The first two professional basketball leagues were organized in 1898. One took root in a big city that would remain an integral part of the pro game into the twenty-first century, while the other played out in tiny New England towns that would soon be long forgotten footnotes in the history of the game.
Early in 1898, when the AAU tightened its registration requirements, Philadelphia-area players led the protests. The city had long been a hotbed of professionalism. Star players could do quite well financially, but they were often the victims of unscrupulous promoters or of their own inability to properly finance exhibition games. The players were anxious for the stability and protection of an organized association. In early August of 1898, in the office Horace Fogel, the sports editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, the first professional basketball league, the National Basketball League, was organized. The first members were the Pennsylvania Bicycle Club, the Hancock Athletic Club, and the Germantown Club in Philadelphia, and three powerful former YMCA teams representing Camden, Millville, and Trenton in nearby New Jersey towns. In October of 1898, the league was expanded to include twelve additional teams to form an ambitious eighteen-team league divided into three districts, New York, Middle States and Philadelphia. Only the original six-team Philadelphia district managed to begin operation in the first season.
Play in the new league was erratic and extremely rough. A contemporary fan described basketball as resembling football played indoors, with a great deal of boxing and wrestling thrown in. Roller polo was all the rage in many parts of the East at this time. It seemed fast paced and exciting compared to basketball, which appeared to consist of a series of fights punctuated by an occasional attempt to score a basket. Many observers felt roller polo had the brighter future.
The NBL game was played on a court surrounded by a rope net cage that allowed the ball to remain in play at all times. The balls were oversized and lopsided, making dribbling a dubious tactic. Players appeared in full-sleeved woolen jerseys, with padded football pants or full-length gymnasium tights and short velvet trunks. In December of 1898, Trenton fans were startled to see their players appear dressed in running shorts and sleeveless tops, but the players quickly returned to the greater protection of the “football” look. Each player normally played the entire game, with substitutions usually made only in cases of injury.
The game began with a tip off at the center of the court, with the controlling team moving slowly into offensive position. The center and the two forwards moved toward the the basket with one guard positioned about twenty twenty feet from the basket and the other “standing guard” well back in the other half of the court. The team on defense stationed three players, the center and the two guards, close to the basket. Scoring opportunities were limited by the primitive shooting skills of most of the players. Teams tried to work for an uncontested lay-up or a two-handed set shot, sometimes delivered underhand. The defending team employed a bruising man-to-man defense that featured moves more akin to rugby or football than to a “non-contact” sport. The team scored against did not automatically get possession of the ball. After every basket, the referee threw the ball up for grabs at center court to resume play. Fouls and foul shooting were a large part of the game. Infractions such as walking and double dribbling were charged as fouls that sent the opposing team to the free-throw line. Each team designated a single player to shoot all its free throws. It was not unusual for seventy-five percent of the points in a game to be scored by single player from the free-throw line. Occasionally a team’s entire output was derived from charity tosses.
Almost from the beginning of the play in the National League, it was apparent that Germantown and Hancock were overmatched, and in late December both teams dropped out. Of the remaining four clubs, Millville and Trenton emerged as the strongest contenders. Trenton featured Al Cooper and Harry Stout as the primary scorers. Gus Endebrock jumped center, while Bill Lindsay, George Cartlidge, and Al Bratton were the mainstays on defense. Veteran YMCA star Fred Cooper was the coach of the Trenton team and still occasionally performed on the court. He also contributed advice and coached players throughout the circuit on an informal basis. Millville featured Walter Barber, Firman Reeves, and Herschel Adams as scorers, with Dan Rieck and Hilly Wallace on defense. The course of the season was determined by a late January showdown between unbeaten Millville and once-beaten Trenton. Over 1,500 fans jammed the tiny Masonic Hall in Trenton for the contest. Superior teamwork and playmaking resulted in a 29-14 win for the hometown squad. Trenton went on to finish the season with an 18-2 record to handily take first place. Millville never seriously challenged for the top spot again and finished the first season a distant second with a 14-6 record.
The initial season had established the National League as the dominant force in the emerging professional game. Most importantly, the league had successfully enforced its right to control player contracts. In March of 1899, when three league players performed in an exhibition game with a non-league team, they were quickly suspended and forced to sit out the remainder of the season. The power of owners to control star players turned out to be short-lived, however.
On December 20, 1898 at the Sherwood House in Worcester, the Massachusetts League was formed. The league consisted of six teams in four small towns within a twenty-five mile radius of Worcester. The league announced a ten game schedule. The league members included squads from Hudson and Milford, along with two teams in both Millbury and Marlboro. Scoring was very low. In mid-January, the two Millbury teams battled for forty minutes before the Lits emerged victorious by a 2-1 score. Hudson, the highest-scoring team in the league, was the only club to average in double-digits.
Hudson and the two teams in Marlboro emerged as the top contenders. Captain Joe Rodger and talented teenager Frank Leighton led Hudson up front. Elwin Green jumped center, while his brother Harlow teamed with Jack Porter in the backcourt. Porter, the league’s best all-around player, was a capable scorer and bruising defender. Marlboro BBA featured the league’s top scorer (with 5.6 points per game) George Rogers and the famed Boston-area star Billie Knox. Their cross-town rivals at the Marlboro YMCA were led by Joe White, who was one of the league’s best-liked players despite his tenuousness style of play. Hudson won the championship with an 8-2 record followed by the two Marlboro squads with identical 6-4 marks. The brief season was a complete success with some of the teams drawing close to a 1,000 enthusiastic fans for some games, big numbers for a new sport in small Massachusetts’ towns.