Ball Hawks: The arrival and departure of the NBA in Iowa

Excerpted from Ball Hawks: The Arrival and Departure of the NBA in Iowa. Copyright © 2018 by University Of Iowa Press. Used with permission.

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For three winters following World War II, the generally-Midwestern National Basketball League and the large-market Basketball Association of America competed for players and prestige. In the summer of 1949, the NBL and BAA merged to form the NBA. The resulting 17-team league stretched over two-thirds of the country, creating travel and scheduling difficulties while uniting clubs as diverse as the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, and Philadelphia Warriors with the Anderson (Indiana) Packers, Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Red Skins, and Waterloo (Iowa) Hawks.

Low attendance created difficulties across the league by the middle of the 1949–50 season. All Chicago Stags tickets were reduced to a dollar, down from as high as three dollars, to draw spectators. Rumors suggested that the Anderson Packers would be moved or sold as team founder Ike Duffey divested assets. However, a community effort raised thousands of dollars to ensure the Packers’ short-term viability in the city. In a syndicated Associated Press story, owners of the St. Louis Bombers urged anyone interested in purchasing a professional basketball team to contact them. By February, the Baltimore Bullets had been sold for $30,000.

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Ten of the league’s seventeen clubs were generating less than $4,000 each home game. In Waterloo, from preseason through the end of the calendar year, the Hawks had spent more than $60,000. Expenses ranged from payroll to Hippodrome rent. During the same period, ticket sales for Waterloo home games averaged just over $2,500 per night, ahead of only Baltimore and Anderson. Some team owners believed the assertion made by large-market sports columnists, who claimed that the small-town teams absorbed from the National Basketball League were not attractive to fans in bigger cities. Owners of the Rochester Royals and Philadelphia Warriors even formulated a plan to create a basketball minor league for 1950–51, to which Waterloo, Sheboygan, Anderson, and other less desirable outposts could be offloaded. The Warriors’ Eddie Gottlieb expressed publicly what other owners may have quietly been hoping throughout 1949-50: “Actually, we expected two or three teams to drop out by now, but apparently everybody is sticking the season out.”

Needless to say, leaders of the clubs to be discarded reacted bitterly to the plan. “The idea that Waterloo be part of a minor league is fantastic because Waterloo’s operation will be much more sound than that in several of the larger cities next season,” responded Hawks president Chris Marsau, taking a more restrained jab at the eastern cities than some of his peers. Tri-Cities Blackhawks owner Ben Kerner suggested that it was Rochester that should depart if their club was unhappy.

From the league offices in the Empire State Building, NBA president Maurice Podoloff was, of course, more diplomatic. Publicly, Podoloff lauded the lower operating costs and rental fees that smaller cities enjoyed. Rather than removing teams like the Hawks, the president sought opportunities to enhance natural rivalries, although this generally meant rivalries between big cities: Philadelphia-New York, Washington-Baltimore, or Chicago-St. Louis. Throughout the winter, he spoke of dividing the league into sequestered divisions and even possibly solving the NBA’s problems by adding teams rather than subtracting them. “It’s those long jumps between cities that kill us,” he argued. “If we can install clubs in some of the intermediate cities, we can form two geographically compact divisions next year and cut down on traveling expenses.”

Podoloff repeated these sentiments directly to Waterloo’s board and management when he was on hand for new Waterloo coach Jack Smiley’s second victory: 88–84 against the Denver Nuggets on January 21. The league president took the train to Waterloo and arrived in time to watch Johnny Payak lead the Hawks with 19 points. He also saw a Hippodrome crowd of more than 3,900 excited by a strong second-half performance, which yielded the team’s third consecutive home win. After the game, Podoloff charmed Waterloo dignitaries with self-deprecation, sharing a remark made by a sports writer about his dual role as a basketball executive and president of the American Hockey League: “Belt high to a basketball player, as wide as any hockey player and with his chief qualification being that he has never played either sport.”

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Hawks officials sent Podoloff back east with a toy John Deere tractor as a memento of his visit as well as the promise—either an unfortunate lapse of tact or a display of ignorance regarding their guest’s heritage—that Rath Packing’s New York distributor would deliver a ham to him. Podoloff’s Russian Jewish family had immigrated to the United States when he was a boy.

After the regular season, while Waterloo players – stars and substitutes alike – moved into summer jobs selling insurance or studied for advanced degrees, the NBA playoffs opened for the twelve qualifying teams. By percentage, the Syracuse Nationals finished with the league’s best record and shortest path to the finals. The Nationals dispatched the Philadelphia Warriors and New York Knicks in successive best-of-three series. Syracuse’s championship round opponents, the Minneapolis Lakers, had also won two divisional series, as well as defeating the Anderson Packers in an intermediate playoff round. Playing for their third title in three years – first in the NBL during 1947-48, then in the BAA in 1948-49 – the Lakers became the first NBA champions, winning the best-of-seven finals in six games .

The World Professional Basketball Tournament had been discontinued after 1948. Minneapolis had won the final event, yet the Lakers’ 1950 NBA title could be considered far more prestigious. The NBL-BAA merger had put the country’s top professionals (setting aside the issue of segregation) together on the same courts under the same rules for an entire season, rather than just one week in March. However, the marriage of the two leagues had not brought prosperity. Many clubs that struggled financially in either league during 1948-49 continued to take losses as members of the NBA in 1949-50.

Waterloo’s 2,973 per game average attendance at the Hippodrome fell well shy of preseason estimates for the mark needed to break even. Budget-saving decisions, made from the middle stages of the season onward, limited the shortfall, and the Hawks generated more than $93,000 in revenue. Operating expenses – not counting the purchase of the team from Andy George and Charlie Shipp – totaled more than $113,000. Taking into account the working capital raised during the stock drive, the final deficit at season’s end was $1,500.

The Waterloo Basketball Inc. board of directors planned to sell new shares to cover that relatively mild loss and continue operations into a new season. Almost half the original stock offering had covered the acquisition of the franchise. Additionally, the purchase of the Hammond Calumet Buccaneers’ roster had been among the substantial expenses on the 1949-50 balance sheet. Hawks leaders were optimistic that a similar line item would be unnecessary in 1950-51. Thus, the board hoped that selling the same quantity of shares in 1950 would allow the team to open a new season with a balance considerably more robust than had been available the previous summer. After the strong on-court finish, Waterloo’s roster was a valuable asset, since standard professional basketball contracts allowed teams the exclusive right to negotiate with their own players the following season or to monetize residual contracts by selling them to another club.

A league meeting and college draft were scheduled for Chicago on April 24 and 25. Just two weeks before the gathering, the Hawks learned all teams would be required to make a $50,000 performance guarantee to the NBA, underwritten by a bank or insurance company that would be liable for that amount if Waterloo failed to complete the 1950-51 schedule. Although it was not necessary to deposit $50,000 with the league office, some teams – especially in smaller communities – would be stretched just to find that degree of fiduciary confidence among their backers. The promissory notes were due by the start of the league meeting.

This additional requirement was more than the Anderson club could manage. Within hours, Packers representatives announced that they would not be in the NBA during 1950–51. Other small-market teams were defiant. According to the Milwaukee Sentinel, Sheboygan Red Skins president Magnus Brinkman demanded concessions in return for providing the surety bonds, specifically, “‘better business methods’ including a monthly accounting of all league operating expenses; equalization of schedules and the certainty that if the bond is posted, Sheboygan will be assured of NBA membership.”

Comments by NBA president Maurice Podoloff four days before the Chicago meeting convinced the Hawks, Red Skins, and Nuggets that there was an ulterior motive for the new performance guarantee. “Something will have to be done to make the league more workable,” he told reporters. “Sheboygan and Waterloo are not as attractive at the gate as some other cities. . . . Denver extends the league too far and makes it a major travel problem.”

On a Monday morning in Chicago’s Morrison Hotel – less than a year after the NBA’s foundation had been laid there during initial merger discussions – the league’s size and shape changed dramatically. “Only once was there any mention of Waterloo and Sheboygan staying in the NBA,” wrote disgusted Waterloo Courier sports editor Al Ney. “That was in a preliminary confab when the question was asked whether or not Waterloo had a $50,000 bond to post if it was decided the Hawks could remain in the NBA. The Waterloo representatives said they were prepared to guarantee posting the $50,000 bond. That was the end of bond talk.”

The league’s endangered small-city teams had interpreted the $50,000 guarantee as a mechanism designed to dislodge them from the NBA. This suspicion was strengthened by the special dispensation for the Chicago Stags. The bond was waived for Chicago, while the Stags were also provided with a $40,000 financial aid package. Keeping the club afloat in the 18,000-seat Chicago Stadium was worthwhile to the NBA, league owners reasoned, even if the Stags needed to be given nearly the same amount of backing that other teams in smaller markets were being asked to pledge.

During the formal afternoon session, the NBA’s other members voted not to include Waterloo, Sheboygan, and Denver when building the following season’s schedule. Magnus Brinkman described the Indianapolis Olympians’ attempt to abstain, saying, “Mr. Podoloff’s eyes snapped and he said he would entertain a motion to include Indianapolis in the original ouster motion. Indianapolis fell in line immediately and voted with the other teams.”

Speaking to the press later in the day, Podoloff portrayed the changes as voluntary. Sheboygan’s Brinkman would have none of it, responding firmly, “Anyway you look at it, we were kicked out. We did not resign. They simply wouldn’t have us in and they told us so in the morning meetings.”

Excerpted from Ball Hawks: The Arrival and Departure of the NBA in Iowa. Copyright © 2018 by University Of Iowa Press.

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