Pro basketball has come a long way since August 3, 1949. That was the day that two struggling basketball leagues — the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and its rival, the National Basketball League (NBL) — merged to form the National Basketball Association.
The future of professional basketball was far from certain at that time. Baseball and football were much more popular around the country, and many basketball teams were located in small, Midwestern cities that had trouble generating enough revenue to stay alive.
But popular enthusiasm for basketball started growing in the mid-1950s, thanks in large part to the performance of the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Zollner Pistons.
The team was named after Fred Zollner, who manufactured automobile and truck pistons. It was Zollner who brought the BAA and NBL together to form a single pro league. And it was Zollner who hired Charley Eckman away from officiating to coach his Pistons.
The team had won the national championship in 1944 and 1945 but had lost momentum under coach Frank Birch. Eckman seemed to fire up the Pistons again. For the next three years, the Pistons made the playoffs, though they fell just short of the championship.
Shortly after “Coaching the Pros Is Easy” appeared in the Post in 1955, Zollner moved the Pistons to Detroit. As he told author Stanley Frank, a community the size of Fort Wayne couldn’t support more than one home game a week.
Eckman went along with the team but didn’t stay long. He was let go after starting the season with a 9-16 record. He returned to refereeing and eventually moved into broadcasting.
The Pistons’ move was typical. Of the original 17 professional basketball teams in the two leagues, most have survived by changing their home towns and their names. Only two of the original teams have remained unchanged: the New York Knickerbockers and the Boston Celtics.
Here is where the other 14 teams went:
|Folded in 1954 (Not to be confused with the Baltimore Bullets of 1963, who were originally the Chicago Packers, and are now the Washington Wizards)
|Folded in 1947
|Folded in 1948
|Became the Los Angeles Lakers in 1960
|Became the San Francisco Warriors in 1962 and the Golden State Warriors in 1971
|Folded in 1947
|Folded in 1949
|Became the Cincinnati Royals in 1975; the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in 1972; the Kansas City Kings in 1975; and the Sacramento Kings in 1985
|St. Louis Bombers
|Folded in 1950
|Became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963
|Became the Milwaukee Hawks in 1951; the St. Louis Hawks in 1955; and the Atlanta Hawks in 1968
|Folded in 1947
|Folded in 1951
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It was with good reason that newspapers covered the National Football League (NFL) lockout this year in both the sports and finance pages. Professional football is very big business. In 2010, NFL revenues exceeded $9 billion. (In contrast, the revenues for Major League Baseball were $7.2 billion and $4.1 billion for the National Basketball Association.)
Success on this scale would have been unthinkable when the NFL was founded 91 years ago this week. Back then, pro football was struggling for acceptance. Americans loved the game, but only when played by college teams. For years, the NFL struggled to build a following for the professional sport, which was considered inferior to the college version. This misconception led one of its star players to write in its defense for a 1932 issue of the Post.
“Do you believe a great college team could beat one of the good teams in the National Professional league?”
That’s a question people ask me frequently. My reply is that I believe the college eleven would have little, if any, chance of winning. I add that the professionals’ margin of victory should be more than one touchdown. So saying, I bare my reddish locks to the storms of criticisms that will fall on my head.
Those reddish locks belonged to Harold “Red” Grange, formerly the star halfback at the University of Illinois. At the time of writing, the “Galloping Ghost”played for the Chicago Bears, helping to lure fans of his college performance to the pro games.
My belief in pro superiority … is grounded on the experience of three years of comparative skylarking on college gridirons and six bruising years in professional football.
Professional footballers, Grange says, play a longer season. They don’t have many of the advantages college players enjoy, like some of the best coaches in the game. And they are powered by—
a pregame emotional frenzy created by publicity, campus tension, the bands, and the fire-eating alumni.
In my own university days, I was convinced that the fate of the nation hinged on whether we defeated Michigan. I believed that my dad … might have a stroke if we lost.
But a fanatical desire to win and the inspiration of a coach won’t take a halfback over, around, or through a hard, fast line which averages 220 pounds from end to end. That’s what you face when you line up against the Green Bay Packers, for example.
Professional ball players must face tough, hardened veterans who know all the tricks and feints, which are so effective among college players.
The pros work out five days each week; they play on the sixth, and have their day off on Monday, instead of on Sunday, as is the case in college. The three hours of practice are largely devoted to football fundamentals, even though most of the men have played for years.
The professional footballer, Grange adds in those innocent days, had to really like the game to stick with it.
The pay isn’t large and there are easier ways to make a living. The average pay for a professional squad is about $125 per player, per game [$1,900 in current dollars]; a team plays from fourteen to eighteen games each season. The highest salary any player in the league receives, I believe, is about $10,000 a season. [$160,000 in today’s money.]
[Just as revenues have grown since 1932, so have salaries. The median income for NFL players is over $750,000 a year. The highest annual salary is $18 million.]
In conclusion, there is one thing in which I take plenty of pride. It is not in the fact that I gained more than two miles of ground in my twenty games at Illinois—thanks to superb blocking by the Illini.
I do take pride in the fact that during 1931 I led the Chicago Bears, for the season, in average gains from scrimmage, carrying the ball 605 yards in 114 attempts, an average of 5.3 yards on each try. On many of those yards I carried a 225-pound lineman on my back for company. If ball carrying in pro football gets any harder, I’ll simply have to take up bridge.