Friday, February 28, 2014


Magicians of the Hardwoods

In their day, the New York Celtics were the Kings of Basketball in America.  Only the Harlem Globetrotters could claim that equal crown.  Not to be confused with the modern day Boston Celtics, the Celtics were a pre-NBA team which called New York home.  In the latter years of the 1930s and 1940s, the Celtics barnstormed across the country playing local and collegiate teams in tiny, rural high school gymnasiums and large, urban arenas.  They rarely lost a game,  playing just good enough for a small, but comfortable, margin of victory. 

Such would be the case when the nationally celebrated septet came to Rentz, Georgia on the  cold, rainy Tuesday night of January 24, 1939.  The fund-raising event was billed as an exciting evening of basketball.  The fans who crammed the tiny wooden gym that night did not come away disappointed.

The first of the three-game slate matched the girls of Rentz High School against their bitter rivals, the lasses from Cadwell, who were out to avenge an earlier season loss to their neighbors to the north.  

The second contest featured "Deacon Holy" Grahl's powerful Cedar Grove quintet match with an equally strong team from Dudley.

The climax of the evening's games featured a 9:00 pairing of the Celtics against the Teachers from South Georgia Teacher's College in Statesboro.  The Teachers, the forerunners of Georgia Southern University, had practically their entire team returning from another successful season under the tutelage of legendary coach, B.L. "Crook" Smith. The "Blue Tide," as the boys from the "Boro" hailed themselves, were no slouch of an opponent for the professional Celtics, who entered the game with 31 consecutive season victories, including a victory over the college team the night before in their own gym in Statesboro.

The "Magicians of the Hardwoods" were regarded as the greatest passers in the game.  They held in their play book a large number of trick plays.  More than comedic and gimmicky players, each of the Celtics were known as dead sure shots from nearly any spot on the court.   

The Celtics were led by player-coach Henry "Dutch" Dehnert, who is generally credited with inventing the pivot play.  The solidly built, tall for his day, Dutchman was a member of the Original Celtics, one of the first two teams to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame.  Considered the game's first big men, Dehnert led the Original Celtics to more than 1900 victories in thirteen seasons.  He left the Celtics after two consecutive league championships in 1927 and 1928 to join the Cleveland team, which won ABL titles in 1929 and 1930.

After leaving the barnstorming Celtics after more than two decades with the team, Dehnert managed another barnstorming team, the Detroit Eagles.  One of his better players was "Press" Maravich," father of the legendary ball-handling great "Pistol Pete" Maravich.  Now you can see where "Pistol Pete's" talent came from.

Dehnert, who was the only member of the team to have played with the "Original Celtics,"  was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969 along with legendary coaches, Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics and Adolph Rupp of the University of Kentucky.

The clown prince of the Celtics was Davy Banks.  Banks had to be funny.  He was the shortest man on the team.   Banks, a 19-year veteran,  was a five-tool player. Laughter, tricks, stunts, speed  and pinpoint shooting were his talents.  Four months after the game at Rentz, Banks became the first player to wear a radio transmitter during a game, humorously broadcasting the action to a clamoring crowd.

One of Banks' patented trick shots came when he received a pass while sitting in a chair along the sideline.  From his seated position, Banks, who was a licensed bookmaker and promoter,  would frequently put his shots in the basket.  When the Celtics were well ahead, especially when their opponents were a local aggregation, Banks would shoot into their basket to cut the safe Celtic lead. 

One of the newer members of the Celtics, Paul Birch, played at Duquesne from 1932 to 1935, helping lead his team to a (51-4) record.  Birch, an off season professional baseballer, played intermittently with the Celtics for a couple of years before signing with the Fort Wayne Pistons.  After enjoyed two world championships with the Pistons, Birch went into coaching, leading the Pittsburgh Iromen  (1946-1947) and Ft. Wayne (1951-1953) in the NBA.  

Rusty Sanders, another newcomer with the Celts, once moonlighted as a prison guard. 

Dan Herlihey, a veteran Celtic and Long Island golf pro, was all business, no humor, just aggressive hustle and deadly accurate shooting.  Bob McDermott, a cage star at Long Island University whose forte' was the long shot,  and Nat Hickey, who managed baseball teams in the off season,  rounded out the veteran dominated lineup. 
At half time of the girls game, arrangements were made with the Celtics to stage a clinic for all of the county's  high school teams.   

Cadwell's girls didn't come close to evening their record with Rentz, which, with 47 points, more than tripled the Cadwell girl's point total of 15.  

Billy Keith, a Dublin High upperclassman covering the game for The Courier Herald, failed to report the outcome of the Dudley-Cedar Grove tilt. 

Sadly, Keith's 87-word scant article simply reported that Celtics, considerably better than the boys from Statesboro, never really opened up.  The Celtics jumped out to an early 10-point lead and kept it that way until the end of the game when Crook Smith's teacher pulled to within seven points to lose 58-51  to the Celtics, who claimed they only lost two games in the South in twenty-five years.
The members of the Celtics played on thousands and thousands of basketball courts around the country during their long and storied careers.  But, it was on that night, that one magical night  seventy- five years ago this week when the New York Celtics charmed a standing room only crowd as they worked their magic on the hardwoods of the Rentz gym. 

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