As any fan watching, say, a mid-March game between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers can attest, the National Basketball Association games are not always models of perfection. Nor was Maurice Podoloff, the man who helped set up the league in 1946 and ran it for its first 17 seasons, a flawless commissioner. Podoloff was the first to admit he didn't even care much for basketball. He refused to give the players a pension fund. And one of his bitter enemies was the man who ran the NBA's most powerful franchise—Ned Irish of the New York Knicks.
Yet Podoloff, who was born in czarist Russia shortly before basketball was invented and who died last November at the age of 95, accomplished something no one else had—he made basketball a viable major league sport.
The odds were hardly in his favor when he took command. Professional basketball had a half-century history of failure. The owners in the new league (originally christened the BAA—for Basketball Association of America) were a fractious group, often at odds with each other. Their teams played in high school gyms and roller rinks. Underpaid and undertrained referees had their hands full controlling games. Public recognition developed very slowly, and a chronic shortage of cash sabotaged all but a few of the league's original franchises.
"There was always a crisis," recalls Red Auerbach. "But Podoloff kept the league going—just like a juggler."
Why did the owners of big-city arenas choose Podoloff, a short, portly lawyer from New Haven, Conn., to guide them to big-time respectability?
Podoloff had been president of the Canadian-American Hockey League since 1935 and was owner of the New Haven Arena and hockey team. Al Sutphin, a Cleveland arena owner who had a hockey team in Podoloff's league, recommended him for the job of heading the new basketball association. Podoloff pointed out that he didn't know anything about basketball, but the arena owners wanted an administrator, not a fan. "They made me president of the league because they figured I was honest, and that I would devote my attention to the financial aspects," Podoloff said last summer. "If I had been a sportsman, I probably would have loused it up."
Podoloff made mistakes, but he didn't louse it up. His first order of business was dealing with the BAA's rival, the small-city. Midwest-based National Basketball League. Podoloff's BAA had the big cities and the big arenas, but the NBL had most of basketball's big names—in particular, the 6'10" George Mikan, who was playing for the Minneapolis Lakers.
In 1948 Podoloff persuaded the Lakers, the Rochester Royals, the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Indianapolis Kautskys to join his BAA. "He maneuvered that deal pretty good," says Les Harrison, former owner of the Royals. "What we had, he wanted—the superstars of that time. And what he had we wanted—Madison Square Garden and the other big arenas."
The rest of the decimated NBL merged with the BAA in 1949 to form an unwieldy National Basketball Association of 17 teams and three divisions. Podoloff, however, never saw it as a merger. "A merger connotes two organizations joining together," he explained. "It was never a merger. I simply presented those teams with a case to accept or reject, and they got in our league."
Despite its consolidation, however, professional basketball nearly collapsed in the early '50s. Weak teams in small cities like Sheboygan, Wis. and Waterloo, Iowa quickly fell by the wayside, but so did teams in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Indianapolis. Ben Kerner's Hawks had to leave Milwaukee. Walter Brown and Boston nearly lost the Celtics. Fort Wayne had to play in a high school gym nicknamed "The Tub of Blood." Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals, operated a bowling alley to make money while his wife cooked pasta to feed the team. Ned Irish was successful at the Garden, but he was unsympathetic to the plight of the struggling teams.
Podoloff, however, was not. He extended financial deadlines. He arranged for loans to tide Brown over until he could pay his bills himself. He fended off league creditors. He told Irish that the Knicks couldn't play alone. And, says Biasone, "Maurice Podoloff treated me as an equal—and we [the owners of weaker franchises] were like a bunch of farmers compared to some of those fellas. But to him, the small guy was equal to the big guy. He listened to your problems."
The biggest problem with the league was dull games. Foul-ridden, low-scoring contests had become common because teams with a lead would often kill time by having their guards dribble in the backcourt until they were fouled. The worst example: a game on Nov. 22, 1950, in which the Pistons beat the Lakers 19-18.
"The games were interminable," Podoloff recalled. "Attendance was suffering. We were in a desperate situation."
At the 1954 annual owners' meeting, Biasone proposed a rule that would force each team to make a shot no more than 24 seconds after gaining possession of the ball. Podoloff approved the rule for exhibition games and finally made it mandatory for the 1954-55 season.
The 24-second clock, of course, is one of the enduring trademarks of the NBA, and, to the end of his life, Podoloff insisted that the clock saved the league from "imminent death." In 1962 the league lost its hard-won TV contract, and, at age 73, Podoloff was pressured to step down. He went home to New Haven and put the game behind him. Indeed, in the last years of his life, it would have been impossible to guess that he had been instrumental in helping create the NBA. No memorabilia from the game could be found in his living quarters. No pictures, no plaques. Nothing.
But he was proud of what he had accomplished. "I started it," he said simply, "and I didn't think it would do well. But professional basketball succeeded for three reasons: the speed of the game, the participation of good-looking people, and the fact that it was played inside, where it could be enjoyed in warmth and comfort. I worried about the NBA, but it did much better than I ever thought it would."
Charles Paikert is writing a book about the history of the NBA.