We continue our series of excerpts from Let Me Tell You a Story by Red Auerbach and John Feinstein with a story about the beginning of the NBA and Red's first pro basketball coaching job. Here's a little background to set the stage. In 1944, the Washington Redskins along with a few other pro football teams formed basketball teams to make extra money in the off season. Red was hired to coach the basketball playing football players. They played in the Uline arena in Washington, which was owned by Mike Uline, who was in the ice business. Uline stopped in from time to time to watch the Redskins play basketball and it intrigued him. This is where the book picks up the story:
With the war ending, Uline was one of eight men who got together and decided to form a professional basketball league. Again, for Uline, the basketball team was little more than a way to keep taking in revenue as often as possible. The brand new Basketball Association of American would have teams in New York, Boston, Toronto, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Providence, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Washington. The teams would be stocked with players coming out of college and the armed services. They would play a sixty game regular season schedule. In the summer of 1946 Red went to see Mike Uline. "You need a coach," he told him. "I can coach and I know enough guys to get a team put together quickly that will be good right away." Uline was impressed with Red's self confidence. He had seen him coach the Redskins, so he knew that he could coach professional athletes. What's more, he didn't have a clue who he would hire if he didn't hire the confident twenty eight year old just out of the navy who was offering his services. He agreed to pay him $5,000 and told him to go put together a team. "I figured why not take a shot?" Red said. "I liked coaching and I thought I might have a chance to do it well. I didn't know what would happen with the league, but I figured worst case scenario it would be a learning experience." What's more, the $5,000 Uline was offering was almost twice the @2.900 he would have made had he gone back to coaching and teaching that year. Even so, most of Red's friends thought he was crazy. Professional basketball? What the hell was that? He had worked to get his master's degree in education so he could coach a professional basketball team? What was he going to do in two years when the league folded? "I told him he was nuts," said Hymie, who was back from Europe by then and enrolled at George Washington. "Here he had a chance to make a respectable career teaching and coaching high school, and he wanted to waste his time on something that wasn't going to get him anywhere. Of course he didn't listen to me. He didn't listen to anyone." One person who didn't think Red was nuts was Zang. "He was going to be good at whatever he did," Zang said. "The funny thing about Red is, as confident as he always seemed, he never understood how smart he was. He talks about me having talent. His talent has always been with people, knowing people, understanding people. I knew he'd do a good job coaching. I just didn't know if the league would succeed or not. Of course nobody knew." Red wasn't really concerned at that point about the future of the league. He was interested only in the present, which meant putting together a team. "I did it for about three hundred bucks in phone calls," he said. "I started by calling guys I knew from the navy like Bob Feerick and John Norlander. They told me about guys they had played with, and I called some guys I had played with and against in college. Feerick brought Fat Freddie Scolari with him. He had signed a baseball contract with St Louis, but he had a vision problem in his left eye. He was afraid that as a right handed hitter he might not pick up an inside pitch and could get hurt. So he decided to play basketball. The one guy I really wanted that I didn't think I could get was Bones McKinney. He was six eight, could run, shoot. But someone told me he had already signed a contract with Chicago. I thought I'd lost him." I figured I'd call him anyway just to make sure. He said to me, "I haven't actually signed with them yet, but I'd taking a train out there next week and I'm going to sign then." I said, "Train? You're taking a train from North Carolina? He said he didn't like to fly. He said he was going to take a train to Washington, lay over there for a couple of hours, long enough to get something to eat or something, then take an overnight train to Chicago. "I had an idea I said, "I'll meet you at Union Station and buy you dinner." He agreed. I met him there, took him out for dinner, and I said, "How much they gonna pay you?" He said six thousand seven hundred fifty. I told him I'd pay him six thousand seven hundred fifty and, being on the East Coast, he'd be closer to home and wouldn't have to fly nearly as much since most of the teams were in the East. He took the deal and never went to Chicago. McKinney became one of the better players in the league, and he and Red struck up a lifelong friendship that would benefit both men after McKinney retired from playing and became the coach at Wake Forest. In their first year, the Caps were living proof that Red had an eye for talent. They were 49-11, the best record in the league. At home they were 28-2 and played to sellout or near sellout crowds in Uline Arena. The home court record was indeed a reflection of how good the team was, but it was also, according to Red, due to a unique home court advantage. Rats. "You would not believe how many rats there were in Uline Arena." Red said. "I mean big ones. When the teams would walk out from the dressing room, if you stood in the runway leading to the court and looked to your right or left under the stands you would see these big green eyes just staring at you from the dark. I mean hundreds of them. See, the arena was right next to Union Station, so it attracted a lot fo them from over there. Plus, they'd smell the popcorn and all the food and come running. We were like a rat magnet over there. Our guys got used to it, but the visiting teams would say, "What the hell is that?" And we'd tell them not to worry, usually they stayed under the stands all night, that no more than a dozen or so might get out during the game. There were guys who were really scared by the time they hit the court. "Finally, we decided something had to be done. So we went out and bought the biggest, meanest cat we could find. Named it 'Old Bones' after McKinney, because it was long, quick, and tough. We'd come in for a game and there would be the cat all beat up from fighting with the rats. I mean, it was cut up. He got a lot of 'em, but he didn't get all of them." Old Bones, as it turned out, wasn't the only one working to decrease the rat population. "One morning I came in early because we were going to practice in the arena. I'm walking in the door and I see these guys walking out carrying shotguns. I recognized them because they worked in the building. I said, "What the hell is going on here?" So they told me that they all liked to come in early in the morning, turn the lights on, flush the rats out from under the stands, and shoot 'em for sport. Who knows how many they got? But even with all that, we still had all you could want under the stands every night we ever played there." For of the eleven teams advanced to the playoffs that season and the Caps had to play Chicago in the opening round in a best of three series. They were swept in two games, another of those long ago defeats that still angers Red. That series also proved to be the beginning of a long and testy relationship between Red and many referees."
We'll continue with this story in the next part of "In the Books".