Maurice Podoloff, president of the NBA from its beginning in 1946 until 1963, will be 91 Tuesday. He is full of energy, his memory is sharp and he's spoiling for a fight.
He wants recognition for Danny Biasone, the man who saved the league from certain death in 1954 by proposing the 24-second clock. Biasone has been given a gold watch, "which he needs as much as a hole in the head," when, according to Podoloff, "he should have a gold niche in the Hall of Fame."
The league was formed primarily by hockey owners to light up dark nights in their arenas. For a chief executive, they turned to Podoloff, whose integrity, business acumen and compassion had made him an admired president of the American Hockey League for a decade.
"The first season was bad and the second worse," he said. "We decided the reason was personnel," and began courting the dominant Minneapolis team of Mikan, Pollard, and Mikkelson from the Basketball Association of America. When they played hard to get, Podoloff began to woo all the other franchises. The Lakers might retain their franchise, but they wouldn't have anyone to play against.
"That wasn't a merger, it was a raid," he said. At a special meeting of the league governors in 1948, Minneapolis led the defections from the other league. The NBA franchise fee was $10,000, but all the teams that came aboard at that time were accepted for the net credit they showed on the books of the old league.
"Our dreams of glory turned to nightmare," said Podoloff. "The games were as lackluster as they had been. The stalling and deliberate fouling made for a constant parade to the free throw lines."
The first TV contract in 1950 aired NBA games for $3,000 each, $5,000 for playoffs. According to fan response, it was no bargain. In the early '50s, more people walked out of NBA games than stayed to the finish. But at the meeting of the governors in 1954, Biasone of Syracuse changed it all with his proposal of a 24-second clock.
Almost immediately, professional basketball became a big-league attraction with a format in which great athletic talent was encouraged rather thean hamstrung by the rules. So today's multimillion-dollar salaries, multimillion-dollar franchise values, multimillion-dollar TV deals and millions of fans around the world all owe a large debt to Biasone, a debt Podoloff figures must be worth more than a gold watch.
Podoloff, who was known affectionately in his early days as "Poodles" and "Pumpernickel" and "the Fiorello LaGuardia of sports," is not reticent with his opinions. When his successor, Walter Kennedy, whom he brought into the league as a publicist, changed his title to commissioner, Podoloff said, "He was somewhat impressed by his own inadequacy to be president."
Of Red Auerbach, whom some still regard as an outstanding representative of basketball, he said, "He was an able coach, quickest to see the faults of any suggested changes in rules, but an abrasive man. When he'd light his victory cigar in those televised games, I always wished someone would shove it down his throat."
It is ironic that Podoloff, who served as president of two sports leagues for more than 30 years (from 1946 to 1951, he presided over both the hockey and basketball circuits), was never a sports fan. Of all the athletes he saw, only one interested him: "Bob Cousy was not just a great player but a brilliant showman; but I'm not sure I'd have bought a ticket to see him perform."
The Podoloffs emigrated from the Ukraine and settled in New Haven because of their traditional reverence for learning. Maurice, the eldest son, went to Yale in 1909 and in six years earned both a bachelor's degree and a law degree. His proudest accomplishment was putting together the complicated deal that acquired the parcels of property needed for Yale to build the present complex of Yale-New Haven Hospital.
When I called for an interview at the Sound View Nursing Home outside New Haven, he said, "Come ahead. I'm never sick, so if I'm alive we can talk." And when we did, at length, I was impressed with his drive for one more accomplishment: to get Danny Biasone in the Hall of Fame.