A Few months ago, Ben Kerner, the owner of the St. Louis Hawks of the National Basketball Association, loaned the city of St. Louis $30,000 to refurbish Kiel Municipal Auditorium, where the Hawks play their home games. Not that the city was strapped, you understand, but such funds were not available at the time.
It was, admittedly, one of the year's minor financial transactions—but though small in sum, it was large in substance. Half a dozen years ago, the effervescent Mr. Kerner (he weeps, shudders, cheers and groans at games) would have been hard put to find 30 free and clear dollars for lending purposes. His current prosperity is a sample of the surging fortunes of professional basketball. And the NBA opens its 13th season this week with every prospect that it will play to its greatest audience ever—the Hawks, for example, have been sold out of season tickets for two months. This year, too, more than 90% of the Americans who own television sets will be able to follow the pros. On 20 Sunday afternoons NBC will telecast, live, a Game-of-the-Week over 140-odd stations in its network (see COMING EVENTS for schedule). Last Sunday, in the first of these televised presentations and the official league opener, Syracuse beat Detroit 103 to 94.
After due credit is given wise promotion, it is still true that the preeminent cause of this popularity is the game itself. Basketball, the way the pros play it, is an engrossing display of grace, finesse and power. Those three words leap to mind instantly at the sight, for example, of the Boston Celtics bringing the ball upcourt on one of their explosive fast breaks. Or of the Hawks' Bob Pettit, as he weaves, wheels, feints and forces his way relentlessly toward the basket. This is the human body in purposeful action, in economy of motion, a sight to gratify the eye of anyone with an instinct for sport.
The NBA cast of Cousy, Pettit, Russell, McGuire et al., that has performed so stirringly for several years now, offers some new faces this season, though the 10-player limit for each team makes this an extremely difficult league to crash. Guy Rodgers brings to Philadelphia the closest approach to Cousy's deceptive ball handling the game has yet seen. Minneapolis, a team that has desperately needed one bright star around whom it could rebuild to former greatness, now has him in Elgin Baylor. This is one of the few men in basketball history who can play every position on the floor, and not just creditably. His shooting is often unbelievable; given room just a step past the center line, he will get the ball off with the barest of warning and marvelous accuracy. There are going to be nights when Baylor, like Bob Pettit, will not be stopped, not even by Bill Russell—which will be quite a sight.
Si Green at Cincinnati, Connie Dierking at Syracuse and Mike Farmer at New York also have the major league talent necessary for playing in this company. They will be welcomed by fans, of course, but hardly by the players. The statement is not made facetiously; the old pros in the NBA are a prideful lot, in love with their game and seldom impressed by a newcomer's qualifications. Talk to such as Bill Sharman, 31 years old, facing for the eighth successive year a grueling 72-game schedule that frequently calls for four one-night stands in one week in four widely separated cities. Sharman is straining at the leash; no mere college All-America is going to beat him out of a job. And this—this furious competition at the highest level of playing skill—is the real reason why professional basketball is such a great game.
1958 record: won 49, lost 23; first in East. Top scorer: Bill Sharman, 1,402; sixth in league. Top rebounder: Bill Russell, 1,564; first in league
The statement is worth debate, but this is still the best team in basketball, despite its loss to St. Louis in the March playoffs. The Celtics finished eight full games ahead of the closest team in each division last season, and their average victory margin (5.5 points) was more than twice that of any other club. They have lost three players to retirement—key men, though all were reserves: Arnie Risen, Jack Nichols and Andy Phillip. Man for man, their replacements should add strength, if not immediately then surely in the near future. Ben Swain (for Risen) will spell Bill Russell at center, and he has the height (6 feet 8), spring, long arms and offensive ability for the job. He has much to learn about defense but, fortunately, the right teacher in Coach Red Auerbach. Jim Loscutoff (for Nichols) returns up front after being out most of last year with a knee injury and subsequent operation. The knee is sound again; if Jim can forget it ever was injured (the critical part of rehabilitation for any athlete), he will again be the second-best rebounder on the team and a double-figure scorer. Sam Jones (for Phillip) is the most-improved player on the Boston roster. Always cat-quick, and now a confident performer, he is going to surprise many a defensive backcourtman in the NBA. This team is a model for the old maxim that you can't win without the ball. Russell gets them the ball (he got it last season, on rebounds, 348 times more often than any other player in the league). When he gets it, Cousy & Co. know what to do with it, especially in a dazzling fast break. So the Celtics should again finish first.
1958 record: won 35, lost 37; fourth in East. Top scorer: Kenny Sears, 1,342; ninth in league. Top rebounder: Willie Naulls, 799; 10th in league
This is, essentially, the same team as last year's, which scored 100 or more points in 37 consecutive games to break the old record by 25 games. It is an obviously aggressive, experienced crew—with two flaws which cost it a playoff spot last season and may do so again. The first is the lack of a grade-A big man who is a real threat on offense in the pivot and can reasonably contain rival big men. Neither Ray Felix nor Charlie Tyra measures up to the job, though neither can be faulted for effort. The second is the absence of truly adequate replacement for Kenny Sears. Understandably, at 6 feet 9 and only 190 pounds, Sears tires faster than most frontcourtmen from the relentless pounding under the boards. Coach Fuzzy Levane has hope that either of two rookies will be able to give Sears the rest he needs. They are Mike Farmer and Pete Brennan. Farmer is the stronger and, at this stage, appears the better on defense; Brennan has the better scoring touch. Levane plans to get around his lack of pivot strength by keeping his center out of the slot and playing more of a running, driving game than last year. The Knick backcourt bows to none: Carl Braun, Richie Guerin and Ron Sobie are fast, intelligent ball handlers and double-figure scorers. A year's experience has helped reserves Brendan McCann and Guy Sparrow. Finally, there is Willie Naulls, as superb a natural athlete as can be found in any sport. It is more than worth the admission price to watch Willie toss in his soft one-handers with the ease and grace of a ballet movement. But, considering the flaws, the pick for New York is fourth again.
1958 record: won 37, lost 35; third in East. Top scorer: Paul Arizin, 1,406; fifth in league. Top rebounder: Neil Johnston, 790; 11th in league
Three weeks ago, during an exhibition game with St. Louis, Neil Johnston smashed into a wall and damaged a knee severely. Doctors predicted he would be out for most of the season. Until then there had been at least a reasonable prospect that Philadelphia would be an Eastern title contender all the way and might even beat Boston in the playoffs. The latest prognosis is considerably more optimistic, but no one can say when Johnston will be completely effective again. It is a critical question for the Warriors. A tireless, full-hearted competitor, Neil is the only player besides George Mikan ever to lead the NBA in scoring for three straight years. And he has always been the Warriors' best rebounder. Even without Johnston, however, new Coach Al Cervi will hardly field an also-ran. First, there is Cervi himself—a peppery, inspirational presence on the bench and a tactician second to none in the NBA. Two rookies—Guy Rodgers and Andy Johnson—add power and flexibility to the squad. By using Rodgers, a superb playmaker, in the backcourt, Cervi will be able to move Tom Gola to one of the corner positions, where his defensive and rebounding skill will have increased scope. This may be precisely the opportunity Gola has needed to demonstrate the talent that flared so brilliantly during his college years and has flickered only occasionally since then. Johnson, 6 feet 6 and 220 pounds of brawn, has shown the ability to make the transition from the showboating Globetrotters to NBA ball easily. All veterans are back and fit. With Neil Johnston, the Warriors should finish second; without him, third.
1958 record: won 41, lost 31; second in East. Top scorer: Dolph Schayes, 1,791; second in league. Top rebounder: Dolph Schayes, 1,022; fourth in league
For two years in a row, Player-Coach Paul Seymour has driven Syracuse to the second-best winning percentage in the league. He has done this with two or three old pros and a collection of castoffs from other clubs—goading them into an ever-running, never-say-die series of performances. It has been a highly creditable job. Last year, Paul lost all four of his top draft choices when none decided to turn pro, a serious blow to his planning. This year he has fared considerably better. Fresh from college ranks, Connie Dierking has already shown himself ready to spell John Kerr at center, releasing Bob Hopkins for duty up front behind Dolph Schayes. Backcourt Rookies Hal Greer and Tommy Kearns may well satisfy Seymour to the point where he will spend most of his time on the bench or even quit playing. Greer has phenomenal speed and Kearns is a Seymour-type determined hustler. Offensively, the front court of Schayes and Ed Conlin can match any other pair. Dolph, starting his 11th year as a pro, is an amazingly resilient athlete who shows no sign of slowing down; when he does, every estimate of this team must be changed, as a glance at the above statistics shows. Possibly the biggest intangible here is whether or not Kerr will ever achieve the self-confidence which would release all of his great potential. Seymour is hopeful this is the year. For the spectator, the Syracuse style of fast-weave and give-and-go basketball, with great emphasis on speed, is always a delight. It should also enable the Nats to finish second or third in the East, depending on Neil Johnston's availability at Philadelphia.
1958 record: won 41, lost 31; first in West. Top scorer: Bob Pettit, 1,719, third in league. Top rebounder: Bob Pettit, 1,216; second in league
The Hawks ran away with their division title last year and are at least 50% stronger this year. Their surplus talent, which must be cut from the squad by the middle of December, would make up a pretty fair entry in the league. So new Coach Andy Phillip could hardly ask for happier auspices at the start of his tenure. Top of the list of added strength is, of course, Clyde Lovellette, acquired from Cincinnati in trade for five men who would have had extreme difficulty in making the Hawks' roster—a deal which stunned the whole NBA. Many a coach would have given up far more for Big Clyde, despite his record of erratic behavior. He is still one of the very best hook-shooters and rebounders of all time, and since moving to St. Louis he appears to be deadly serious about basketball. The return of Al Ferrari from service brings speed and scoring punch to a backcourt that hardly needed it. Without him, Slater Martin, Jack McMahon, Win Wilfong, Frank Selvy and Med Park would do fine, thank you. And it is the same up front. Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley are surely set in their jobs. Rookies Dave Gambee and Hub Reed are both strong and well poised for newcomers, but how often can they be expected to replace the above-mentioned three or Lovellette and Charlie Share at center? Phillip's only real problem is whom to cut. Despite this glut of talent, it is the opinion here that little (5 feet 10) Martin has been and still is the key to the Hawks' success, with his hustle, speed and defensive skill. And since, at 33, he still appears tireless and immune to serious injury, St. Louis will win again.
1958 record: won 33, lost 39; tied for second. Top scorer: Clyde Lovellette, 1,659, fourth in league. Top rebounder: Maurice Stokes, 1,142; third in league
Sickness, retirement and trades have left the Royals with only one starter among three returning veterans. Most of the missing players are, conceivably, replaceable, but the great Maurice Stokes, still tragically under the spell of sleeping sickness, was an athlete and is a person with few equals. The Royals and the sport itself, for that matter, will miss him terribly. If Cincinnati struggles through the season in last place—a reasonable expectation—it will nevertheless be worth watching on any given night simply because of Si Green, who returns from service after three years. This lithe and limber young man will surely take his place some day as one of the finest backcourtmen of all time. His duels with Cousy, McGuire, Martin and other current ball-handling wizards should be thrilling affairs. He will have help from Rookies Vern Hatton and Arlen Bockhorn and veteran Tom Marshall, with Hatton, a fine driver and set-shooter, the likeliest starter. Up front the burden of playing against rival big men will fall chiefly on Jim Palmer, who has brawn and a year of AAU ball to his credit. Dave Piontek's rebounding and Jack Twyman's shooting are also reliable assets. The tall newcomers must be considered doubtful quantities in the face of NBA-class competition until they prove otherwise. Jack Parr is frail and erratic; Wayne Embry is strong but heavy-footed; Archie Dees is said to have the attributes of a pro, but he has yet to show them when this observer was present. Coach Bobby Wanzer can count one thing sure: if the Royals finish anywhere but last, the lion's share of credit will belong to him.
1958 record: Won 33, lost 39; tied for second. Top scorer: George Yardley, 2,001; first in league. Top rebounder: Walter Dukes, 954; sixth in league
No slight is intended to the other veteran personnel, but the key to a so-so or sparkling season for Detroit is tall but only occasionally terrific Walter Dukes. The point is that everyone from the brilliant Dick McGuire in the backcourt to the high-scoring George Yardley up front can be counted on, night after night, to play ball on a level close to his known ability. Not Dukes. And the pity is that when Walt really tries he is Bill Russell's equal on the boards, certainly Russell's superior presently as a shooter and perhaps as good a big man on defense as the sport has ever seen. A consistent Dukes could go a long way toward controlling the standout rival scoring threat—an incalculable asset. Dukes is no fool; he understands his problem, which is simply a matter of concentrating on the job at hand. If he conquers it, he will be a delight to watch. Elsewhere, Coach Red Rocha is set. With McGuire, he has Gene Shue, whose steady improvement will soon put him in All-Star status, and Dick Farley and Chuck Noble in reserve. Up front with Yardley are Joe Holup and Earl Lloyd, both strong and dependable, and Phil Jordon, with whom Rocha worked all summer on pivot play. Rookies who appear most likely to stick are Barney Cable and Shellie McMillon, both good boardmen. It would be especially nice if Dukes began to show his true worth this year, since the Pistons have a new, first-rank promoter in General Manager Nick Kerbawy. With a successful playing season, Nick could make the Detroit franchise one of the most successful, financially, in the league. At any rate, the Pistons will finish second.
1958 record: won 19, lost 53; fourth in West. Top scorer: Vern Mikkelsen, 1,248; 10th in league. Top rebounder: Larry Foust, 876; seventh in league
Patsies for the whole NBA last year, the Lakers have high hopes this time around, but the feeling here is that such hopes are premature. True, there is a lot of fresh talent available, but it will require at least a season's experience to be a factor in the division race. In addition, Coach John Kundla still has to depend on Jim Krebs to give Larry Foust the rest Foust requires at frequent intervals, and Krebs has yet to show the strength and spark a pro center needs. Up front, Vern Mikkelsen, always a tough and determined competitor, finally will have support, in the person of one of the most-publicized rookies in NBA history: Elgin Baylor. This will be a strong combination, especially if Baylor can avoid a marked tendency to follow a superb performance with a dismal one. When he's right, he has the touch, deception and savvy of greatness. Two more rookies will spell this pair: Boo Ellis and Steve Hamilton, both among the top 10 collegians in rebounding last year. All-Star Dick Garmaker and Bob Leonard are a veteran pair of backcourtmen and will likely start, but this should be the year Rod Hundley begins to fulfill his promise and becomes a regular. This department has never gone along with the opinion which holds that Hundley is more showman than player and cannot become a top-grade pro. He has always had every physical requisite, he now has a year's experience and, perhaps most important, he now has incentive, because two other veterans, Dick Schnittker and Ed Fleming, will be battling him for a place on the squad. Next year, who knows?—but this year, the Lakers will finish third.