Built in the early 1920s, the Chicago Stadium was considered by many to be one of the finest and loudest indoor arenas in the United States.
(Photo and memorabilia courtesy of Bob Rosenberg)
ruled the Windy City hardwood
By Brett Ballantini | Posted April 17, 2006
The surprise appearance of some funky, patriotic-colored uniforms on the Bulls this season has had some fans scratching their heads.
No, the red shirts and blue satin shorts that Kirk Hinrich called “sweet” and Chris Duhon said “were definitely the coolest” he has ever worn aren’t the product of some oddball market research done by the Bulls in pursuit of a new alternate uniform.
The duds are being donned in honor of one of the Bulls’ many precursors on the Chicago pro basketball scene, the Chicago Stags, who are celebrating their 60th anniversary.
Pro basketball in this city does not start and end with the Bulls. By rough count, some seven franchises, playing in six different leagues during 24 different seasons, roamed Chicago’s indoor arenas, as early as George Halas’s Chicago Bruins in 1925.
Arguably, the most successful of all of these pioneers were the Stags, who played three seasons in the NBA’s precursor, the Basketball Association of America (BAA), and one in the NBA before folding.
While they were never a powerhouse, the Stags compiled an impressive four-year record of 145-92; that .612 winning percentage translates to a 50-32 record in an 82-game schedule of today. In addition, while only playing in one championship series in four years, the Stags were in the playoffs every season.
It would be logical to assume that the BAA was founded because of fan demand. But that’s only slightly accurate. Truthfully, pro basketball was pushed in part to fill hockey arenas that were otherwise empty for more than half of the winter (10 of the 11 inaugural BAA franchises were affiliated with major hockey teams). The BAA also was founded to capitalize on the increasingly popular college game—All-Star contests routinely drew big crowds at Chicago Stadium and elsewhere.
The league began play in November 1946, and only three of its teams—the New York Knickerbockers, Boston Celtics, and Philadelphia (now Golden State) Warriors—survive 60 years later.
The Stags were a much bigger success on the floor than they were with fans. The BAA received little attention; crowds were tiny, radio broadcasts were sparse, Washington was the only franchise that televised its games, and newspapers devoted little space to anyone but their home teams.
To help celebrate the 60th anniversary of pro basketball in the Windy City, the NBA and the Bulls stepped back in time by breaking out a set of vintage Chicago Stag uniforms.
For one of the new Stags, Mickey Rottner, Chicago was the perfect place to begin his career. Rottner was a local product out of Loyola and, at 5’10”, was the closest thing the Stags had to a point guard in an era that had little use for such a designation.
“It was great playing in Chicago,” Rottner says today. “I was the local hero. I signed for $8,000, and my family was delighted. I had three levels of friends at the games: high school, college, and pro.”
Rottner’s role as a coach on the floor (and off it; he often made out the lineup card in the locker room in consultation with Olson) made him the Stags team captain for his two years in Chicago. Nonetheless, Rottner ended his career after the 1947-48 season, retiring with career averages of 5.4 ppg and 1.4 apg, the latter figure placing him among the BAA’s best at the time.
“I tell people even today, ‘I quit at age 29 because I got tired of looking up at belt buckles,’” Rottner laughs. “Even for that time, I was small.”
There were some notable nuances in the BAA’s inaugural season:
Another regular feature of BAA play is something that would be unheard of today. “At halftime, we’d have a shooting contest,” says Doyle Parrack, who played his only season of pro basketball with the Stags in 1946-47 before rejoining his Oklahoma A&M alma mater as basketball coach. “We’d shoot among ourselves, and the winner would face off against the other team. I would never win. Max [Zaslofsky] would always beat me.”
In their four year history (1946-50), the Chicago Stags made the playoffs each season and compiled an impressive 145-92 overall record (.612). The team’s best player was a 6’2” guard out of St. John’s, Max “The Touch” Zaslofsky (10).
(Courtesy of Bob Rosenberg)
Stags center Chuck Halbert, a 26-year old “veteran rookie” center, was the team’s second-leading scorer in his debut season of 1946-47—his 12.7 scoring average was just a shade behind “Zaz.” Halbert played with Zaslofsky and Fulks in successive seasons, being shipped to Philadelphia early in the 1947-48 season after Chicago acquired All-BAA center Stan Miasek from the Detroit Falcons.
“Max was a young fella, who had played just a little college ball,” Halbert says. “Joe had been in the service and playing for some time. Both liked to score, Joe with the one-hand jump shot, Max as a two-hand set shooter. But Max did more than shoot. He hadn’t been around long enough to be set in his ways. Max was our best player, but he fit perfectly into the team concept.”
The Eastern Division champion Washington Capitols, coached by 29-year-old Arnold “Red” Auerbach, ate up the league in its first season, finishing 49-11—10 games better than the second-best Stags. While the BAA’s other 10 teams played a more deliberate style, Auerbach had his Capitols squad run at every convenient juncture, resulting in an average scoring differential of plus-9.9 ppg, nearly three times better than that of any other team. Washington also had an amazing 29-1 record at home, while the rest of the league’s teams won at home less than 60% of the time.
In the Western Division, the Stags and St. Louis Bombers finished in a first-place tie. It took a tiebreaker win—in overtime—for the Stags to win the division outright. Their reward? Due to an illogical system in place for the playoffs, which was a holdover from the NHL, division winners had to square off in the first round. Rather than receiving an easier draw, the Stags were heading to Washington to play a team that had beaten them in five of six games in 1946-47.
An interesting subplot between the Caps and Stags was already in place, centering on star rookie forward Horace “Bones” McKinney. McKinney, en route to Chicago by train to sign with the Stags, had a stopover in Washington. Auerbach, acting on a tip, met McKinney at the train station, and signed him to a contract in the restroom of a restaurant.
Back in the late 1940s, team ownership would often schedule pro-college doubleheaders using local area schools in an effort to help fill seats.
(Photo and memorabilia courtesy of Bob Rosenberg)
Improbably, the Stags won the first two games of the series in Washington by identical 16-point margins—doubling the Capitols’ number of home defeats in their previous 30 games. The Stags won Game 3 in Chicago, and eventually upset the Caps in the series, 4-2.
One small bit of strategy may have been the turning point in the series. Halbert, a roommate of forward Chuck Gilmur, recalls the moment: “The Caps and McKinney had just worn us out during the season. We had to start the series away from our home floor, and, the afternoon before the first game, Coach Olsen called Chuck up to his room and told him he was starting, and was going to defend against Bones McKinney.”
Starting the 6’4” Gilmur on the bigger McKinney, whose 12.0 ppg ranked third on Washington, was the key to victory, Halbert says. Gilmur, who a 1950 issue of SportPix magazine called “a brainy and aggressive defender,” unleashed himself on McKinney sparked the upset.
The forward out of the University of Washington was one of the less heralded stars of the upstart Stags and sardonically deflects the notion that he was a difference maker. “My record is not a well-known fact,” Gilmur says today, pointing out that he’s most noted for setting the all-time record for personal fouls in a season, 231, in 1947-48.
Wherever the credit for advancing lay, the Stags moved on to face the Philadelphia Warriors in the championship series. In another odd twist, the Warriors had to win two best-of-three series in order to advance to the title tilt. Philadelphia was paced by the BAA’s first major star, Fulks, who led the league in scoring with 1,389 points (23.2 ppg) in 1946-47.
Unlike their poor regular season versus the Caps, Chicago had dominated Philadelphia, winning the season series 5-1. But the Stags’ topsy-turvy postseason debut continued; Fulks knocked down 37 points in Philly’s Game 1, 84-71 win, and the Warriors jumped out to a 3-0 series lead. In Game 4, Olsen adjusted his strategy and got Fulks into foul trouble, and Chicago came away with a 74-73 victory.
Game 5 at Philadelphia Arena on April 22, 1947 was where the Stags’ title hopes died. It was a close contest, and with less than a minute left, the score was knotted at 80. Fulks had scored 34 points, but it was Philadelphia’s other forward, 6’4” Howie Dallmar, who canned a 30-foot set shot for his only two points of the night and gave the Warriors the first title in BAA history.
“It was a big disappointment to lose in the finals,” Rottner recalls. “We were the ‘upset team’ after beating Washington and felt we were meant to win it all.” Adds Gilmur: “We didn’t have any idea what an opportunity we had in the finals. We thought we would be back, and even though we never went to the championship again, we continued to try to do as well as we could.”
Although some might consider the Stags uniforms a little tough on the eyes, most Bulls players said they enjoyed the look and feel of the classic threads.
(Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)
“All the guys worked hard and did the things they specialized in pretty well,” says Halbert, who SportPix cited for his “unselfishness and loyalty” in 1950. “We all kind of knew what our job was out there. My success in Chicago was because of those other ballplayers. When I was in the position to do the team some good, they got the ball to me.
“I had my greatest success in Chicago. I never played with another team as cohesive as we were. Not many guys were hungry to see their names in the box score. We were just hungry to win.”
The Stags would continue to find success in their three remaining seasons, compiling records of 28-20 in 1947-48, 38-22 in 1948-49 and 40-28 in 1949-50.
The team would earn playoff berths in each season, although in only one series—a 2-1 series win versus the Boston Celtics in the 1948 Western Division quarterfinals—would the Stags win even a single game. It was in Game 3 of that Celtics series that Zaslofsky forever earned one of his more prominent nicknames, “the Touch.” Toward the end of the contest, Zaslofsky brought the ball up from the backcourt, took a couple of steps past midcourt, stopped well in front of his defender, and nailed a 40-foot set shot. On the next possession, he did the very same thing, only from a few feet closer.
Chicago also became the city where basketball took a big step toward crossing the “color line.” From 1939 to 1948, the World Professional Tournament was played in the city, where black and white teams would routinely face off, setting the stage for the Stags. In the 1948 preseason, the Stags invited six African-American players to try out; on October 9, 1948, The New York Age announced, “Color Line is Broken in Basketball Assn. of America: Six Join Chicago Stags”.
Pro basketball’s fight for respectability as a major sport ended up taking its toll in just four short years, however. The fan indifference that had been building up in Chicago—despite Stags ownership handing out more than 100,000 free tickets during the team’s tenure—resulted in the team folding in 1950.
“I was disappointed with the number of fans that we had,” Halbert says. “We deserved a little better. The owners lost money, and I am sorry about that.”
Says Rottner: “The fans didn’t come out enough. Pro basketball was fairly new at the time. It didn’t catch on the way we all hoped it would.”
But even in folding, the Stags made their mark on basketball history. Three guards from the disbanded Stags—two stars, Zaslofsky and “Whiz Kid” Andy Phillip, and a rookie who was working as a driving instructor and insisted he wouldn’t sign with anyone but his hometown team—were dispersed among the Knicks, Warriors, and Celtics. Unable to determine how to allot the three players, their names were tossed into a hat and picked by each owner. The Knicks drew the plum, Zaslofsky; the Warriors picked the clear second choice, playmaker Phillip. The $10,000 booby prize of the draw went to the Celtics.
That player’s name? Bob Cousy, “ex-Stag.”