If Brett Abrams could go back in time, he’d travel to Washington in 1949, take a seat high in the bleachers of Uline Arena and cheer on the Capitols.
That’s the basketball Capitols, one of the D.C. round ball teams that scrapped for success long before the Wizards or Mystics laced up their sneaks.
Brett explores those long-ago days in a new book co-authored with Raphael Mazzone: “The Bullets, the Wizards and Washington, D.C. Basketball” (Scarecrow Press).
Today, Uline Arena — later called Washington Coliseum — is what you see from the Red Line’s NoMa station. But after it was built in 1941, it was the setting for all sorts of diversions.
Going to a basketball game back then would have meant peering through a fug of smoke. Some of it was from spectators’ cigars and cigarettes. Some of it would have been mist rising from the ice rink under the floorboards. A minor league hockey team called the Washington Lions played there, too. Regulars knew to bundle up in the cold arena.
As Mike Uline, the person who built the arena and named it after himself, was an ice wholesaler, maybe he had a soft spot for frozen water.
The game of basketball was different then, too: slower, defensive, pass-heavy. And nothing so gauche as dunking.
“They had several of the top players in the league at that point,” Brett said of the 1949 Capitols team. “Bones McKinney, Bob Feerick. . . . It would have been something to see a team that was almost the best. They just couldn’t handle the Lakers’ height.”
That would be the Minneapolis Lakers, who defeated the Capitols for the championship. The Lakers would go on to more success in Los Angeles. The Capitols’ head coach would make a move, too. When Uline wouldn’t renew his contract, Red Auerbach left for greener pastures.
Uline wasn’t the first to dabble with basketball in the District. In the sport’s earliest days, school and church league teams were popular with participants and spectators alike. Industrial leagues pitted workers against one another.
Before George Preston Marshall went on to fame with a little football team called the Redskins, he washed people’s dirty clothes. Well, his employees did. He owned a dry-cleaning company called Palace Laundry. Marshall had noticed that crowds were turning out to watch amateur basketball teams, especially a successful squad from Congress Heights. In 1923, he decided he wanted a piece of the action.
“He basically bought the team, put it into his laundry, and said, ‘You guys will play for me now,’ ” Brett said. “That team played pickup games against the original Celtics teams.”
In those freewheeling days, a basketball team was a way for businessmen to promote their companies. In 1961, the District had a pro team half-owned by a man named Paul Cohen who also owned Technical Tape of New Rochelle, N.Y. The team’s name? The Washington Tapers.
“Cohen was afraid to fly,” Brett said. His team traveled by bus. “If you were a good player and had a good day you got to ride in his RV.” Brett is an archivist who specializes in digital records and lives in the District’s Truxton Circle neighborhood. In 2009, he published “Capital Sporting Grounds,” an examination of the outdoor ballfields that once dotted the city. Basketball’s history seemed like the next logical step.
The book travels through time — Anyone remember the Virginia Squires? The Capital Bullets? — before arriving at the present and the Wizards. But it’s the past that I found particularly interesting.
Much of the city was segregated in the 1940s, and discrimination was rife in basketball, too. While Uline allowed African Americans to attend boxing matches and hockey games in his arena, they weren’t allowed to attend basketball games until 1948. On Oct. 31, 1950, Alexandria native and Capitols forward Earl Lloyd became the first black player to play in the NBA.
Talking with Brett, I get the feeling the book was also a way for him to play “what might have been.”
“They had two injuries that really hurt them,” Brett said of the squad that entered the 1949 playoffs and came so close to netting the title, going to Game 6 in the best-of-seven finals. Freddie Scolari broke a finger and Feerick tore the cartilage in his knee.
What is it with Washington and our fragile athletes?
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.