- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

Sixty-three years ago, on June 6, 1946, the NBA was formed at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel by a bunch of men who ran sports arenas in the East and Midwest.

Sort of.

For one thing, the league was called the Basketball Association of America. It didn’t become the NBA until three years later, when 11 BAA teams merged with six from the older National Basketball League to create a new circuit.

For another, the style of play bore almost no resemblance to today’s lickety-split brand. There was no 24-second clock, no huge crowds, very few fast breaks or jump shots. Teams on offense wove around the perimeter for what seemed like forever waiting for some brave soul to try a two-handed set shot with a ball that was larger than today’s.

And all the players were white, though the NBL had employed black players as early as 1942.

Only two of the current 30 teams were charter members still playing in the same city: the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. The Warriors were around, too, but played out of Philadelphia while winning the first league championship; they defeated the short-lived Chicago Stags in five games. Other teams in 1946-47 included the Providence Steam Rollers, Pittsburgh Ironmen and Toronto Huskies.

Basically, the league was founded to help fill dates when there were no college basketball or hockey games scheduled. At New York’s Madison Square Garden, however, college doubleheaders were hugely popular, and the NHL’s Rangers had a strong fan base. Therefore the luckless Knicks got to play only six of their 30 “home” games in the Garden. The others were shunted off to Manhattan’s less glamorous 69th Regiment Armory.

In other venues, teams tried all sorts of gimmicks in an era when television was in its infancy and provided no competition. For the Huskies’ opener, any fan taller than 6-foot-8 center George Nostrand got in free. But in Cleveland, a customer refused to accept four complimentary tickets upon learning he would have to pay 60 cents tax on each.

Washington was represented by the original Capitols, whose home was ancient Uline Arena (later called Washington Coliseum) at Third and M streets NE. When the Caps and St. Louis Bombers met in the first game there, condensation from the ice rink beneath made the floor so slippery that players spent much of the evening on their backsides.

A few nights later, the teams tangled again in St. Louis, where the Bombers apparently won 70-69. A postgame recheck revealed the scorer had awarded the home team an extra field goal, so the Caps were declared 69-68 winners. And so it went.

Writing in the Washington Star, Francis Stann observed that teams “played not only in small, dingy gymnasiums but they played typical old-time pro basketball, in which holding, pushing, hipping and tripping overshadowed clever ball handling, speed and good shooting.” Undoubtedly, Stann added, “a good many real fans threw up their hands in disgust.”

Not all the teams were pathetic. The Caps, owned by ice entrepreneur Miguel Uline, roared through the first regular season with a 49-11 record. Though their roster included outstanding players like Bones McKinney, John Norlander, Bob Feerick and Freddie Scolari, the biggest reason for their success was their unfamed 29-year-old coach - a former George Washington University player who had coached at Theodore Roosevelt High School and St. Albans School in the District before entering the service in World War II.

On June, 10, 1946, The Washington Post introduced him with a small headline that misspelled his nickname: “Reds Auerbach Named Coach, Still in Navy.”

Auerbach would go on to considerably greater things — like winning nine NBA titles in 10 years with the Celtics from 1957 to 1966. Those 1946-47 Caps were his first dominant team and one just as tough as Red himself.

“Hey, I hired you. I’ll fire you,” Auerbach told his troops, according to American Heritage magazine. “You play. I’ll coach. I won’t listen to any crap.”

The Caps provided a breath of fresh sporting air for a city whose Senators hadn’t won a World Series in 14 years and whose Redskins wouldn’t return to the postseason for another 24. Yet despite Auerbach’s rock-rumped approach, the Caps inexplicably bombed out in the playoffs, losing to the Stags four games to two in the league semifinals. Four years later, they folded, leaving the District without NBA representation until 1973.

A Washington team that lost? The NBA certainly was very different then, but some things don’t seem to change at all.

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