A Few months ago, Ben Kerner, the owner of the St. Louis Hawks of the National Basketball Association, loaned the city of St. Louis $30,000 to refurbish Kiel Municipal Auditorium, where the Hawks play their home games. Not that the city was strapped, you understand, but such funds were not available at the time.
It was, admittedly, one of the year's minor financial transactions—but though small in sum, it was large in substance. Half a dozen years ago, the effervescent Mr. Kerner (he weeps, shudders, cheers and groans at games) would have been hard put to find 30 free and clear dollars for lending purposes. His current prosperity is a sample of the surging fortunes of professional basketball. And the NBA opens its 13th season this week with every prospect that it will play to its greatest audience ever—the Hawks, for example, have been sold out of season tickets for two months. This year, too, more than 90% of the Americans who own television sets will be able to follow the pros. On 20 Sunday afternoons NBC will telecast, live, a Game-of-the-Week over 140-odd stations in its network (see COMING EVENTS for schedule). Last Sunday, in the first of these televised presentations and the official league opener, Syracuse beat Detroit 103 to 94.
After due credit is given wise promotion, it is still true that the preeminent cause of this popularity is the game itself. Basketball, the way the pros play it, is an engrossing display of grace, finesse and power. Those three words leap to mind instantly at the sight, for example, of the Boston Celtics bringing the ball upcourt on one of their explosive fast breaks. Or of the Hawks' Bob Pettit, as he weaves, wheels, feints and forces his way relentlessly toward the basket. This is the human body in purposeful action, in economy of motion, a sight to gratify the eye of anyone with an instinct for sport.
The NBA cast of Cousy, Pettit, Russell, McGuire et al., that has performed so stirringly for several years now, offers some new faces this season, though the 10-player limit for each team makes this an extremely difficult league to crash. Guy Rodgers brings to Philadelphia the closest approach to Cousy's deceptive ball handling the game has yet seen. Minneapolis, a team that has desperately needed one bright star around whom it could rebuild to former greatness, now has him in Elgin Baylor. This is one of the few men in basketball history who can play every position on the floor, and not just creditably. His shooting is often unbelievable; given room just a step past the center line, he will get the ball off with the barest of warning and marvelous accuracy. There are going to be nights when Baylor, like Bob Pettit, will not be stopped, not even by Bill Russell—which will be quite a sight.
Si Green at Cincinnati, Connie Dierking at Syracuse and Mike Farmer at New York also have the major league talent necessary for playing in this company. They will be welcomed by fans, of course, but hardly by the players. The statement is not made facetiously; the old pros in the NBA are a prideful lot, in love with their game and seldom impressed by a newcomer's qualifications. Talk to such as Bill Sharman, 31 years old, facing for the eighth successive year a grueling 72-game schedule that frequently calls for four one-night stands in one week in four widely separated cities. Sharman is straining at the leash; no mere college All-America is going to beat him out of a job. And this—this furious competition at the highest level of playing skill—is the real reason why professional basketball is such a great game.
1958 record: won 49, lost 23; first in East. Top scorer: Bill Sharman, 1,402; sixth in league. Top rebounder: Bill Russell, 1,564; first in league
The statement is worth debate, but this is still the best team in basketball, despite its loss to St. Louis in the March playoffs. The Celtics finished eight full games ahead of the closest team in each division last season, and their average victory margin (5.5 points) was more than twice that of any other club. They have lost three players to retirement—key men, though all were reserves: Arnie Risen, Jack Nichols and Andy Phillip. Man for man, their replacements should add strength, if not immediately then surely in the near future. Ben Swain (for Risen) will spell Bill Russell at center, and he has the height (6 feet 8), spring, long arms and offensive ability for the job. He has much to learn about defense but, fortunately, the right teacher in Coach Red Auerbach. Jim Loscutoff (for Nichols) returns up front after being out most of last year with a knee injury and subsequent operation. The knee is sound again; if Jim can forget it ever was injured (the critical part of rehabilitation for any athlete), he will again be the second-best rebounder on the team and a double-figure scorer. Sam Jones (for Phillip) is the most-improved player on the Boston roster. Always cat-quick, and now a confident performer, he is going to surprise many a defensive backcourtman in the NBA. This team is a model for the old maxim that you can't win without the ball. Russell gets them the ball (he got it last season, on rebounds, 348 times more often than any other player in the league). When he gets it, Cousy & Co. know what to do with it, especially in a dazzling fast break. So the Celtics should again finish first.