If you were
taller than the tallest Husky (6-8),
you got in free!
As it celebrates its
50th anniversary, the NBA is tipping off the 1996-97
season with the New York Knicks against the Toronto
Raptors at Toronto's SkyDome. Toronto was also the site
of the league's very first game on Nov. 1, 1946, with
the Huskies hosting the New York Knickerbockers at Maple
Leaf Gardens. The contest drew 7,090, a good crowd
considering that virtually every youngster in Canada
grew up playing hockey and basketball was hardly a
well-known sport at the time.
Forget for now that the
game the Knicks won that night, 68-66, bore little
resemblance to the leaping, balletic version of today's
NBA. That game was from a different era of low-scoring
basketball, a time when hoops as a pro spectacle was
just coming out of the dance halls. Players did not
routinely double-pump or slam-dunk. The fact of the
matter was that the players did not and could not jump
very well. Nor was there a 24-second clock; teams had
unlimited time to shoot. The jump shot was a radical
notion, and those who took it defied the belief of many
coaches that nothing but trouble occurred when a player
left his feet for a shot.
The group of owners who
met on June 6, 1946, at the Hotel Commodore in New York
to talk about a league they would name the Basketball
Association of America couldn't have imagined today's
NBA. They were composed primarily of members of the
Arena Association of America, men who controlled the
arenas in the major United States cities. Their
experience was with hockey, ice shows, circuses and
rodeos. Except for Madison Square Garden's Ned Irish,
who popularized college doubleheaders in the 1930s and
1940s, they had little feeling for the game of
But they were aware
that with World War II having recently ended, the
conversion to peacetime life meant many dollars were
waiting to be spent on products and entertainment. They
looked at the success of college basketball at Madison
Square Garden and in cities like Philadelphia and
Buffalo and felt a professional league, which could
continue to display college stars whose reputations were
just peaking when it was time to graduate, ought to
So, on that Thursday in
June, 11 franchises were formed to compete in two
divisions. The East consisted of the Boston Celtics,
Philadelphia Warriors, Providence Steamrollers and
Washington Capitols, as well as New York and Toronto. In
the West were the Pittsburgh Ironmen, Chicago Stags,
Detroit Falcons, St. Louis Bombers and Cleveland Rebels.
Each team paid a
$10,000 franchise fee, the money going for league
operating expenses including a salary for Maurice
Podoloff, who like the arena owners who hired him was a
hockey man first. Podoloff, a New Haven, CT lawyer who
was President of the American Hockey League, agreed to
also take on the duties of President of the new
Basketball Association of America, which three seasons
later, in a merger with the midwest-based National
Basketball League, became the NBA.
With only five months
to get ready for the targeted Nov. 1 season opener, the
playing rules and style of operation were based as
closely as possible on the successful college game.
However, rather than play 40 minutes divided into two
halves, the BAA game was eight minutes longer and played
in four 12-minute quarters so as to bring an evening's
entertainment up to the two-hour period owners felt the
ticket buyers expected. Also, although zone defenses
were permitted in college play, it was agreed during
that first season that no zones be permitted, since they
tended to slow the game down.
heavily in the makeup of the 11 franchises. The
Providence Steamrollers relied heavily on former Rhode
Island College players, while Pittsburgh chose its squad
from within a 100-mile radius of the Steel City. The
Knick players came primarily from New York area
colleges. Even Neil Cohalan, the first Knick coach, was
plucked from Manhattan College. But all of Toronto's
players were American, with the exception of Hank
Biasatti, a forward, who was a native Canadian.
Salaries were modest, mostly around $5,000 for the
season. As a result, players had to rely on offseason
jobs for supplemental income.
By today's standards,
the first training camps were primitive, often a
day-to-day proposition. The Warriors, for instance,
shuttled between a number of Philadelphia-area
gymnasiums, usually on the condition that they scrimmage
the team whose home floor it was. This brought about the
curious spectacle one afternoon of a BAA team playing
A luxury was the Knicks'
outdoor court at the Nevele Country Club, a Catskills
resort in Ellenville, NY.
"The first two weeks we
were at the Nevele by ourselves," remembered Sonny
Hertzberg, the Knicks' first captain and a slick
two-handed set-shooter. "The meals were great, but the
coach wasn't satisfied. We did a lot of road work and
were in great condition but Cohalan didn't like the way
we were progressing.
"Looking back, I'm
still thrilled that I was at that first training camp
and that I signed with the Knicks. I wanted to play in
New York. It was a new major league. It was a game of
speed with no 24-second clock when we played. I didn't
know if it was going to be a full-time thing."
While the Knicks were
getting ready for the opener, college basketball was
still king in New York, where teams like CCNY, LIU and
NYU were revered. It was not until the Knicks scrimmaged
the collegians and the successes got some newspaper
notoriety that they started to gain some respect before
they left New York on Oct. 31 for the train ride to
Picture the scene that
cold autumn night when the Knicks had to stop for
customs and immigration inspection at the Canadian
border. The story goes that the customs inspector,
noting the physiques of Knick players like Ozzie
Schectman, Ralph Kaplowitz, Hertzberg, Nat Militzok and
Tommy Byrnes, asked, "What are you?"
"We're the New York
Knicks," said Cohalan, who did the talking for the team.
From the inspector's
reaction, it was evident that he had never heard of the
Knicks and probably not even of pro basketball. The
notion was strengthened when he added: "We're familiar
with the New York Rangers. Are you anything like that?"
Deflated but unyeilding,
Cohalan replied, "They play hockey, we play basketball."
Before letting them
through, the inspector added: "I don't imagine you'll
find many people up this way who'll understand your
game--or have an interest in it."
Little did he or the
players know that the NBA would grow into a
multi-million dollar business with 29 franchises,
including two in Canada (although the Huskies folded
after just one season).
With the Maple Leafs'
image to contend with and only one Canadian player on
its roster, Toronto tried hard to promote the game. They
ran three-column newspaper ads bearing a photo of 6-8
George Nostrand, Toronto's tallest player, that asked,
"Can You Top This?" Any fan taller than Nostrand would
be granted free admission to the season opener; regular
tickets were priced from 75 cents to $2.50.
"It was interesting
playing before Canadians," recalled Hertzberg. "The fans
really didn't understand the game at first. To them, a
jump ball was like a face-off in hockey. But they
started to catch on and seemed to like the action."
Schectman, who starred
at LIU, scored the first basket of the game as the
Knicks jumped to a 6-0 lead. New York led 16-12 at the
quarter and widened the margin to 33-18 in the second
period before Ed Sadowski, Toronto's 6-5, 240-pound
player-coach, rallied his team to cut the gap to 37-29
at halftime. But Sadowski committed his fifth personal
foul three minutes into the second half and the rule
then, as it still is in the collegiate ranks, was that a
player fouled out on five fouls. The NBA limit was not
increased to six fouls until years later.
Sadowski and put the Huskies ahead for the first time
44-43, and they expanded the margin to 48-44 after three
periods. The final quarter was ragged as well as rugged,
but a pair of field goals by Dick Murphy and a free
throw by Tommy Byrnes in the final 2 1/2 minutes
provided the Knicks with the two-point victory. Sadowski,
with 18 points, and New York's Leo Gottlieb, with 14,
led their respective teams.
During that first
regular season, the Washington Capitols, coached by Red
Auerbach, ran away with the Eastern Division
championship, finishing with a 49-11 record, 14
victories more than Philadelphia and 10 more than
Chicago, the West leader. However, it was the Warriors,
owned and coached by Eddie Gottlieb, who won the first
championship, beating Chicago 4-1 in the best-of-7 title
Joe Fulks of
Philadelphia was the league's first scoring champion
with a 23.2 average, finishing far ahead of runner-up
Bob Feerick, 16.8. Feerick, however, was the league's
most accurate shooter, hitting .401 from the field--a
far cry from the .576 mark which Cedric Ceballos posted
to lead the league in 1992-93.