At one time an Eastern League franchise was a profitable venture. "I can remember nights when we used to get 4,000 to 5,000 people out to a game," says one longtime buff from Scranton. But that was before TV brought the big leagues into living rooms. And so, over the years, a number of towns—Lancaster, Reading, Pottsville, Harrisburg, Easton and York, Pa.; Asbury Park, N.J.; Rochester and Binghamton, N.Y.; Springfield, Mass. and New Haven, Conn.—have had their flings as EBA entries, found the economics overwhelming and gotten out.
If the owners are to be believed, none of them made money last year despite their relatively low overheads. Each team carries a roster of 13 men, only 10 of whom dress for a game (and only those who dress get paid). Although a select few players earn as much as $150 a game, the average is far lower, and so the typical season salary outlay comes to about $30,000 a team. Add to that another $30,000 for gym rental, travel, equipment and promotion and you have probably the lowest overhead—$60,000 per year—in professional sport.
The salaries and playing conditions make outside incomes an imperative for most of the players. Wayne Cruse of Allentown is a soft-spoken soul who teaches technical school five days a week in the Manpower Center in Edison, N.J., coaches JV ball and jogs a couple of miles each day to keep in shape. Then on weekends he sets picks, blocks shots and crashes the boards with a ferocity that belies his weekday manner. "You have to play rough," he says. "This is a rough league. I broke my right hand and fractured my left one year, but I played. I had no choice. In the EBA no play means no pay."
The night in Allentown, with Raskin playing (or coaching) his swan song, was a fairly typical evening in the EBA. The tension that had suffused the Jet locker room before the game showed on the court that evening. Everyone tried too hard. The Jets made only one of their first 17 shots. Hodge had trouble getting the offense moving. Bad News Barnes, the Jets' center, kept throwing the ball straight to fast-breaking Bullets. And Kenny Wilburn, last year's high scorer, missed four in a row from the free-throw line ("When it comes to foul shooting," he says, "I'm a regular Wilt Chamberlain"). With three minutes gone the Jets, last year's EBA champs, were down 14-4. Things didn't get better until just before halftime, when the Jet defense finally stiffened and they managed to leave the floor down only 63-49.
As they returned to the court it was obvious that the Jets had found some meanness down there in the locker room. The kids lining the runway sensed it and didn't even ask for autographs. Raskin looked determined. "We're going to get some rebounds this half," he said.
The third quarter was close. The Jets were rebounding better and playing alert basketball, but the Bullets were flying and their shots kept dropping. Both teams remained keyed up through the third period, and several near fights broke out. Still, the Jets cut the deficit to 88-80. Then John Shannon, the Bullets' hot hand with 25, fouled out. Kenny Wilburn had kept the Jets in the game with 24 points and 14 rebounds, and now Jones, Cruse and Barnes finally came to life. The Allentown fans, all 931, were on their feet and stamping on the metal bleachers.
With less than a minute to go the Jets were down 111-107, but Wilburn was fouled. He sank one of the two. Now the Bullets brought the ball down, missed, and Allentown got the rebound. Jones faked to the left, went right and hit a soft jumper. That made it 111-110 with 10 seconds left. As the Bullets put the ball into play Wilburn darted out of nowhere, stole it and was fouled in the act. He moved to the line, aimed—and missed both free throws.
It was over. Camden 111, Allentown 110. Rockne Hall was quiet again. The locker room was quieter yet. The players, depressed by the game and the prospect of losing a popular coach, were down. They talked for a while, then moved heavily toward the freezing parking lot. It had been a rough night. But at 5 p.m. the next day, when the bus pulled out for Wilkes-Barre, the Jets were aboard, on their way to the next stop on the EBA's glory road.