Waterloo, Iowa — It was February 1950, and NBA neophyte Johnny Orr had just made a rookie mistake.
The 22-year-old, new to town and staying at the ornate Hotel Russell Lamson, was venting to a lobby worker about his stunted $3,500 annual salary in the NBA’s third-smallest market.
“The GM calls me in that day and says, ‘I hear you’re bitching about this team and you haven’t even started yet,’ ” recalled Orr, 79, of West Des Moines. “I said, ‘How do you know that?’ He said, ‘The shoeshine told me. He’s one of our shareholders.’ ”
The future Iowa State coach realized then he had arrived on Main Street. Word travels in smaller towns, but the story of how the fan-owned Hawks belonged to the 17-team NBA in 1949-50 seldom crosses anyone’s lips these days.
That era’s players and coaches are rapidly vanishing, survivors left with sketchy memories, but McElroy Auditorium remains a time capsule. The former Hippodrome was built in 1936 for $105,000 and seated 7,600 in 1949-50, the Waterloo Daily Courier reported.
The only major-league team ever based in Iowa met the goliaths. Minneapolis center George Mikan was Waterloo’s most honored guest, Tri-Cities coach Red Auerbach its most ornery.
“I tell my friends about Waterloo, Sheboygan (Wis.) and Anderson (Ind.) being in the NBA, and they say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ ” said Hall of Famer Harry Gallatin, 79, of Edwardsville, Ill., who played forward for the New York Knicks.
The quirky Hippodrome, a name derived from the Greek “hippos” (horse) and “dromos” (race course), featured a floor-to-rafter height of only 26 feet and had 42 poles scattered throughout the 20-row oval. The building was known for having an often overbearing presence.
“It didn’t smell too good in there, Coach,” Orr said.
Such was the downside of playing basketball in the centerpiece facility of the Dairy Cattle Congress grounds.
“During the Star Spangled Banner, everybody was still … and a rat ran across the floor,” said Dolph Schayes, 78, of Syracuse, N.Y., a Hall of Fame forward for the Syracuse Nationals.
At times, the cramped, dimly lit locker rooms filled with smoke as Waterloo’s midgame huddle gained the appearance of a 3 a.m. poker game.
“John (Payak) came in and he lit up a cigarette right way,” forward Don Boven, 81, of Mattawan, Mich., said of the Waterloo guard. “And here I am gasping for air.”
A civic enterprise
On Aug. 17, 1948, promoter Pinkie George moved to Waterloo the National Basketball League franchise he had held for less than two months in Des Moines.
Only three years earlier, the NBL was the undisputed major league — if in name only.
“Imagine, we had to go to the media instead of them coming to us — the top league in the world,” said Rochester Royals Hall of Fame center Arnie Risen, 82, of Pepper Pike, Ohio.
By May 1949, new Hawk owner Andy George and player-coach Charlie Shipp had indicated they would entertain offers to relocate. Milwaukee, which was planning to build a 10,000-seat arena, and St. Paul had been making overtures to buy an NBL franchise.
The Cedar Valley mobilized and in six weeks sold $37,830 in stock. On deadline eve, the Daily Courier reported the fund was $1,470 shy of $30,000 — $15,000 to buy the club and $15,000 to operate it.
“We all chipped in,” former Daily Courier sports editor Al Ney said, four days before his Aug. 29 death at age 86.
The plateau reached, Waterloo Basketball Inc. was born on June 29, 1949, with 377 shareholders. Chris Marsau, a manager at Rath Packing Co., was chosen president of the 33-man board.
“When we were first getting started, we were fortunate to have teams period,” said Gallatin. “It gave other cities like Waterloo a chance.”
Players earned a livable $3,000 to $10,000 for six months, yet Waterloo pinched on camp pay, recalled forward Jack Phelan, 81, of Sarasota, Fla.
“We were paid $25 (in rookie camp) — barely survival money,” said Phelan, a newlywed who found the need to borrow $25 from his father just to host a chop suey dinner for his new teammates.
Showtime in Waterloo
The Hawks tackled New York and Boston to open the season, but while the Knicks and Celtics were not yet elite, their reputed snobbery riled Midwesterners.
Indianapolis star Ralph Beard said New York and Boston expected “to see a bunch of corn pones” in Iowa.
A 15-point win over the Denver Nuggets followed, but Waterloo would finish only 19-43, 16th in the NBA.
Despite their poor mark, the Hawks’ 2,973-fan average matched the league standard.
“We had dynamic crowds,” Orr said.
Fans gobbled up the best seats for $2, while children entered for 50 cents. Afterward, fans may have danced at the nearby Electric Park Ballroom or feasted on a chicken basket at the Colony Club, joined by others who may have listened to Gene Osborn’s play-by-play account of the game on KWWL.
In their free time, the Hawks bonded at a steakhouse near the airport or at the Amvet Club downtown. They also enjoyed mingling with fans.
“Jimmy Cole, about 6 years old, used to sit on my lap before every game,” said Payak. “We corresponded for about 20 years after that.”
Waterloo was built around 6-foot-10 all-American Harry Boykoff and pure-shooting forward Dick Mehen, both acquired in Pinkie George’s spring 1948 purchase of the NBL’s Toledo Jeeps.
“I played with Harry at St. John’s,” said Hall of Fame guard Dick McGuire, 80, of Dix Hills, N.Y., still a senior adviser for the Knicks. “He was a very good shooter … and he had some muscle.”
Other starters were Boven and guards Payak and Leo Kubiak. Wayne See was sixth man.
“They weren’t that bad a ballclub,” said Al Cervi, 89, of Brighton, N.Y., a Hall of Fame guard who coached Syracuse to the best record in the NBA (51-13). “They just needed a player or two.”
Two-hand set shots and underhand free throws were in vogue in the 1949-50 NBA, while the style of play was physical, plodding and decidedly earthbound.
“Harry was from the old school of big men,” said Kubiak, 79, of Lecanto, Fla. “You’d think the next step was going to be his last.”
Dunking was seen as hotdogging and ignited fistfights.
Shipp, the Waterloo player-coach, warned Minneapolis’ Jim “Kangaroo Kid” Pollard: “You leave your feet, you’re not going to land on your feet,” recalled Laker Hall of Fame coach John Kundla, 90, of Robbinsdale, Minn.
Auerbach, in a Sept. 13 Des Moines Register interview, called Shipp a gritty intimidator feared around the NBA.
“You had to protect your stars,” said Auerbach, who died Oct. 28 at age 89. “They’d kill (Celtic Bob) Cousy if there’s no danger of retaliation.”
Hazards of the road
The Hawks traveled in station wagons along icy, snow-slick rural roads before the advent of interstate highways. Or they rode Pullman passenger rail cars.
Outside of Fort Wayne, Ind., players got off the train early in the morning at the whistlestop and lugged their bags to a greasy spoon, said Bobby Wanzer, 85, of Pittsford, N.Y., a Hall of Fame guard for Rochester.
“We’d have to throw pebbles up at the (cafe) window to wake someone up for transportation,” Wanzer said. “This was travel in the early NBA.”
On the road, even octogenarian fans might taste blood.
“We were in Sheboygan and I’m racing down the court on a fastbreak and I go ass-over-elbows,” said Payak, 80, of Toledo, Ohio. “I looked back and this woman, who looked to be in her 80s, with an umbrella, had tripped me.”
The Hawks etched their place in NBA history with a Christmas 1949 rally at home.
Waterloo trailed by 12 points with 58 seconds left, but six Indianapolis players would foul out. The Hawks nibbled away as technicals were called on disqualified opponents forced to re-enter due to attrition.
The 97-93 overtime win seen by 4,083 fans contained 90 fouls and 45 Hawk free throws.
“My wife’s favorite story,” said the sixth man, Wayne See, 83, of Camp Verde, Ariz. “She’ll tell that one to anyone who will listen.”
The big man cometh
On New Year’s Eve, Waterloo was treated to the only visit that season of a bespectacled celebrity so deified his name appeared solo on the Madison Square Garden marquee 17 days earlier.
“They all wanted to see big, ol’ George,” said Minneapolis Hall of Fame guard Slater Martin, 81, of Houston, Texas.
Mikan’s Lakers handled Waterloo 86-68. The Hall of Fame center scored 35 points in front of 5,322 fans, the team’s second-largest home crowd.
“That was a happening in the smaller towns, a real happening,” said all-NBA guard Ralph Beard, 79, of Louisville, Ky. “They set their clocks by it.”
Conversely, Auerbach was scorned in Waterloo. On Jan. 29, 1950, the feisty coach grew irate when the band blared while his Tri-Cities Blackhawks shot free throws. He spotted Hawk general manager Perk Purnhage and charged, nostrils flared.
“The benches were very close and he was screaming all the time,” said Kubiak, Hawks guard.
Auerbach insisted to the Register that his Blackhawks never played in Waterloo (his team was 2-3 there), but his recollection of that era’s officiating was more lasting.
“The refs weren’t in as much control then as now,” said the Hall of Famer. “There were two then, three now. No unions, no guarantee of jobs.”
An NBA footnote
Shipp had been fired on Jan. 10 and replaced by Illinois “Whiz Kid” Jack Smiley, who went 11-16 the rest of the way.
The muscular Shipp told the Daily Courier that after Purnhage fired him, “I walked out of the office crying. … Nothing ever hit me like that did.”
Sadly for Waterloo, its days as a big-league sports city ended on April 24, 1950, at Chicago’s Morrison Hotel.
Iowa native Murray Wier, 79, a Tri-Cities guard in 1949-50 and Hawk in 1950-51, heard that New York president Ned Irish provided the deathblow, asking, “What kind of a marquee was this at Madison Square Garden: ‘Knicks face Waterloo’? Who’s Waterloo?”
Commissioner Maurice Podoloff told the group assembled for the NBA meeting that Waterloo had asked to withdraw, said Ney, who attended. Ney said Marsau, the Hawks president, objected: “We’ve got no problems (financially).”
“But the end result is that they got kicked out,” Ney said.
Hall of Fame center “Easy” Ed Macauley, 78, of Ballwin, Mo., played with Orr on the St. Louis Bombers early in 1949-50. Macauley said Waterloo was hogtied by its population (64,354) and remote locale on the NBA’s western fringe.
“There’s a limit to what you can do in the smaller cities,” Macauley said.
Waterloo joined the diluted National Professional Basketball League in 1950-51 for one season and then dissolved.
“It was a town team and they were determined to make it go,” Orr said. “And the people in Waterloo were absolutely unbelievable in their support.”
The NBA pioneer unleashed a crusty laugh.
“(But) you couldn’t say anything (negative),” Orr said. “Everyone in town owned part of the stock.”
(Published in The Des Moines Register, Dec. 10, 2006)