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Back in 1946, the owners of the American Hockey League were looking around for some kind of attraction to put into their arenas on the nights they were dark. Someone suggested professional basketball. There were no better ideas around, so a league was formed, and Maurice Podoloff, already president of the hockey group, a New Haven bank and the New Haven Arena, was installed as its head. That first season the Boston team grossed $58,000. Last season the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association took in $516,000 at the gate for 34 home games, to which are to be added television, radio and concession fees. The difference in the numbers after those two dollar signs is the story of professional basketball.
Today, the presidency of the pro basketball league is a full-time job, still held by Podoloff, a cheerful, roly-poly 67-year-old who drifted into sports via the law and real estate after working his way through Yale (class of 1913) principally by playing the clarinet in a band. Now it's true, of course, that people pay to watch basketball (and any sport) because they like the game and the players, not because of the charm or good works, if any, of the men who own the teams or direct their destinies. But if fans pay to watch Bob Cousy, they are able to—in large measure—because of Maurice Podoloff. Using little of his legal, banking or musician's background, but a great deal of his native talent for diplomacy, Podoloff held the new league together through early years of factional strife when it often threatened to fly apart, and promoted it shrewdly to its present eminence. He has seen his efforts pay off with an eight-team, two-division NBA which has helped raise the sport to major league status—along with baseball and football. Only eight years ago, the Chicago and St. Louis franchises, complete with player contracts, were bought for $30,000 apiece. Last season a cash bid of $200,000 for a last-place team was turned down.
This demand for franchises is, oddly, both a source of strength to the league and a serious problem. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington and several other cities capable of supporting major league basketball have indicated interest in joining the NBA. But how to organize teams for these cities—for even one of them—has yet to be worked out. The level of play among the pros is so high today that even were Chicago allowed to start a team with the 10 top draft choices in any year, this collection of All-Americas would almost surely finish in last place for several seasons in a row—hardly a happy way to begin. It's been proposed that the new team be permitted to draft one or two players from each of today's clubs, so it can start with suitable strength, but anyone who can visualize St. Louis Owner Ben Kerner, for example, parting with Bob Pettit or Cliff Hagan is truly a dreamer. It is Podoloff's opinion that the NBA clubs of the future will have to come from minor league farm teams, and he is planning now for the setting up of such a junior group.
The chief reason for the widespread interest in NBA franchises is the great success of NBC's network presentation each Saturday afternoon of the TV Game of the Week, now in its fourth season. The pro game, with its lightning-fast, no-stalling action performed by the world's best players, has been a revelation to fans in every new city brought in by the coaxial cable. And all of the innovations which enriched basketball's spectator appeal—the 24-second rule, the six-fouls-per-quarter limit, the ban on action-crippling zone defenses—were measures sponsored by Podoloff, often against opposition from many club owners. Today, the thinking of the pros on these and other aspects of the game has filtered down to the colleges, another indication of the NBA's leadership in the field.
There are a number of reasons why the current season, which began last week and runs through the playoffs in early April, promises even better entertainment than last year, when the Western Division finished with a triple tie for first place. The return of Tom Gola to Philadelphia and Frank Selvy to St. Louis will give many fans the chance to see these two remarkable athletes for the first time. The shift of two franchises to Detroit and Cincinnati—where they will play in 15,000-seat stadiums before fresh audiences-should inspire both home and visiting teams to peak performances.
But for the true sports enthusiast, regardless of which game or activity is tops on his list, there is the matchless opportunity this year of seeing one of the alltime great combinations in basketball playing together for a full season. The 1957-58 Boston Celtics can be compared to the Brooklyn Dodgers of 1955—a vintage year in which, perhaps for the last time, their older stars will be at their peak and the younger men will have had enough experience to function in perfect rapport with these highly skilled veterans. A Pee Wee Reese could never make a thing of beauty and efficiency of the double play without a second baseman who could move, field and throw with him. It is the same with the Celtics' superb backcourt of Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. For Cousy especially it is mandatory that the other players on the floor with him be thoroughly familiar with his style, gaited to his speed and somewhat prepared for his fakes and feints. Even then, the best of Cousy's supporting cast is often left far behind and reduced to the role of spectator as he fools all nine other men on the court en route to a score. No less a seasoned player than Slater Martin, in his own right a fine ball handler and playmaker, has remarked that one of the difficulties in playing against Cousy is to resist the temptation to stand around and watch him perform his magic with a basketball. This year, Cousy has his reliable sidekick, Sharman; he has Bill Russell and Jim Loscutoff to get the ball to him after the other team misses a shot; and he has Tommy Heinsohn, with a year of pro ball under his belt, to trail him upcourt on the fast break. The visual impact of this brilliant, explosive Boston maneuver can only be compared in grace, power and precision to the sight of a halfback like Hugh McElhenney sweeping around end behind a convoy of blockers. This is the year for anyone with a claim to appreciation of athletic skill to see Coach Red Auerbach's Celtics in action.
If there is a cloud on the NBA's expanding, happy horizon, it is the growing tendency toward roughhouse tactics among teams which are so evenly matched that a well-timed elbow or knee can often swing the tide to victory. Few will find fault with the sharp clash of shoulders and hips inevitable when men are battling for position under the boards or setting up a screen or a pick. It is the sneak grab of an opponent's pants, the needless passing push, the wrestling-style hauling and tugging that demean the game and the player who does them. The pros are now being watched and copied by aspiring youngsters all over the country. They are setting a standard not only of skill but of conduct, and they should live up to the challenge.