Joe Fulks, one of basketball’s first superstars, is considered by many to be the father of the modern game. So prolific a scorer and revolutionary a player was Fulks that he was called “the Babe Ruth of basketball.”
“Jumpin’ Joe” set the standard against which all future scorers would be judged. In 1949 he recorded 63 points in a single game, about as much as entire teams produced in the era before the 24-second shot clock. During his first year in the Basketball Association of America, Fulks averaged a stunning 23.2 points, more than six points higher than the second-place finisher. His offensive prowess was indeed comparable to that of Ruth, who early in his career often hit more home runs during a season than did entire franchises.
Although he didn’t invent the jump shot, Fulks is generally recognized as its innovator. His version of the move was different from its current form — he usually left the ground and then spun in either direction before releasing the ball with one hand. Fulks astonished fans and players alike by transferring the ball from one hand to the other while in midair. He also excelled at firing turnaround jumpers, shooting on the run with either hand, and hitting from outside with his looping set shot. He was a deadly free-throw shooter as well — in 1950-51, he twice made 49 attempts in a row. The unsophisticated, flat-footed defenses of the day were virtually helpless against Fulks and his arsenal of scoring weapons.
Fulks’s first pro coach, Eddie Gottlieb, later told the Springfield Union, “Joe was one of the game’s pioneers. He had the greatest assortment of shots I’ve ever seen in basketball — then, now or who knows when.”
After playing eight years with the Philadelphia Warriors of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Fulks left the game as the league’s second-leading scorer behind only the legendary George Mikan. His playoff record of 21 points in one quarter stood for more than three decades. During his career Fulks played on one championship team, made two All-Star appearances and was named to three All-NBA First Teams. His elaborate on-court style was paired with a modest, reserved personality that endeared Fulks to those who knew him.
Fulks was born in a farmhouse on the banks of the Marshall River outside of tiny Birmingham, Kentucky. An avid hunter and fisher as a youth, Fulks didn’t watch his first basketball game until 1929 when he was 8-year-old. After he saw the Birmingham High School team in action, Fulks was hooked. He began going to the school’s outdoor basketball court at night, where he practiced tossing tin cans through a hoop. When the coach finally discovered who was responsible for ripping his nets, he gave Fulks an old basketball to use instead.
There were no youth leagues in the region, so Fulks played street ball until high school. At Marshall County High School the 6-foot freshman only annoyed his coach with his leaping, spinning shooting style. Fulks was forced to tone things down during games, but on the side he continued to develop what would later prove to be his ticket to stardom.
In 1938, Fulks and his family moved to Kuttawa, Kentucky. To Fulks’s delight, Kuttawa’s coach was much more accommodating than the coach at Marshall had been. Now standing nearly 6-foot-5, “the Kuttawa Klipper” broke every state scoring record as a senior. In the fall of 1940, he enrolled at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, then transferred to Murray State Teachers College (later Murray State University). Over two seasons Fulks averaged 13.2 points in 47 games and was later elected to the NAIA Basketball Hall of Fame.
Fulks joined the Marines in 1943 and served in the South Pacific. When he wasn’t carrying a rifle in Guam and at Iwo Jima, Fulks played with the Marines All-Star squad. He returned to the United States and played with a touring team called the All-Star Leathernecks. By this time the professional basketball establishment was buzzing about the guy who could jump, spin, and shoot, all at the same time.
The brand-new Basketball Association of America (BAA) was competing with the 9-year-old National Basketball League for players, fans, and credibility. It was a chaotic time to be a franchise owner. The college draft had not yet been instituted. Compared to contemporary standards, the level of sophistication was crude. In an article in an Evansville, Indiana, newspaper Fulks later reflected, “I can remember when [owners] kept the contracts, schedules, and tickets in one pocket and the money in the other.”
Philadelphia Warriors owner and coach Eddie Gottlieb needed someone to fill both the basket and the seats. He offered Fulks $5,000 per year, about the same as most promising young players were making at the time, but the much sought-after Fulks asked for and received $8,000 — and a new car as a bonus. “I remember telling my wife,” Fulks said, “‘This is great — I’m going to get paid for doing something I like to do.’”
As a 24-year-old rookie in 1946-47, Fulks led the BAA in scoring with 23.2 points per game, 6.4 points ahead of second-place Bob Feerick of the Washington Capitols. As an illustration of Fulks’s dominance, Feerick was the only other player in the league to average more than 15 points; none of Fulks’s teammates averaged in double figures. His best game of the year was a then record 41 points against the Toronto Huskies on January 14. During the season, Fulks scored more than 30 points in 12 appearances. If the Rookie of the Year or MVP Awards had existed at the time, Fulks doubtless would have been a shoo-in.
The Warriors’ 35-25 record earned them second place in the Eastern Division behind the Washington Capitols, who finished at 49-11. Fulks carried Philadelphia in the playoffs. After defeating the St. Louis Bombers and then the New York Knicks in the early rounds, the Warriors met the Chicago Stags in the BAA Finals. Fulks scored 37 points in an 84-71 win over the Stags in the opener, 26 points in the Warriors’ 75-72 Game 3 win, and 34 points in the Game 5 clincher. He also set a record with a 21-point quarter during one game of the series. Fulks couldn’t do it all by himself, however. A late basket by former Stanford star Howie Dallmar broke an 80-80 tie in Game 5 to wrap up the Warriors’ championship at the Philadelphia Arena.
Fulks’s play not only startled avid basketball fans but also left many a casual observer in disbelief. He gave coaches fits, even the Boston Celtics’ Red Auerbach, who years later told the New York Post, “He could shoot from anyplace. We set up our defenses to revolve around him.” Fulks had a simple philosophy: “They give me the ball and I shoot it. That’s all there is to it.” Awed fans didn’t seem to mind that Fulks was relatively slow-footed, played uninspired defense, and wasn’t a strong rebounder. Then again, Babe Ruth wasn’t the fastest runner or the best fielder in baseball, either.
In 1947-48 Fulks again posted the league’s highest scoring average (22.1 ppg), but because the title was based on total points, Max Zaslofsky of the Chicago Stags took the scoring crown, 1,007 to 949. Fulks might have won the title had it not been for an ankle injury that forced him out of five games. Along with Dallmar (12.2 ppg and a league-leading 2.5 apg), Fulks paced the Warriors to an Eastern Division title. In the playoffs Philadelphia bested St. Louis in seven games to return to the Finals against Baltimore. A well-rounded Bullets team, which had no stars but featured four players who averaged in double figures, outplayed the Warriors in six games.
Fulks’ best season was 1948-49, when he pumped in 1,560 points for 26.0 per game, both career highs. Towering Minneapolis Lakers center George Mikan won the scoring title with 28.3 points per game. Fulks, however, erased Mikan’s single-game scoring record with a 63-point effort against the Indianapolis Jets on February 10. (Mikan had scored 48 points in a game 11 days earlier.)
Fulks’ finest moment — and one of the greatest individual performances in modern sports — came on the heels of a string of six straight games in which he scored more than 30 points. In the Warriors’ 108-87 win over the Jets at the Arena, Jumpin’ Joe had 30 points at the half, 49 after the third quarter, and 63 by the time he was taken out with 56 seconds left on the clock. Fulks made 27 of 56 shots from the field and 9 of 14 from the free-throw line; he didn’t miss two consecutive shots until the third period. Five different Jets took a turn guarding him. Fulks’ record stood until the Lakers’ Elgin Baylor recorded 64 in a game against the Celtics on November 8, 1959.
What made Fulks’ feat even more impressive was that it came before the advent of the 24-second shot clock, when teams were averaging around 80 points. Although the 6-foot-10 Mikan scored the bulk of his points by camping out under the basket, Fulks refused to play that way. Gottlieb remembered Fulks’ feelings on the subject. “We knew Joe was about to do something sensational, and I sent word in to him to start hanging [under] the basket. But he refused to go for the easy hoops. He sent word back to me, ‘I don’t want any points I don’t earn.’ That was Joe.”
Fulks played five more seasons for Philadelphia, but his best years were behind him. From 1949-50 to 1952-53 he averaged between 11.9 and 18.7 points, still good enough to crack the league’s top 20 each year. In his final season, 1953-54, Fulks scored 2.5 points per game in very limited duty. He performed in the league’s first two All-Star Games, in 1951 and 1952, scoring 19 and 6 points, respectively.
Fulks, the NBA’s first true superstar, retired at age 32 after the 1953-54 season with 8,003 total points (16.4 ppg), placing him second at the time behind Mikan in career scoring. In 31 playoff games Fulks averaged 19.0 points.
In 1970 Fulks was named to the prestigious NBA Silver Anniversary Team along with a host of other early stars including Mikan, Paul Arizin, Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Dolph Schayes, and Bill Sharman.
He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame posthumously in 1977; he had been murdered a year earlier in an argument over a handgun. Living in Eddyville, Kentucky, at the time, Fulks had just landed a job as athletic director at a state prison when his life was cut short. He was 54 years old.