Paul "The Bear" Hoffman, the only Big Ten basketball player in history to be selected an All-American four straight years and later the rookie enforcer on the 1947-48 Baltimore Bullets championship team, died yesterday morning at GBMC's Gilchrist Center.
Hoffman, 73, had spent two weeks at the hospice after his illness was diagnosed as a malignant brain tumor.
Hoffman, an Indiana native and 1947 graduate of Purdue, was selected by his alma mater in 1998 as one of the Boilermakers' top 12 all-time basketball players.
In 1948, the Basketball Association of America, the precursor of the NBA, named him Rookie of the Year -- the first recipient of the annual award. But it took Hoffman years to remind the league of his honor.
"The presentation took place March 1, 1948, at the old Coliseum on Monroe Street, where the original Bullets played their home games," he recalled in 1994.
"The league commissioner, Maurice Podoloff, was supposed to do the honors, but couldn't make it. Our game announcer, Bill Dyer, was a close friend of the bandleader Sammy Kaye. He figured Kaye's presence at the awards ceremony would sell a few more tickets, and that's how Sammy Kaye presented me with a silver loving cup."
A loving cup hardly seemed an appropriate award for Hoffman, who terrorized rivals with his aggressive, relentless style. Invariably, player-coach Buddy Jeannette assigned the burly, 6-foot-2, 200-pound player to guard the other team's top scorer.
Seymour Smith, former assistant sports editor of The Sun, who ** covered the original Bullets, said yesterday: "When you mention the word competitor, you'd immediately think of Paul Hoffman. He was willing to defend anyone, no matter their height or reputation."
"Paul was a bull on the court," said team owner Jake Embry. "When he had the ball, no one got in his way. He was a big, strong boy who looked like a linebacker."
The pioneer days of pro basketball were a time when physical play was more readily accepted, and Hoffman relished the freedom of throwing his muscular body around with abandon.
"Referees let you get away with a lot more contact back then," Hoffman said. "You could keep a player from driving to the basket.
"I remember the first time I had to defend [Boston Celtics Hall of Famer] Bob Cousy. He was the first to really use the behind-the-back dribble. The first time he did it to me, I was really embarrassed. I felt like my feet were nailed to the floor. I said, 'Cooz, do that again, and I'll throw you in the stands!'
"Well, Cousy did it to me again, and the next time he came downcourt, I body-slammed him real good. Years later, when we were both retired, he'd still remind me about it."
Hoffman almost missed the 1948 championship series because his first wife, Mitzi, frowned on his playing professional basketball and running around in public in short pants.
After Baltimore upset New York in the opening series, Hoffman informed Embry he was leaving the team while it prepared for a second-round match-up against the then Chicago Stags.
When Embry's pleas failed, Podoloff intervened and threatened to blacklist Hoffman from the league unless he reconsidered. Hoffman relented and made the last train to Chicago in time to rejoin the Bullets in the playoffs.
Hoffman chose to sit out the 1949-50 season.
"I asked the owners to raise my salary to $7,500," he said. "They said they couldn't afford it, so I went back to Indiana and made more money as a salesman for Montgomery Ward."
Hoffman returned to the Bullets in 1951 and remained with Baltimore until 1955, when the team went bankrupt and disbanded in November. He finished his pro career that season in Philadelphia. All told, he played 317 games, averaging 10.2 points.
He left a far greater legacy as a high school and college star in Indiana, where he was raised in the small town of Jasper.
Cabby O'Neil, who coached Hoffman at Jasper High from 1939-1943, said: "Until Oscar Robertson came along in Indianapolis, I always considered Paul Hoffman the greatest high school basketball player I ever saw.
"Paul could do more things on the court than any player of his era. He had a great variety of shots when most players were set shooters. He was a great driver and scrambler with a tremendous physique and wonderful reflexes. He loved to play and had as much desire as humanly possible."
At Purdue, Hoffman would go on to countless school records, including a conference mark of 917 points for his collegiate career.
After ending his pro career, he returned to Purdue and served briefly as a baseball coach and assistant basketball coach.
When pro basketball returned to Baltimore in 1963 in the form of the Chicago Zephyrs franchise, Hoffman was named the team's general manager and played a part in reviving the nickname Bullets.