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Toughing it out around the purgatory league 

NOTE: This is an old Sports Illustrated story about the old Eastern Basketball Association. As a kid I spent many a night watching my hometown Sunbury Mercuries. And I played a lot of youth basketball in the old Sunbury H.S. gym, which is mentioned in this story.

I was reminded of the story recently and went searching for it on the web. I found a chipped up, unformatted, text version of it through and pieced it back together here so I could share it with friends.

From Sports Illustrated, March 15, 1971

pro basketball Lawrence A. Armour 

The rosters tend to be, uh, flexible, the pay scale microscopic and the arenas prehistoric, but the players show lots of desire in the Eastern Basketball Association. Maybe because it’d be so nice to get out .

The evening was billed as a reunion; Andy Johnson was coming home to Allentown. True, he would be in town as coach of the Camden Bullets, but who can forget those seven beautiful years he put in as a player with the Allentown Jets? Who can forget 1965, when Andy — then captain of the team — carried the Jets into the playoffs with a sizzling 28 points and a tightfisted defense that limited Paul Arizin to a mere three field goals? Who can forget those thrilling days? 

Well, quite a few of us, as it turns out. Most of us remember Johnson and Arizin — if we remember them at all — as Philadelphia Warriors. So perhaps it was hardly surprising that only 931 paying customers got the message and made it to Allentown’s Rockne Hall, which seats 3,500. The place bristled with indifference. It was one of those nights you could tell everything was going to go wrong. The preliminary — a contest involving two teams of girls that pounded up and down court like stampeding heifers — ran overtime. And downstairs in the locker room the Jets sat staring into space as Bob Raskin, last year’s coach of the year, paced the floor. 

Raskin was nervous. He had just been fired — “resigned for the betterment of the team” was the way the morning paper had put it — but the new coach, York Larese, a I960 All-America from North Carolina, wouldn’t be around to take over the reins until the next night. It put Raskin, who had agreed to handle the team against Camden, in a weird position. “I feel a little like I’m presiding at my own funeral,” he said. 

Raskin gave the Jets their final instructions: watch out for the double pick they set for Ben Warley; box out under the boards: look for the open man. The players nodded. They stood up and put their hands together. Let’s win this one, someone said. Everyone nodded. They wanted the game badly. Camden, an expansion team with a 2-8 record, was in last place. The Jets were 4-4, in third.Here was a chance to make up some ground. And here was a chance to give Raskin something pleasant to remember them by, down here in pro basketball’s nether regions, the Eastern Basketball Association. 

At a time when the Maravichcs and Alcindors of the world arc pulling down multimillion-dollar contracts, the average EBA franchise — in places like Allentown, Camden and Wilkes-Barre — is laying out such munificent sums as $50 a game to rookies and not too much more to the veterans. In the EBA the arenas arc drafly, largely vacant and frequently dirty. Still, the games are freewheeling enough, with scores like 13O- 129 the rule rather than the exception. And the salaries arc no indicator of talent in the league: many EBA graduates are now making it in the NBA and ABA. 

Walt Simon, Laverne Tart, Larry Jones, Art Heyman and Sonny Dove are a few ABA standouts who played for a while in the EBA. Bob Love and Bob Weiss of the Chicago Bulls came up via the EBA. So did Mike Riordan, who put in a year with the Allentown Jets before joining the Knicks, and so did two of Riordan’s current rookie teammates, Eddie Mast and Milt Williams, who last year averaged 20 and 17 points, respectively, at Allentown. 

The grinding routine and poverty of life in the EBA does not necessarily disillusion the alumni. Almost without exception. they praise the league’s brand of ball. “The team we had last year could have given any of the NBA expansion clubs a run for its money,” said Mast recently, “and we could have beaten a lot of ABA teams.”

Still, he adds, the playing conditions arc awful. Sunbury wins Mast’s prize for the worst arena. “You feel like you’re playing in a box when you’re there. It’s so small, they’ve had to put half-court lines at the keyholes of the opposite ends. To make things worse, there’s a stage at one end and a wall at the other. When you go in for a layup at Sunbury, you have to go in vertically.” 

What Mike Riordan remembers best about his year at Allentown was the league’s three-point rule, similar to the ABA’s. “We had a beautiful three-on-one going one time,” he says. “All of a sudden the lead guy pulls up short and guns a 25-footer. He misses, gets the rebound and dribbles out behind the line for another shot. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing till I remembered he was in a race for the scoring title.” 

The league has other rough spots, including a constantly changing cast. In one game early this year Allentown trotted out a squad that included Bad News Barnes, a 1964 All-America with six NBA years behind him; Johnny Jones, a onetime Boston Celtic, Milwaukee Buck and Kentucky Colonel; and Ray Hodge, a Knick draft choice who was the 13th man on New York’s training camp roster last fall. A few nights later all were gone; Barnes had been shipped off to Trenton, Jones and Hodge relegated to the inactive roster. And Joe Hammond, a 21-ycar-old tiger who is everyone’s choice to make it big in the majors, was burning up the EBA before he ran into trouble with the Allentown management. Now he, too, is languishing on the Jets’ inactive list. 

The EBA owners and officials arc well aware of these shortcomings, but in a decade or so this season may well be singled out as the one in which the league finally turned the corner and entered the 20th century. After 25 years of life as the Eastern Professional BasketballLeague, the owners switched over to the EBA name, got themselves a new franchise in Camden and acquired new leadership. Bill Montzman, formerly general manager of Allentown, has taken over as commissioner. And, most important, new draft procedures and working arrangements with the major basketball leagues have been established. 

At one time an Eastern League franchise was a profitable venture. “I can remember nights when we used to get 4,000 to 5,000 people out to a game,” says one longtime buff from Scranton. But that was before TV brought the big leagues into living rooms. And so, over the years, a number of towns — Lancaster, Reading, Pottsville, Harrisburg, Easton and York, Pa.; Asbury Park, N.J.; Rochester and Binghamton, N.Y.; Springfield, Mass, and New Haven, Conn. — have had their flings as EBA entries, found the economics overwhelming and gotten out. 

If the owners are to be believed, none of them made money last year despite their relatively low overheads. Each team carries a roster of 13 men, only 10 of whom dress for a game (and only those who dress get paid). Although a select few players earn as much as S 150 a game, the average is far lower, and so the typical season salary outlay comes to about S30.000 a team. Add to that another $30,000 for gym rental, travel, equipment and promotion and you have probably the lowest overhead — $60,000 per year — in professional sport. 

The salaries and playing conditions make outside incomes an imperative for most of the players. Wayne Cruse of Allentown is a soft-spoken soul who teaches technical school five days a week in the Manpower Center in Edison, N.J., coaches JV ball and jogs a couple of miles each day to keep in shape. Then on weekends he sets picks, blocks shots and crashes the boards with a ferocity that belies his weekday manner. “You have to play rough,” he says. “This is a rough league. I broke my right hand and fractured my left one year, but I played. I had no choice. In the EBA no play means no pay.” 

The night in Allentown, with Raskin playing (or coaching) his swan song, was a fairly typical evening in the EBA. The tension that had suffused the Jet locker room before the game showed on the court that evening. Everyone tried too hard. The Jets made only one of their first 17 shots. Hodge had trouble getting the offense moving. Bad News Barnes, the Jets’ center, kept throwing the ball straight to fast-breaking Bullets. And Kenny Wilburn, last year’s high scorer, missed four in a row from the free throw line (“When it comes to foul shooting,” he says, “I’m a regular Wilt Chamberlain”). With three minutes gone the Jets, last year’s EBA champs, were down 14-4. Things didn’t get better until just before halftime, when the Jet defense finally stiffened and they managed to leave the floor down only 63-49. 

As they returned to the court it was obvious that the Jets had found some meanness down there in the locker room. The kids lining the runway sensed it and didn’t even ask for autographs. Raskin looked determined. “We’re going to get some rebounds this half,” he said. 

The third quarter was close. The Jets were rebounding better and playing alert basketball, but the Bullets were flying and their shots kept dropping. Both teams remained keyed up through the third period, and several near fights broke out. Still, the Jets cut the deficit to 88 80. Then John Shannon, the Bullets’ hot hand with 25, fouled out. Kenny Wilburn had kept the Jets in the game with 24 points and 14 rebounds, and now Jones, Cruse and Barnes finally came to life.

The Allentown fans, all 931, were on their feet and stamping on the metal bleachers. With less than a minute to go the Jets were down 111-107, but Wilburn was fouled. He sank one of the two. Now the Bullets brought the ball down, missed, and Allentown got the rebound. Jones faked to the left, went right and hit a soft jumper. That made it 111-110 with 10 seconds left. As the Bullets put the ball into play Wilburn darted out of nowhere, stole it and was fouled in the act. He moved to the line, aimed — and missed both free throws. 

It was over. Camden 111, Allentown 110. Rockne Hall was quiet again. The locker room was quieter yet. The players, depressed by the game and the prospect of losing a popular coach, were down. They talked for a while, then moved heavily toward the freezing parking lot. It had been a rough night. But at 5 p.m. the next day, when the bus pulled out for Wilkes-Barre, the Jets were aboard, on their way to the next stop on the EBA’s glory road.