When the world’s tallest athletes come cruising into Canada like a herd of giraffes in 1995, it won’t be as though these newest recruits of the National Basketball Association are invading virgin territory. Roundball is very old stuff in this country. For the entire quarter century between the First and Second World Wars, the most remarkable basketball team on earth was Canadian through and through. Shortly thereafter, in 1946, a Toronto team was a founding member of what became the NBA, and still later, in the mid-1970s, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens was a home away from home for the NBA’s Buffalo Braves. Why, the game itself was invented by a Canadian, Dr. James Naismith of Almonte, Ont., who as a 30-year-old graduate of McGill University originated the game in a YMCA gymnasium in Springfield, Mass., where he had accepted a job as a physical education instructor. He set a peach basket at each end of the gym, hurled a soccer ball at them and called his invention basketball for no obscure reason.
Nowadays, few peach baskets are large enough to contain the money required to wedge a running shoe inside the NBA door. Rich men in Toronto and Vancouver have committed themselves to pay an entrance fee in the neighborhood of $125 million in U.S. funds, while laying out more mind-blowing millions for arenas with 20,000 seats.
Mind-blowing millions? It’s only the beginning. Some of the NBA’s most celebrated gate attractions—Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson—have retired in recent times, but new names, hardly of the household variety, are coming down from the stratosphere and extracting—or even rejecting—unheardof salaries. In Charlotte, N.C., Larry Johnson signed a contract extension for $84 million over the next 12 years. A player with the unusual name of Anfemee Hardaway joined the Orlando Magic for 13 years and $65 million. Chris Webber got $74.4 million from the
Toronto might be in the NBA today, at no cost whatever, except for one thing: the original Toronto Huskies folded after one season
Golden State Warriors for the next 15 years. Meantime, the six-foot-10 bellwether of the New Jersey Nets, Derrick Coleman, had been offered a $69 million, eight-year extension to his current contract, and his agent, one Harold MacDonald, declined. “The money just isn’t there,” MacDonald told The New York Times. ‘We’ll just go on with life and practice.”
Problems of this gross magnitude did not assail the game’s serfs half a century ago in its professional infancy, but there were problems nevertheless. Back then, Saturday afternoon doubleheaders between college teams were filling big-city arenas such as New York’s Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden. Seeing a light, owners of pro hockey teams who had dates available and seats to fill met in New York on June 6, 1946, to give birth to a professional basketball league. They called it the Basketball Association of America—the BAA. It included five owners from the six-team National Hockey League (only the Montreal Canadiens stayed out), five from the American Hockey League and one from Washington.
Toronto’s team was called the Huskies and the price scale in Maple Leaf Gardens was set at $2.50 for boxes, $2 for blues, $1.25 for
greens and 75 cents for the distant greys. These were the prices for the NHL Maple Leafs’ games, as well, and they later were cited as one reason the pro venture failed.
The team’s playing coach was a guy named Ed Sadowski, from Indiana, whose size intrigued Al Nickleson covering the team for The Globe and Mail. ‘The six-foot, five-inch giant,” Nick called him. “The 249-lb. Ed Sadowski,” he wrote later. “The missing man mountain,” he penned when Ed disappeared after the team’s record reached three wins and 10 losses (he turned up in Cleveland and was traded there when the Huskies signed a new coach, Red Rolfe, the former third baseman for the New York Yankees). Nowadays in the NBA, where seven-foot players grow on trees—the Miami Heat’s roof-grazing centre, Manute Bol, is a seven-foot, seven-inch broth of a lad from Sudan—guys of 6-5 barely qualify as water boys.
The Huskies finished the year tied with the Boston Celtics in last place in the Eastern Division, out of the playoffs. Three seasons later, the BAA merged with the National Basketball League, a Midwest circuit. That was the birth of the NBA, which the Huskies might be in today at no entrance fee whatever except for one thing: they folded after one season. “They’d draw five to seven thousand,” recalls Jim Coleman, the Globe’s sports columnist back then, “but basketball is a game of crowd heat. In a big rink like the Gardens those crowds were lost.”
Two decades later, the Buffalo Braves played frequent league games in Toronto, though occasionally warring with the Gardens watchdog, owner Harold Ballard (No!). Braves players complained that the arena was cold, that the players tightened up sitting on the bench. That was because the basketball court lay on top of the ice surface over which a layer of styrofoam was placed. “Yeah, I guess it’s cold at the start of the games,” Harold chortled once. “But maybe if the Braves played harder they would keep wann. Or I could give them hot-water bottles.” Then Harold said he’d lay down a little more styrofoam.
Nowadays, fans tend to think of Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls as a dynasty on the strength of their current three straight NBA champions. The Bulls are dominant, all right, but their dominance pales before the record of a solemn, dignified coach, J. Percy Page, who later was appointed lieutenant-governor of Alberta. J. Percy Page coached the Edmonton Grads, the greatest women’s basketball team ever assembled.
Travelling the world, the Grads played entire seasons without defeat. Once, they compiled a winning streak of 147 consecutive games. They were perennial Canadian champions. They won 138 of 152 games against American opponents. They went to the Olympic Games four times—to Paris in 1924, Amsterdam in 1928, Los Angeles in 1932 and Berlin in 1936—played 27 games, won 27 games, and scored 1,722 points while their opponents were running up 263. In four Olympics the Edmonton Grads won four gold medals. Any questions?
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