Six decades ago, the Chicago Stagsruled 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.
The Stags hired future Hall-of-Famer Harold Olsen from Ohio State as their first coach. Olson had been an early promoter of the NCAA Tournament and had also developed the 10-second rule governing the advancement of the ball from the backcourt. Olson wasn’t a student of the “new” pro game, but Chicago’s hiring of the 23-year OSU veteran fell in line with the BAA’s stated aim of playing a college-style game at the professional level.
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: