When World War I ended in November of 1918, nearly five million men in uniform returned to civilian life. They came back to a nation that had become a battlefield every bit as treacherous as the frontline trenches in France. A life and death struggle against a deadly influenza epidemic was taking place in towns and cities across the nation. For almost a year (August of 1918 through July of 1919), the virus sickened 20 million Americans and left 500,000 dead. The crisis reached its peak in October of 1918, just as the war was drawing to a conclusion. Almost 200,000 people died in that single month. The eventual return to normalcy in late 1919 triggered an enormous growth in the appetite of Americans for recreational and athletic outlets. What emerged was a ‘Golden Age of Sports” throughout the twenties that only ended with the onset of the Great Depression. Professional basketball finally had the opportunity to gain a wider audience after twenty-five years of relative obscurity.
The regional pro leagues in the East began play again in 1919, but they would never totally regain their prewar prominence. Instead, the new decade ushered in an era of widespread barnstorming by strong independent teams. The first teams to travel extensively did so because they had outclassed all the competition in their immediate vicinity and were simply seeking suitable opponents. The discovery that barnstorming could be a profitable enterprise encouraged dozens of teams to tour extensively. When promoters in large Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit started forming teams, the competition for the best players stiffened. Soon many of the East’s best-known performers abandoned league play for the higher paychecks that could be earned with a barnstorming team.
Parochial rules and referees always handicapped touring teams. A hometown team of moderate abilities often defeated a more talented traveling squad by taking advantage of local rules and sympathetic referees. While totally standardized rules remained a long way off, barnstorming did help to lay many anachronisms to rest. Infractions such as walking and double dribbling were demoted from fouls to simple violations. The designated free-thrower and courts enclosed by cages also disappeared during the twenties.
The best barnstorming team of the era, and one of the greatest teams in the history of the game was originally recruited from within ten square blocks of Manhattan’s Lower West Side. The New York Celtics were organized in 1912 by Frank McCormick, as one of dozens of neighborhood teams that dotted the city and played the “dance hall” circuit. The team’s reputation grew within the next half-dozen years and soon the club was considered among the city’s elite squads. The Celtics began to tour, but limited themselves in the early years to the neighboring states of Connecticut and New Jersey. With McCormick away in the service during World War I, the control of the team passed to a promoter named Jim Furey. When the war ended, McCormack tried to reclaim his team. A series of lawsuits gave him control of the name “New York Celtics”, but he had lost control of the club. Furey’s first post-war team, now known as the “Original Celtics”, included Pete Barry, Johnny Whittey, Ernie Reich, Mike Smolick, and Eddie White. During the 1920-21 season, Furey added veteran center Swede Grimstead, defensive ace Dutch Dehnert, and the premier offensive player of the day, Johnny Beckman.
By this time, the Celtics were being proclaimed as the best professional team in the country. The main obstacle to such an assertion was the rival New York Whirlwinds, organized by Madison Square Garden promoter Tex Rickard. The Whirlwinds all-star squad included veterans Barney Sedran, Marty Freidman, and youngsters Nat Holman, Chris Leonard, and Harry Riconda. The two giants met in a best of-three-game series in April of 1921 to determine the city championship. For all intents and purposes it was the national championship as well. Almost twenty thousand fans attended the first two games. They saw the Whirlwinds prevail 40-29 in the opener and the Celtics take the second game 26-24. But the deciding game was never played. Numerous explanations were offered at the time, but the truth was that Furey had secretly signed Holman and Leonard to contracts to play for his team and in the process ended the Whirlwinds’ challenge to the Celtics’ supremacy.
Furey had all the ingredients in place to make the Original Celtics the greatest team in the country. To insure stability and maximize his investment, he signed each of his stars to an exclusive contract. To support the huge payroll, the Celtics traveled far and wide across the country, sometimes playing over two hundred contests a season, yet still winning ninety percent of their games. Beckman and Holman were the two greatest offensive performers in the game. Dehnert and Leonard were defensive specialists, although both were capable scorers when the situation called for it. Horse Haggerty, the 6’4”, 225-pound center, provided strength in the middle until he was replaced in 1923 by Joe Lapchick a tall, skinny, occasionally awkward youngster, who with hard work and dedication became a master of the center tap play and eventually developed into the best center of the era.
Furey’s decision to sign the Celtics to exclusive contracts had been strictly a business one on his part, but it reaped additional benefits that he had never considered. As the Celtics moved nightly from town to town, they were given a unique opportunity to develop themselves as a team, and to orchestrate a style of play that was exclusively their own. To conserve energy during their grueling schedule, they sharpened their passing skills and devised step-saving defensive maneuvers. Because of the instability of rosters, professional basketball had remained largely a game of individual confrontation through its first two decades. The Celtics opportunity to perform as a unit between 150 and 200 times a year provided them with the laboratory conditions to create a whole new level of play for the sport. The Celtics overwhelming superiority against many of their opponents allowed them to perfect their ideas under game conditions.
The Original Celtics influence on the development of professional basketball cannot be exaggerated. As they barnstormed around the country, the Celtics cohesive, innovative style of play provided a whole generation of coaches and players with an introduction to many of the modern principles of the game. Celtics’ inventions such as the pivot play, the switching man-to-man defense, and the give-and-go offense remain an integral part of the game to this day.
While the Original Celtics captured the imagination of the public and the press as the “World Champions,” they were not without strong rivals for the mythical title. Powerful independent teams such as the Cleveland Rosenblums, Rochester Centrals, Detroit McCarthys, and Fort Wayne Caseys provided substantial competition. From the beginning of the decade, there were rumors and speculation in the press about the formation of a basketball league of truly national scope. Through the first half of the decade, the best teams had to settle for informal agreements to meet each other in home and away series. The formation of the American Basketball League in 1925 finally brought the best independent clubs together under the banner of a single organization. The new nine-team league, stretching from Boston to Chicago, included all the outstanding professional teams in the country except the Original Celtics; nevertheless, the fortunes of new league and the mighty champions would be intertwined over the next half dozen years.