1948 Finals: Baltimore 4, Philadelphia 2
Baltimore Bursts Into Big Leagues
The easy label for the 1947-48 Baltimore Bullets might be "the expansion team that won the championship." In this case, however, expansion would be a misleading word. Retraction would be more like it.
When four teams folded after the Basketball Association of America's first season, the surviving seven clubs were desperate for competition. So they pulled a minor league team, Baltimore, into the fold to "round out" the divisions.
In all fairness, it should be pointed out that although the Bullets were a minor league team prior to joining the BAA, they were the ultimate minor league team. They had won four consecutive titles in the old American League during the 1940s. Bullets owner Robert "Jake" Embry and Bill Dyer, a local sports broadcaster who managed the team, aspired to build the Bullets into a big-league franchise. They had wanted to join the BAA in its first year, but the new league had balked because of the Bullets' shoddy building, the old Coliseum on North Monroe Street in one of Baltimore's poorer neighborhoods.
The key to the team's success was player-coach Buddy Jeannette, whom Dyer had lured away from the NBL's Fort Wayne Pistons, a team that Jeannette and Bobby McDermott had led to back-to-back league championships. Having Jeannette, an NBL star, on the roster also helped Baltimore impress the BAA. The new league needed all the stars it could get.
When the BAA finally called in 1947, the Bullets were ready and willing, even if the conditions weren't ideal. Their addition made for an awkward alignment. Philadelphia, Boston, Providence and New York played in the Eastern Division; Washington and Baltimore joined Chicago and St. Louis in the Western. The Bullets, however, were just happy to be in the circuit, tenuous as it was.
Only good basketball teams draw such affection, and the Bullets were very good. At the core of the roster as the season opened were 5-foot-11 guard Jeannette and 6-foot-6 forward Mike Bloom, a two-time MVP of the old ABL. At age 33, Bloom had a little mileage on him, but he still had a deadly set shot and a nose for defense that made him a crowd favorite.
In an era before the development of the fully athletic big man, basketball was a guard-dominated game. So right before the season, the Bullets loaded up some extra ammunition by signing another veteran guard, Joseph Francis "Chick" Reiser, away from the NBL's Pistons. He was one of the premier set shooters in that age of two-handed, long-range gunners, and he boosted the Bullets' offense by averaging 11.5 points that season.
Baltimore promptly swept the Chicago Stags in two games and then faced the Philadelphia Warriors, who had survived a grueling seven-game series with St. Louis. If anything, the Warriors had strengthened their team from the previous season with the addition of center Chuck Halbert from Chicago. Their lineup was impressive, even if their regular-season record wasn't.
"When you have [Joe] Fulks and Halbert and [Howie] Dallmar under the basket and [George] Senesky outside, you've got a pretty good ballclub," said Baltimore's Paul Hoffman.
Having taken the division title, the Warriors also had the home-court advantage, despite their slightly inferior record. (Baltimore was 28-20 in the regular season; Philadelphia was 27-21). "We knew we had to win at least one game in Philadelphia," Jeannette said. That didn't happen in Game 1, however, as Philadelphia won 71-60 before a less-than-capacity crowd of 7,201.
Then things got worse for the Bullets. In Game 2, Philadelphia rolled out to a 41-20 halftime lead. "In those days, if you got behind that far, the game was over," Jeannette said. "There was no 24-second clock to help you come back. But somehow we did. We took our time and made our shots and caught 'em. I don't know if we were so good or Philly was so bad."
Fulks helped matters by continuing to shoot -- and miss. And the Bullets helped themselves by driving to the basket for good shots. The home crowd sat stunned as the Bullets took a late lead. They cut the gap to 48-40 in the third quarter. Then, in the last period, it was all Baltimore. "We were up by one with four seconds to go, and I tipped in a missed free throw," Hoffman recalled.
The 66-63 victory was one of the more impressive comebacks in sports history. Unfortunately, nobody paid much attention to pro basketball then. The story received a few paragraphs on the back page of The New York Times. Still, it gave the Bullets the momentum they were looking for.
For their part, the Warriors had simply run out of energy. "What killed us was the seven-game series with St. Louis," Senesky said. "We had gone back and forth on the train, and it was a 24-hour trip. We could have flown and saved some energy if the weather had been better."
Baltimore took the two games at the Coliseum by scores of 72-70 and 78-75. Back in Philadelphia, the Warriors prevailed in Game 5, 91-82, but they still had to return to Baltimore for Game 6, trailing by a game. There, on April 21, the "minor leaguers" took the title with an 88-72 blowout.
The evening was nothing fancy -- just another good time at the neighborhood deli where the team always gathered. "There wasn't much celebration," Jeannette said. "None of that crap of shooting champagne over everybody. That was just another game to us."
The $2,000 in prize money helped make it a little more special. And Gunther Brewery, one of the team's sponsors, gave Jeannette a television set. The brewery gave each of the other players a pen and pencil set, a disparity that had the Bullets still hooting decades later.
There were none of the big endorsements and contract upgrades that today's superstars receive after a championship win. "But I wouldn't trade all of my experiences for any of their million-dollar contracts," said Jeannette fondly. "We were a good team. We won in every league we played in."
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