Thursday’s NBA draft brought back a lot of memories for me, from when I sat in and made choices for the Minneapolis Lakers from the 1947-48 season until the 1956-57 season.
It also reminded me of how different the draft process used to be and how it has changed.
I was also involved with the Chicago NBA franchise (originally the Packers, then the Zephyrs) from 1961-1963, when the team moved to Baltimore and became the Bullets. The Chicago franchise actually became active in 1960, when players in that year’s draft included Jerry West and Lenny Wilkens — Oscar Robertson went No. 1 overall to the Cincinnati Royals as a territorial pick — but a Chicago arena wasn’t available until the 1961-62 season, when the team drafted Indiana center Walt Bellamy in the first round.
Yes, the situation was different in those days and my boss here at the Tribune, Charley Johnson, allowed me to be involved with both of those teams. Other members of the sports staff also had public relations jobs and such with professional sports teams.
I had been involved in getting pro basketball here in 1947 and because of the success we had, the Chicago connection developed.
Of all the drafts that I was involved in, one made history in 1950 when Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics made the historic decision to draft the first African-American into the NBA, selecting Duquesne’s Chuck Cooper with the 12th pick in the second round. Cooper played six years in the NBA and averaged 6.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. After his playing days, he earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota.
At the time, most NBA teams made big money when Abe Saperstein and the Harlem Globetrotters played in doubleheaders that included two NBA teams and a Trotters game.
The Globetrotters at the time sold out every arena they appeared in, and sometimes they played as many as three dates to keep an NBA team from bankruptcy.
So when Auerbach made the choice, a recess was immediately called. Several of the owners begged Auerbach and Celtics owner Walter Brown to withdraw Cooper’s selection so they could keep their dates with the Globetrotters.
However, the Celtics refused and when the pick was announced in the media, Saperstein canceled every Globetrotters game to be played in an NBA arena that year.
The drafting of Cooper later resulted in two other black players appearing in the NBA that year — Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (the first to sign an NBA contract) and Earl Lloyd (the first to actually play in an NBA game) — and those three players broke the racial barrier in the NBA.
One thing that helped the Minneapolis Lakers become a power was that back in the late 1940s and through the mid-’60s, the NBA had what was known as the territorial draft, where local teams got the chance to draft collegiate players in their region before any other teams in the NBA by relinquishing their first-round draft selection.
This led the Lakers to grab such players as Vern Mikkelsen of Hamline in 1949 and Whitey Skoog (1951) and Dick Garmaker (1955) of the Gophers.
The territorial draft lasted until 1966, when the NBA moved to a coin-flip system in which the worst team from each division would flip a coin to determine the first and second selections in the draft, then the rest of the league would fall into order based on their final record that season.
That system lasted until 1985, when the NBA implemented the modern system of using a draft lottery to determine the drafting order of the teams that did not reach the playoffs in any given season.
• Chris Anderson, the Centennial high school standout who pitched at Jacksonville, and Tom Windle, the former Gopher, made their professional debuts Tuesday night with the same team in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Anderson, the Dodgers’ No. 1 pick, started for the Great Lake Loons, the Dodgers’ Class A affiliate, and struck out five and allowed one hit in two innings. Windle, the Dodgers’ second-round pick, relieved Anderson and pitched the next two innings. He was just as dominant, striking out two, walking one and allowing no hits as Great Lakes beat South Bend 10-1.