Forgotten Man: Bobby McDermott And The Rise Of Pro Basketball

No player did more to build pro basketball in the 1930's and '40s than Bobby McDermott, a brawling, hard-drinking scorer from Queens. How did he get forgotten?

by Jeff Katz
Sep 6 2016, 1:42pm

Image courtesy of Roger Meyer

"Mamba out." With that, and a stupendously inefficient 60 points against the Utah Jazz, Kobe Bryant said his final goodbye to the game that defined him. In city after city, NBA teams and their marketing departments honored the self-dubbed Black Mamba in the final year of his remarkable 20-year career. The Philadelphia 76ers gave Bryant a framed jersey from Lower Merion High School, his last team before joining the Los Angeles Lakers for the 1996-97 season at age 18. He was feted everywhere he went, more feared than loved to the end. Bryant's tragicomic farewell tour was, in most every way, the Hollywood version of the Bobby McDermott story.

Bobby who? Good question. Way before Bryant, there was McDermott. A dominating force on the court, a working class kid with immense talent and not a lot of time in school, heralded as the greatest of all-time when he retired, McDermott was pivotal in moving the nation's basketball focus from the college game to the pros. At 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, McDermott was big enough to play as a solid guard in his era, and good enough to dominate professional basketball throughout the 1930s and 1940s. McDermott dominated a different game, but he dominated it as willfully and wildly as any player ever has.

And yet: he vanished without a trace.

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During the 1920s, at the same time Bobby McDermott was biking through the rich neighborhoods of Malba and Beechhurst in Queens, dodging barking dogs that chased him on his paper route, basketball was still a baby, or at least not yet 30 years old. Soon after James Naismith nailed a peach basket 10 feet high in a Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA, the sport gained a foothold in high schools and colleges. The pro game lagged, but by the 1920s, when all it took to be a professional basketball team were uniforms and someone to collect money from the few paying spectators, hundreds of teams were scattered throughout the country.

The Boston Celtics ruled the pro landscape at the time, such as it could be said to exist. Emerging from the ashes of the New York Celtics, which folded during the First World War, the second version of the club was dubiously named the Original Celtics. Today's teams are connected to a city and a hometown fan base, but basketball then was a game for barnstormers, and whatever money there was to make was made on the road. Crisscrossing the country, the Celtics whipped all comers, exhibiting their skills in dingy dancehalls and cramped arenas.

McDermott's rise to stardom began in 1930, when he was a 16-year-old star in Queens' Steinway Merchants League. He was as recognizable for his aggressiveness and wild temper—he was ejected from his first game for fighting—as he was for his high-arcing two-handed set shot, which he originally crafted to soar over a low hanging horizontal bar in the A-frame roof of his club gym. It was that shot that got McDermott a look, three years later, with the Celtics. The pro game, which had recently made solid progress in organizational and financial success, was at the beginning of a collapse when McDermott arrived. More than any other player of his generation, this street kid redeemed by the game rebuilt professional basketball over the next two decades.

Portrait of the basketball artist as a young Celtic. Image courtesy of Roger Meyer

The Depression made it nearly impossible for pro teams to sell tickets; many owners, unable to pay their players, shuttered their teams. Those same hard times breathed new life into the college game, where young talent in a more palatable package played for their schools free of charge. Promoters like Ned Irish brought college doubleheaders to the old Madison Square Garden, and fans responded in record numbers. To the extent that basketball fans cared about individual basketball players, it was college basketball players they cared about.

McDermott was the guy that changed that. When Bobby started playing in the 1930s, college experience wasn't mandatory. He combined a reputation for unbridled hustle and determination with a towering and accurate two-handed set shot he could hit from any distance on the court. Though 16 or 18 points may seem insignificant by present standards, McDermott usually accounted for the bulk of the scoring on any team he played for.

Thanks to McDermott's unparalleled ability, the Celtics began to rise, and the sporting public began to shift its attention from the elite and polished world of college basketball to the pro game's more rough-and-tumble street style. Defensively punishing, with an affinity for lineman-like slaps or the occasional solid punch to the faces of both teammates and opponents—and even referees!—McDermott was armed with what the sportswriter Alex Zirin called a "midfloor shot that carried dollar signs all the way," a shot so accurate that Hall of Famer Al Cervi didn't dare leave him open from any distance, sometimes chasing McDermott beyond mid-court. McDermott would, in time, be a five-time champion in three different leagues; a four-time Most Valuable Player; and then, two-time Coach of the Year.

During the 1935-36 season, one of radio's biggest stars, in both frame and form, lent her name and money to McDermott's team. The team, now dubbed the "Kate Smith Celtics," cut through state after state—Illinois, Tennessee, Michigan. McDermott faced off against a group of college All-Stars in Matewan, West Virginia and the high school dropout gave the college kids 52 points, 52 out of the Celtics' total of 78, thanks to a display of marksmanship previously unseen at any level. At 22 years old, McDermott was a known commodity among basketball followers. And, for a travelling team dependent on selling tickets to survive, he was vital.

If McDermott played like a man with something to prove, it's because he was. Professionals weren't taken as seriously as their collegiate counterparts, and in both football and basketball the college game was held in much higher esteem than the professional game, which was seen as uncouth and generally dodgy. Both sports hired ringers and were a bit too close to gamblers, but college sports had an aristocratic halo it couldn't shake. It wasn't de rigeur for college standouts to turn pro, either—there wasn't much money to be made playing sports in the 1930s, which meant pro-team rosters were mostly a motley collection of ex-collegians, former high school stars, and locally known hoopsters like Bobby. That would start to shift as the new decade began.

A real American. (Gears) Image courtesy of Roger Meyer

At that time, it was possible for smaller, blue-collar cities like Fort Wayne, Sheboygan, and Whitestone, Queens (where McDermott grew up) to successfully host a big league franchise. Fred Zollner, a flamboyant industrialist who owned the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons in the National Basketball League, signed McDermott, a move that created a dynasty. Without Bobby McDermott, the Pistons were nothing; Zollner himself had said as much, announcing he wouldn't enter pro basketball unless he got Bobby from the Celtics. The Pistons dominance and popularity began when McDermott arrived in 1941.

Those Pistons teams were the first pro squad to be broadcast overseas. When Cervi was a soldier in World War II, listening to McDermott's games on the radio, he began to worship "The Long Island Flash." McDermott was such a star that he participated in a War Bond rally, along with celebrities such as Robert Taylor, Jack Dempsey, Martha Raye, and many others. In a 1946 United Press International poll, NBL coaches and managers named him the "Greatest Player of All Time."

That year was the beginning of McDermott's decline. After one too many brews and following a tough loss, the now player-coach cold-cocked rookie center Milo Komenich, a former standout at University of Wyoming, as the team's train sped home from two tough losses to Syracuse and Rochester. Komenich entered McDermott's car, trying to keep his balance against both the movement of the train and his own drunkenness. He spotted the coach.

"I would really like to knock you on your ass, Mac," the rookie said.

"Yeah, well, I don't see no Greek Army behind you," McDermott said. He flew up from the leather seat at the younger man. They began to push each other, hard. One punch from McDermott sent Milo to the ground.

Up to that point, Bobby's pugnacity had been accepted by management. But his increased drinking and the attendant inability to present a dignified face for both the Pistons and pro basketball was more than Zollner was willing to accept. Even though he'd led the Zollner Pistons to two championships and delivered the star power Zollner wanted for his team, the superstar player-coach was suspended "for insubordination" and put on the trading block.

McDermott was quickly picked up by the Chicago American Gears, where he coached the future of the pro game, center George Mikan, to the 1946-47 title. With the hustle and scoring of McDermott—still a fine player, even in decline—and the height and grace of Mikan, the duo was unstoppable. After that triumphant season, Bobby was back on top. Riding that wave of enthusiasm, Gears owner Maurice White formed a new league, the Professional Basketball League of America, centered around his team; every other franchise was under his control as well. The league folded after three weeks due to low attendance, which put Gears players back up for grabs in the NBL. Mikan ended up with the Lakers of Minneapolis, where the young, clean-cut 7-footer would become the face of the newly-formed NBA.

Prehistoric basketball y'all. Image courtesy of Roger Meyer

By contrast, McDermott faded away, ignored by the pro game he popularized. And the type of pro game he dominated—a game played in vibrant, small town American cities like Fort Wayne, Sheboygan, and Moline, burgeoning cities bursting with civic pride after the war—faded from memory with him. When Mikan recollected his playing days, the NBL and Bobby McDermott got little mention; it was as if the NBA was where it all started, and his position at center for the Minneapolis Lakers was at the hub of it all.

Without basketball, McDermott drifted. He eventually made his way back to New York and a job at Yonkers Raceway. On September 23, 1963, after a long night working at the track for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, he was heading home when he crashed into a metal pole the parking lot and suffered massive internal injuries that were incongruously severe for a slow, one car accident. Several days later, he died from the trauma at age 49.

McDermott had a long history of quick-tempered violence and a huge taste for gambling. Whispers of foul play, a betting scandal, and shadowy, mob-related doings quickly sprang up. Following his death, there were no jerseys hung in his honor. He barely rated a mention in the New York Times obituary section. Just sixteen years after leaving professional basketball, "The Greatest Player of All Time" was forgotten. The Basketball Hall of Fame had neglected to induct him in the eight years since it opened, and it took Bobby's son Billy two decades of campaigning to get his father's legacy its due. In 1988, 25 years after his death, Bobby McDermott finally took his place among the game's greats in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The story of salvation through sports, the dream of a poor kid making his way to the big time despite lacking a college education, isn't just McDermott's story. It's older than him, and broader—it's the story of Moses Malone and Pedro Martinez and LeBron James and Madison Bumgarner. It's an American story, but it's also the story that America most likes to tell about itself, and most wants to believe. McDermott lived it, and if it wasn't exactly clean or simple, it's worth remembering that no true story ever is.

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