The past few days have seen some rather stupid feuding on Twitter between competing clans of basketball ignorance.
It all began innocuously enough when a basketball researcher posted a clip of Carl Braun taking an admittedly peculiar free throw.
Instead of the clip being left as a note of hilarity or a moment to ponder how basketball has changed, the warring ignorances began to stupidize the clip.
Each is insidiously dumb and dangerous.
The first axis of stupidity was, somehow, the Lakers - Celtics rivalry. As Justin Jacobs noted in a follow up tweet, the game shown in the clip is from 1950 between the Fort Wayne Pistons and Braun’s New York Knicks. So, why did this become a Celtics and Lakers tiff?
As some astute tweeters noted, the Celtics didn’t win an NBA title until 1957, while the Minneapolis Lakers reigned supreme in 1950. I don’t care two shits how many NBA titles a franchise has, however, this set up a further devolution of idiocy surrounding basketball and race.
The championship angle was but a backdoor way of unduly impugning and building up certain players based purely on racial stereotypes.
The subtext of the dig on Braun is that his shot looks goofy but also that everyone on the court is white. Ergo, the idea that any championships from this era are somehow cheapened because the NBA wasn’t black enough yet.
I’d love to see what black:white ratio makes a title legitimate.
Anyways, it was manifestly unfair that the NBA was all-white in 1950. But there were other forces at work in the nascent league as it struggled to coalesce the best basketball talent. Besides racial segregation, there were problems of geography, competing leagues, the military draft, job security and pay, and industrial teams.
This is something I’m looking at as part of my dissertation, so I will quickly rundown these different barriers:
Geography—the NBA was based in the northeast quadrant of the continental United States. Basically the region north and east of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Talented players from the West Coast weren’t automatically included in pro leagues in the east.
Competing Leagues—the NBA was brand spanking new in 1949-50, the season of that clip. The American Basketball League was an established league along the East Coast. Barnstormers and other minor leagues also captured other players capabale of playing in the NBA.
Military—the U.S. military drafted players, including Braun, during their professional careers. So truly great players would often miss a year or two doing service on a military base instead of playing NBA ball.
Job Security—middling and even good players weren’t always convinced of the staying power of pro basketball. Well into the 1960s, there were pretty good players who expressed trepidation at committing their prime earning years to the young NBA.
Industrial Teams—playing off the job security, industrial teams offered good long-term pay along with the ability to play competitive basketball. An NBA career may last three years and then you’re out in the cold. Sign up with the Phillips 66ers and you can play hoops and have a good job with benefits at the oil giant for decades afterwards.
But race was absolutely an enormous factor; perhaps bigger than all those others combined.
However, the best all-white team of the late 1940s and early 1950s was the Minneapolis Lakers. The best all-black team by that point was likely the barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters. And they did play each other.
Indeed in 1950, the year of the Braun clip, the Lakers defeated the Globetrotters. And you’ll notice that after they were done playing, the double-header continued with the Chicago Stags played the Baltimore Bullets, both of the NBA.
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 22, 1950
Of course, this wasn’t the first time they’d matched up. The Globetrotters had defeated the Lakers before. It’s almost like it’s a good idea to investigate individual players and teams instead of ignorantly jumping to a conclusion based on the color of the players involved.
Vidette-Messenger of Porter County (IN), February 20, 1948
Now all this brings us back to Carl Braun. It’s most unfortunate that a clip of him in particular has been the source of such stupidity.
Braun played most his career with the Knicks, minus a two year stint in the military in the early 1950s. However, during his final NBA season, Braun did play for the Boston Celtics in 1961-62.
Here’s Braun, from Terry Pluto’s Tall Tales, recalling an ugly incident of racism:
I was with the Celtics in 1961 and we played an exhibition game in Marion, Indiana. They had a big luncheon for us, the mayor gave us keys to the city and it was a nice event. After the game, I walked into a greasy spoon for a hamburger along with Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Bill Russell.
The place sat about 40, but there were only 10 people inside. The hostess looked at us and said, “All the tables are reserved.” All the bar stools were empty, so we started walking in that direction. Then she said, “Sorry, those are reserved, too.”
We got the message and left. Back at the hotel, I was getting madder and madder and madder the more I thought about it. I remembered the mayor’s name, looked it up in the phone book and called the guy about 1 A.M., telling him that I didn’t want the key to his rotten city.
White teammate Tom Heinsohn added to the story:
I went to that joint with Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey and Cousy. We had just finished eating when Braun, Russell and those guys came in. When they were refused service, Carl came to our table and he was hot. “Some damn town this is. I’ll tell you where they can shove the key to their city.”
So, led by Braun, the entire Celtics team arrived at the mayor’s home around 2 A.M. According to Heinsohn, they all returned their keys to the city to mayor.
So, next time you see a clip of an awkward looking free throw, just leave it at that and don’t try to make sweeping statements on an era of basketball you haven’t studied.
Black players were doing some awkwardly amazing shit on the court back then, too. That’s how the game gets better. People trying out new moves. Some stick, some don’t.
More importantly, you had genuinely fine people like Braun out there, who didn’t always keep quiet when racism arose. Did Bill Russell need someone sticking up for him at that moment?
Nope. And certainly not every white player was going to start a fuss like Braun.
But it sure as hell was appreciated and was another step in the right direction of making the NBA and society do right by people regardless of their race.