He came to professional basketball when it was primitive, played in dance halls, skating rinks, auditoriums and smoked-filled arenas not much larger than oversized cigar boxes.
Harry "Buddy" Jeannette hoped to be a high school history teacher when he came out of Washington & Jefferson College, but the lure of the bouncing ball and the promise of being able to make $25 a game offered what to him was an irresistible opportunity.
Jeannette never again saw the inside of a classroom. The job he sought was filled by another applicant in Claysville, Pa., so basketball became his professional calling. The imprint he made and the sterling accomplishments led to his selection yesterday to the Basketball Hall of Fame, where he'll be enshrined in formal ceremonies May 9 at the Springfield (Mass.) Civic Center.
His name was first suggested to the committee in 1976 by Seymour Smith, the widely respected basketball historian and now-retired assistant sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. It's a sport that's crowded with talent at every level of play, making it difficult for nominees to gain attention and sufficient support in the ballot box.
The wait for Jeannette, as it has been for others, is merely a belated affirmation of exceptional ability that made him respected by teammates and adversaries. Jeannette was called "Mr. Basketball" in Baltimore.
He played and coached the Baltimore Bullets to their first title in 1946 when his team won the American Basketball League and then, the following season, repeated in the Basketball Association of America, forerunner to the present National Basketball Association.
Jeannette, now 76, was an inspirational leader who wanted the ball when the game was in the balance. He had an accurate set shot and was a clever driver, one who could penetrate to the inside and, when he did, maneuver underneath either to score the field goal or draw a foul.
He came up in the game when the style was "give and go," pick and pass, hit the pivot man and drive off his hip, either getting the ball back or setting up to battle for the rebound. Jeannette was smart, smooth, a stylish playmaker who handled the ball with precision, dictated the pace of the game and rarely took a bad shot.
"Buddy was the guy who could beat you when the game counted," said Red Holzman, who preceded Jeannette in the Hall of Fame by eight years. "I know all about his ability. I had to play against him."
Jeannette, working out of the backcourt, made few mistakes. He won four Most Valuable Player awards, three in the National Basketball League and another in the American Basketball League. In what used to be called the World Championship in Chicago, involving such powerful contenders as the Harlem Globetrotters (when they played straight), New York Rens, Fort Wayne Pistons and Sheboygan Redskins, the outstanding player award twice went to Jeannette.
After being notified by the Hall of Fame yesterday, the first person Buddy called was Smith, who had trumpeted the Jeannette cause for 18 years. It was as much a pleasure for Smith as it was for Jeannette. Now all seems right with the world.
"Buddy used to say it didn't make much difference if he ever made the Hall of Fame," said Smith. "He never campaigned for it. But when he got the news he was ecstatic. Four of his contemporaries -- Lou Boudreau, the baseball Hall of Famer who also was a standout basketball player; Al Cervi, Bob Davies and Red Holzman -- continued to tell the selection committee by letter and personal testimony how capable he was."
Overall, Jeannette played 10 years with the pros and was on five title teams, in Detroit, Sheboygan, Fort Wayne and Baltimore. After retiring in 1950, he coached Georgetown University for four seasons and then returned as coach and general manager of the Bullets until 1967.
His Hall of Fame recognition comes 56 years after he began playing professionally for Warren, Pa., a time when he got paid by the game, not by the season, and frequent exhibitions were staged in "tank towns" in the Northeast and Midwest.
"I remember a time in the coal region when some fans watching the games had just come right out of the mines," he said. And, if disgruntled, they would pelt the teams with two-penny nails they would heat with their mining lamps before throwing them at the players on the floor.
Harry "Buddy" Jeannette more than paid his dues for the highest of all rewards, the Hall of Fame.