Buddy Jeannette made Baltimore a big league town

January 19, 1995|By Paul Baker

TOMORROW night the Washington Bullets will honor Hall of Famer Harry "Buddy" Jeannette during halftime ceremonies of the Bullets/Philadelphia 76ers game at the Baltimore Arena. Buddy Jeannette, a player and coach with the old Baltimore Bullets for nine years between 1946 and 1967, led the team to the '47-'48 Basketball Association of America (forerunner to the present National Basketball Association) title, putting Baltimore on the map as far as professional sports were concerned.

In doing so he won the hearts of thousands of Baltimore kids, including me. At the age of 13 in 1948, I used to hop a ride from my West Baltimore to catch a Bullets game at the old smoked-filled Baltimore Coliseum on Monroe Street. Just $3.50 would cover a game ticket, a hot dog and a Coke. It was a teen-age boy's dream. I got to see some of the greatest pro basketball players in the world.

But Buddy was my favorite -- truly a great player and leader of men. Standing a little under 6 feet and weighing around 175, with long arms and big hands, he was a premiere ballhandler who was known for handling pressure.

Nothing fancy, he just threw precision two-hand chest and bounce passes. His passing set his team in motion. He also possessed a soft shooting touch from the outside. His trademark was the two-hand underhand foul shot.

Harvey Kasoff, a retired local businessman who was the Bullet ball boy of that era recalls, "Buddy was my idol. When he stepped to the foul line and took that deep breath, everybody in the Coliseum breathed with him. He was money in the bank from the foul in the closing minutes."

Paul "The Bear" Hoffman, Rookie of the Year in 1947-48 as a Bullet, recalls, "I have never seen a player win more games for his team in the final two minutes than Buddy. He would always find a way. Setting up the offense, driving to the hoop, stealing the ball, making foul shots. We always felt we could win with Buddy on the floor."

Robert "Jake" Embry the Bullets owner who made Buddy the highest paid NBA player of his day ($15,000 annually) compared him to another two-minute miracle man: "Buddy was the greatest competitor I've ever seen. He was an inspirational leader and he had great determination to find a way to win. The only other athlete I would compare him to was John Unitas."

Buddy Jeannette never averaged much more than 10 points per game. But point totals were much lower then. It was a different game: no three-point shots, no black players, no dunks.

But Buddy Jeannette made his mark. As one of professional basketball's pioneers, he was All-Pro three times in Fort Wayne, Ind., before arriving in Baltimore. He won the American League and Basketball Association of America titles his first two years here in addition to making All Pro.

Buddy was revered here, but with the advent of modern basketball, his Hall Of Fame bid was repeatedly denied. Until last May when Buddy, at age 76, was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. That moment came thanks to the relentless lobbying on Buddy's behalf by Harvey Kasoff, the old ball boy, and writers for The Sun and The Evening Sun, particularly Seymour Smith who covered Jeannette's Bullets for The Sun.

His induction was a greatly deserved triumph of the spirit. These people knew he deserved his sport's highest honor. It was only fitting that Buddy got in "in the closing minutes."

The high point of his career came in Baltimore in the 1947-48 season when the Baltimore Bullets beat the New York Knicks in the Eastern semifinals, then finished off the Philadelphia Warriors for the title. New York was the league's premier team. Owned by the great Madison Square Garden promoter and entrepreneur Ned Irish, the Knicks played to huge crowds of over 15,000 even in those days. Irish and his entourage came down by private train car to the 3,000-seat Monroe Street Coliseum to see their boys whip the upstart Bullets before facing the Warriors for the title. But we had Buddy.

In the closing seconds, New York's Carl Braun, who had a high dribbling style, was slowly burning time off the clock, protecting a one-point lead. All of a sudden Buddy lunged across Braun's elongated frame and with those quick hands knocked the ball away, caught up with it and drove in for the winning basket. I can still see, the haze of the cigar smoke framing Buddy's two-hand underhand layup. The place exploded. Ned and his big city boys got back on the train pronto. Baltimore got on the map by beating Philly for the title. Later, our pro football Colts in 1958 and the Earl Weaver's Orioles gave New York our calling card. But it was Buddy and his band of feisty Bullets from the old Monroe Street Coliseum that first put this town into the big leagues.

Tomorrow night we'll review these memories. That's when Buddy Jeannette will be officially honored by the Bullets for his dynamic career and Hall of Fame berth. It seems only right that Buddy -- who lives with his wife, Bonnie, in Nashua, N. H., -- would return to Baltimore for the honors. The Bullets, of course, will move further from Baltimore with the planned construction of a $200 million arena in downtown Washington. It should open about 50 years after the Bullets first world title in 1948.

Paul Baker, a scout for the Washington Bullets, writes from Cockeysville.

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