Nebraska State Fair, 1950
In some ways, 1950 was the beginning of the modern age we enjoy today. The first pagers were developed in 1950 and and the first TV remote control was also introduced. 1950 was also the year that Beetle Baily and Peanuts began entertaining post-World War II America. However, all was not well, as this was also the year in which the Soviet Union raised the specter of mutually assured destruction by revealing that it had developed a nuclear bomb. The Korean War also began in 1950, exacerbating concerns about an eventual worldwide battle against communism.
The NBA also experienced a number of important changes in 1950. Before the season began, the league lost one-third of its teams, as the Anderson Packers, Chicago Stags, Denver Nuggets, St. Louis Bombers, Sheboygan Red Skins, and Waterloo Hawks all exited the NBA by either folding or moving to the short-lived National Professional Basketball League. The Baltimore Bullets also folded during the 1950-51 season, leaving the NBA with only 10 teams by season's end. In addition, as noted above, a college basketball scandal was brewing that would forever change the landscape of both the professional and college ranks.
Waterloo Hawks Program
[public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
1950 also marked the beginning of an integrated NBA. Chuck Cooper first broke the color barrier by becoming the first black man to be drafted by an NBA team. Nat Clifton then became the first black man to sign an NBA contract, and Earl Lloyd became the first to play in an NBA game. We'll cover integration in the NBA in more detail after summarizing the 1951-52 NBA season.
The Regular Season
George Mikan's powerhouse Minneapolis Lakers began the 1950-51 season with the Belt. However, while players like Mikan, Max Zaslofsky, and Joe Fulks have dominated our rankings in prior years, in 1950 the NBA began its slow transition to the next generation of stars, as up-and-comers also made their presence known. For example, the Lakers lost the Belt in the first game of the regular season to the Baltimore Bullets, who only defended it once before losing to the Boston Celtics. The Celtics, who held the Belt only once during the 1940s, were beginning to build the foundations of a future dynasty with the addition of newcomers Ed Macauley and Bob Cousy.
Basketball Hall-of-Famer Ed Macauley joined the Celtics after spending his rookie year with the St. Louis Bombers, who left the league before the 1950-51 season began. Macauley and Cousy, who was drafted by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in 1950, formed a formidable duo that would begin the Celtics' march from the NBA cellar towards greater prominence (for more on Cousy's circuitous path to the Celtics, check out Curtis Harris' account of the Hawks-Celtics rivalry). Macauley never won a title with the Celtics, as he was traded to the St. Louis Hawks (for Bill Russell) in 1956. However, he was a member of the Hawks team that defeated the Celtics in the 1958 Finals.
The Celtics began to show their new mettle in 1950 by taking the Belt from the Bullets on November 7. They then went on to defend the Belt for six additional games before losing it to the Washington Capitols on November 19. Macauley won player of the game honors in five of these Belt defenses. In another passing-of-the-torch moment, the November 19 win by the Capitols will be the last time we hear from the original Washington Capitols franchise, as they disbanded later in the season.
The Capitols were unable to defend the Belt, losing it to the Philadelphia Warriors on November 21. While this Warriors team still included TBCB Hall-of-Famer Joe Fulks, it also included rookie Paul Arizin, who would come closer than any other player to challenging George Mikan for 1950-51 TBCB Player of the Year honors. As we have previously discussed, Fulks' numbers became less impressive after his 1948-49 campaign, but Fulks had another impressive season in 1950-51, perhaps inspired by the emergence of Arizin. As for Paul Arizin, he was the Warriors' territorial pick in the 1950 draft, an impressive feat considering he didn't make his high school basketball team and didn't begin playing college basketball until his sophomore year. Arizin led the Warriors to victory in their November 21 defeat of the Capitols, and the Warriors then defended the Belt three times behind Arizin and Fulks before losing it to the Lakers in early December.
Despite the emergence of new faces such as Macauley and Arizin, the Lakers were the reigning NBA Champions and still featured the most dominant man in the game. On December 3, Mikan's Lakers made things right by defeating the Warriors to take the Belt, which they would hold for three additional games. As expected, Mikan led the Lakers to victory in three of these four contests, with Jim Pollard leading the charge in the fourth game. During this Belt streak, the Lakers might have still been looking back to their November 21 game against the Ft. Wayne Pistons, which the Pistons won 19-18 in the lowest scoring game in NBA history. This game would eventually lead to the establishment of the shot clock, as the Pistons discovered that one way to defeat the Lakers was to take an early lead and then play keep away.
The remainder of the 1950-51 regular season saw the Belt change hands between many teams, with no team defending it for more than two consecutive games until the Lakers held it for a stretch of five games from January 25 through February 4. The Warriors later accomplished a similar feat by holding the Belt for a total of four games between February 20 and February 24, and then the Lakers closed the season with a five game streak that began with a win over the Tri-Cities Blackhawks on March 10. Since the Lakers finished the season with the Belt, the Belt's progress continued into the 1951 NBA Playoffs. (So far, the Belt has traveled into the playoffs during each season TBCB has covered, but that won't always be the case.)
The complete list of regular games involving the Belt is located here.
The Belt began making its way through the playoffs in the hands of the Minneapolis Lakers. Since the Lakers were title favorites, many observers predicted that 1951 would be the first year in which the Belt spent the entire playoff season with the same team. In predictable fashion, the Lakers disposed of the Indianapolis Olympians in the first round two games to one. However, their opponent in the next round, the Eastern Division finals, would be the talented Rochester Royals.
The Royals were a well-rounded and experienced team that featured, among others, Arnie Risen and TBCB Hall-of-Famer Bob Davies. Readers will recall that despite the dominance of the Lakers, the Royals held the Belt more than any other team in the 1940s, earning them the distinction of our 1940's Team of the Decade.
While the season looked like it had been set up for yet another Lakers title, things would change when George Mikan fractured his ankle in the next-to-last game of the regular season. Despite his injury, Mikan led the Lakers to victory in the first round series against the Olympians. However, the second round series against the Royals would be a much bigger challenge. In the second round, Mikan led the Lakers by averaging over thirty points per game, he just wasn't the same dominant force playing on a broken ankle. The Lakers won the first game, but the Royals stormed back behind Red Holzman (23 points in game 2), Arnie Johnson (20 points in game 3), and Arnie Risen (26 points in game 4) to take the series three games to one and take the Belt into the finals.
The 1951 Finals between the Royals and the New York Knicks began as a blowout but became one of the most thrilling in NBA history. Fresh off their defeat of the Lakers, the Royals began by opening a seemingly insurmountable three game to none lead. However, the Knicks countered with their own three game win streak to tie the series and lead to a game 7 showdown in Rochester. In game 7, the Royals won the title and the Belt in thrilling fashion. With the game tied at 75 and less than a minute remaining, Bob Davies was fouled. After Davies made both free throws, the Royals won the subsequent jump ball. They scored again with a few second remaining and won the game 79-75. Knickerblogger.net has more on the series here. This championship validated the Royals contributions to the early NBA, but one can only wonder how a title would have impacted the Knicks franchise, which wouldn't win its first championship until almost twenty years later.
The Royals won the NBA Championship, but the Lakers didn't finish the season without any hardware. Specifically, they edged out the resurgent Philadelphia Warriors to win TBCB Team of the Year honors by winning or defending the Belt a total of 14 times during the regular season. The Warriors finished a close second by holding the Belt on 13 nights. In total, 32 percent of the Lakers' wins involved the Belt, while 33 percent of the Warriors' wins were associated with winning or defending the Belt.
The TBCB Player of the Year standings were once again dominated by George Mikan, who won player of the game honors in 12 games. The Warriors' success is reflected in our individual standings by Paul Arizin, who finished the season with six player of the game awards, and Joe Fulks, who finished with five. Ed Macauley also finished the season with five player of the game awards. No other player won more than three.
The next TBCB Hall of Fame inductions will occur after we cover the 1954-55 season. This class of inductees will include the five players who earned the highest number of player of the game awards between 1947 and 1955 and who are not already in our Hall of Fame. Due to their strong performances in the 1950-51 season, newcomers Arizin and Macauley are already positioning themselves as potential contenders. In addition, while Bob Cousy only won one player of the game award in his rookie campaign, we'll also hear much more from him in the coming years.
[public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
"The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."
Winner, 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature