With Bullets out, but NBA 'in,' Hoffman recalls tough times


It was an era when professional basketball, now popular, affluent and playing to the swells of sports society, was straining to create an identity. Teams went bankrupt with regularity, only to be replaced by failures in other places as the struggle for survival continued. Unabated. Endless. The ink and the blood ran red.

Paul Hoffman came to the Baltimore Bullets from Purdue University in 1947 and signed a contract for $4,000 for the season, plus a bonus automobile worth $700 from the Martin J. Barry dealership. Now the Bullets, after all these years, born in Baltimore and then relocated in Landover, are no more. They are getting a second life in which they'll be known as the Washington Wizards.

But this was a celebration for Hoffman, not a commiseration for the past. Hoffman was telling the gathering how it felt to be marking his 72nd birthday and sharing the glad information he had just been named to the all-time, 12-man elite all-star team selected by Purdue -- a momentous attainment considering the game has been played there for 100 years at the highest level of competition in a state (Indiana) in which basketball is regarded as something close to a religious ritual.

Hoffman, on this occasion, was joined by a former Bullets teammate, Walter Budko; the one-time president of the club, R.C. "Jake" Embry; Harvey Kasoff, a former ball boy who still keeps the Bullets' flame burning; four sportswriters and a broadcaster who followed the fortunes of a Baltimore franchise that fought through frustration and serious financial embarrassment in its formative years.

"I played with the best and the worst," said Hoffman, meaning he was with the team when it won the league championship in 1947 and was still around when it disbanded after only 14 games of the 1954 season, only to rebound for a second go-round in 1963, when the Chicago Zephyrs moved to Baltimore and adopted new owners.

Hoffman, in his journey down nostalgia lane, talked about winning the 1947-48 championship, beating the Philadelphia Warriors and being named the league's first Rookie of the Year. "In one of those playoff games, against a tremendous Philadelphia team, I knocked two of their players, Joe Fulks and Howie Dallmar, up in the stands," he remembers. "Fulks got burned by a man smoking a cigar, and Dallmar was cut when he collided with a fan holding a soda pop bottle. It was a tough battlefield."

Although Hoffman was considered one of the league's hardest drivers, the collisions with Fulks and Dallmar, oddly enough, occurred with him on defense. When Hoffman, with the ball, headed for the basket, he could be a one-man wrecking crew, putting his shoulder down and running over the coverage with all-out abandon. His nickname, "The Bear," appropriately described the way he moved. "I guess my philosophy was the guy with the ball had the advantage," he said with a smile.

Professional basketball in Baltimore, first the Basketball Association of America and then the National Basketball Association, was played in a converted taxicab garage with a glamorous name. It was called the Baltimore Coliseum (capacity 4,000), but the place was more widely used as a roller-skating rink. The players knew most of the fans on a first-name basis in this compact setting.

"We'd go to play the Knicks in Madison Square Garden and the Celtics in Boston Garden, and the contrast was overwhelming. It was that way going from the coliseum to just any place," and he wasn't joking when he made the declaration. For the most part, the BAA and NBA, apart from the high-caliber talent on the court, were major league in name only.

Not all teams took a trainer on the road. Too expensive. So the players taped their own ankles, rubbed bruises and treated wounds. If it was too serious, they'd ask if the club in the other locker room, the one they were getting ready to meet, would send over its trainer when he had a free moment. Players carried their own equipment, paid for their shoes and even washed their uniforms.

The NBA has come further than any other sport, as evidenced by so many players turning into instant millionaires. Only in America could bouncing a ball and putting it into a hoop correlate to such fame and fortune.

Asked the greatest player of his time, the best he faced, Hoffman answered Bob Cousy. Then Budko said, "No, George Mikan." It was the classic case of contrasting the value of a giant playing inside, Mikan, and the quick, clever Cousy, who could set, drive and handle the ball with magician-like moves.

"But the best ever, if you're talking about the ones I saw but didn't necessarily play against, then my pick is Oscar Robertson," said Hoffman. "His key attribute was patience. He'd work you, set you up and then twist the defender in knots. If he'd had a strong supporting cast at Cincinnati or a powerful big man, he'd have even been more devastating."

Hoffman and Budko, coming from Columbia University, were involved in pro basketball when the discovery of the college point-shaving evils of 1951 resulted in some players being sentenced to prison. It was a time when the entire sport suffered an integrity hit, coming from the fallout of the far-reaching scandals. Still the game struggled on, put its problems aside and HTC achieved momentous acceptability.

"Let me tell you a sidelight to all of that," said Hoffman. "When the Bullets went out of business, I was picked by the Knicks. I went to New York and met with Ned Irish, who ran the team and also controlled Madison Square Garden. He explained every Knicks player had to know about the basketball scandal. Irish handed me a huge scrapbook with pages of clippings. He wanted everyone to realize what a serious thing it was. Then I had to sign a paper saying I had read the book and was fully aware of the dangers if you got involved."

Hoffman played six years in the NBA (long careers weren't appealing in those days) and receives a pension of $1,200 per month. This is to the credit of the league and the modern players, who bargained to help the retired veterans in their last labor negotiation with management.

"My son, Gregory, is in the film business, outside Hollywood, and went to Chicago to shoot some commercials with Michael Jordan. I told him to make sure when he was with Michael to thank him on a personal basis for me. And he did just that. They talked on two occasions and my son said he seemed impressed that an old Bullet passed on his gratitude."

The players of yesteryear, Hoffman's time and before, were the rugged pioneers. The motivation was more for love of the game than putting money in the bank and living on Easy Street.

Pub Date: 5/11/97

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