Friday, February 15, 2013

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.

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