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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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The NBA schedule was made up by one man, Eddie Gottlieb, who had owned the Philadelphia Warriors. Eddie had a Buddha-like body and a crinkly smile, and because he had also been an owner in baseball's old Negro leagues, he was known as the Mogul. It was amazing that he could figure out the schedule at all, because the teams were at the mercy of arenas that also scheduled hockey games, ice shows, wrestling matches, Roller Derby, rodeos and all other manner of indoor divertissements during the long, dark winter months in the Northeast.

The Mogul was officially a member of the league's Schedule Committee, but in fact, he explained to me, "I am the Schedule Committee." Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night with an inspiration, having realized he could get the Syracuse Nationals to play in St. Louis after a game in Cincinnati. It was a feat of pre-computer 20th-century human genius.

In the league's early days, if the Knicks made the playoffs, they would invariably be kicked out of Madison Square Garden, because the circus would be in town, and it drew much larger crowds. The Knicks would then have to play their most important games of the season at the ratty old National Guard armory on Lexington Avenue.

Luckily the Knicks were so bad that this didn't happen very often. When they played regular-season games at the Garden, the crowd seemed to be made up predominantly of gamblers. The largest cheers were not for the home-team stiffs but for whichever way the point spread played out. Smoking was allowed in arenas then, so by the time the nightcap was finishing in a Garden doubleheader, the haze had drifted down and it was hard enough to shoot baskets, let alone see across the court. I'd be in the front row, courting my wife-to-be with the best seats in the house, because the Knicks, desperate for any ink, gave writers seats that now go to celebrities for four figures.

Actually the Mogul had been the coach and G.M. of the Warriors when they became the first NBA champions (although the league was then called the Basketball Association of America), in 1946--47. A country boy from the Appalachians named Joe Fulks was the team's star, but he's been completely forgotten. Fulks was known as Jumpin' Joe—not because he could jump high (he was, after all, white) but because he was a jump-shot pioneer. He held the one-game scoring record of 63 points for a decade. Fulks died young, at 54, killed in the Kentucky hills over a dispute about a firearm that was, alas, loaded.

In 1962 the Mogul sold the Warriors to a group of San Francisco businessmen for $850,000. It astounded us NBA insiders that California guys could get suckered so by the Mogul. Eight hundred fifty G's for an NBA franchise that Eddie had bought for $25,000! Can you believe it? Part of the deal, too, was that Eddie got to go out to San Francisco for a couple of years as some kind of transition consultant. Then he returned to Philly, still dined at the Automat and continued making up the league schedule at his kitchen table.

Nobody in the NBA made much money. I could easily get players to go out with me after a game; they knew I had an expense account, and they could cadge free beers off me. The players doubled up in rooms and, 6'10" or not, flew coach. In 1966, when I was doing a cover story on the Celtics' John Havlicek, we were on a coast-to-coast flight, and I was in first class according to Time Inc. policy. He came up to see me, and then I went back to interview him in steerage, where the NBA champions were sitting.

Havlicek was delighted with the publicity. Are you kidding? Like the Knicks, the Celtics (and the rest of the league) would cooperate in almost any way to get ink. Freddy Schaus, the coach of the Lakers, invited me into their locker room at halftime. Elgin Baylor, the star forward, bummed a cigarette off me and then went for another set of double figures in the second half. (A lot of athletes still smoked. Hell, athletes made cigarette commercials, just as doctors did.)

By the time I came along, the NBA was using airplanes, but only a few years earlier trains had still been in vogue. Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtics All-Star forward, told me about traveling to play the Pistons when they were still located in Fort Wayne, Ind., before 1957. The main line didn't go into Fort Wayne, so trains would stop a few miles outside of town at a mail pickup point to allow the players to disembark like thieves on the lam. I can just visualize LeBron James and Dwyane Wade standing by a railroad siding at three in the morning when it's eight below and their coach is on the pay phone ringing up Fort Wayne's only all-night cab company.

In 1960, on one of the rare occasions a team used a charter flight, the Lakers took a DC-3 home to Minneapolis after a game in St. Louis. Unfortunately the plane's electrical system failed, and the only thing that continued to work was the propellers. As the DC-3 began to run out of fuel, the pilots, who had no idea where they were, gingerly began to take the plane down, until at last they spotted the lights of a little town that turned out to be Carroll, Iowa. The plane windows were coated with ice, so when the pilots made out a snowy cornfield they thought they could land in, the copilot had to stick out his face to gauge their altitude.

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