Wartime Basketball tells the story of basketball’s survival and development during World War II and how those years profoundly affected the game’s growth after the war. Prior to World War II, basketball—professional and collegiate—was largely a regional game, with different styles played throughout the country. Among its many impacts on home-front life, the war forced pro and amateur leagues to contract and combine rosters to stay competitive. At the same time, the U.S. military created base teams made up of top players who found themselves in uniform. The war created the opportunity for players from different parts of the country to play with and against each other. As a result, a more consistent form of basketball began to take shape. The rising popularity of the professional game led to the formation of the World Professional Basketball Tournament (WPBT) in 1939. The original March Madness, the WPBT was played in Chicago for ten years and allowed professional, amateur, barnstorming, and independent teams to compete in a round-robin tournament. The WPBT included all-black and integrated teams in the first instance where all-black teams could compete for a “world series of basketball” against white teams. Wartime Basketball describes how the WPBT paved the way for the National Basketball League to integrate in December 1942, five years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Weaving stories from the court into wartime and home-front culture like a finely threaded bounce pass, Wartime Basketball sheds light on important developments in the sport’s history that have been largely overlooked.
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About the Author
Douglas Stark is the museum director at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team.
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The Emergence of a National Sport during World War II
By Douglas Stark
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Douglas Stark
All rights reserved.
America Goes to War, 1941–1942
These boys cavorting on the basketball court tonight who are being cheered to the echo by all of us in the stands, in some way reflect our boys in the armed forces, being supported by those of us behind the lines.
— Edward Cochrane, Sports Editor, Chicago Herald American, 1942
Ralph Kaplowitz had high hopes for his senior year. As a sophomore in 1939–40, Kaplowitz was an important player on the New York University Violets, scoring 183 points as the Violets won eighteen games that season. He was named to the second-team All-Metropolitan. Kaplowitz improved as a junior, scoring 193 points and leading the team to a 13-6 record in 1940–41. In the process he had finally earned his role as the team's best player and centerpiece. As he recalled, "Bobby Lewis, who was an excellent ballplayer the previous season, graduated, and so did some of the other players. So I was left as the fulcrum of the new NYU team." As the team's star he was named to the first-team All-Metropolitan. With steady improvement individually and a good team returning, the Violets, under future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach Howard Cann, were seeking a postseason invitation for the 1941–42 season. High hopes followed the team throughout the summer of 1941.
Weeks before students returned to school in late August, Kaplowitz received his draft notice. The Army Air Corps, the forerunner to the air force, drafted him. He immediately reported, which ended his college career and any hopes the Violets had of being a top team on the East Coast. As Kaplowitz recalled, "I was drafted August 13, 1941. I went to Camp Upton, New York, as a draftee. I immediately applied for the flying school. At the time a draftee was in the service for one year because there was no war at that stage. I wanted to get into flying so they sent me to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where I would take an examination to get into the cadets. I took the examination, and I passed so they sent me to Chanute Field, Illinois, where I went to Air Mechanics School. I was waiting for them to accept me into flying school." While waiting to be accepted into flying school, Kaplowitz stayed in shape by playing basketball at Chanute Field.
"I was in Chicago on a weekend when the announcement on the radio said that we were attacked at Pearl Harbor," he recounted. "Therefore, all the soldiers — I was a private at the time — had to report back to the barracks. I went to the barracks, and I found out more about Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile, we went about our normal duties."
Part of his regular duties included playing basketball for the Chanute Field team. Kaplowitz recalled, "I played basketball at Chanute Field with a bunch of all-American ballplayers like Bill Hapac from the University of Illinois, Ted Skrodsky, Osborne, Menke from DePaul and a few others. We were undefeated in the six games that I played with them before I got called to go to Cadet School to take up flying." Prior to reporting to Cadet School, "we had a game with Chanute Field against Scott Field, another team in the Air Corps." His teammates made him captain of the team. On that occasion, Kaplowitz remembered, "I scored 37 points and I did not miss a shot. That was my going-away present. Then, I got on the train and went to Kelly Field, Texas, where I had six weeks of preliminary training." Over the next five years, Kaplowitz crisscrossed the country for training before being sent to the Pacific theater, where he flew thirteen missions as a fighter pilot and nearly lost his life several times. He spent five years in the military, his basketball career interrupted by war.
Kaplowitz, like millions of Americans, saw his life irrevocably altered on that fateful December day. In the quiet hours of December 7, 1941, the Japanese had sailed undetected across the Pacific Ocean with sixty ships, and the intent to inflict devastating damage on the U.S. Navy. That is exactly what they did as the U.S. Navy suffered horrific losses. It was an attack that shattered the nation's confidence and awoke it from its isolationist sensibility. The following day, newspapers across the country decried the devastation that the Japanese had unleashed. The headline of the New York Daily News declared "JAPS BOMB HAWAII DECLARE WAR ONU.S. AND BRITAIN." In large block letters on the front page, the Boston Herald announced, "JAPS OPEN WAR ON U.S. BOMB HAWAII, KILL 350." The New York Times reported, "JAPAN WARS ON U.S. AND BRITAIN, MAKESSUDDEN ATTACK ON HAWAII, HEAVY FI GHTING AT SEAS REPORTED." Later that day, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress and gave his soon-to-be famous "day that will live in infamy" speech. Soon thereafter, the country was headed to war for the second time in a generation.
In the days preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, another basketball season loomed, and teams across the country readied for another season of basketball. In St. Louis, the Washington University Bears prepared for the start of their season with a warm-up game against McKendree College, while crosstown rival St. Louis University, coming off a terrible loss, 51–22, to the University of Notre Dame the week before, sought to redeem itself against the University of Missouri and answer the question of "whether the Tigers of the University of Missouri rate[d] as high in basketball as they [did] in football." In New York future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee was contemplating making a change to his Long Island University starting five for the preseason finale against Lawrence Tech of Detroit. He was thinking of replacing Dick Holub in the starting lineup with Irv Rothenberg, a six-foot-seven, two-hundred-pound sophomore whom Bee felt would "be of greater help to the varsity in securing control of the ball." Excitement surrounded George Washington University as the basketball team geared up for its first season in the Southern Conference with a game against Wake Forest University. Throughout the country a new season of basketball was set to begin in the shadow of the looming war.
In Indianapolis the Indianapolis Kautskys and the Toledo Jim White Chevies, both teams in the National Basketball League (NBL), returned to the court after the halftime intermission. The teams were loosening up and going through the lay-up drills before heading to the benches for a final review of the second-half strategy. But before the teams could start the second half, the public address announcer broke through the noise of the crowd to make an announcement. Indianapolis's Frank Baird recalled, "Suddenly, the announcer said, 'we have an important announcement. Japan has bombed Pearl Harbor.' We stopped warm-ups and started talking to each other at midcourt. I remember so well that when we got together, we got into a bit of an argument, so to speak. We didn't know whether Pearl Harbor was in the Philippines or in Hawaii. Just goes to show how few of us had even heard of Pearl Harbor to that point. Most of us thought there was surely no way the Japanese could come all the way over to bomb Hawaii. Well, of course we were wrong, unfortunately." Bob Deitz, one of the Kautskys' players remembered the announcement and the shock that it caused.
At halftime they didn't know whether to continue with the game or not. But they did decide to finish. I honestly can't tell you whether we won or lost that day. All the way back we had the radio on with all the news about what happened. It got progressively worse the more we listened. I had already been sworn into the Navy. I knew my date to report was January 29. I was coaching at Brownsburg High School at the time, and the school board kept saying, '"We'll get you a deferment. Don't worry about a thing." Well, after I heard that [announcement], I knew the deferment was long gone. We knew that once war was declared, we were on our way.
Indianapolis finished out its season with a first-round loss to the Oshkosh All-Stars in the NBL playoffs. The war, however, loomed in the minds of everyone, and the team made a conscious decision to cease operations for the upcoming season. As Baird recalled, "After the playoffs many of the fellas on the ball club enlisted or were drafted. There was a real shortage of players. And Frank Kautsky thought that this just wasn't the time to keep an NBL franchise going." In an interview after the conclusion of the season, Kautsky declared, "I felt as though I'd be doing something wrong." It would be a decision that every team would face in the coming years.
In those early days of U.S. involvement in the war, nobody could foresee the changes that the war would have on the game of basketball. Basketball in the 1930s underwent a transformation that after World War II propelled the game to a more exciting level of play and greater financial success. For its first thirty years, basketball was a rough, slow, and deliberate game, played mostly by working-class kids who had little formal education. Scores were low, and teams with the lead late in games would stall the ball. The only requirement was to possess the ball after each center jump. This feat placed a premium on having one tall center whose only objective was to win the center jump after each basket and obtain the ball for his team.
In 1937 the center jump after each basket was eliminated, and the game slowly lost the last vestiges of its formative years. As Robert Peterson noted in his book Cages to Jump Shots, "Elimination of the center jump was the most radical change in basketball's early evolution. It speeded up play considerably because the ball did not have to be brought to center court for a tip-off after each score. It also contributed to the development of the skills of tall players because teams could no longer afford to carry a big center whose only value was to get the tip-off. The consensus of coaches was that ending the center jump would help small players most, but in fact the day of the dominating big man was still in the future."
The game was opening up, and big men were required to do more than just gain possession of the ball. If a center could not run or score or defend, he was a liability and less useful to his teammates. The game was becoming faster, and the call was out for players with more ability. That ability soon would be found on campuses across the country. The emergence of college basketball on a national level was the other significant change during the thirties. Colleges had fielded teams since shortly after the game was invented, but college ball was local and played mostly on campuses in small gymnasiums or reconfigured spaces.
All of that began to change in the 1930s, and the man responsible was Ned Irish. Although he did not invent the idea of the doubleheader, he, better than most, understood how to sell it to the public. It was Irish's success at promoting doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden that propelled basketball to its status as a national sport. Joe Lapchick, one of the game's great players during the 1920s, understood the impact Irish had on the game: "He was a tough man, but he took basketball out of the dance halls. He gave it the respectability it deserved. No one ever did more for the game."
A newspaperman by training, Irish was a temperamental man, who at heart was a businessman who saw an opportunity. He covered college basketball games for the New York World Telegram, focusing mostly on local schools. College basketball drew huge enthusiastic crowds on campuses in New York. These small on-campus arenas often could not hold all these fans and soon turned away many unhappy customers.
One night in 1934, on assignment to cover a game at Manhattan College, Irish was barred from entering due to one of these overflow and boisterous crowds. Legend has it that he tore his pants as he tried to crawl through a window to see the game. Upset but not discouraged, he decided to schedule college basketball doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden to capitalize on this interest. His lone experience in this venture was promoting two triple headers in the early 1930s for the mayor's Unemployment Relief Fund.
Seizing on his idea, Irish met with General John Reed Kilpatrick, Madison Square Garden president, and Tim Mara, owner of the New York Giants football team. Together, they decided that college basketball would operate as a concession to the Garden, guaranteeing Kilpatrick $4,000 a night. Within days everyone agreed, and Irish set his sights on arranging and promoting college basketball's first doubleheader.
Thanks to Irish's newspaper background and understanding of how to generate press, the local media immediately seized on the novelty of a college basketball doubleheader at the Garden. On December 29, 1934, the New York dailies were hyping Saturday's main event featuring Westminster College facing St. John's University and New York University hosting the University of Notre Dame. The New York Times wrote, "College basketball will move into a definite niche on the Madison Square Garden program tonight with the staging of six double-headers." Everett B. Morris, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, opened his preview by stating, "Metropolitan college basketball will step out of its cramped gymnasiums and gloomy armories tonight into the bright lights and spaciousness of Madison Square Garden for the first of a series of six double-headers arranged in the hope of proving this winter that the sport deserves and will thrive in a major league setting."
Not to be outdone, noted sportswriter Jimmy Powers, wrote in his lead article for the New York Daily News, "Using Notre Dame as a bait, basketball makes its big time debut at Madison Square Garden tonight before an expected attendance of collegiate rah-rahs and their sweeties numbering 12,000 and a gate totaling $16,000. This is the first time — aside from a hasty charity affair — that the famed sport of sinking a leather ball in a basket of twine has attempted to crash the big leagues."
Aside from marking college basketball's first doubleheader, the evening was equally important for introducing an intersectional (East versus Midwest) basketball game on a national level. In his New York Post article, Stanley Frank remarked, "Intersectional games are a distinct novelty in New York, which is pretty snooty in the belief that the best basketball in the country is played here. That burning issue will be decided, more or less, tonight. N.Y.U., one of the few major teams in the nation without a slip, appears to be just as good as it was in 1933–34. Notre Dame is plugged as a team capable of carrying the torch for the Middle West."
With an anticipated full house and four nationally known teams, General Kilpatrick and Madison Square Garden were sure to pull out all the stops. The canvas floor was replaced by "a new board floor that [would] afford all the security of a college gymnasium. The backboards [would] be of glass in order to provide an uninterrupted view." All that remained was for basketball to be played. Both games lived up to the evening's expectations as more than sixteen thousand paying customers went through the turnstiles and "received with intense enthusiasm and partisanship college basketball's debut on a big-time basis."
In the first game Westminster gave St. John's its first loss in six games as "little Westminster overpower[ed] St John's in a hair-raising thriller in which the score was tied seven times before the Titans put on the pressure to triumph." Wes Bennett, the high scorer in the country a year ago, "put on a demonstration of individual prowess that was awesome in its effectiveness." He paced Westminster with twenty-one points on seven field goals and seven foul shots as they defeated local favorite St. John's, 37–33.
The evening's second and final game attracted the most attention. Notre Dame was a national power in football. Its basketball program was slowly building a tradition and under future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach George Keogan was making its first basketball visit to New York City. The Ramblers, its nickname then, coming off a 20-4 record the previous season, sported a 3-1 record entering their contest against the Violets. "Using a style of play more familiar to metropolitan courts than the zone defense and deliberate set-play attack of Westminster," Notre Dame built a 12–10 halftime lead "with a fast-passing attack built around the pivot play with the huge Marty Peters and the even huger Don Elser in the bucket" observed the New York Herald Tribune the following day.
Trailing at the half, New York University, behind Sid Gross, Willie Rubenstein, Milt Shulman, and Len Maiden, opened the second half with an 8–4 run to build a 20–14 lead. The "South Benders" answered and cut the deficit to 20–18 before NYU scored the game's final five points. Balanced scoring led the Violets as four players tallied five or more points. NYU's two big men, Irving Tergesen and Irwin Klein, fouled out trying to guard Peters and Elser, but Notre Dame was its own worst enemy, missing twelve of eighteen foul shots. New York University held Notre Dame to six second-half points.
Excerpted from Wartime Basketball by Douglas Stark. Copyright © 2016 Douglas Stark. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Prologue Acknowledgments Introduction: A New Game 1. America Goes to War, 1941–1942 2. The Color Line Falls, 1942–1943 3. Wartime Basketball, 1943–1944 4. The Big Man Cometh, 1944–1945 5. Looking toward the Future, 1945–1946 Epilogue: Basketball Arrives Appendix A. National Basketball League (NBL) Standings Appendix B. American Basketball League (ABL) Standings Appendix C. World Professional Basketball Tournament Results Appendix D. Red Cross Charity Matches Appendix E. Service Team Records Notes Index