Thursday, November 3, 2011

Summer Dreams

It seems like an incongruous setting, but the Catskills resorts in upstate New York were the epicenter of summer hoops in the mid-20th century.

Hotels, wanting to provide their guests with top-flight entertainment, recruited pro, college and high school players for outdoor games. Well-paying bellhop jobs were given to stars like Bob Cousy (Tamarack Lodge) and George Mikan (Klein’s Hillside).

Spectators often bet on the games, creating an environment that helped foster the gambling scandals that almost brought college basketball to its knees in the early 1950s.

The Catskills also provided the stage for Wilt Chamberlain to go from regional curiosity to national sensation.

Haskell Cohen, the legendary PR man for the young NBA, helped Chamberlain get a gig at Kutsher’s Country Club in 1953 when the 7-footer was between his junior and senior years at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia. The forward-thinking Cohen likely saw Chamberlain as key figure in the growth of basketball, so it was smart to make inroads early.

Kutsher’s, another client of Cohen, had an established basketball tradition. Owner Milt Kutsher had scored a coup when a frequent lodger recommended his son to coach the hotel’s team. Red Auerbach didn’t have much to do after the Washington Capitals folded in 1949, so he agreed to help out at Kutsher’s and stayed on after he joined the Boston Celtics in 1950.

Imagine Auerbach’s salivation when the coach first laid eyes on the lanky and lithe teenage Chamberlain.

Auerbach pushed Chamberlain hard that summer. The biggest challenge came against Shawanga Lodge, which had the best counter-force for Chamberlain with post player B.H. Born.

Born had played a small role on the Kansas Jayhawks’ 1951-’52 national champions and was about to be an All-American in 1953-’54. Auerbach told Chamberlain that there was no way the youngster could handle the crafty Born.

Details are sketchy, but by all accounts, Chamberlain dominated Born. Writing for Sports Illustrated in 1965, the never-to-be-trusted-with-numbers Chamberlain recounted that at halftime he had 30 points and Born only two. Legend later had it that Born decided to forgo a professional career because he had been humiliated by a high school kid.

Regardless, it was clear to everyone that Chamberlain was the future of basketball. Auerbach tried to persuade the youngster to enroll at Harvard so the Celtics could get Chamberlain’s territorial rights. Eddie Gottlieb of the Philadelphia Warriors got word of Auerbach’s machinations and made sure that the hometown phenom didn’t end up playing with Cousy in Boston.

Born also spread the legend of Chamberlain, telling Kansas coach Phog Allen that Wilt would look good in a Jayhawks jersey.
Chamberlain indeed wound up at Kansas, and Gottlieb managed to keep Chamberlain’s territorial rights with the Philadelphia Warriors.

Even after he ascended to basketball stardom, Chamberlain kept close ties to Kutsher’s Resort. He was tight with Milt Kutsher, always coming back to the Catskills for a summer vacation or to play in charity games. They remained friends until the hotelier died in 1998.