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BALTIMORE’S NBA TITLE
The city’s only world basketball championship

 An essay by Paul H. Belz, 2015, paulbelzwriting.com

 
The National Basketball Association (NBA) considers its birth date to be the founding of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) on June 6, 1946 in New York City. The NBA was called the BAA until August 3rd, 1949 when the name was officially changed in meetings at the Empire State Building in New York City and Maurice Podoloff was elected commissioner. In addition to the name change on that date the BAA also absorbed the older, small-market Great Lakes area National Basketball League (NBL), leaving the NBA with 17 teams for the 1949-50 season. The NBA recognizes all of the records and statistics of the BAA from 1946 to 1949 but none from the NBL.[1] Just as a woman who marries and changes her name remains the same woman, the NBA deems itself to have been the same league while it was named the BAA.

The NBA dates many of its “firsts” to its BAA days. The NBA considers its first game to have been played on November 1, 1946, when the BAA’s New York Knickerbockers beat the Toronto Huskies 68-66 before 7,090 fans at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. In what is acknowledged as the first basket in NBA history, Ossie Schectman scored for the Knickerbockers.[2] The Philadelphia Warriors won the first championship, beating the Chicago Stags four games to one in April, 1947.

In an important first after the name change, the NBA color barrier was broken in November, 1950, when Earl Lloyd played for the Washington Capitols.[3]

Despite having dominated the minor league American Basketball League (ABL) since 1944 and winning the title for the 1945-46 season, Baltimore was rejected for a team by the BAA in 1946 because the Baltimore Coliseum was not considered a major league arena. The Bullets were embraced for the BAA’s second year (1947-48) after four teams folded following the inaugural season leaving a scheduling-problematic seven-city league. Those expansion Bullets improbably became the only Baltimore team to ever win a major league professional basketball championship.

After beating the New York Knicks in the quarterfinals and the Chicago Stags in the semifinals, the Bullets defeated the Philadelphia Warriors four games to two for the title.

The material rewards were laughable by today’s standards. For winning basketball’s world championship on April 21, 1948, team members each received $2,000 and a sponsor, Gunther Brewery, gave MVP Buddy Jeannette a television. The rest of the players each got a pen & pencil set.[4] The NBA’s second championship team then celebrated at a neighborhood deli. The game was barely mentioned by the media, getting a small blurb on the back page of The New York Times. On March 1st, forward Paul “The Bear” Hoffman was given a silver cup as the NBA’s “Rookie of the Year,” the first time the league presented that award.

The Bullets were owned by Robert “Jake” Embry and WITH radio station owner Tom Tinsley. They paid future Hall of Famer Harry E. “Buddy” Jeannette $12,000 per year to coach and play, which was an amazing amount since they had bought the team for $7,500 in 1944.[5] In a 1995 interview with The Baltimore Sun’s Bill Tanton, 86-year old Embry recalled, “The other owners, including Ned Irish of the Knicks, told me I was crazy to pay anybody that much. They said I was going to ruin it for everybody, throwing money around like that.”[6]

The $150,000 privately-funded facility in which the Bullets played had a checkered history. The nondescript beige-colored 30,000 square-foot Baltimore Coliseum was built on the site of a former ice house and opened on April 27, 1939 in a poor section of Baltimore’s west side near Pennsylvania Avenue at the NW corner of North Monroe Street and Windsor Avenue (2201 N. Monroe St., 21217). The dark, dreary building held only 3,000 for professional basketball and 4,500 for boxing. The arena hosted the Bullets from 1944 to 1954, when the team folded. It was most often used for roller skating but the Coliseum enjoyed some loftier moments.

Tommy Dorsey and Stan Kenton brought their big bands there. Rhythm & Blues stars Fats Domino and Little Richard packed the arena, as did Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Flip Philips and Oscar Peterson.[7] World light heavyweight world champion Archie Moore boxed there seventeen times. Gorgeous George and Slave Girl Moolah wrestled there[8] and the National Basketball Association’s blue and orange-dressed Baltimore Bullets played basketball there, with opponents showcasing the skills of all-time greats George Mikan, Joe Fulks, and Bob Cousy along with the genius of coaches such as Washington’s Red Auerbach. The legendary Hall of Famer Clair Bee coached the dying Bullets franchise there from 1952-54. Although his Bullets were awful until the team disbanded, Bee’s Long Island University clubs had won 95% of their games from 1931 to 1951. His innovations to the sport throughout his long college coaching career and its aftermath included the 1-3-1 defense, the 3-second rule, basketball camps, television shows, coaching clinics, and technical coaching books.[9]

There were few amenities for Baltimore’s pro basketball players in the 1940s and early ‘50s, either in the shabby Coliseum or on the road. Basketball players hung their clothes on pegs rather than in lockers. They waited in line to use the arena’s one shower and two faucets. When traveling they washed their own uniforms in hotel bathrooms. Players taped their own ankles and when on the road they rented a trainer because their home trainer was boxing manager Harry “Heinie” Blaustein, who didn’t travel because he made his money in boxing.[10]

The Coliseum reached its nadir when an Eddie Mack-trained Baltimore heavyweight boxer named Ernest Knox was killed in the ring by Wayne Bethea in 1963. Boxing then moved to the Civic Center, built in 1962 and more conveniently located in the center-city on Baltimore Street. The Coliseum disappeared from city phone books in 1968 and later was used to help house the city’s school bus fleet. It was sold in 2007 by David Greenberg, the building’s owner for 35 years. The ultimate inglorious fate included demolition in July, 2008, and replacement by an equally nondescript office building in 2010.[11]

After losing in the 1948-49 Eastern Division semifinals the Bullets were sold in early 1949 for $30,000 to a 20-person syndicate led by Food Fair Stores vice president Joseph H. Rash. The Bullets missed the playoffs in the ensuing 1949-50 season as well as in ‘51 and ‘52 and lost in the division semis in ‘53.

With a 3-11 record, the Bullets franchise died abruptly on November 27, 1954. With the club in bankruptcy, Paul Hoffman recalled that, unable to pay its hotel bill, the entire team fled down the back stairs of the Van Orman Hotel in Fort Wayne, Indiana with nothing but plane tickets in their pockets.[12]

Team owner Joe Rash went on to head Baltimore’s parks board from 1968 until he died on December 17, 1974, and, in March, 1977, Mayor William Donald Schaefer named the seven-acre green space in the inner harbor at the foot of Federal Hill “Rash Field.”

After 1994 Hall of Fame inductee and player-coach of Baltimore’s only NBA championship team Buddy Jeannette was fired from the Bullets in 1951, he coached Georgetown University through the 1955-56 season and then pursued business interests until returning to coaching in the ‘60s. He retired in 1970. Pro basketball was no path to glory, endorsements, or wealth in the 1950s.

A new Baltimore Bullets NBA franchise would begin in 1963, play in the new but almost immediately obsolete Baltimore Civic Center and move in 1973 to Landover, Maryland in the Washington D. C. suburbs, lured by a luxurious, large capacity new arena and a bigger fan base. Before moving, that second Bullets franchise came tantalizingly close to winning the city’s 2nd NBA title in 1969 but the team was swept four games to none in the finals by the New York Knicks. 1969 was an infamous year in Baltimore sports history because it was the same year in which the “invincible” Colts lost football’s Super Bowl to Joe Namath’s New York Jets and the “invincible” Orioles lost the baseball World Series to Casey Stengel’s New York Mets.

Basketball has always been a stepchild to pro football and baseball in Baltimore, without a single perennial top-25-ranked Division 1 college program. Baltimore’s first and only native high school product with an outstanding pro resume is Towson Catholic High School’s guard Gene Shue. After graduating from the University of Maryland, Shue joined the Philadelphia Warriors as the third pick in the first round of the 1954 draft. He averaged 14.4 points per game in 699 games spanning a ten-year career while playing in five All-Star games and making the first and second All-NBA team once each. After his playing career he coached for 22 years in the NBA winning two “Coach of the Year” awards.

Aside from Shue, Baltimore produced no other great pros until another Towson Catholic product, Carmelo Anthony, led Syracuse University to its first national championship in 2003 and became an NBA superstar and Olympic champion. Like Shue (and Michael Jordan), Anthony was the third pick in the first round of the NBA draft. But he was Brooklyn-born and didn’t arrive in Baltimore until eight-years-old. Like Jordan, Anthony was cut from his high school team as a freshman, but he grew five inches and his skills germinated and blossomed as a sophomore and junior. After three years at Towson Catholic he committed early to Syracuse and transferred for his senior year to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia with the goal of improving ACT test scores to meet the university’s academic entrance requirement.

A few other Baltimore natives have earned NBA roster spots. But Shue, who grew up in the Govans neighborhood, remains the only native Baltimore high school graduate to have achieved enduring success in the NBA.

The prognosis is bleak for a new arena, an NBA team or a college powerhouse for Baltimore. In spite of its lackluster pedigree, as the NBA approaches its 70th season, Baltimore can at least boast that for one of those years──that memorable 1947-‘48 season when two-handed set shots, one-handed push shots and running hook shots ruled; the shorts were tight, contracts were four-figures and jump shooting was still cutting-edge──it possessed the best basketball team on the planet.

 

NOTES:


[1] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, “National Basketball Association,”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National Basketball Association, December 16, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Steadman, “1948 Bullets had nothing – except championship,” Baltimore Sun, February 22, 1998.

[4] NBA Encyclopedia Playoff Edition, “Baltimore Bursts Into Big Leagues,” http://www.nba.com/history/finals/19471948.html, December 16, 2014.

[5] Frederick N. Rasmussen, “Robert ‘Jake’ Embry Sr., 93, radio executive,” Baltimore Sun, October 20, 2002.

[6] Bill Tanton, “Jeannette and better, cheaper times in sports,” Baltimore Sun, January 19, 1995.

[7] The Concert Database, http://the concert database.com/venues/baltimore-coliseum, April 5, 1956, Fats Domino and Little Richard.

[8] Brennan Jensen, “Old Glories,” Baltimore City Paper, November 6, 2002.

[9] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,”Clair Bee,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clair_Bee.

[10] See note 3 above.

[11] See note 8 above.

[12] See note 3 above.



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