Search

NORTHERN EXPOSURE THE NBA TIPPED OFF NEARLY 50 YEARS AGO IN TORONTO, WITH A CANADIAN CLUB THAT PLAYED ITS GAMES OVER ICE

Oct. 23, 1995
Oct. 23, 1995

Table of Contents
Oct. 23, 1995

Departments

NORTHERN EXPOSURE THE NBA TIPPED OFF NEARLY 50 YEARS AGO IN TORONTO, WITH A CANADIAN CLUB THAT PLAYED ITS GAMES OVER ICE

There's not more than one basketball fan in a thousand who
remembers them. Their moment was too fleeting, too distant. Most
of the old gang have passed on. Even the only man alive who
suited up for every one of their games no longer recalls their
uniform colors. The images in his memory are all in sepia.

This is an article from the Oct. 23, 1995 issue

But in the very beginning, the Toronto Huskies were there. Long
before the Raptors, they were the first team of Canada--one of
the 11 original franchises in the Jurassic period of the NBA.
The Huskies were not successful, nor homegrown, nor enduring.
The Ontario winter had more punch and lasted longer. But the
Huskies were there.

"We were pioneers, blue-collar guys playing at a time when the
NBA was still a rye-bread-and-bologna league," recalls Harry
Miller, 72, the only surviving wire-to-wire Huskie. "To be
honest, though, I've never made a big deal about playing with
the Huskies. It's tough enough for me to tell people I played in
the original NBA. But a team in Toronto?"

The unlikely confluence of Canada and pro basketball officially
began on Nov. 1, 1946, when a modest crowd of 7,090 gathered in
Maple Leaf Gardens, the first house of Canadian hockey. A
bagpipe troupe performed. The mayor of Toronto delivered a
speech. And in a customary display of postwar patriotism, the
citizens of the Commonwealth rose and sang God Save the King.
Then there was a basketball game--the first in the history of the
Basketball Association of America (BAA), which would merge with
the National Basketball League in 1949 to form the National
Basketball Association. The New York Knickerbockers defeated the
Huskies 68-66, in what the NBA now regards as its first official
game.

"The new league may not click overnight," wrote New York Times
columnist Arthur Daley. "However, it cannot help but succeed
eventually. This is the start of a significant development in
sport."

Basketball would have a hard time succeeding in Canada, though.
With their beloved Maple Leafs in the midst of a Stanley Cup
championship season, Toronto sports fans treated the Huskies
with measured indifference. Despite the ubiquitous newspaper
advertisements hyping "King Basketball, Canada's Most Popular
Sport" and promotional giveaways ranging from nylons to heating
coal, the Huskies were never more than a novelty. While the
Leafs played before sellout crowds at the Gardens, the Huskies
averaged fewer than 3,000 spectators per game.

"My line used to be that I could count the number of fans by
running down one side of the court and coming back on the
other," says Miller. "We didn't have much of a following."

"Toronto was a hockey town and always had been. They just didn't
know basketball there," adds Dick Schulz, who joined the Huskies
in late 1946. "When we would come down the floor, the crowd
would yell, 'Check 'em! Check 'em!'"

Ironically, the Huskies were born out of the idea that
basketball and hockey were not just compatible but actually good
for each other. The founding fathers of the BAA had strong
hockey connections. Their dream: to put sparkle into pro hoops
by taking it out of high school gyms and putting it into
showcase hockey arenas, places like Boston Garden and Madison
Square Garden.

Maple Leaf Gardens didn't own the Huskies; Leaf owner Conn
Smythe reportedly thought basketball was a sport for sissies.
Still, Smythe was happy to collect rent from a nine-man
coalition of Ontario investors who together put up the $100,000
required to finance the team. Most were high rollers in the
stock market who reputedly knew more about horses than hoops.

"To put it bluntly, it was a half-assed operation," recalls
Annis Stukus, who wrote for the Toronto Star in 1946 and later
became one of the leading figures--as a player and franchise
owner--in the Canadian Football League. "These men had deep
pockets, but there were fishhooks in them. It wasn't so much
that they were cheap; they were just too cautious. They just
weren't ready for what this was all about."

The Huskies were a reflection of their time. They bought their
own equipment, rode the midnight rails, ate mayonnaise
sandwiches made from dining-car scraps and iced their postgame
brews in hotel bathtubs. The style of play was primitive. It was
a technical foul to touch the rim in 1946, and the jump shot was
considered radical. Free throws were shot with two hands,
underhand. Defense wasn't just man-to-man, it was fist-to-kidney.

The Washington Capitols were the league's best team in the
regular season, led by an unknown 29-year-old coach named Red
Auerbach. The Celtics' Chuck Connors, the man who would become
television's Rifleman, broke a glass backboard during warmups at
Boston Garden. The ball was brown, but the league was as white
as the ice beneath the first portable floors.

Canada's team was composed mostly of New Yorkers--Queens kids in
the king's dominion. Their names were McCarron and Fitzgerald,
Miller and Fucarino, Wertis and Hoefer and Nostrand and Hurley.
They were sons of barbers, sons of diamond cutters, survivors of
World War II. The players lived day to day, and so did the
league. No one fancied himself a career athlete.

Ed Sadowski--Toronto's only star and the only player-coach in the
league--had played his college ball at Seton Hall in the 1930s
and maintained his New York connections. Given the authority to
assemble his own team, Sadowski stocked the Huskies with "his"
guys, throwing in one lone Canadian, a promising baseball player
named Hank Biasatti, just for show. Ed built the team. Ed was
the team.

Sadowski was the Moses Malone of the day--6'5", rough-edged,
broad as a barrel, a 250-pound wide-body with a severe crew cut.
Imagine a huge sack of potatoes. Then imagine a single potato
perched on top. "That was Ed," recalls Miller. "He was an
enormous man with this little pea head."

Everyone knew him as Big Ed, and this rather simple man was
enamored of his own larger-than-life persona. Sadowski was
intimidating and comic at once--bawdy and arrogant, outrageous
in his Diamond Jim Brady attire. He would brag about how much
the fans adored him wherever he went. He loved visiting Chicago
Stadium, where the organist would play Who's Afraid of the Big
Bad Wolf? as a tribute. And in the era of narrow lanes, Big Ed
could do one thing better than any other man in the game: fill
space and score. "Big Ed doesn't set picks," he often said. "Big
Ed shoots!"

Sadowski performed grandly in Toronto--leading all scorers on
opening day with 18 points and averaging more than 20 points per
game over the next month. But Ed was no coach; the Huskies
quickly realized he had never run a practice in his life. There
was no master plan--except, apparently, to feed Big Ed in the low
post. His players would have to poke him in the heat of action,
reminding him to substitute. In one pregame talk he referred to
an opponent who could dribble with either hand as "amphibious."

Accustomed to playing for champions, Big Ed quickly soured on
Toronto--and his New York pals grew tired of performing as his
personal decoys on offense. Amid rumors of dissension, the
Huskies fell to 3-8. Then, on Nov. 29, Big Ed scored 20 in a
15-point home loss to Cleveland, and the Huskies packed their
bags for the long ride to Providence.

Sadowski never made the trip. The late Roy Hurley, a
happy-go-lucky Toronto guard, recalled it this way: The Huskies
boarded one train, and Big Ed hopped on another. Miller
remembers the Huskies' being in Providence, uncertain whether
their leader had jumped the team. "It became a big joke with
us," recalls Miller. "We'd go to a restaurant, and somebody
would say, 'Check that phone booth! I think I just saw Ed.'"

Sadowski was missing for days, and rumors of "Ed sightings"
swirled. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman had a
satirical field day--speculating that Big Ed had been swallowed
by a whale or had disguised himself as a Douglas fir. During the
next two weeks the Huskies lived in limbo, coached alternately
by general manager Lew Hayman, by 25-year-old guard Dick
Fitzgerald and, in one high-minded experiment, by each other. In
the meantime, Sadowski surfaced in New Jersey, where he was
attempting to become the first man in history to trade
himself. To Cleveland.

In mid-December, Hayman finally completed the deal--negotiated
over long-distance telephone as players from both sides jumped
into the talks and offered their own suggestions. With Big Ed
gone, Hayman added one last eccentric dash to the saga, hiring a
baseball man, former New York Yankee third baseman Red Rolfe, as
the Huskies' new coach. Prematurely gray at age 38 and suffering
from colitis, Rolfe was no longer the dashing All-Star who had
played beside Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio. And despite a short
coaching stint at Yale, he was certainly no basketball expert.

"He was a perfect gentleman," recalls Nat Militzok, who was
traded from the Knickerbockers to the Huskies at midseason. "But
when it came to basketball, the players didn't pay too much
attention to what Red said. I didn't think Red knew what the
hell was going on, quite frankly." When Rolfe first sought to
identify the team's "gads" and "fahwads," the players looked at
their new coach with bemused smiles--and not because of his New
England accent. "We'd never used those terms before," says
Miller. "Guards? Forwards? We just played."

Sort of. The Huskies were schizophrenic at best under Rolfe in
1947, occasionally arising from their ineptitude--the Globe and
Mail once suggested that they couldn't find the basket with "a
guide, a compass and a map"--to record spectacular victories over
the league's premier teams. On Feb. 28 Toronto rallied from a
25-point deficit to beat the Philadelphia Warriors, that
season's eventual BAA champions, 77-69. Miller, a low-scoring
sub whose talent was defense and deft, no-look passes, was the
hero, holding Jumpin' Joe Fulks, the league's leading scorer,
without a field goal in the second half. The Huskies outscored
Philadelphia 21-3 in the final quarter; it was, reported the
Toronto Star, "an almost perfect display of every phase of
basketball for 12 minutes." The Huskies? How could that have
happened?

"You could beat any team if they got into town early enough and
had a little bit of ale," says Schulz, suggesting that the home
court advantage had a different twist in 1947. "What do you
think we were doing on the road in those days--sitting around and
knitting sweaters? We certainly weren't in town to see the art
gallery."

Life on the road was both comical and perilous, particularly
because of the portable floors used to cover the ice rinks. At
Cleveland Arena, for example, six-foot slabs of floor would
actually come loose and give way under the players' feet--a
surfboard effect--prompting sledgehammer crews to dash onto the
court and mash the puzzle pieces back into place. In Pittsburgh
the arena was so cold that the Huskies would strip blankets off
their hotel beds and bundle up on the sidelines.

Maple Leaf Gardens, in contrast, was one of the premier
facilities in the league. The Huskies' owners tried to
capitalize on the hockey tradition there, emulating the Leafs'
pregame ceremony--always with military band and windblown
Canadian flag--in exact detail. Still, they could barely afford
the $30,000 rent. Strapped for cash, the Huskies played
shorthanded, fielding only eight or nine players much of the
winter and using chairs to simulate bodies in five-on-five
scrimmages.

The players led a plain, boardinghouse life in Toronto--neither
charmed nor dismayed by their snowy winter home. The city was
pretty starchy then, and it shut down early. American players
did love to shop there; you could buy a custom suit at Goody
Rosen's for $35. Connors, in fact, once bought $200 worth of
argyle socks on a single spree. But Goody Rosen did much better
business than the Huskies--and at the end, the players suspected
they were a lame-duck franchise.

"I felt sorry for them. I could see the poor Huskies didn't have
a hope in hell," says Stukus, who would flip coins with
colleagues at the Star for the privilege of not covering Huskie
games. "Basketball was just a tough sell in Canada. When you
grow up on the speed of hockey, basketball was just a slow,
ponderous bloody game."

When the season ended, so did the Huskies. The league--not the
team--made the formal announcement. Like the Detroit Falcons, the
Cleveland Rebels and the Pittsburgh Ironmen, the Huskies, cellar
dwellers in the BAA's Eastern Division, became a ghost
franchise, disbanded after 150 days and 60 games, never to be
revived by other investors or other cities.

The Huskies played their last game on March 29, 1947--losing
66-63 on the road to Detroit. There were no farewell toasts, no
long goodbyes. Their bags already packed, the players vanished
into the night immediately after the game.

"I wish I could say that they left an impression on me," says
Stukus. "But looking back now, I don't remember a single thing
about them. It's as if they never were."

BOX]

FINAL STANDINGS

1946-47 Basketball Assoc. of America

EASTERN DIVISION W L Pct. GB

Washington Capitols 49 11 .817 --
Philadelphia Warriors 35 25 .583 14
New York Knickerbockers 33 27 .550 16
Providence Steamrollers 28 32 .467 21
Boston Celtics 22 38 .367 27
Toronto Huskies 22 38 .367 27

WESTERN DIVISION

Chicago Stags 39 22 .639 --
St. Louis Bombers 38 23 .623 1
Cleveland Rebels 30 30 .500 8 1/2
Detroit Falcons 20 40 .333 18 1/2
Pittsburgh Ironmen 15 45 .250 23 1/2

TWO B/W PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM CITY OF TORONTO ARCHIVES GLOBEAND MAIL COLLECTION A ragtag group who practiced at the local YMCA, Fitzgerald (7), Sadowski (in sweatshirt) and the Huskies had the tough task of selling hoops to hockey fans. [Dick Fitzgerald, Ed Sadowski, and other Toronto Huskies playing basketball; newspaper advertisement for Toronto Huskies basketball game]B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM CITY OF TORONTO ARCHIVES GLOBE AND MAIL COLLECTION For Rolfe (center), a baseball man, coaching basketball was a tall order. [Red Rolfe talking with players on bench]THREE B/W PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM CITY OF TORONTO ARCHIVES GLOBE AND MAIL COLLECTION The Huskies drew as poorly as they played, despite creative promotions. [Toronto Huskies basketball game; newspaper advertisements for Toronto Huskies basketball games]