Pro Football and Basketball’s Humble Beginnings

 

Amid all of the trade talks and multi-billion-dollar contracts in the NBA and NFL, it should be remembered that at one time being a “big league” athlete was a seasonal job.

Back then, baseball in the United States was “the” sport, but boxing and horse racing also had rabid followers. There was little interest in the pro basketball leagues at the time and the NFL was barely a notch above semi-pro status. Playing these sports was, at best, a “seasonal job.”

There is only one athlete who was been a member of a pro basketball championship squad and a pro football championship team in the same calendar year.  It happened after World War II and the player in question went to college (Northwestern) on a basketball scholarship and needed to be talked into playing football. Yet the player is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. 

A little background is needed.

The defunct basketball circuit was the National Basketball League. The NBL was the only pro basketball league at the time and had franchises in small Midwest cities and those teams usually were company teams with the players working for a piston manufacturer or tire companies in some cases.  The Rochester Seagrams was a semi-pro independent team which was sponsored by a distillery. After World War II ended in August 1945, the NBL invited Les Harrison to bring his team into the pro league.

Harrison brought athletes to Rochester. His collection included baseball players Del Rice and Chuck Connors (who starred as “The Rifleman” on television) and an eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer, Otto Graham, the answer to the trivia question. He played on championship teams in basketball with the 1945-46 Royals, and for the 1946 Cleveland Browns of the All American Football Conference.

Graham ended up with the Browns and quarterbacked Paul Brown’s championship squad in 1946, 1947, 1948, and 1949. Graham became a football superstar and one of football’s highest paid performers, something that was not going to happen in Rochester playing basketball.
  
“It was fun, but basketball took up too much time and I couldn’t play football and basketball both, so I stuck with football,” Graham said.

Cleveland won all four AAFC championships, and Rochester won two NBL “pennants,” but lost to George Milan in the NBL championships twice. Rochester joined the NBA in 1948 and won an NBA title in 1951.

The Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers entered the NFL after a merger of sorts between the AAFC and NFL after the 1949 season. Graham and the Browns quickly showed the NFL how good they were, winning three NFL titles in six years, beating two-time champion Philadelphia in the Browns’ first game as an NFL team.

“It (the AAFC) was a good league,” Graham said. “The NFL people would say our worst team could beat your best team. Go get a football before you think about playing our teams.”

Evan Weiner
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle. He can be reached atevanjweiner@yahoo.com  This article was edited by Kelly Flanagan.  Dr. Flanagan is Chair of Sports Studies at the United States Sports Academy and is a trained journalist.

 

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