Arnie Risen Introduced Indianapolis to New Era in Pro Basketball

by Jeff Tzucker

Mark Montieth headshot

Risen Introduced City to New Era in Pro Basketball

by Mark Montieth

September 14, 2012

Arnie Risen was Indianapolis' first professional star basketball player, a future NBA All-Star and Hall of Fame center who helped bring the city its first significant championship.

He also unwittingly ushered in the era of basketball as an occasionally unpleasant business that can punish players, fans and owners alike. His acquisition lit up a franchise and its fan base But, his coarse disposal left behind a mess that led to an ownership change and nearly the loss of a franchise.

Then again, it worked out all right in the long run – for Risen, especially, and for Indianapolis, temporarily.

Arnie Risen fights through a crowd to emerge with the ball

Risen, who passed away on Aug. 4 at age 87, grew up in the humblest of circumstances, and reflected that upbringing throughout his life. He grew up in Williamstown, Ky. during the Depression on a small tobacco farm with no running water. He grew tall (but not wide), and was blessed with enough coordination to land an invitation to play at Ohio State after spending a year at Kentucky State Teacher's College.

He led OSU to the Big Ten championship in 1944, averaging better than 20 points per game, a major accomplishment of that low-scoring era. He also led it to the Final Four in 1944 and '45, an accomplishment tempered by the fact it only took one victory to reach the Final Four in those years of eight-team tournament fields. Risen scored 21 points in the Final Four loss to Dartmouth in '44 and 26 points in an overtime loss to NYU in '45. He fouled out of the '45 game, a major factor in his team's collapse from a 10-point lead late in the second half.

His senior season went completely haywire after he had some teeth knocked out by an errant elbow in the fall, and then caught a cold that turned to pneumonia. He wasn't able to attend class for an extended period, flunked out of school at the semester break and returned home.

That's where Frank Kautsky, who owned the Indianapolis professional team that bore his name, found him in January, idle and out of shape. He convinced Risen to join his team for the princely sum of $75 per game (reportedly outbidding three other teams), and threw his new center into action on Jan. 9, a day after signing him.

Unfortunately for Risen, that game was against the Fort Wayne Pistons, who featured a couple of rugged, veteran big men who delighted in making the skinny rookie earn his keep. "They'd batter me around for two or three minutes, then they (Kautsky and his player-coach, Nat Hickey) would bring me over and let me rest, then they'd pat me on the back and send me back out there," Risen once told me.

The Kautskys lost that game 60-47 before 6,000 fans, as Risen scored five hard-earned points. His indoctrination into the brave new world of pro ball didn't end there, however. That game was just the first of an announced 10-day tour of 10 games (four of them exhibitions). Risen, in fact, remembered it consisting of more than 10 games, as they occasionally played two exhibitions in one day.

Gradually, he got into shape, filled out and adjusted to the pro game, and a year later led the Kautskys to the championship of the world's professional tournament in Chicago. The 14-team field did not include the top teams of the two professional leagues at the time, the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America, but was still a prestigious event that included the best of the rest of pro ball, including the Harlem Globetrotters. It drew 14,413 fans to the championship game on April 10, 1947, when the Kautskys defeated Toledo, 62-47. The team finished league play that season with a 32-20 record and won an estimated 20 of its 30 exhibitions.

Just how that accomplishment fit into the grand scheme of professional basketball at the time is vague. The previous month, the second-place Kautskys had been eliminated by Chicago in their league's playoff series, so their claim to being the world's best team was a loose one. Risen, however, outscored George Mikan 27-22 in the final game of the series, before 9,000 fans at Butler, justifying his second-year salary of about $14,000, double the average salary of his teammates.

What seemed like a major step forward after winning the "world" title turned out to be the beginning of the end, however, both for Risen's time in Indianapolis and the Kautskys. Discontent was simmering among the newly emboldened players when they opened the following season because they had not received all the bonus money promised by first-year general manager and part owner Paul Walk for winning the tournament. They also were frustrated by the constant change in coaches. Ernie Andres had acted as player-coach at the end of the previous season, but he was replaced in the off-season by Glenn Curtis, who had won state high school championships at Lebanon (1912) and Martinsville (1924, '27 and '33). And, they were frustrated in a more general sense by Walk, whom they viewed as an uncaring businessman _ as opposed to Kautsky, the player-friendly grocery store owner who had nurtured his franchise from its birth as an amateur outfit in 1928.

"Frank loved basketball," Risen told me. "Paul saw it as an opportunity to grab a few bucks."

Uninspired play and mismanagement, however, soon make it impossible for even a few bucks to be available for grabbing. The Kautskys lost their season opener at Butler before 8,239 eager fans, 65-58, to a weak Oshkosh team. The owner himself was so disgusted that he walked out with eight minutes left, and one newspaper noted that "a lack of drive was quite noticeable."

The season unraveled quickly. Herm Schaefer, one of the team's better players, was mysteriously released at the start of the season and was picked up by Minnesota, which would go on to win the league championship. Curtis quit or was fired four games into the season. Players later grumbled about the former high school coach's "high school drills." Bruce Hale, who would become Rick Barry's father-in-law, took over as player-coach, becoming the team's sixth coach in two seasons, but also was not well-received by the players.

Risen, meanwhile, was not playing up to par, for whatever reason. He had been married before the season began, a major change in lifestyle. He also was upset that he had not received all the bonus money that had been promised. When he asked Walk early in the season for the remainder of it, amounting to a few hundred dollars, he was told, according to one newspaper account, "When you start playing (well), you'll get your money." An illness also had interfered with his play.

He was averaging about 12 points per game that season, but had been playing better when division leader Rochester came to town on Jan. 20. He scored 20, but the Kautskys lost again. Afterward, Rochester owner Les Harrison approached him and said, "You're with us now."

Although rumors had circulated for a week that Risen might be sold or traded, he had asked to stay in Indianapolis, and was surprised by the news.

He found Walk, and said, "I understand I have a new home."

"That's right," Walk replied, and then asked to be excused to make a telephone call.

Risen was gone, and the Kautskys had officially given up hope for that season.

The press release announcing the sale of Risen – later revealed to be for $25,000, a significant sum when you consider that was nearly half of the team's total player payroll expense – stated the move was made "for the good of the club."

The fans and local media were insulted by the claim, particularly the city's most respected newspaper voice of that time, Angelo Angelopolous of the Indianapolis News.

"The Indianapolis Kautsky management – Paul Walk, executioner, and Frank Kautsky, puppet partner, – that many times broke faith with its ball players yesterday broke faith with its fans," began his story announcing the sale.

Angelopolous went on to detail the team's many internal issues. He assigned most of the blame to Walk but placed Kautsky in the line of fire as well. Risen was spared.

"His leaving, in his third year, deprives Indianapolis of one of the nicest guys in athletics," Angelopolous wrote.

The Kautskys went on to finish the season 24-35, still good enough for a playoff berth. With that in hand, they canceled their last regular season game with Toledo because it was sure to have a negative impact on their financial condition. They were quickly dispatched from the playoffs, none too soon for the players or fans.

Risen, meanwhile, flourished in Rochester. The Royals were runners-up to Minneapolis for the NBL championship that season, and won the NBA title in 1951. Risen, who earned spots in four All-Star games with Rochester, also won a title with Boston in 1957 as a backup to Bill Russell. He retired a year later, and entered the Hall of Fame in 1997 as a classmate of Larry Bird's.

Kautsky, disgusted by his team's sudden demise and finally fed up with losing money on a basketball team, sold out to Walk following the 1947-48 season, ending an era in the city's basketball history. Kautsky had been a small-scale, one-man equivalent of Mel and Herb Simon, an owner who cared more about the city having a team than making money from it. He reportedly received $25,000 for his share of ownership, essentially the same $25,000 the team had received for Risen.

Assuming full control, Walk conducted a fan contest and renamed the team the Jets. He then moved them from the NBL to the BAA, joining Rochester and two other teams. The Jets folded after a miserable year in the standings and at the gate, threatening to leave the city without a professional team for the 1949-50 season. A reprieve came when the core of the group of players who had won three national championships at the University of Kentucky and the gold medal in the 1948 Olympics accepted an invitation to play here as the Olympians in the newly merged NBA. That franchise lasted four seasons before folding in 1953, a story all its own.

Most of the Kautsky players, including Risen, were reunited at a Pacers game in 1997 at Market Square Arena, one day after the 50th anniversary of their championship in Chicago. The two franchises were worlds apart, but there were some coincidental connections.

For one, Risen was nicknamed Slim. Twenty years after he was dealt from the Kautskys, another 6-9 center nicknamed Slim, Mel Daniels, was acquired by the Pacers. Both Risen and Daniels would find a home in the Hall of Fame, many years after their retirement. For another, the Kautskys acquired a guard named Fred Lewis shortly after Risen left, although he wasn't related to the guard named Fred Lewis who played for the Pacers.

Ultimately, the Kautskys' fate was to prove that professional basketball could fly in Indianapolis if a winning team could be cobbled together, and that a championship would, however briefly, ignite the fan base. But they also proved the enormous challenge of finding the right combination of players coach and management, and maintaining that group, not to mention the gargantuan task of turning a profit in a smaller market.

The harsh realities turned out to be a major part of Risen's legacy here, as none of them could have happened without him. Fortunately for him, reality improved in other places.

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