Years Active: 1947 – 1954
Regular Season Stats: 489 games
16.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 30% FG, 77% FT
Postseason Stats: 31 games
19.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 0.4 apg, 25.8% FG, 78.2% FT
BAA Accolades: 3x All-BAA 1st Team (1947-49), BAA Champion (1947), 2x PPG Leader (1947-48)
NBA Accolades: All-NBA 2nd Team (1951), 2x NBA All-Star (1951-52), FT% Leader (1951)
“I remember telling my wife,” Fulks said, “‘This is great — I’m going to get paid for doing something I like to do.’”
Nearly two months ago, I wrote that the stories of Joe Fulks and Paul Arizin would have to “wait for another day.” Well, while adding Neil Johnston to the mix, that day has come. Welcome to the Forgotten Warriors mini-series! Arizin, Fulks and Johnston are unquestionably three of the greatest Warriors players yet they are generally forgotten due to playing in the 1940s and 1950s and also playing for the Warriors when they were in Philadelphia. The 1st of this trio to join the Warriors, “Jumpin’ Joe” Fulks will thus be the first chronicled.
Now, you may look at Fulks’ statistics and not be particularly amazed. You could lead the league in assists with less than 4 a game back in the 1940s. Rebound stats weren’t kept at all until 1951. Minutes played weren’t logged until 1952. But, they did keep track of field goal attempts and Fulks’s field goal percentage is startlingly bad by today’s standards.
However, context is golden.
Consider that Joe Fulks, even if he was a pioneer, was still a product of his era. In 1947, only four players shot over 33% from the field. In 1948, only 2 accomplished the feat. Finally in 1949, a significant amount of players breached the barrier of 33%, with some even reaching the 40% mark! Basically, chiding Fulks for atrocious field goal percentages would be like getting on the Wright Brothers for not being able to fly a 747. We wouldn’t have the 747 without the work of the Wright Brothers and we wouldn’t have the NBA of today without Fulks.
Let’s delve into that pioneer business. Fulks was one of the primary instigators for modern basketball. Most players felt content taking two-handed set shots and hooks. Joe surely mastered the hook shot, but the string bean (6’5″ and 190lbs) was an acrobat, too. Whirling and twirling in the air, Fulks would contort around and blitz through defenses. This enabled him to effectively utitlize shots that were once thought impossible or, worse, pure showboating. He could deftly switch the ball from one hand to the other in mid-air while in the act of shooting. Despite being one of the league’s taller players, Joe never seemed content to camp in the then-much-thinner lane to just drop in shots. He preferred his unique traipsing, high-flying act. They didn’t call him “Jumpin’ Joe” for nothing.
Growing up in Kentucky, Fulks would spend his days (and nights) shooting at hoop outside the local school. He started out shooting tin cans, then moved up to an old beat up ball and finally got brand new basketball courtesy of his neighbors taking up a collection. A highly-sought recruit Fulks chose to attend Murray State before joining the Marines during World War II. In 1946, Fulks would become a 25-year old rookie in the NBA’s antecedent, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) after signing a whopping $8,000 contract with the Philadelphia Warriors.
Fulks took the BAA by storm. If there was a Rookie of the Year award then, he surely would have captured it. Ditto for the MVP award. He led the league in scoring with 23.2 points a game. That may not sound spectacular but it was the most thorough demolition of competitors that category has ever seen. The runner up was Bob Feerick with 16.8 ppg, only 72% of Fulks’s average. By comparison, Wilt Chamberlain’s 50.4 ppg beat out Elgin Baylor’s 38.3 ppg in 1962. Baylor’s average was 76% of Wilt’s.
Fulks kept up the assault in the BAA’s postseason. Reaching the finals, Jumpin’ Joe walloped the Chicago Stags in the first ever finals game:
The Chicago Stags, ordinarily no pushovers, were suffering today from a bad case of Joe Fulks jitters, an ailment common to teams in the Basketball Association of America.
Fulks, a skinny Kentuckian with the shooting eye of a well-drilled Blue Grass feudist, scored 37 points last night as his Philadelphia Warriors defeated the Stags, 84 to 71, in the first of a seven-game series for the league championship.
Chicago was only six points behind at the end of the third period, after which Fulks settled down to do some serious scoring. He sank eight field goals in nine tries and five out of five free throws for 21 points in the final quarter.
The Warriors would win the series 4 games to 1, making them the first champions of the BAA.
Joe and the Warriors were storming up a repeat performance in the 1947-48 season. Fulks led the league in scoring again with 22ppg and made his 2nd of what would be three straight All-BAA 1st Team selections. The Warriors meanwhile survived a 7-game series against the St. Louis Bombers in the BAA semi-finals only to fall in 6 games against the Baltimore Bullets in the league finals.
For the 1948-49 season, Fulks would reach the apex of his scoring prowess with 26 PPG. However, change was afoot. A behemoth 24-year old strode onto the BAA scene and took the scoring title with 28.3 ppg. The beast was, of course, George Mikan. The Lakers and Mikan would come to dominate the BAA (and after its merger with the NBL) and the NBA for the next half-decade, but Fulks didn’t go down without a fight:
Joe’s 63 points cracked the league record of 48 established by Minneapolis’ George Mikan Jan. 30 against Washington. His 27 field goals also was a nine better than the league record he held jointly with Mikan and Carl Braun of the New York Knickerbockers.
That 63-point outburst would remain the record until Elgin Baylor set the mark at 64 a decade later. However, his most productive days were now behind him, as the BAA merged with the National Basketball League in 1949-50 to form the NBA. The merger, as happened with the ABA 25 years later, put a damper on individual statistics as all of the best competition was now in one place.
Coupled with his advancing age, Fulks saw his production slide, although he did add a couple more honors to his resume. He set the mark for most consecutive FTs made (49) during a game against Minneapolis in December 1950. In 1951, was selected to play in the first NBA all-star game. He finished with 19 points and 7 rebounds and would make a 2nd and final trip to the ASG in 1952.
By ’53, Joe wasn’t as jumpin’ as he used to be. In his final productive season, the 31-year old averaged 12 points in 30 minutes a night. The Warriors were no longer a threat and were mired in mediocrity. Although that would change soon enough behind the duo of Paul Arizin and Neil Johnston, Fulks wouldn’t be around for the change in fortunes. He retired after the 1953-54 season.
However, the Joe Fulks that burst onto the scene in 1946 is the one we’re here to fawn over. He was the BAA’s first star, often labeled “the Babe Ruth of basketball” at the time. Arizin described Fulks as a “tremendous defensive rebounder”, but that’s not what instigated the Ruth comparisons. It was Fulks’s superhuman scoring efforts that dazzled. His one-handed jump shots from all angles amazed. The screwing scoop shots that left defenders helpless.
Fulks relished the role: “They give me the ball and I shoot it. That’s all there is to it.”
For more on Joe Fulks: Hoopshall, NBA.com, newwwavecomm.net, and 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time by Alex Sacahre in addition to newspaper archives accessed through Google.