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WHEN THE NBA WAS YOUNG
Frank Deford
April 23, 2012
So was SI writer Frank Deford, who cut his teeth on a league then so inconsequential that reporters got floor seats. In this exclusive excerpt from Deford's memoirs, the author recalls encounters with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others who starred on his expense account as well as in the league's arenas
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April 23, 2012

When The Nba Was Young

So was SI writer Frank Deford, who cut his teeth on a league then so inconsequential that reporters got floor seats. In this exclusive excerpt from Deford's memoirs, the author recalls encounters with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others who starred on his expense account as well as in the league's arenas

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It's almost impossible to explain how little the NBA amounted to when I started covering it in 1963. It wasn't fair to call it bush, although everybody did. It was simply small—only nine teams—and insignificant.

The league offices, such as they were, were located in the Empire State Building. There may have been some symbolism in this—the sport for tall guys chose for its headquarters the world's tallest building—but I don't think it was intended. The NBA's planning was much more seat-of-the-pants.

Like this: Wilt Chamberlain was the biggest name in the league. After the 1965 All-Star Game, in St. Louis, there was a reception at Stan Musial's restaurant, and the executives and writers were upstairs drinking when a referee named Joe Gushue casually pointed down to the bottom of the stairs and said, "You know, they're trading Wilt down there." So we all peered down the stairs and, sure enough, there were the San Francisco Warriors' owners and the Philadelphia 76ers' owners working out the deal. They traded Wilt in a restaurant stairwell.

Walter Kennedy was the new commissioner, having replaced Maurice Podoloff, who had presided over the league since its founding in 1946. Kennedy was a very nice man, but invariably defensive, despairing that people called the NBA bush. Kennedy had resigned as mayor of Stamford, Conn., to take his dream job. Unfortunately my first encounter with him was unpleasant, although I was a blameless accomplice to another's alleged villainy.

In the summer of 1963, my second with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Jerry Tax, the basketball editor, got the Celtics' Frank Ramsey, the NBA's first famous sixth man, to do a piece for the magazine revealing some of the devious little tricks of his trade. Things like surreptitiously holding an opponent's shorts—nickel-and-dime stuff. Since you couldn't easily photograph such shenanigans during a game, an artist, Bob Handville, was assigned to illustrate Ramsey's devilment. I was sent along to Ramsey's house in Madisonville, Ky., to take notes. But when Handville and I got down there, we realized that, for the photographs on which he would base his illustrations, we needed someone to play the dupe to Ramsey's magician. Since I was tall, I was dressed in one of Ramsey's old uniforms and cast as his foil.

What Ramsey revealed was "inside basketball" for its time, and it made SI's cover (SMART MOVES THAT SCORE POINTS), with Handville's illustration of Ramsey outwitting Deford. Commissioner Kennedy was appalled that a player would go public about how to—my goodness gracious!—cheat in an NBA game, and he called Ramsey in and upbraided him. Ramsey, a smart cookie, acted properly chastened and then went about committing the same smooth high jinks as before. Luckily I, a mere patsy, was not officially chastised.

Kennedy had once been the public relations man for the Harlem Globetrotters, and he had the grandiose dream that the NBA would someday have the Globies' worldwide appeal. Of course, his dream would eventually come true, but not until long after he retired in 1975; college basketball was more popular in those days.

Several NBA teams got their best gates every season when they scheduled a doubleheader and booked the Globetrotters and their stooges for the opening game. The Knicks scheduled regular NBA doubleheaders, meaning that often half the league was in Manhattan at the same time. In fact, some nights as much as 25% of NBA personnel could be found drinking together at one New York bar they favored.

The camaraderie was real. Most teams carried only 10 players, and only a few rookies entered the league each year, so there wasn't much turnover, and most everyone knew everyone else. The NBA was more like a theater ensemble than a league.

Partly as a result of that, race was less of a problem in pro basketball than in the rest of the country. History was made when Texas Western won the 1966 NCAA championship with five African-American starters, but Celtics coach Red Auerbach had sent out an all-black starting lineup long before that, when he put Willie Naulls in with Russell, Satch Sanders and Sam and K.C. Jones for the opening tap on Dec. 26, 1964. Around the league it was already unremarkable to see nine or even 10 black guys on the court. It was in 1964, in fact, that I first heard an inability to jump described as white man's disease.

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