Review by Budd Bailey
What’s better than reliving a fun part of your childhood, and perhaps making a little money along the way?
Nothing, of course. That’s what author Syl Sobel and Jay Rosenstein did with their book, “Boxed Out of the NBA.” It’s the story of the Eastern Professional Basketball League, mostly shortened to Eastern League by its participants.
The lesser pro sports leagues often carry a bit of romance with them, mostly because the players overcame difficult conditions just for the chance to play the game at a high level. It’s certainly true about the Negro Leagues in baseball, for example.
Basketball had something of an equivalent to that in the Eastern League. Back in the days from the late 1940s until the 1960s, the National Basketball Association had as few as eight teams. As you could imagine, there were plenty of good players who couldn’t quite crack the list of the top 100 players in the country. Still, they wanted to play. If they lived in the Northeast, the Eastern League was a solution.
The league centered around the state of Pennsylvania, mostly in relatively small towns such as Allentown, Scranton, Hazelton and Williamsport. Teams sometimes popped up in adjoining states as well, landing in places like Trenton, Baltimore and Binghamton. It was a weekend league, so players from the big cities of the Northeast would drive through winter conditions in order to play against good competition. There was even a little money to be made, although no one cared too much about that. It speaks to the state of pro basketball at the time that some Eastern League players were making more money in the “real world” than they could in the NBA. This was a way to stay in the game but not give up their day jobs. The list of players included some familiar names: Jim Boeheim, John Chaney, Hubie Brown, Bob Love. Charlie Criss, Ray Scott, George Blaney and Bob Weiss.
A couple of other factors helped raise the level of play in the Eastern League. Early on, the NBA didn’t start integrating fully until 1950, and even then teams only had one or two African Americans on their rosters. That meant they had to head to the Pennsylvania area to continue to play. In addition, some college basketball players had been involved in gambling scandals in college (in some cases unfairly or at least without due process), and were banned from the NBA. If they wanted to continue to play at a high level, this was their only option. Some of those teams probably couldn’t beat most NBA opponents, but it might have been pretty competitive.
The arrival of the American Basketball Association in the late 1960s essentially spoiled the fun for the Eastern League. Some of the best players jumped to the ABA – Lavern Tart, Willie Somerset, Walt Simon, and Larry Jones did well in the new league. The Eastern League held on, but eventually it had to adapt to survive. It turned into the Continental Basketball Association, and gave up its Pennsylvania roots to become more of a feeder league for the NBA. It survives in a large sense as the NBA’s G League.
Sobel and Rosenstein were both big fans of the Scranton franchise as kids, so to go back and research the history of the league – and actually talk to some of the players – obviously gave them endless pleasure. They must have put in some serious hours, since the details of operations of such leagues can easily fade away. They group the chapters logically – players, coaches, referees, etc.
The book comes with a few drawbacks. Some of the information gets repeated in the text a few times along the way, which is distracting. Basketball writer and Trenton native Bob Ryan sees a few chunks of his foreward become copied later in the book. There are a lot of quotes from principals that simply say “It was a good league” or “He was a great player.” Sometimes the story gets a little dry with information about statistics and playoffs that might test the attention span of many. And, to be honest, only basketball fans who watched this era in person and/or remember the names of the players are likely to find a good-sized piece of this work interesting. That’s going to limit potential sales, and explains why the price tag is rather high for a short book.
Still, Sobel and Rosenstein deserve some points for getting this down on paper. “Boxed Out of the NBA” covers a piece of basketball history that has been more or less ignored. It’s good to get some of the stories in public before they disappear for good as the players die off. In the meantime, if you were a fan of the Eastern League at the time, you’re sure to get a big kick out of this trip back in time.
(P.S. Bonus points for the authors for giving a credit to Buffalo sportswriter Jerry Sullivan here.)
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