This is the first in a series of examinations of basketball-related legends and whether they are true or false.
I know that the first installment is probably too soon to be doing a theme week, but totally by accident, two of the planned three legends that I had for this week were related to each other in an interesting fashion, so I figured, what the heck, and scrapped the original third legend and got a new one that fits the theme.
Players who played professional basketball AND professional baseball!!
BASKETBALL LEGEND: Danny Ainge once bit Tree Rollins during a playoff game.
A good deal of legends revolve around the “telephone” effect, which is where the legends spread just like the game “telephone,” where a group of people sit in a circle and the first person whispers a phrase to the second person who whispers it to the third person and so on and so forth and you see if the last person hears the phrase exactly the same way the first person said it.
However, it’s rare to see the telephone effect distort something as dramatically as it has regarding the time Tree Rollins and Danny Ainge had an altercation in the 1983 NBA Playoffs, an event which eventually ended up having the player who was bitten being blamed for biting the OTHER guy!!
Danny Ainge had an unusual road to the National Basketball Association. While still in college, he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1977 (he was 18 years old). He signed with the Blue Jays and played for them while still in college in 1979.
After three fairly middling years in the Major Leagues, Ainge decided he wanted to pursue basketball (he was an excellent basketball player in college, winning the John R. Wooden Award for the best collegiate player in the country).
Because whoever drafted him would have to buy him out of his Major League Baseball contract, he fell all the way to the end of the Second Round of the 1981 NBA Draft, where he was picked by the Boston Celtics.
After a bit of a rough start, Ainge soon became a key figure in the great Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s.
In the First Round of the 1983 NBA Playoffs, in a match-up with the Atlanta Hawks, Ainge had a memorable altercation with Atlanta Hawks center Tree Rollins.
The two tussled, reportedly because Rollins called Ainge a “sissy” after Rollins hit Ainge with an elbow (inadvertent or not) and Ainge took issue. Whether Rollins called him a sissy or not, Ainge tackled the much larger man (Ainge was six feet four inches while Rollins was over seven feet tall). During the tangle, Rollins bit Ainge on Ainge’s hand. Standing up from the fight, Ainge reportedly (according to his teammate Larry Bird) said “That big sissy bit me!”
The next day, the Boston Herald had the headline “Tree Bites Man.”
However, within a couple of years, Ainge (who by then had gotten the reputation as a bit of an annoying player for opposing players) has suddenly become the one who was accused of biting Rollins!
In a 1985 Sports Illustrated article, Ainge said:
The booing bothered me at first, but now I just expect it. I know a lot of it comes from my personality. I was booed in high school and college. I’ve just always showed a lot of emotion and played aggressively. Everywhere I go, people think I’m the dirty little guy who bit Tree Rollins’ finger.
So let’s recap – Ainge did not bite Rollins’ finger, Rollins bit Ainge’s finger.
Thanks to Alexander Wolff for the great Ainge article!!
BASKETBALL LEGEND: Jim Thorpe played professional basketball.
One of the neat things about the study of history is that quite often, historical facts can be discovered when you least expect them. One such instance of this is the professional basketball career of Jim Thorpe, which went undocumented in biographies of the man until 2005!!!
And all because of a ticket that fell out of a used book.
A man in Jamestown, New York won an old book about Jesse James at an auction in New York. Inside the book were two tickets to a basketball game titled:
Clothes shop versus Jim Thorpe and his world famous Indians. Y.M.C.A. Gym. Tuesday, March 1, 1927
This news came as quite a shock to those who thought they knew Jim Thorpe’s story pretty darn well.
Jim Thorpe was born on “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma in 1888. In 1904, the young Thorpe attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he was coached by legendary football coach Glenn “Pop” Warner.
At Carlisle, Thorpe was a dominant football player and a dominant track and field athlete.
He competed at the 1912 Summer Olympics, and flat out dominated, winning the Gold Medal in the Decathlon and the Pentathlon.
Thorpe was instantly a national icon, and even got a ticker tape parade down Broadway in New York City.
However, the next year, controversy would rear its ugly head around Thorpe. As it turned out, Thorpe had played semi-pro ball while in college during the summer, all prior to the 1912 Olympics. He did not make a lot of money, but he still technically was no longer an amateur, so he was stripped of his two gold medals.
Thorpe’s only saving grace was that he was now free to pursue a professional sports career, which he did, playing professional football, for the Canton Bulldogs (who two years later would help form the nascent National Football League)…
AND professional baseball, for three different National League clubs…
However, no one knew that he played professional BASKETBALL, too – not until that ticket was found.
After that ticket was discovered, it turned out that, yes, Thorpe HAD toured as a member of the “World Famous Indians” for at least two years, in 1927-1929, when Thorpe was turning 40 years old! Most theories suggest that Thorpe was doing the tour to help out his friends and get them some work.
Here’s letterhead for the World Famous Indians – note the basketball mention…
And all of this was discovered thanks to a accidental discovery of a game ticket!
Thanks to PBS’ History Detectives for their great work investigating this claim (and proving it).
BASKETBALL LEGEND: Chuck Connors was once punished in a peculiar fashion for his reaction to a tough loss against the St. Louis Bombers.
STATUS: I’m Going With True
Kevin “Chuck” Connors served in the military during World War II and was almost 25 when he got out of the service, but while still in the Army (he was an instructor at Camp Campbell in Kentucky and West Point in New York), Connors moonlighted as a professional basketball player for a variety of teams in the American Basketball League.
His dream, though, was to play for his hometown team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and eventually he got his chance, after spending a number of years in the minors…
While in the minor leagues, he played basketball, as well (taking time off from the minors when necessary), becoming an original member of the Boston Celtics of the brand-new National Basketball Association.
Connors was even drafted by the Chicago Bears of the NFL, although he never suited up for them.
Connors was not particularly good at any of the sports, but he was athletic enough to stick around. For the Dodgers, he had ONE at-bat (in 1949). In said at-bat, he grounded into a double play.
But first, in his one season with the Celtics, Connors was known as being a good defender because of his athleticism (but also because of his hard-nose, aggressive play, where he was willing to hit a guy if it needed doing). However, on the offensive side of the game, he was not so proficient.
This was highlit during a particularly brutal loss that the Celtics suffered in November of 1946 to the St. Louis Bombers in St. Louis.
Up by six points with thirty seconds to play, Boston Celtics head coach John “Happy” Russell called timeout to draw up an inbounding play. He told his team:
We’ve got this one made. All we have to do is this: don’t let Kevin [Chuck-BC] touch the ball. They’ll only steal it from him, or he’ll dribble it off his foot and he’ll start fouling everybody in sight. Repeat: don’t let Kevin touch the fucking ball.
As the players got up to go, Russell quickly called ANOTHER timeout, his LAST of the game. He called his players back and reiterated:
Repeat: don’t let Kevin touch the ball. And whoever does catch the ball, just stand there and do nothing.
Russell then told the referee that he was out of timeouts, so make sure not to give any player a timeout if they asked for one.
In any event, there was a bit of a scramble between the Celtics on the way back, with the team unsure who was supposed to be inbounding the ball. The ball ended up in the hands of, who else? – Connors!
Connors had to get the ball inbounds quickly, because the Celtics had no timeouts left now. He threw it towards a teammate, but a Bombers player intercepted the pass and drove to the basket. Connors chased after him and fouled him, but the player still made the basket. After shouting the foul shot from Connors hit, the Celtics were now only up three.
Again, the Celtics inbound the ball. This time, another teammate was inbounding, and this teammate looked around, and even though Connors made sure to stay far away from the inbounder, he still decided to throw it TO CONNORS! And, of course, a Bombers player knocked the ball from Connors hand and dribbled down court for a layup. And, of course, Connors chased after him and hit him as he made the shot. A foul shot later and the game was tied!!
The Bombers won in overtime. Russell naturally berated Connors mercilessly.
The next day, the Celtics were preparing to leave for Boston via train. While waiting in their hotel lobby for the team to depart, Connors (who obviously was not feeling great about himself) tried to calm himself by reading a collection of Shakespeare plays he had with him.
Russell came downstairs to find Connors reading Shakespeare and exploded…
Shakespeare? Christ almighty, you blew a game on me and you’re reading Shakespeare?
Presumably, Russell’s position was that anyone smart enough to be reading Shakespeare on their down time was far too smart to have screwed up so royally.
That became evident when it came time to board the train.
Russell told Connors that there was no ticket for him.
You’re the only son of a bitch who can figure out how to blow a six-point lead with thirty secodns to go. If you’re so smart, you can figure out how to get back to Boston without a ticket.
Connors’ teammamtes chipped in to buy him a ticket on the train.
But that would be Connors’ only full year on the Celtics. He played a little bit for them in 1947-48 before ending the year in the New York State League.
But that was about the same time his baseball career was nearing major league level. After his short stint with the Dodgers in 1949, he went back to the minors but surfaced on the Chicago Cubs in 1951. The next year, he was sent to the Cubs’ minor league affiliate, the Los Angeles Angels.
It was while playing for the Angels in Los Angeles that Connors realized ANOTHER dream of his – to become an actor!
After a few bit roles throughout the early 1950s, Connors finally nailed the role that he would forever be known for, Lucas McCain on the long-running (1958-1963) Western series, The Rifleman.
He spent almost all of the rest of his life (he died in 1992) acting.
Thanks to Charley Rosen’s great book, The First Tip-Off: The Incredible Story of the Birth of the NBA, for confirming the information about Connors’ career for the Celtics.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org