Saturday, April 30, 2005

The last time the NBA playoffs came to the city of Washington rather than some suburban outpost in Maryland was more than a half-century ago. That drought will end today when the Washington Wizards meet the Chicago Bulls in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference playoff series at MCI Center.

The previous postseason game in the District was on March 21, 1950, when the New York Knickerbockers began a two-game sweep of the Caps at rat-infested Uline Arena, which later became the Washington Coliseum and now sits vacant at Third and M streets NE. But more memorable were the playoffs a season earlier against the Minneapolis Lakers.

Red Auerbach’s Caps won a preliminary series over the Philadelphia Warriors and the Knicks to reach the 1948-49 finals against the Lakers. George Mikan, the NBA’s first superstar, led the Lakers to a 4-2 victory in the best-of-7 series, starting Minneapolis on a run of five titles in six seasons.

“Mikan was so much more powerful than everyone,” Mr. Auerbach recalled this week from his home in the District. “He was like [Shaquille O’Neal of the Miami Heat] is today. There were other centers his size [6-feet-10] but nobody with his power.”

Technically, the Caps and Lakers were playing for the championship of the old Basketball Association of America, which merged with the National Basketball League the following season to become the NBA.

In those days, pro basketball was still a relatively minor sport frequently played in smoky and dark high school gyms. Many of the 12 teams were from smaller cities, such as Fort Wayne, Ind., and Syracuse and Rochester, N.Y. The Tri-Cities Blackhawks actually represented, as their name suggested, three towns in Iowa.

Television was in its infancy then, and most local fans followed the Caps through the four Washington newspapers (Evening Star, Post, Daily News and Times-Herald.) Legendary broadcaster Bob Wolff called Caps home games on the new medium of television, which he estimated reached about 250 homes and bars on DuMont-owned WTTG (Channel 5).

“They were primitive times for basketball,” said Mr. Wolff, also the longtime radio and TV voice of the Washington Senators and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. “Teams had to fight for publicity on the third page of the sports section or something like that. The players had the glory of being pros, but they were barely getting by [on meager salaries].”

The arena, owned by ice company magnate Miguel “Mike” Uline, seated 5,000 for basketball and also was the site for the circus, political rallies and, years later, the Beatles’ first American concert in 1964. However, Uline’s primary tenant while the Caps played there from 1946 to 1951 was the Washington Lions semipro hockey team.

“It was a low, brick structure,” recalled Mr. Wolff, who at 84 still works as a sportscaster on Long Island, N.Y. “It was an ice house, and it looked and smelled like an ice house. It was cold, desolate. There was condensation on the court, which was laid on top of the ice, and sometimes players slipped all over the floor.”

And humans weren’t the only regulars at the arena.

“When you went back under the seats to go to the restroom, you could see the rats,” said Mr. Auerbach, who went on to win nine NBA titles with the Celtics in the 1950s and ‘60s. “With all the popcorn that used to come down from people in the stands, the rats had enough to eat.”

Mr. Auerbach assembled a talented, unselfish team that served as a blueprint for his dynastic Celtics. The fast-breaking Caps featured two guards, Bob Feerick and Fred Scolari, from San Francisco. The team averaged five players in double figures, including center Horace “Bones” McKinney, who later coached at Wake Forest and did commentary on Atlantic Coast Conference telecasts. The Caps often scored more than 100 points — and did it without a shot clock or 3-point shots.

“The two-handed jump shot started with this team,” Mr. Wolff said. “Fred Scolari always looked like he was holding the basketball like a waiter with a tray of dishes in his right hand. He was a short, little guy that everybody called ‘Fat Freddy.’ He sort of pushed the ball up, and doggone if it didn’t go in.”

The Caps led the Eastern Division with a 38-22 record during the 1948-49 season, defeating the Philadelphia Warriors and the Knicks in early playoff rounds. The Lakers were 44-16 during the season, one game behind the Rochester Royals in the Western Division, then posted two-game playoff sweeps of the Royals and Chicago Stags to reach the finals.

Caps star Feerick missed the entire finals with a knee injury. The Lakers won the first two games in Minneapolis and took a 3-0 series lead by winning 94-74 at Uline as the bespectacled Mikan scored 35 points.

The Caps won the fourth game 83-71 at Uline to stay alive and literally got a break when Mikan suffered a broken right wrist late in the game as Washington’s Kleggie Hermsen hit him hard from behind while he was shooting.

“Red told them to drag me off the court and get the game going,” Mikan said years later. “Hermsen made sure he fouled out quickly after that. There’s such a thing as retribution in sports. You didn’t necessarily have to get back at someone, because your teammates would.”

Mikan was unfazed and scored 22 points while wearing a cast in Game 5, which Washington won 74-66 at Uline. But the Lakers captured the title with a 77-56 win in Game 6 in Minneapolis.

“The cast was hard as brick; it fit right into his elbows,” McKinney once said. “It would kill you. And it didn’t bother his shooting one bit.”

Mr. Auerbach, constantly at odds with owner Uline, left after the season to coach the Blackhawks for a season before moving to Boston. The Caps folded midway through the 1950-51 season, and the city would not see an NBA playoff game for more than five decades — until today.

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