They were part of a pioneering venture, the last team invited to join the mere outline of what became the major league of professional basketball. Then the totally unexpected happened: The Baltimore Bullets of 1948 became the world champions. A shock. A momentous long shot. It was that kind of a year for Harry Truman, too.
Now, during this 50th anniversary season, there's no such team called the Baltimore Bullets. Only memories. The franchise went off to a Maryland suburban community, Landover, in 1973 to become the Capital (later Washington) Bullets and then this year to the District of Columbia, where it has a new name, the Washington Wizards, and is playing in a $200 million playpen. But reverse the time frame to a half-century ago.
A new major league was starting, under-financed but ever-hopeful, and it was to be called the Basketball Association of America, later to be known by its present name of the National Basketball Association. It was exclusively a white-faced arrangement, and black players didn't come along until 1950, when Earl Lloyd broke the color line and joined the Washington Capitols.
The Bullets came into being as a convenience to the organizers -- to fill out an eight-team circuit, the other cities being New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Chicago, St. Louis and Providence, R.I. For Baltimore, it was an upgrade from the minors, the American League, where it dominated such rivals as Trenton and Wilmington and other regional opposition by compiling a record of 30-3. But the Bullets also barnstormed across America, somewhat remindful of the Harlem Globetrotters, taking games anywhere they could book them -- as a for-instance, against the Phillips 66ers, Hanes Hosiery and Peoria Cats.
It was with some reluctance that this ambitious major league, the BAA then to become the NBA, took in Baltimore. The only available home court was the Baltimore Coliseum on Monroe Street, with an exaggerated capacity of a mere 4,000. To call it a coliseum took nerve, a blatant misnomer. It was primarily a roller skating rink. Everything about it was second rate -- dark, dank and unattractive. Still, the durable and ever-striving Bullets of player-coach Buddy Jeannette performed as though they were in palatial surroundings.
For the Baltimore spectators, the Coliseum was the best they had, so why complain? They endured the inconveniences. So did the players. Dressing rooms were so small, players could hardly stretch their arms. Pegs were in the wall, rather than lockers, to serve as places for them to hang their clothes. And since there was only one shower, they had to line up and wait their turn. Everything but take a number.
On the road, they carried their own uniforms, washed them in hotel bathrooms and put them over shower-curtain rods to dry, if they had the time, or wore them despite the wrinkles and perspiration marks left from the night before. A team trainer, one Harry "Heinie" Blaustein, who made his reputation in boxing, was available only for home games. When playing away from Baltimore, they'd "rent a trainer," if one was available, but mostly they self-treated bruises and taped their own ankles.
"My first contract was for $4,000," said Paul Hoffman, who was a hard-driving rookie on that championship team. "Meal money, our per diem, was $4.50 a day. It was a tough place, the Coliseum. It was a skating rink. I lost a lot of skin going for loose balls, but I loved it. I knew a lot of the fans by first name, and the gamblers, it seemed, always sat in seats behind the basket. It was hard to argue against the Coliseum being the worst around."
The Bullets were never an affluent organization and went through much trauma to stay in business. In 1954, when hard times sent them into bankruptcy, Hoffman recalls the whole team "escaping down the back stairs of the Van Orman Hotel in Fort Wayne, Ind., to beat paying the bill. That would have been impossible. We had no money, only plane tickets to get home."
But 1947-48, specifically, represents an immense success story in basketball history. The Bullets shocked the heavily funded teams -- the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia Warriors. They wound up tying the Chicago Stags and Capitols for second place in the Western Division with 28-20 records during the regular season.
They won the playoff and then proceeded to eliminate New York in the quarterfinals, Chicago in the semifinals and Philadelphia for the world title. It was a best-of-seven series, and in Game 2, the Bullets were behind 41-20 at the half. Still, they won.
"You have to remember," said Jeannette, "that in those days you could hardly ever make up that kind of a lead. There was no 24-second clock to help your comeback. But somehow we did. What a victory."
The Warriors of coach Eddie Gottlieb, with such players as Joe Fulks, an incorrigible shooter; George Senesky, Chuck Halbert and Howie Dallmar, were a dominant team. The Bullets weren't given a chance of beating them but, after it happened, each player earned $2,000 in championship money. R.C. "Jake" Embry, who was president of the team, remembers the league didn't present a championship trophy or award rings to the players.
"The Gunther Brewing Co., one of our radio sponsors, bought each player a pen and pencil set [just what they needed], some other Baltimore firm gave them a tiny basketball-shaped charm, and someone else put on a victory party at the Chanticleer nightclub. Come to think of it, being in the league didn't cost anything. The organizers just invited us to join them."
And the Bullets, of course, more than acquitted themselves. They won on the court and also won the enthusiastic favor of their limited followers. It was a team comprising Kleggie Hermsen of Minnesota, Grady Lewis of Oklahoma, Red Meinhold of Long Island University, Dick Schulz of Wisconsin, Chick Reiser of NYU, Herman "Red" Klotz of Villanova, Hoffman of Purdue, Jeannette of Washington and Jefferson and two players who didn't go to college, Herman "Dutch" Fuetsch and Connie Simmons.
Harvey Kasoff, reflecting on those days of watching the team come together as a lad of 12 and then serving as a ball boy for the Bullets, said: "It's a pity the Bullets are no more. Even the name is gone. I was disappointed when the Washington Wizards didn't recognize a Hall of Famer in Jeannette, Hoffman and some other former Bullets when they opened the MCI Center early this season. But those basketball memories can't be taken away."
The Bullets were of an era when teams would come and go. Now professional basketball has become the most solvent of American sports. Baltimore is now on the outside looking in with astonishment at the NBA's affluence and popularity. Basketball was a bush-league operation back when baseball, football and hockey were way out in front in the quest for public acceptance.
Pro basketball players in decades past almost apologized before admitting what it was they were doing for a living. Now it has all changed. They average $2 million in yearly salary, don't have to carry or wash their own uniforms and get $80 a day, not $4.50, for meals when traveling. And, of course, it's not necessary to line up in the locker room to take a shower.