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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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As ordinary as some of the NBA hotels were, none was as homely as the Hotel Madison, the dump that many teams used in Boston. Not only was the Madison dirt cheap, but it also saved the teams on cab fare because it was an extension of the North Station railroad depot, like Boston Garden itself. It was taken as gospel that Red Auerbach bugged the visitors' locker room at the Garden, which was kept either boiling or freezing, so the Celtics' opponents preferred to put on their uniforms in their dingy cubbyhole accommodations at the Madison and then dash through the station to the Garden proper. Outside a saloon named the Iron Horse, I would hear patrons scream, "Hey, you f----- c---suckers" and other friendly greetings as the players scurried toward their engagement with the Celtics on the distinctive parquet floor.

Press row at the Garden would be filled, because there were still a great many Knights of the Keyboard at the plethora of dailies in the Hub: the Globe and the Evening Globe and the Herald and the Traveler and the Record-American and the Quincy Patriot-Ledger, not to mention The Christian Science Monitor. Across the NBA, though, few newspapers staffed the home team when it was on the road.

Once the playoffs started, however, the multitude of Boston papers would take to the road with the Celtics. Howie McHugh, the team p.r. man, would even splurge and take a hotel suite in every town so we could all drink there after the game. Sometimes a Celtic or two would drop by, just to grab a free beer and shoot the breeze with his newspaper buddies. It was the closest I ever came to the legendary press box days of yore, when newspapers were legion.

The playoffs were also pretty much the only time Boston fans would also appear in abundance. The Celtics might have been perennial champions, but even though the game was created in Springfield, Mass., New England barely knew what basketball was. No, in wintertime Boston hearts belonged to the Bruins, who invariably sold out the Garden even though they finished dead last most years.

On the road, the Boston writers were led by Clif (Poison Pen) Keane. He had been so christened on a bumpy airplane ride with the old Boston Braves baseball team. As the plane pitched and yawed, one of the Braves, first baseman Earl Torgeson, began to imitate a radio broadcast, announcing loudly that the plane had crashed, all hands lost. The players groaned. Then Torgeson said, "The first person identified at the crash site was Clif Keane of The Boston Globe. Keane was immediately recognized by the poison pen clasped tightly in his hand."

I was amazed at how Clif got away with tormenting the players he covered. "There's more dog in you than an Airedale!" he'd holler. "The SPCA shouldn't let you play here." The players would just laugh and insult him back. (My favorite newspaper inside story about Clif was when he upset the dog-show crowd. While he was covering a big show, a popular dog died, but Clif didn't mention that fact until deep in his story. His editor, responding to the criticism, asked him why. Clif replied, "A dog died. I buried it.")

Clif was a great mimic, too. So was Celtics guard K.C. Jones. One time, waiting for a connecting flight in the middle of the playoffs in the middle of the night somewhere in the middle of the country, Clif and K.C. entertained us for about a half hour doing imitations of other players and referees. It's a common refrain nowadays that players and writers don't get along as well as they used to. I just think of Clif, of the rapport he had with the young men he covered, and I know how true that is.

Another favorite memory of Clif: In 1964, when Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro was a hotshot rookie, I was sent up to do a piece on him. The kid was tired of reporters, and he had all the ink he needed from the papers in the Hub, so he blew me off. Poison Pen was furious. He dragged me back down to the clubhouse and, as I stood sheepishly beside him, confronted the rook. "Hey, what the hell's the mattah with you, Tony?" he snapped. "This man has come alla way from Noo Yock to do a story on you. Now, the least you can do is be polite and tock to 'im."

So, grudgingly, Conigliaro gave me an interview. But can you imagine any writer talking that way to a player today? Can you imagine any player doing what the writer told him to?

I laugh now at all the Red Sox Nation crap, the myth that all New England has always worshiped the Sawx through thick and thin, forever held them to its ever-lovin' bosom. I remember one gorgeous spring afternoon at Fenway Park when the attendance was so small ("A lot of people came dressed as empty seats today," Poison Pen observed—first time I'd heard that saw) that all over the park you could hear one loud fan screaming at a visiting (and married) infielder about the babe the player had picked up the night before in some bar. The fan was so loud and the Fens was so deserted that the infielder heard every word, and you could see his face getting red. Boston was fed up with the Sawx then. They were losahs. The Patriots were bush, in what was always called the Mickey Mouse League (the AFL), and the Celtics had too many black guys and drew only for the playoffs. The Bruins, losahs though they might also have been, were the only team anybody in Boston really cared about.

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