers.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt six)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

After further negotiations failed, the two leagues played their 1948-49 seasons. The NBL was withering, but the BAA was not thriving either. On August 3, 1949, the two leagues merged and the BAA was renamed the NBA. At first there were eighteen teams, and the league planned on having two divisions. Before the 1949-50 season opened, though, there were just seventeen teams, which were split into three divisions, as one of the original BAA member teams, the Providence Steamrollers, folded. The Indianapolis Jets (formerly Kautskys) folded but were replaced by the Indianapolis Olympians, a team partly owned by 1948 Olympians Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, and Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones. At the insistence of Ned Irish and other surviving original BAA owners, the new refugees from the NBAL were placed in the same division. This meant the Knicks, Celtics, and Warriors would not be irritated by playing the likes of the Sheboygan Red Skins, Waterloo Hawks, Anderson Packers, and Tri-Cities Blackhawks very often. As Leonard Koppett describes it, “The details of the merger were of staggering complexity, a conglomeration whose instability was obvious to the most casual fan as well as to those involved.”

Friday, February 15, 2013

The 49ers at McSweeney's, episode nine: Bill Lester

the ninth installment of The 49ers: Oral Histories of Americans Facing 50 for McSweeney's, this with professional race car driver Bill Lester.


Please visit The 49ers Facebook page for further updates.

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt five)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

As with baseball’s National League in 1876, the BAA had to establish a reputation for playing the best brand of ball. This was especially crucial for drawing crowds in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, where residents were used to the best in baseball, football, and hockey. Ned Irish and his compatriots envisioned a professional league based on already-publicized college stars. They recognized that the NBL initially had the best players. Over time, of course, the BAA owners could hope to outbid their rival NBL owners in acquiring the cream of the crop of future collegiate players. In preparing for the first season of head-to-head competition with the NBL, BAA owners signed a few NBL players and some top collegians, but the NBL held its own signing collegiate talent. The BAA’s salary cap may have limited the league in enticing NBL stars from switching leagues.

Even the NBL could not definitively claim that their teams were the best. The Harlem Globetrotters were highly competitive even with the NBL’s champion Minneapolis Lakers in the late 1940s. Some of the best Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams also claimed to be as strong as the top professional teams. Since several top college players passed up offers from both the BAA and NBL (Bob Kurland, Mikan’s contemporary as a top big man, for instance), such claims could not be immediately dismissed. Other NBL players had initially played on AAU teams after college, including Don Barksdale, Jim Pollard, and George Yardley. Such AAU championship teams as the Phillips 66ers (Bartlesville, Oklahoma) and Peoria (Illinois) Cats might have proven competitive with many professional teams. The Denver Nuggets team was briefly an AAU club turned NBL/NBA team. Even strong college teams believed they might give the pros a strenuous tussle if given the chance.

The BAA owners and coaches scrambled to find players before starting the league’s inaugural 1946-47 season. Many of the teams were hastily thrown together. Since most of the owners knew nothing about basketball, their attempts to hire coaches and fill rosters were almost laughable. Arnold “Red” Auerbach, a man with no collegiate or professional basketball coaching experience (he had coached a team of barnstorming professional football players who were dabbling in basketball), brazenly assured Washington Capitols owner Miguel “Mike” Uline, “You need a coach. I can coach and I know enough guys to get a team put together quickly that will be good right away.” Uline hired Auerbach for $5,000. Auerbach had met quite a few top basketball players during his World War II stint in the navy. In the parlance of the times, he dropped a few dimes making phone calls and recruited his players, including Bob Feerick, John Norlander, Freddie Scolari, and Bones McKinney. In the latter case, Auerbach convinced McKinney that the Capitols would pay him the same amount as the NBL’s Chicago American Gears. Since McKinney was from North Carolina, the prospect of playing for Washington and being closer to home proved alluring. Auerbach proved adept at identifying talent, and the Capitols won 81.7 percent of the games, a percentage that would not be exceeded for twenty seasons. In an act of ingratitude and folly, however, Uline fired Auerbach after a few successful regular-season records and one championship series loss. The Capitols quickly disintegrated.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

happy birthday Sylvain Sylvain

the New York Dolls' Sylvain Sylvain turns 62 today.

I talked to him for Riverfront Times back in 2006.

happy birthday Syl. and many more.

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt four)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

Owners’ attitudes toward gate-sharing policies shifted with their circumstances. Eddie Gottlieb suddenly became a fan of revenue sharing when he signed Wilt Chamberlain to a hefty contract. Some observers thought Gottlieb would have continued to earn a profit in Philadelphia, except for the Chamberlain-sized salary Wilt was earning. Gottlieb complained, “Listen, I’m paying this guy and you’re getting rich off him.” Chamberlain was indeed attracting large crowds to Boston and New York especially. Those owners didn’t want the Warriors to relocate to the West Coast, because they would lose some lucrative dates with the Warriors.

Other owners’ actions demonstrated malevolence toward weak teams. When the NBA absorbed five NBAL clubs for the 1949-50 season, Ned Irish made sure the Knicks did not host any of them, except for the Indianapolis team with its Kentucky and Olympic stars. He scheduled the other “podunk” teams to neutral sites. His actions did not endear him to the other owners. As Leonard Koppett pointed out, “There was no question of sharing gate receipts . . . but certainly the last group of National League teams absorbed would have liked, and perhaps benefited from, a touch of the New York exposure. In dollars and cents, Irish may have been absolutely right, but his attitude didn’t win him any allies among the owners who were struggling to stay solvent."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt three)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

The original owners of teams in the Basketball Association of America were primarily operators of large arenas in big cities looking for events. Most were associated with hockey, whether in the National Hockey League or a hockey minor league. Few, if any, had experience with basketball, with the exception of New York Knickerbockers representative Ned Irish, who had built his fame and fortune by promoting college basketball doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden.

The BAA owners faced a major obstacle: the rival National Basketball League (NBL), which predated World War II. The BAA and NBL would compete directly only in Chicago and, briefly, Detroit. The league was initially comprised of teams located primarily in smaller Midwestern cities, although Chicago and Minneapolis eventually joined. Many of the teams were locally owned. In a sense, these teams’ owners were similar to owners of Minor League Baseball teams: civic-minded, small-town businessmen who wanted to provide a leisure-time activity and possibly make some money. Some of the owners were former players or managers of barnstorming professional basketball teams.

If they had so chosen, BAA owners could have studied the histories of Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL). The BAA and NBL mimicked baseball’s National League and the NFL respectively. These established leagues had different antecedents. William Hulbert proposed baseball’s National League after a disastrous 1875 season for the National Association. Teams paid a nominal fee to be in the older league. Haphazard scheduling and large disparities in talent and population bases created chaos. Hulbert wanted a baseball league comprised of teams in large cities only (of over 75,000 in population). He also wanted owners to control players. His vision proved durable. The American League would eventually mimic the National League by placing teams in large cities only.

The National Football League’s immediate antecedent, the American Professional Football Association (APFA) was similar to the NBL, as it was concentrated in smaller cities, albeit in Ohio (Akron, Canton, Columbus, and Dayton), and large cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, while basketball’s hotbeds were mostly in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota. While the teams in Chicago would anchor the NFL through its tumultuous formative years, it wasn’t until 1926, when New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Boston acquired franchises, that the league began its transformation into “major league” status. The league eliminated most of the smaller towns, although Green Bay remains a relic of the league’s early days. The APFA also had haphazard scheduling. Since the schedules were haphazard for several seasons, owners voted at the end of the season to determine league champions.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt two)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

Los Angeles and San Francisco were shimmering locations that tempted baseball and basketball owners. Their NFL peers had quickly established teams on the West Coast after the war. Football, though, had a schedule of one game per week, while the other two sports featured multiple games each week, making traveling and scheduling more difficult. After the NBA shrank from seventeen to eight teams, most of the surviving teams moved to larger cities as the 1950s waned, but the teams frequently remained in the northeast quadrant of the United States.

Monday, February 11, 2013

the last book I ever read (David George Surdam's The Rise of the National Basketball Association, excerpt one)

from The Rise of the National Basketball Association by David George Surdam:

The BAA/NBA exhibited such “bush league” characteristics during its early seasons as relying on exhibition games featuring the Harlem Globetrotters; playing doubleheaders; using territorial draft picks of stars from local colleges; playing regular-season games out of town; and having teams fold mid-season. Some teams continued to play league games in high school gymnasiums well into the 1950s. Even the fable Madison Square Garden had its primitive aspects. Sportswriter James Murray depicted a situation not much improved since the Roman Coliseum’s heyday: “Dressing Room 34 at Madison Square Garden was a dingy, bare place with peeling plaster walls, a row of coat hooks above a line of splintery benches and a bath and shower room that afforded no privacy. A bare-bulb overhead light shone down.”

Johnny “Big Red” Kerr remembered winning the NBA championship his rookie season. His Syracuse team beat the Fort Wayne Pistons. Because of a bowling tournament in Fort Wayne, the Pistons’ home games were played in Indianapolis. After Kerr’s team won, they received some money and a plaque from the Optimists Club that read, “Congratulations, World Champions.” Players in today’s NBA may well view the money from winning the playoffs as so much pocket change, but they do at least get a gaudy ring.

The league’s greatest star, George Mikan, dominated the league in a way few players, aside from Bill Russell and Michael Jordan, have. His Minneapolis Lakers won five titles in the team’s first six years in the BAA/NBA, as well as National Basketball League titles earlier. Mikan led the league in scoring three years in a row and finished second the next two years. Some observers believe the rule changing the width of the free-throw lane from six to twelve feet was in reaction to his dominance. While the lane-widening rule contributed to his drop-off in scoring, Mikan continued to dominate. In today’s media-driven market, he might have fared poorly with his glasses and bow ties. However, despite his mild appearance, Mikan was frequently hailed as the league’s best drawing card.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt eighteen)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history, the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation. In the process, millions of lives were transformed: the lives of slaves who were to be greed, and of the slave owners who would be impoverished; the lives of the soldiers and their families who bore the suffering of the first all-out war of the Industrial Age; the lives of those who would profit from new inventions, longer railroads, and modern finance; the lives of student who would be educated in great public universities. The road taken in 1862 ultimately led to greater prosperity than anyone had ever imagined. For the first time—but certainly not the last—the United States flexed its muscle to turn back an existential threat. Despite the cataclysmic destruction caused by the Civil War, the reunited state, North and South, would be far richer in 1870 than in 1860. During the same period, the nation’s population would rise by more than 20 percent, and its gross domestic product would nearly double.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt seventeen)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

The last days of 1862 slipped away. Lincoln salved the hurt feelings of the outfoxed Senate Republicans by agreeing to bend the Constitution to create a new state: West Virginia. Conservatives pleaded with him to block the statehood bill. They dreaded the precedent of dividing a state against its will. After long deliberation, Lincoln signed the legislation, thus rewarding the mountain loyalists while punishing the Rebels in Richmond.

On December 26, a cheer went up in Minnesota when thirty-eight Sioux dropped from a giant scaffold. (One more warrior had been spared at the last minute.) The largest mass execution in American history, it proved to be sufficient vengeance. As Lincoln had calculated, the citizens of the state did not rampage for more blood.

On December 30, the brave little Monitor sank in high seas, the victim of bad weather, not Confederate guns. The next day, Lincoln gave his support to an ill-fated project to colonize Ile à Vache, an island off the coast of Haiti. As a consequence, some five hundred black Americans would suffer, and many of them die, at the failed colony, in a tragic fiasco that would finally close the book on Abraham Lincoln’s worst idea.

Friday, February 8, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt sixteen)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

When attacked by the German-American political leader Carl Schurz, for instance, Lincoln produced a response that could serve as an official statement, much as he had done in answering Horace Greeley’s pungent criticisms in August. Schurz, a fellow Republican, framed his party’s indictment bluntly in a pair of letters to the president. “Let us indulge in no delusions as to the true causes of our defeat in the elections,” he wrote. “The principal management of the war [has] been in the hands of your opponents . . . It is best that you should see the fact in its true light and appreciate its significance: the result of the elections was a most serious and severe reproof administered to the Administration. Do not refuse to listen to the voice of the people.”

Thursday, February 7, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt fifteen)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

Lincoln returned from Sharpsburg to find the White House corridor even more jammed than usual. This was the price he paid for leaving town: after being away for most of a week, he “was perfectly overwhelmed with the crowd on his return.” He and his secretaries toiled to catch up on “deferred and delayed business,” as Nicolay reported. Lincoln may have been too busy to notice that his monthly paycheck, issued that day, was light by $61. Thanks to the new revenue bill he had signed, an income tax was withheld from the salaries of the nation’s highest earners for the first time in American history.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt fourteen)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

Abraham Lincoln was not the sort of man who claimed to know the mind of God. “Probably it is to be my lot to go on in a twilight, feeling and reasoning my way through life,” he once said. As a young man, he was “perplexed” by “the debatable wrangles” of religion, and for a time he was a notoriously outspoken skeptic. Over the years, he grew into a fatalist of the most profound sort: one who believes in divine destiny but does not limply surrender to it, who instead seeks to live meaningfully in harmony with the guiding current of history. Walt Whitman, who moved to Washington when his brother was wounded in battle later in 1862, would watch Lincoln riding along Vermont Avenue and come to feel that he knew the man. In his sorrow following the president’s death, the great poet got close to an essential truth with his famous image of Lincoln as captain of a storm-tossed ship. To steer a true course through violent seas, one must understand the wind and tides, despite being powerless to change them. So it was with Providence. “What is to be will be,” Lincoln once said. “I have found all my life, as Hamlet says, ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’”

What was to be in that fateful September? The nation’s future hung in the balance, as Confederate armies moved into the border states and European leaders shifted forward in their seats, alert to the critical moment at hand. Just as he had struggled in the winter to find the meaning in his son’s death, Lincoln now tried to discern a divine purpose behind the string of failures and betrayals that made the summer of 1862 so miserable. At his desk on day in September, “his mind . . . burdened with the weightiest question of his life”—of slavery, the survival of the Union, and the role of each in the war—Lincoln took out a fresh sheet of lightly ruled paper and began writing down his thoughts. “The will of God prevails,” he started, slowly and carefully. This was true by definition: if God exists, and God wills a result, then the result must come to pass. That is the nature of infinite power. Lincoln added a second proposition: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God.”

From these two ideas, Lincoln began methodically building his analysis, brick by brick, writing more quickly and fluidly as he went. “Both sides may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time,” he noted. “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” The Almighty might favor the North or the South—or neither side: Providence chooses its own goals. But the players in this great drama—the generals, whether effective or incompetent; the soldiers, brave or cowardly; the politicians and opinion makers, wise or foolish; indeed, all the “human instrumentalities” of the struggle, as Lincoln put it—must somehow perform the roles they had been given by the directing spirit of God. When John Pope met mutiny rather than triumph on the road to Richmond, it must be because God had something other than immediate Union victory in mind.

All this flowed logically from the first proposition: that the will of God prevails. Now Lincoln inserted a hedge. “I am almost ready to say that this is probably true”—almost, probably—“that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” If one believed in a divinity shaping history, then it followed that God could have saved or destroyed the Union short of war, or ended the war already, without this painful seesaw struggle. “Yet the contest proceeds.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt thirteen)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

Clearly, the slavery issue was coming to its crisis. Congress passed a law that Lincoln happily signed, outlawing slavery in all U.S. territories. The capital city, meanwhile, was filling with runaway slaves from nearby states, seeking freedom. Civilian and military authorities couldn’t agree on what to do with then. Under martial law, if the slaves had fled from rebellious owners, they were not to be returned. But under civil law, which applied to slave owners who remained loyal to the Union, returned they must be.

By June 11, some two months after emancipation in the District of Columbia, confusion over how to handle the runaways was so widespread that Lincoln had to haul the city marshal, Ward Hill Lamon, and the commander of the army in Washington, James A. Wadsworth, into his office to hash things out. Lamon, who was being pressed by furious slaveholders from loyal Maryland, argued that it was his duty to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and return the runaways, while Wadsworth recited his instructions not to return slaves who had reached Union lines. Lincoln asked Browning to arbitrate. Under the president’s weary eye, the trio arrived at a laborious process for separating contraband from chattel—a grotesque exercise that served only to show how near the whole rotten slave system was to collapse.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Rhapsody Interview: Andy Warhol Museum archivist Matt Wrbican

in which I talk to Matt Wrbican, longtime archivist at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, about Andy Warhol and music, music and Andy Warhol, complete with a Wrbican-created record-setting playlist of the music of Andy Warhol.


Andy Warhol.

got it?


the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt twelve)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

June 1 proved to be a portent, however, of harder times ahead. That morning, the Confederate army, newly christened the Army of Northern Virginia, awoke to find itself under the command of a quiet Virginian named Robert E. Lee. In the waning hours of the previous day, Johnston had been badly wounded during the attack on McClellan’s right wing. With his top general incapacitated, Jefferson Davis handed the reins to Lee.

In time, Lee’s command of the Confederate army would come to seem as inevitable and necessary as the sunrise. He was among the South’s most experienced soldiers, and no man better represented the South’s ideal image of itself. Lee was the scion of one of America’s most distinguished founding families; his father was a Revolutionary War hero, his mother a descendant of a planter so wealthy and powerful in colonial Virginia that he was dubbed Robert “King” Carter. His wife was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, and even though he grew up in straitened circumstances after his father squandered a fortune, Lee was as much a part of the plantation aristocracy as anyone could be. He represented virtues esteemed by a culture based on hereditary privilege: good manners, a sense of duty and honor, commitment to land and family. (He also represented a bit of the quirkiness idealized by aristocrats—he kept a pet hen at his army headquarters.)

A majority of Confederate soldiers had never owned a slave, and men in the ranks often grumbled that theirs was “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.” Lee was an answer to that complaint, because he embodied a version of the rebellion that wasn’t about money or slaves. His war was the expression of a proud refusal to have other people—whose forebears had not necessarily settled the continent of fought the British or signed the Declaration of Independence, as his had done—come into Virginia and tell her people what their future would hold. He had a name for his enemies, which spoke volumes about his attitude: “those people.” Though he had saluted their flag for most of his life, “those people” were now alien to him. They were trying to dictate to his own people on matters of morals and culture. But the South would not be dictated to.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt eleven)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

The outbreak of war found Stonewall Jackson on the faculty of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where he’d come to appreciate the Shenandoah Valley’s strategic advantages through long hours of study in the institute’s map library. A distinguished veteran of the Mexican War, Professor Jackson stood out in Lexington as an odd duck, a religious zealot who habitually sucked on lemons and periodically pumped his left hand violently in the air to regulate his blood flow. “He seems to be cut off from his fellow men and to commune with his own spirit only, or with spirits of which we know not,” one associate wrote of Jackson. The intense focus that made him a notoriously dull teacher also made him an electrifying combat general, the sort of man who could demand far too much from his troops and yet be unshakably confident that they would deliver. Jackson knew a simple truth about men in armies: even more than shoes or food or sleep, they crave victory.

He also knew, from his map study, that the Shenandoah Valley could be a kind of magic box. Striped north to south by a series of ranges and ridges, the valley allowed an army to be seen one moment and disappear the next, simply by slipping through a gap or pass. It was the perfect place to practice Jackson’s philosophy of war: “Always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy.”

Saturday, February 2, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt ten)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

Though Lincoln enjoyed being away from Washington, he still wore the pall of grief that was his constant garment. Willie was never far from his thoughts, even amid the rumbling guns and tense hours of military planning at Fort Monroe.

During a break one evening, the president turned the conversation to one of his favorite topics, Shakespeare. More than one friend commented that Lincoln seemed to feel a connection to the Bard that erased the centuries between them. His relish for Shakespeare was intimate, not awed; he had strong feelings about the plays that mattered most to him. Of Hamlet, for example, he insisted that “To be or not to be” was not as good as its reputation. He much preferred the soliloquy of King Claudius, in which the murderer ponders his guilt and the judgment of eternity. Macbeth was perhaps Lincoln’s favorite play; he responded powerfully to that harrowing dramatization of the lure and cost of political power (and the challenges of living with a tempestuous, goading wife). More generally, Lincoln was known to say, “I have only one reproach to make of Shakespeare’s heroes—that they make long speeches when they are killed.”

Friday, February 1, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt nine)

from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:

Dropping anchor, Farragut allowed the mayor to choose: he could either raise the Union flag or watch his city be turned to rubble by the fleet’s guns. When the mayor offered a surly no, the admiral sent marines ashore to raise the red, white, and blue. At last the Crescent City and the mouth of the great river—the strategic endpoint of Winfield Scott’s original plan for breaking the Confederacy—once again belonged to the Union.

The capture of New Orleans was a devastating blow to the Confederacy: “the great catastrophe,” as Jefferson Davis called it, “the fall of our chief commercial city, and the destruction of the naval vessels on which our hopes most rested for the protection of the lower Mississippi and the harbors of the Gulf.” The Rebel diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote: “New Orleans gone—and with it the Confederacy. Are we not cut in two?”

The news astounded European leaders; Charles Frances Adams reported “general incredulity.” The French government, which of all institutions should have appreciated the strategic importance of the mouth of North American’s greatest river, tried to minimize the significance of Farragut’s coup. When Ambassador Dayton mentioned the capture to Foreign Minister Thouvenel, the Frenchman angrily jabbed at a map of the United States, pointing to the empty interior of the Deep South. The Confederates could not be beaten, he scoffed, because “they would retire there”—where he was pointing—and “it was a vast country.”

But if the French didn’t understand that the South’s navigable rivers made it vulnerable to attack, Lincoln and others in Washington did. New Orleans was viewed as the beginning of the end.