Jeannette and better, cheaper times in sports

January 19, 1995|By BILL TANTON

The biggest change in sports over the last 30 or 40 years is the money. Even $1 million doesn't mean that much anymore.

It must not.

Pete Angelos offers $200 million for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. zTC That's not enough so he ups it to $205 mill. Then $206 mill. And he still doesn't get the team.

A million or two here and there? What's the big deal?

St. Louis throws millions at Georgia Rosenbloom Frontiere, an unsuccessful NFL owner, and gives her a sweetheart deal that will change her Rams' bottom line from an annual $6 million loss to a $20 million profit.

A million bucks? Hey, Michael Jordan earned $30 million last year and didn't even play basketball.

Dennis Rodman misses a practice and he's fined $15,000.

Tomorrow night at the Arena there will be a gathering of basketball people who view today's sports world almost with disgust.

Halftime ceremonies at the Washington Bullets-Philadelphia 76ers game will honor Buddy Jeannette, onetime Baltimore Bullets coach and player who entered the Basketball Hall of Fame last year.

Before the game many of Jeannette's old teammates and friends will gather at a reception. Among these is Jake Embry, who owned the Bullets in 1948, when they won the championship of the Basketball Association of America, forerunner of today's NBA.

In those days, even a little bit of money meant a lot. A million dollars was unthinkable.

Well past that time, in 1964, the Bullets were sold for $1.1 million -- then a record price -- to Arnold Heft, Earl Foreman and Abe Pollin, who is still the owner.

Embry, still razor sharp as he turns 86, shakes his head in disbelief at today's numbers.

"When they fined this Rodman $15,000 for missing one practice," says Embry, "it reminded me that I signed Buddy Jeannette as coach and star player of the Bullets for $12,000 for the year.

"The other owners, including Ned Irish of the Knicks, told me I was crazy to pay anybody that much. They said I was going to ruin it for everybody, throwing money around like that."

Jake Embry could write a history of professional sports in this town.

Besides owning the Bullets, he was president of the original Baltimore Colts in the All-America Conference. He and Zanvyl Krieger owned the Clippers when the American Hockey League was at its peak.

"It's hard to believe the money these people are spending for teams today," Embry says. "When Bert Bell was commissioner of the NFL in 1950, he gave Abe Watner $50,000 for the whole Colts team.

"We bought the Bullets team from Mickey Behrend and Babe Aspen for $7,500 in 1943. We sold it for $30,000 in 1949 to Joe Rash and about 20 other guys."

When Embry ran the Colts in '48, his highest-paid player was quarterback Charley O'Rourke at $15,000. Most of the others earned $5,000 to $7,000.

"We tied with Buffalo that year," Embry recalls, "and we went up there for a playoff. Lee Artoe on our team was a clubhouse lawyer. He said the players wouldn't play unless they received an extra game's pay.

"Walter Driskill [the general manager] and Cecil Isbell [the coach] called me with Artoe's demands. I told them to tell Artoe the players were signed for the season. Period."

As you might suspect, Baltimore lost that game.

Embry's fondest memories are of the Bullets' championship season in 1947-48 featuring Jeannette and Paul "The Bear" Hoffman (he made $7,500).

That was a breakthrough year for Baltimore, a year in which this town was shaking off its minor-league lethargy -- the Orioles were still in the International League -- and not only playing against the New Yorks and the Bostons and the Philadelphias but beating them.

"I'll never forget the night we played the Knicks here in the playoffs," Embry says, "and Ned Irish brought all the New York press here on a special railroad car. They were certain they were going to eliminate Baltimore that night. The champagne was on ice on that railroad car.

"With two minutes left, New York led by eight points. But Buddy Jeannette stole the ball three times from Carl Braun -- Braun had that high dribble -- and Buddy went down and scored. We won the game and ruined Irish's party."

Just because the Bullets players were paid little does not mean that they were in a nickel-and-dime league.

Some of the greatest players in basketball history (George Mikan, Joe Fulks, Bob Cousy) came to our tiny 3,000-seat Coliseum on Monroe Street. And the crowds loved it.

"I still meet fellows today who are in their 50s and 60s," says Embry, "who say, 'We sure had a lot of fun going to those Bullets games at the Coliseum.' "

That's what big money has done. In the old days, the fans talked about the sport, the players, the games. Nobody talked money.

Now it's all money. How much did Pete Angelos really offer Tampa? Did Robert Schulman's group actually offer more? That is the stuff of sports in the '90s.

Jeannette, now almost 78, was made for a time when the game was thing, not the finances. He has disdain for Dennis Rodman and what he stands for.

"They never had to fine me for missing practice," Jeannette said.

If ever an old basketball warrior deserved a spot in the Hall of Fame, Jeannette does. It will be good to see him walk out -- even with a cane -- on a local floor again.

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