Pro Hoops History HOF: Kenny Sailors

Kenny SailorsThe pro career of Kenny Sailors was never as grand as it should have been. Institutions are always slow to accept change. And basketball, as an institution, was slow to adopt the pet move – seen above – that Sailors helped popularize.

The following exchange, noted in The Origins of the Jump Shot, during Sailors’ rookie season helps show the resistance to Sailors’ extraordinary brilliance:

Kenny was about to step into the shower after that first practice when [Cleveland coach] Dutch Dehnert approached him. “Say-lors,” Dutch pronounced Kenny’s name. “Where’d you get that leapin’ one-hander?”

“I been shootin’ it ever since I was a kid.”

Whether that satisfied Dutch or not, his face gave no hint.

“And that dribblin’ of yours,” he continued. “You don’t dribble in this league. You pass the ball.”

Kenny shrugged. “I have to dribble to shoot my jumper, Dutch.”

“I’m gonna give you some advice, Say-lors. If you’re gonna go in this league, you gotta forget that dribblin’.”

Kenny turned to enter the shower.

“And you gotta get yourself a good two-hand set shot,” Dutch shouted after him.

Needless to say, Say-lors never had much opportunity to win over the recalcitrant Dehnert. Nonetheless, the way Sailors played basketball has gone on to shape and influence nearly every player since.When was the last time you’ve seen a player let loose a two-hand set shoot?

So, although just 5’10” tall, Sailors’ greatest contribution to the game was elevating it to new heights.

Literally.

He was one of the first prominent players to use the jump shot back in the 1940s. Sailors did not invent the jumper. It had been around since the 1920s, at least. What makes Sailors notable is just how reliant he was on the shot. His diminutive height made it necessity for him to jump while shooting, otherwise he’d constantly be blocked by earthbound, yet taller opponents.

With the jumper in hand, however, Sailors could more than equalize the situation turning it completely to his favor. Not only could he lift his release point higher by jumping, his opponents were unfamiliar with the shot, so they didn’t know how to defend it. Used to earthbound two-handers and set-shots, the defenders couldn’t adjust on the fly to Sailors.

Sailors attended college at the University of Wyoming and was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1943 NCAA tournament en route to leading Wyoming to the championship that year. In 1942, 1943, and 1946, Sailors was named an All-American as well. The disruption in his college career came thanks to his service in the Marine Corps during World War II.

Kenny Sailors card

Naturally, the delay in finishing college meant his pro career was also delayed. At age 24, Sailors finally entered pro basketball with the Cleveland Rebels in 1946. Unfortunately for Sailors, his pro career was racked with chaos, misfortune and the skepticism of coaches like Dehnert. Sailors’s website does an excellent job summing up the dysfunction caused by the unstable financial situation of many ball clubs in the BAA and early NBA.

  • July 27, 1947 – Drafted by the Chicago Stags from the Cleveland Rebels in the dispersal draft when Cleveland folded
  • November 1947 – Sold by Chicago to the Philadelphia Warriors
  • December 1, 1947 – Sold by Philadelphia to the Providence Steamrollers
  • July 16, 1949 – Signed by the Denver Nuggets as Providence folded when the BAA merged into the new NBA
  • June 22, 1950 – Sold by Denver to the Boston Celtics as Denver folded
  • December 1, 1950 – Traded by Boston to the Baltimore Bullets where Kenny retired after one season and finished his professional career

After failing to impress in Cleveland and cast aside by Philly and Chicago in short order, Sailors’s greatest success in the pros came with the Providence Steamrollers and the Denver Nuggets from 1947 to 1950.  Sailors was freed to shoot his jumper. For the 1949 and 1950 seasons Sailors finished in the top 5 in scoring in the BAA/NBA while also finishing 7th and 6th, respectively, in assist per game.

For his stellar 1948-49 campaign with the Steamrollers, Kenny was named to the All-BAA 2nd Team. His 1950 season with the Nuggets was worthy of similar honors, despite his exclusion.

Unfortunately for Sailors, the free-wheeling offenses that let him loose in Providence and, especially, Denver weren’t to last. Providence folded in 1949 and Denver in 1950. Sailors  was picked up by Boston prior to the 1950-51 season, but with Bob Cousy in hand they had no use for Kenny. Traded to Baltimore, Sailors was now 29 years old and longing to return to the West. So after that 1951 season with the Bullets, Sailors retired from pro ball and headed back to the other side of the Mississippi.

The pros never quite appreciated the revolution Sailors was instigating back in the 1940s. Even today, very few appreciate the role that Sailors commanded in what is one of the largest transformations in basketball’s history.

Thanks to his simple boldness to take a jumper, shooting was on the road to greater accuracy. The game was to become more exciting. The little man added another weapon to offset the domination of the leviathans in the paint.

So even though his own personal greatness never blossomed due to the inertia of tradition, Sailors has a hand in all the great players since who’ve jumped and taken a shot.

Years Played: 1946 – 1951

Accolades:
All-BAA 2nd Team (1948-49)

Statistics:
12.6 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.0 RPG, 32.9% FG, 71.2% FT

Boston Celtics Franchise History: 1946-47 through 1955-56

Celtics 1940s

Championships: 0
Conference Titles: 0
Division Titles: 0

Regular Season Record: 330-328
Regular Season Win Percentage: 50.2%
Playoff Appearances: 7
Playoff Series Wins: 2
Playoff Record: 9-16

Later synonymous with championship success, the early years of the Boston Celtics were abysmal. During their first four seasons (3 in the BAA, 1 in the NBA) the Celtics failed to post a winning record and made the playoffs once. The only player who demanded any attention for on-court ability was the leviathan Ed Sadowski who averaged 19.4 PPG and made the All-BAA 1st Team in 1947-48, the lone season Boston made the playoffs.

At least future TV star Chuck Connors shattered the backboard in the Celtics’ very first game back in 1946. Not from a dunk though. The Rifleman actor just happened throw a halfcourt shot way too hard during warm ups. The frantic search for a new backboard took a couple of hours clearly delaying the game.

Boston would have been staggering aimlessly if not for the momentous 1950 offseason. Arnold “Red” Auerbach was hired as coach and the well-known Celtic luck began to work its magic.

For starters, the Celtics shook up the NBA by drafting the first black player in league history. Owner Walter Brown informed the league he was taking Chuck Cooper. When informed of Cooper’s skin tone, Brown said he didn’t care if Cooper was one of any variety of colors, he was Boston’s selection.

In late August 1950, the disbanded St. Louis Bombers had their roster dispersed across the league via a draft. The Celtics fortunately secured the big prize from the defunct roster: lanky offensive center Ed Macauley. “Easy Ed” would go on to a marvelous career blending quick hook shots with timely passing. He’d lead the league in field goal percentage twice and was the MVP of the NBA’s 1st All-Star Game in 1951.

In October 1950, luck struck again after the Chicago Stags also went belly up. With the center spot secure with Macauley, Boston desperately needed a guard. Chicago had two of the premier guards: Max Zaslofsky and Andy Phillip. Zaslofsky was the big prize, while Phillip would be no disappointing consolation. However, Boston got into a tussle with the New York Knicks and Philadelphia Warriors on who got to pick when. Fed up, Commissioner Maurice Podoloff simply wrote the team names on scraps of paper and drew them from a hat to determine selection order.

New York won the pull and smugly selected Zaslofsky. Philadelphia was pulled next and happily took Phillip. Boston was the odd man out and had to select the third guard on the roster, someone Red Auerbach had passed over in the college draft back in April. Auerbach didn’t just pass on him, though. He defended the move to local Boston press deriding the player as some “local yokel”. The Local Yokel eventually wound up being the NBA’s MVP and led the league in assists eight straight seasons.

Yep, it was Bob Cousy,

Macauley, Cousy, and Cooper under the coaching of Auerbach propelled Boston to a 39-30 record for the 1950-51 season. It was easily Boston’s best season to that point. In April of 1951, the Celtics made the first of what would be innumerable trade swindles. They traded center Chuck Share to the Fort Wayne Pistons for guard Bill Sharman. Although Sharman would go on to greatly mold the shooting guard role in basketball, he was hardly someone to cherish at that point. He had averaged 12 PPG in just 31 games for the Washington Capitols. Sharman had played 10 times as many minor league baseball games than NBA games to that point.  It was only the good word and advice of Bones McKinney – Auerbach’s trusted friend and Sharman’s old coach and teammate with the Caps – that led Boston to acquire Sharman.

Soon enough Sharman gelled with Macauley and Cousy to form Boston’s first Big 3.The Celtics became the league’s most exciting offensive show. By 1955 the Celtics offensive output was superb thanks to their Big 3…

Cousy: 21 PPG, 8 APG, 6 RPG
Macauley: 17.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 4 APG
Sharman: 18.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4 APG

However, a new theme would develop to haunt Boston: painful playoff heartache. In 1951 and 1952 the Celtics were defeated by the New York Knicks. In 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1956 the C’s were bounced by the Syracuse Nationals. The final defeat, a 102-97 loss on their home court to Syracuse, put Boston at a crossroads in the spring of 1956.

With six straight postseason disappointments, Boston was panned as a run-and-gun team. They were all offense with no defensive or mental resiliency to advance to the Finals. Auerbach knew there was a truth to the critique. In 1956, Boston led the NBA in points scored with 106 but also gave up a league-leading 105 points a game.

A shakeup was needed to give Boston a defensive edge. Auerbach wanted the offensive fire, but he wanted fueled by a center who could sweep the boards and kick-start a fastbreak. As great an offensive center as Macauley was, he was never a great rebounder. Good rebounder, but not great.

So, during the 1956 draft, Auerbach orchestrated a trade sending Macauley and the draft rights to Cliff Hagan on to the St. Louis Hawks for the draft rights to Bill Russell. That was the biggest move of a 1956 offseason that saw Boston go from also-ran to potential dynasty. That same trade also wound up jolting the Hawks into potential dynasty mode, too.

Over the next few seasons, the two clubs would vie for NBA supremacy.

STARTING FIVE

C – Ed Macauley (1950-’56) – 416 Games
18.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 3.7 APG, 44.7% FG, 77.4% FT

F – Jack Nichols (1954-’56) – 124 Games
12.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 39.8% FG, 78.6% FT

F – Chuck Cooper (1950-’54) – 272 Games
6.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 34.1% FG, 73.9% FT

G – Bill Sharman (1951-’56) – 346 Games
16.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.4 APG, 43.1% FG, 86.4% FT

G – Bob Cousy (1950-’56) – 421 Games
19.4 PPG, 7.2 APG, 6.3 RPG, 36.9% FG, 80.6% FT

BENCH

F – Don Barksdale (1953-’55) –  135 Games
9.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 38.0% FG, 65.5% FT

F – Bob Donham (1950-’54) – 273 Games
6.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, 48.0% FG, 50.7% FT

C – Ed Sadowski (1947-’48) – 47 Games
19.4 PPG, 1.6 APG, 32.3% FG, 69.7% FT

The Lost MVPs: The 1948-49 BAA Season

PhotoAtelier (Flickr)
PhotoAtelier (Flickr)

The BAA was the subject of a huge shakeup this season. The players so far chronicled as MVP candidates were indeed top flight , but in general the BAA was working with lesser talent than its competitor the NBL. Well, that problem is largely solved for this season since several powerhouse NBL teams (Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals, Fort Wayne Pistons, Indianapolis Kautskys/Jets)  jumped ship to the BAA this season. The rankings this year reflect that as the erstwhile NBLers dominate the BAA MVP candidacies

#5 Bob Davies – Rochester Royals
1st Team All-BAA
15.1 PPG, 5.4 APG, 36.4% FG, 77.6% FT

Bob Davies
Bob Davies

One of the preeminent guards of the NBL, the veteran Davies (then 29 years old) quickly established his supremacy in the Rochester Royals’ first BAA season.

His 5.4 assist per game were enough to barely edge out the sterling Andy Phillip for the BAA lead that season and in the process set a new BAA record for APG in a season. Blindingly quick, Davies also routinely blazed his way to the bucket. His penetration placed him 7th that season in FT attempts making him, along with Kenny Sailors, one of two point guards in the top 10 of that category.

As a team, the Royals mustered the best regular season record with 45 wins and just 15 losses.

#4 Joe Fulks – Philadelphia Warriors
1st Team All-BAA
26.0 ppg, 0.6 apg, 31.3% FG, 78.7% FT

Joe Fulks
Joe Fulks

Perennial MVP candidate Joe Fulks has a return to form after his disappointing 1948 season. His 26.0 ppg were a career-high and would have been enough to set a new BAA record had it not been for our MVP winner from this season.

Fulks’ bounce back season, though, wasn’t enough to lift the Warriors to a winning record as they finished 28-32. This is slightly surprising given that Fulks was joined by the wandering center Ed Sadowski, himself a top 5 MVP candidate from the previous two seasons.

The truth is, the addition of Sadowski and Fulks’ bouncbeack still weren’t enough to compensate for the influx of NBL titans. Still, Fulks set a single-game scoring record this season with 63 points. That mark would stand for nearly a decade until Elgin Baylor surpassed it.

#3 Arnie Risen – Rochester Royals
2nd Team All-BAA
16.6 PPG, 1.7 APG, 42.3% FG, 66.0% FT

Arnie Risen
Arnie Risen

Although surrounded by dominating, superb guards like Bob Davies and Bob Wanzer, center Arnie Risen delivered his finest season in 1948-49.

Like teammate Davies, Arnie Risen set a new BAA record. His accomplishment came in the FG% department. His 42.3% was the highest yet and illustrated his fine post play. On the strength of his stellar shooting, Risen also racked up 16.6 points per game which was good enough for 4th place in the BAA. And although the stats didn’t yet exist to buttress the point, Risen’s defense and rebounding were key to the Royals’ finishing atop the BAA standings in the regular season.

#2 Max Zaslofsky – Chicago Stags
1st Team All-BAA
20.6 PPG, 2.6 APG, 35.0% FG, 84.0% FT

Max Zaslofsky
Max Zaslofsky

Last season’s MVP actually kept up every bit of his performance from the previous season. There was no drop off for “The Touch”. If anything, he actually improved. His FG% rose from 32% to 35% and his FT% jumped from 78% to 84%. Expanding his game beyond dangerous scorer, Zaslofsky also quadrupled his assists per game from 0.6 to 2.6. The Chicago Stags working largely with the same roster also saw their record improve from 28-20 in 1948 to 38-22 in 1949.

So, at first glance, Zaslofsky should be the repeat, back-to-back winner of the BAA MVP. But he isn’t.

Because in 1949, along came George…

#1 George Mikan – Minneapolis Lakers
1st Team All-BAA
28.3 PPG, 3.6 APG, 41.6% FG, 77.2% FT

George Mikan
George Mikan

George Mikan, easily, handily, and deservedly demolishes the strong competition here for BAA MVP. His 20.9 win shares doubled the nearest competitors in Zaslofsky and Risen. His 28.3 points per game were a BAA record. As if his offensive devastation weren’t enough from his patented hook shot, Mikan also finished 8th in APG that season with 3.6 and finished 2nd in FG% behind Risen. He was simply and obviously the hub of the Lakers’ offense.

Minneapolis finished a single game behind Rochester for the league’s best record and would continue a run of domination begun in the NBL that would run through the next 5 seasons of the BAA and NBA. Mikan was the center of it all and you can bet this is just the first of several MVPs.

The Lost MVPs: the 1947-48 BAA Season

Brad Day (flickr)
Brad Day (flickr)

Welcome to the 2nd part of my attempt to fill in the MVP gaps from the early era of the BAA and NBA. The 1946-47 BAA season saw a tie for the MVP honors between Bob Feerick of the Washington Capitols and Joe Fulks of the Philadelphia Warriors. That postseason witnessed Fulks’s Warriors capture the 1st-ever BAA title.

Now in the 2nd BAA season we look to crown another MVP. As with the last analysis, I take into account a player’s individual stats, his team’s success, the quality of teammates, the quality of coaching, any other pertinent research, ANYTHING that adds information to make the most informed decision. And, of course, disagreement, agreement or apathy is encouraged. This is just my opinion on the matter.

And so we move to our wonderful 5 candidates…

#5 Joe Fulks – Philadelphia Warriors
22.1 PPG, 0.6 APG, 25.9% FG, 76.2% FT
1st Team All-BAA

Joe FulksJoe Fulks

Last season’s co-MVP turned in yet another spectacular season in terms of scoring output. Once again he led the BAA in points per game with his 22.1 and also led the nascent circuit in free throws made thanks to a stellar 76.2% shooting from the stripe. His Warriors also finished atop the standings in the Eastern Division with a 27-21 record.

So why the 5th place finish? Well, Fulks’s field goal percentage took a precipitous hit going from 30.5% in 1947 to 26% this year. Also, the Warriors’ 27 wins and 1st-place finish were mightily helped by playing the god-awful Providence Steamrollers and mediocre Boston Celtics 8 times each thereby padding their record, while the powerhouse Western Division teams beat each other silly.

Then again, Fulks’s Warriors were still a bit barren on talent themselves outside Fulks. Still, 5th place is the spot for him this season.

#4 Buddy Jeannette – Baltimore Bullets
10.7 PPG, 1.5 APG, 34.9% FG, 75.8% FT
2nd Team All-BAA

via hoopedia.nba.com
Buddy Jeannette

Say hello to the only guard (and obviously shortest player) to ever lead the BAA, ABA or NBA in FG% for a whole season. Jeannette’s efficient back court play was instrumental in leading the Baltimore Bullets to the 2nd-best record in both, the Western Division and the entire BAA, with 28 wins and 20 losses.

In addition to his league-leading FG%, the 30-year old point guard also finished 4th in FT% and was 7th in assists per game. On top of his on-the-court leadership, Jeannette was also the coach of the Bullets. Baltimore would defeat Fulks’s Warriors in the BAA Finals this season, making Jeannette the 1st player-coach to win a major professional sports title.

(historical sidenote: Jeannette was also a 4x selection to the  All-NBL Team in the mid-1940s and was a winner of 4 other pro basketball titles. 3 of those came in the NBL and the 4th in the American Basketball League with the Bullets in 1947.)

#3 Ed Sadowski – Boston Celtics
19.4 PPG, 1.6 APG, 32.3% FG, 69.7% FT
1st Team All-BAA

Ed Sadowski
Ed Sadowski

Last season, Sadowski had himself shipped from Toronto to Cleveland and this year he’s moved on yet again to the Boston Celtics. As always, the mercenary big man delivered the goods.

As the Celtics’ imposing big man Sadowski finished in the top 10 in points (3rd) and assists (6th) per game, while also garnering a top 10 finish in FG% (4th). For good measure Sadowski also nestled in at #12 in FT%. Despite his personal excellence, the Celtics as mentioned above, were positively mediocre this season with a record of just 20-28. Of course the team would have been absolutely awful without Sadowski and in the relative scheme of things, that makes him extremely valuable and number 3 in my rankings for this season.

#2 Bob Feerick – Washington Capitols
16.1 PPG, 1.2 APG, 34.0% FG, 78.8% FT
1st Team All-BAA

Bob Feerick
Bob Feerick

The co-winner of last year’s MVP has to settle in for a very, very close 2nd-place finish this year. Feerick nearly led the BAA in FG% for a second-straight season, but finished a smidgen behind Jeannette for the FG% title. When it came to FT% though Feerick took home the top prize.

In case it’s not clear, Feerick was just an amazingly efficient scorer in the BAA. What player today could claim a 1-2 finish in FG% and FT%?

Personally, Feerick remained as good as ever, but his team did take a slip from the previous season. The Capitols finished over 20 percentage points behind their previous pace the year before. This means they won merely 58% of their games instead of 81%. Honestly, Feerick could easily be the MVP, but I think this next candidate outclassed him by the smallest of margins…

#1 Max Zaslofsky – Chicago Stags
21.0 PPG, 0.6 APG, 32.3% FG, 78.4% FT
1st Team All-BAA

Zaslofsky Stags

The 22-year old Zaslofsky finished 5th in my rankings last season, but has rocketed up this season thanks to his stellar leap in 1948. His points per game average was good enough for 2nd-place behind Joe Fulks (22 ppg), but he got to his mark with a FG% that landed him 5th overall in the league while his FT% was juuuuust behind Feerick for 2nd-place.

His Stags finished with an identical record as Feerick’s Capitols (28-20) in the same division, but Zaslofsky carried a more enormous offensive burden. This would soon change as future Hall of Famer Andy Phillip emerged the next season, but for 1948 Max was king of Chicago. He accounted for nearly 28% of the Stags total points scored that year.

For comparison’s sake, LeBron James this past season, 2011-12, accounted for 26% of Miami’s total points scored.

At season’s end with the same records, the Stags and Capitols squared off in a one-game tiebreaker. The Stags won 74-70. Zaslofsky poured in 24 points in the win, Feerick 16. I guess that’s the tiebreaker for this MVP race too.

Pro Hoops History HOF: Ed Sadowski

Ed Sadowski
Ed Sadowski

“A scowling brute of a man with close-cropped hair and a game face as belligerent as a clenched fist, Big Ed tallied most of his points with a sweeping right-handed hook shot that was virtually unstoppable. For sure he was virtually immobile and could shoot only with his right hand; the word was that if Sadowski ever had to feed himself with only his left hand, he’d starve to death.”

- Charley Rosen, The First Tip-Off

Ed Sadowski may have been completely unable to shoot any sort of shot left-handed, but when his right-handed hook was so devastating who needed a left hander? Especially considering by that point in Sadowski’s career he was an unmovable 6’5″ and 270 pounds. When the plodding and leviathan center planted himself, there was no way the opposition was going to move him.

Burgeoning obesity aside, Sadowski’s greatest claim to fame was his appearance in the first-ever BAA game on November 1, 1946. As player-coach, he led the Toronto Huskies against the New York Knicks. Big Ed paced all scorers with 18 points, but his Huskies lost 68-66. That defeat in Toronto was followed by another letdown in Cleveland at the hands of the Rebels. Thereafter the Huskies caught relative fire winning two of their next three games.

In the third match of that streak, a home crowd of 6500 fans saw Sadowski score 30 points as the Huskies rolled over the Providence Steamrollers, 85 to 68. The performance was the high-water mark of Big Ed’s Ontario tenure.

Just two weeks later in early December, Sadowski went AWOL and the Huskies suspended their high-priced big man. The disgruntled Sadowski complained he was overwhelmed by his duties as player and coach. He demanded that he – and his $10,000 salary – be traded to the Boston Celtics where he’d be reunited with his old college coach “Honey” Russell. Instead, Big Ed was traded to the Cleveland Rebels on December 16.

This gives Ed Sadowski the distinction of being the first player traded in the BAA’s history.

Although not very mobile on the court, Sadowski’s career was one of constant motion. Playing a truncated seven-year career, Sadwoski nonetheless suited up for seven different teams in the NBL, BAA, and NBA during the 1940s. The scowling Sadowski was a basketball mercenary and rode that mentality to a pretty successful career.

It all began in 1940 as Big Ed joined the Detroit Eagles of the NBL. That Eagles team finished 12-12 in league action with Sadowski leading the squad with 10.7 points per game. The team as a whole scored 40.5 points, so Ed was clearly the centerpiece of the offense with his swinging hook shot. Overall in the NBL, Sadowski finished 3rd in PPG and was 2nd in total points scored. He was the runaway selection for Rookie of the Year and was also named to the All-NBL 1st Team. In the playoffs, though, Sadowski, Buddy Jeannette, Robert Calihan and the Eagles ran into the superior Sheboygan Redskins. They lost their series 2-games-to-1.

Although ousted from the NBL playoffs, the Eagles did appear in an event just as noteworthy back in the 1940s: the World Professional Tournament (WPT). The NBL may have been the best pro league, but great pro teams still existed outside that association. The WPT brought together the best of the NBL, other leagues, and barnstormers to Chicago every spring. The Eagles stunned the tournament by upsetting the Harlem Globetrotters 37-36 (led by Sadowski’s 12 points) in the opening round. In the semi-finals, the Eagles again pulled a one-point upset, this time of the New York Rens, 43 to 42. Sadowski again led the way with 16 points. In the championship game against the Oshkosh All-Stars, Detroit knocked off the NBL champs 39-37 as Sadowski sparkled once more with 11 points.

Sadowski’s chance to repeat his big rookie season was nixed thanks to World War II. The big man served in the US Air Corps during those years and didn’t return to pro basketball until 1945.

The Fort Wayne Pistons signed Sadowski as a ringer before the lastgame of the 1944-45 regular season. Already possessing the NBL’s best record and the defending league champs, the Pistons wanted a guarantee they would score a repeat title performance. Sadowski proved to be quite the unnecessary insurance policy since this Pistons team might have been the greatest squad ever fielded in the NBL: Bob McDermott averaged an obscene 20 points a night alongside Buddy Jeannette, Jake Pelkington, Chick Reiser, and defensive madman Charley Shipp. As it turned out, the Pistons fell into an 0-2 series hole against Sheboygan in the Finals. Which is really bad when it was a best-of-5 series. Fortunately, Fort Wayne righted the ship and staged a comeback winning the next three games and the 1945 NBL title. And for the cherry on top, the Pistons won the 1945 WPT as well.

The next season, Fort Wayne returned all their principal players and Sadowski enjoyed his first full season of basketball since 1941. Big Ed averaged 9.6 PPG to finish second in scoring behind McDermott on the Pistons. The Indiana juggernaut again finished with the NBL’s best regular season record and looked to secure their third straight league title. There was to be no three-peat for the Pistons, though. The Rochester Royals spanked Sadowski’s team 3-games-to-1 in the semifinals.

For his part, Sadowski was easily Fort Wayne’s top performer scoring 14 points a game during the series, but McDermott went ice cold scoring just 6 points in the series as he was hounded by the defense of Rochester’s Al Cervi. As consolation, the Pistons did win the 1946 WPT, but Sadowski’s experience with the NBL was forever done. The next time he’d don a uniform would be for his ill-fated experience with the BAA’s Huskies.

After that situation blew up and he parachuted into Cleveland, Sadowski put together a fine campaign finishing 2nd in FG% and 3rd in PPG in the BAA’s first regular season. In the playoffs, he averaged 24 points on 39% shooting from the field and 79% shooting from the free throw line. Seems terrible today, but that kind of offensive efficiency was sterling in 1947. The runnin’ Rebels were no match for the New York Knicks, however, losing the series 2-games-to-1.

Suffering terrible finances and woeful attendance, the Rebels disbanded after the season and Sadowski finally landed in Boston thanks to the dispersal draft. Now at 30 years of age, Sadowski scored a career-high 19.4 PPG that season, led Boston to its first-ever playoff series, and was named to the All-BAA 1st Team. Sadowski had another big postseason with 20 points per game, but the Celtics were knocked off by the Chicago Stags.

The vagabond Sadowski moved on once more. The mercenary now traveled down the Atlantic Seaboard to play with the Philadelphia Warriors for the 1948-49 season. In this final year of the BAA, Big Ed teamed with “Jumpin'” Joe Fulks forming the highest scoring duo in that league’s short history. Sadowski averaged 15.3 points and Fulks 26. Any hopes for playoff success were dashed by an injury to Fulks and the Warriors were swept by the Washington Capitols.

In his final pro season, Sadowski split time between the Warriors and the Baltimore Bullets in the brand new NBA. The old heavy veteran still tossed up 12.5 points a night, but his days were numbered. Still, Sadowski could take comfort in the fact that during the 1940s, no other center (besides George Mikan) was better at scoring the basketball than he was. In fact, I’m sure he took comfort in that fact.

Years Played: 1940-41; 1945-1950

Accolades

NBL -
Champion (1945)
Rookie of the Year (1941)
All-NBL 1st Team (1941)
BAA -
All-BAA 1st Team (1948)
Other -
World Professional Basketball Tournament Champion (1941, 1945, 1946)

Statistics

NBL - 59 games
10.0 PPG, 67.9% FT
BAA - 160 games
16.9 PPG, 1.8 APG, 36.4% FG, 68.5% FT
NBA - 69 games
12.6 PPG, 2.0 APG, 32.4% FG, 73.5% FT

Contemporary BAA/NBA Ranks (1946-47 through 1949-50 season)
3rd Points, 4th PPG
3rd FGs Made, 18th FG%
4th FTs Made, 46th FT%
11th Assists, 35th APG
7th Games Played

Floundering Foundry: The Pittsburgh Ironmen

The following article was contributed by David Pincus and originally appeared on his blog Broken Leagues. To see more of David’s work focusing on fantasy basketball, visit his blog and follow him on Twitter @brokenleagues.

(A mock-up of what the Ironmen logo should have looked like. Illustration courtesy of Matthew Wolff)
(A mock-up of what the Ironmen logo should have looked like. Illustration courtesy of Matthew Wolff)

Pittsburgh is one of the best sports cities in America. They have an historically-great football team, a thriving hockey team, and, at long last, a contending baseball team. Pittsburgh has so much going for it as a sports town that seemingly the only thing it lacks is an NBA franchise. But that wasn’t always the case. Way back in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson appeared in a game and when Harry S. Truman was still president, Pittsburgh had an NBA team: the Ironmen.

Well, a BAA team technically. In 1946, the Basketball Association of America was launched with 11 charter franchises, and of those 11, only the Knicks, Celtics and Warriors are still around today. In 1949, the BAA absorbed the National Basketball League, and the partnership of the two leagues officially spawned the NBA. The Pittsburgh Ironmen was one of the eight original franchises that didn’t make the cut.

There’s not much to say about the Ironmen other than that they were terrible in virtually every way. At 15-45, they were the worst team in the league, and considering they were worst NBA team in the first year of its existence, when the league was in all likeliness at its absolute worst, the 1946-47 Ironmen could reasonably be considered the worst team — talent-wise — in NBA history. Of the 17 players who suited up for the Ironmen in their inaugural/last season, just four of them would play another year.

The team did make history of a sort by rostering both Roger and Noble Jorgensen, becoming the first NBA team to feature siblings. (Roger averaged 1.5 points per game, and Noble averaged 4.4 points per game. So if you’ve never heard of them, you’re excused.) Coulby Gunther led them in scoring with 14.1 points per game, which he accomplished despite shooting a ghastly 33.6% from the floor. And if you think that percentage is bad (and it is), you might be shocked to learn that his was the best on the team. Yes, the Pittsburgh Ironmen shot 27.1% from the field in 1947, and to indicate just how sucky pro basketball was at the time, the Ironmen were only the ninth-worst shooting team in the league. (The best? The Chicago Stags at 29.8%.)

The most notable player on the Ironmen roster was Pete Maravich’s father, Peter “Press” Maravich, who averaged 4.6 points per game in his lone NBA season. But the most notable person on the 1947 Ironmen, without question, was head coach Paul Birch, an asshole of a man who only got the gig because he’d been a star at the local Duquesne University.

How big an asshole was Birch? “Birch was his era’s Bobby Knight,” Dennis Purdy wrote in Kiss ‘Em Goodbye: An ESPN Treasury of Failed, Forgotten, and Departed Teams, “routinely screaming at and demeaning his players on the court, throwing basketballs at players’ heads during practice, and throwing punches at their heads as well during games. At halftime, Birch was known to throw chairs at his players in the locker room. … Birch’s aggression was hardly confined to his own charges. When he occasionally punched out an opposing player on the road, the crowd would invariably threaten to riot. … One time, when a crowd threatened to beat Birch, his players refused to help him. On more than one occasion, he punched out referees and opposing coaches.”

Want more?

Mark Kriegel — Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich:

After an overtime loss, Birch threatened Press with a $100 fine if he so much as came out of the shower. … In Chicago, Birch threw him up against a locker. The players broke it up before Birch could get off any punches. That’s not to say the coach didn’t hurt him, though. As the season wound down, and the Ironmen were left with just eight or nine men, Birch would keep Press on the bench for entire games.

Charley Rosen — No Blood, No Foul: A Novel:

I’d played against him way back when, and knew him as a fire-breathing perfectionist who cursed his teammates every time they missed a shot. He was also the dirtiest player I’d ever had the displeasure to encounter.

Richard Birch, Paul’s son, in an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune:

He was Bobby Knight times 10. His modus operandi was fear and intimidation of everyone: referees, players, fans. That was his formula for success. He learned it very young and he never changed.

In essence, there was nothing even slightly redeeming about the Pittsburgh Ironmen. Their coach was a clown, their team was a joke, and the stadium that they played in, Duquesne Gardens, could only hold up to 7,000 people because it had been converted from a trolley car barn. The team did not return for a second season and it’s probably just as well. A lot of cities would love to have an NBA team, but Pittsburgh probably doesn’t need one nor does it want one, especially if it’s just going to be as dysfunctional as the last NBA team that called the steel city home.

Bullet Points:

  • The Knicks, Celtics and Warriors are considered the oldest NBA franchises, because the league recognizes itself as a continuation of the BAA. The oldest operating basketball team is really the Detroit Pistons though, who have been existence since 1941 when they joined the NBL as the “Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons.”
  • Pittsburgh did get an ABA team: the Pipers, who promptly moved to Minnesota after one year. In a bizarre turn of events, the Pipers moved back to Pittsburgh just one year later and later changed their name to the “Pittsburgh Condors.”
  • I only set out to write about the Ironmen because I was inspired by Matthew Wolff’s re-branded logo for them, which looks pretty awesome. Plus, I can’t imagine many people are writing about the Ironmen these days.

The Lost MVPs: the 1946-47 BAA Season

kevin dooley (flickr)
kevin dooley (flickr)

Founded in 1946, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) for some crazy, inexplicable reason never handed out an MVP award.  When the BAA merged with the National Basketball League (NBL) in 1949, the resulting NBA still  didn’t hand out an MVP award until 1955-56 when Bob Pettit became the inaugural winner of that award. Now, it’s not like the idea of a Most Valuable Player was new-fangled and the subject of a “Eureka!” moment.

No, sir.

The NBL had been founded in 1937 and had been handing out MVPs for the entire history of its existence. But the BAA and its crack team of officials never deigned to hand one out MVPs until ’56. They kept up their silly tradition during the first half-decade of the NBA’s existence.

In total this means that there are 9 MVPs that don’t exist. An historical vacuum that needs filling. Well, like the savory fruity goo in Fig Newtons, I’m here to fill in the gap. Starting with this article, I will over the ensuing weeks catalogue the leading candidates and declare an MVP winner for each of these seasons. Now, I will base my opinion on the facts and performances of each season, but in the end, it’s just my opinion on who the winner should have been. You’re welcomed to agree, disagree or just not give a hoot. Mostly, I  just hope I do justice to the players and the stories of these early BAA and NBA years.

Every season I will declare 5 finalists for the MVP (and maybe a few honorable mentions, if deemed necessary) and do a countdown to the winner. The rankings admittedly could be arbitrary. Some seasons the distance between the winner and runner-up will be microscopic (hello, George Mikan and Alex Groza!)and sometimes an enormous gulf. I hope my information and writing put across that kind of nuance.

So, here are the finalists and winner for the 1946-47 BAA MVP award!

#5 Ed Sadowski – Toronto Huskies / Cleveland Rebels
16.5 PPG, 0.9 APG, 36.9% FG, 66.8% FT, 11.8 Win Shares

Ed Sadowski, literally the BAA's poster boy
Ed Sadowski, literally the BAA’s poster boy

Big Ed Sadowski was the dominant pivot man of the 1947 season. After spending many fine years in the NBL, Sadowski appeared in the first BAA game (poster for the event pictured above). Big Ed would spend only 10 games with the Huskies before being traded to the Cleveland Rebels after basically quitting on the Huskies. The sad sordid exit explains why he isn’t higher on this list despite his domination of the pivot. The Rebels finished 30-30 and 3rd in the Western Division.

Sadowski’s scoring prowess placed him 3rd overall in PPG that season while his FG% was good enough for 2nd place. Pretty impressive considering Sadowski was 29 years old as the season began.

#4 Ernie Calverley – Providence Steamrollers
2nd Team All-BAA
14.3 PPG, 3.4 APG, 29.3% FG, 70.3% FT, 5.5 win shares

Ernie Calverley

Calverley enjoyed his best professional season leading the BAA in assists per game (3.4) in pretty convincing fashion. The 2nd-place finisher was Cleveland’s Kenny Sailors with 2.3. A comparable event would have been Rajon Rondo leading the NBA in APG with 11.7 this past season but with the 2nd-place Steve Nash having only 7.9 APG.

Calverley also led the Steamrollers in scoring and finished 6th league-wide in PPG. The Steamrollers however weren’t as overpowering as their name suggested finishing with a middling 28-32 record and missing the playoffs. Still Calverley’s fine production and cavalier playmaking this season is worthy of this lofty placement.

#3 Max Zaslofsky – Chicago Stags
1st Team All-BAA
14.4 PPG, 0.7 APG, 32.9% FG, 73.7% FT, 9.6 win shares

Zaslofsky StagsThe 21-year old Zaslofsky led the Stags to the best record in the Western Division with a 39-22 record. The individual stats for this 6’2″ guard-forward were impressive, too.  Finishing 5th in points per game with 14.4 and also 6th in FT% with .737. By no means a bad debut for the Brooklyn native, but (much) better years were to come for him. For right now he’ll have to settle for the 4th best BAA player this season.

Ed. Note: Yes, I copped out and did a tie for #1

#1 Bob Feerick – Washington Capitols
1st Team All-BAA
16.8 PPG, 1.3 APG, 40.1% FG, 76.2% FT, 18.6 win shares

Bob Feerick
Bob Feerick

Sometimes it’s impossible to make a meaningful distinction between two players “valuableness” and that’s the case here. Feerick was the leading man on a Capitols squad coached by Red Auerbach that went 49-11 in tregular season. That amounts to a .816 win percentage and would equate to 67 wins in an 82-game schedule. That wouldn’t be matched until the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers.

The Capitols were a loaded squad, but Feerick was the best of them. He finished 2nd in the league in PPG and was the runaway winner in FG% while also finishing 4th in FT%. His win shares that season were also the most for any single player. Unsurprising given the mammoth win total of the Caps.

A well deserved co-MVP for Feerick who, along with Zaslofsky, deserves inclusion in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

#1 Joe Fulks – Philadelphia Warriors
1st Team All-BAA
23.2 PPG, 0.4 APG, 30.5% FG, 73% FT, 16.3 win shares

joe fulksThe other co-MVP for this season is Joe Fulks who presents the flip side of the arguments for Feerick in many regards. Feerick was marvelously efficient, which was possible given his supporting cast. Fulks meanwhile was a runner and a gunner.

He led the league in PPG, total points, field goal attempts, field goals made, free throw attempts and free throws made. He was  the Warriors offense that season. The proportional gulf between his 23.2 ppg and Feerick’s 2nd-place 16.8 ppg is the largest on record for the BAA and NBA.

And despite the Warriors going 35-25, Fulks finished just 2.3 win shares behind Feerick, whose team won 14 more games overall. Again, I can’t in good conscience declare one of these players better than the other this season, so they both get the MVP. It shows there is no set formula for MVP because they both got a share in wildly different fashions.

And for what it’s worth, Fulks’s Warriors would win the BAA title in the postseason.

Come on back next week where the MVP of the 1947-48 BAA season will be announced! In the meantime get the full story on Joe Fulks’s career.

(as always, the fantastic and wonderful Basketball-Reference made this exercise possible with its treasure trove of stats and standings. However BBR can only work with what it can access and stats from these early years are sometimes a pain to come by. )