City celebrates with Jeannette

February 10, 1994|By Bill Tanton

There was excitement in Harvey Kasoff's voice when he called this week. I knew why.

"Buddy Jeannette has been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame," Kasoff said. "Now we've come full circle."

Full circle?

"Sure," said Kasoff. "Buddy Jeannette in his day was to Baltimore basketball what John Unitas and Brooks Robinson became to football and baseball. John and Brooks are in the Hall of Fame. Now Buddy is."

Harry "Buddy" Jeannette was, indeed, the man when he was player-coach of the Baltimore Bullets and they won the championship of the Basketball Association of America -- forerunner of the National Basketball Association -- in 1947-48.

For this city, that was more than simply winning a title. It was the breakthrough year for Baltimore in sports.

Up to then, this had been a Triple-A town. It was a decade later when the Colts and, afterward, the Orioles became major-league champions.

We viewed ourselves as minor league and then along came the Bullets and Buddy Jeannette and players like Paul "Bear" Hoffman and Chick Reiser and Mike Bloom to change that.

Those Bullets played in a bandbox on Monroe Street, the 3,000-seat Coliseum. When they started beating the Knicks and Philadelphia and Chicago and the Lakers, who then played in Minneapolis, this doddering old port city changed. It began to think of itself as big league.

All that took place nearly a half-century ago, but it seems like yesterday to Kasoff, who was then the Bullets' 13-year-old ball boy.

Kasoff has conducted a long crusade to get Jeannette his deserved place in the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Seymour Smith, who covered Jeannette's Bullets for The Sun, and Paul Hoffman are other old friends who have campaigned for years for Buddy. This week their efforts paid off, finally.

"I feel like I just had a baby," said Kasoff.

Jeannette lives in Nashua, N.H., is 76 years old and walks with a cane. So many of those who played and coached against him are gone.

A notable exception is influential Red Auerbach of the Celtics. For years Red has told the people at the Hall of Fame that Buddy belongs.

Recently I had lunch with Kasoff, Hoffman and Jake Embry. Embry owned the Bullets in Jeannette's time. As always, they talked about Buddy. They wondered if his chances of getting in ZTC

the Hall of Fame were disappearing.

They talked about center Walt Bellamy, who went in last year. Bellamy played for the Baltimore Bullets in the '60s when Hoffman was general manager. "Bellamy was a good pro," said Hoffman, "but he was no Buddy Jeannette."

"There's no comparison," agreed Embry, who has also owned pro football and hockey teams here. "Buddy was the toughest competitor I've ever known."

"Buddy was so tough," said Hoffman, "if they could have put Bobby Knight and Jeannette in a room together, Buddy is the one who would have come out standing up."

Kasoff agreed. He can still hear Jeannette's booming voice and his blue language.

He remembers how Buddy always seemed to find a way to win. He can still see the 5-foot-11 Jeannette driving for the basket with the game on the line and getting fouled. He remembers the deep breath at the foul line and the two-hand, underhand shots.

"Buddy was a pioneer," Kasoff said. "He helped to get pro basketball established for the great players who came later.

"The game was very different then. They played in dance halls and ballrooms. Drunks came out of the stands and started fights. The teams drove through blizzards to get to some of the games. Buddy drove the car.

"You had to be tough just to survive in those days. Buddy played on four championship teams [Detroit Eagles, Sheboygan Redskins, Fort Wayne Pistons and Baltimore Bullets] in three different leagues [NBA, American Basketball League and the BAA]. The man was a winner."

Baltimore's Gene Shue, who has been in the NBA for 40 years, was on the Hall of Fame ballot this year for the first time. He didn't get elected but he's happy that Jeannette did.

"Buddy is such an important figure," said Shue, now personnel director of the Philadelphia 76ers.

"When I was a kid growing up in Govans and Buddy was the leader of the Bullets, I was such a fan of his. Those were the early days of TV. We kids used to stand outside J.V. Stout's electronics store on York Road and watch through the window on little black and white TVs. Buddy always seemed to be doing the right thing to help the team win."

When Jeannette didn't get in the Hall of Fame last year, I called and told him I was sorry.

"I'm getting my pension now and that's more important," he blustered. "What the hell do I care about the Hall of Fame?"

Yesterday I called his wife, Bonnie, in Nashua. She told the truth about Buddy and the Hall of Fame.

"He cared," she said.

He'll be inducted May 9 along with coaches Denny Crum and Chuck Daly, Italian coach Cesare Rubini and former women's star Carol Blazejowski.

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