For people who love basketball, the old Catholic Youth Center at Jefferson Avenue and Vine Street in Scranton is a time machine portal. It’s a brightly lit, modern arena inside what’s now Lackawanna College’s basketball home. But it still evokes memories of a much-different era.
Clouds of blue cigarette smoke drifted lazily upward from packed houses, further diminishing already-inadequate lighting. On the rock-hard, ankle-killing floor were the Scranton Miners, doing battle — often quite literally — with the Wilkes-Barre Barons, Allentown Jets or some other team from another working-class town in the Eastern League.
Nobody played defense, and it was not unusual for the final score to be in the 130-125 range. Two native Scrantonians who grew up as Miners fans, Syl Sobel and Jay Rosentein, comprehensively captured the athletes, culture and personality of the era in “Boxed Out of the NBA: Remembering the Eastern Professional Basketball League.”
This is no mere reminiscence. It’s a deeply researched, well-documented history of the league that also is timely, in that they were able to interview dozens of the characters, players and impresarios, like recently deceased Miners owner Art Pachter, who made the league not just a minor league alternative to the fledgling NBA but an extraordinary enterprise unto itself.
The quality of the athletes clearly belied the EBL’s status as a minor league. The NBA had only eight teams in the 1950s, so the EBL had dozens of players who could have made an NBA roster in a bigger league. And the EBL didn’t practice the same level of discrimination as the early NBA, which had a widely recognized but unofficial limit of two Black players per roster. That upped the level of play in the EBL, as did the league’s decision not to blackball players who had been implicated in an infamous point-shaving scandal while playing at the University of Kentucky.
They included the great 7-footer Bill Spivey, a Miners star, who was the Shoeless Joe Jackson of basketball. Though included with other players in the NBA ban, Spivey always contended that he was not involved, and no definitive evidence emerged to prove otherwise. And although it’s hard to believe now — the NBA minimum salary this year is $898,310 — many players could make more working full-time day jobs and playing weekends in the EBL, where all games were on Saturdays and Sundays.
Some players eventually did make it to NBA as players, but many more found positions after their playing careers as NBA executives, scouts and coaches. The book has extensive interviews with Syracuse University head coach Jim Boeheim, who was a strong player as a guard for Scranton for several years. He recalls attempting to drive the lane against Wilkes-Barre’s John Postley, the most feared man in the league because of the legend that he had killed a man in prison. According to Boeheim, Postley was the only player that Wilt Chamberlain feared.
The book closes with a “Where Are They Now?” section that is fascinating. The great guard Willie Somerset, for example, had a long career as a pharmacist after his playing days. Spivey built houses around Scranton and then returned to Kentucky, where he became a highly successful businessman.
“Boxed Out of the NBA” not only examines the EBL, but finally gives it the respect that it deserve.
‘Boxed Out of the NBA: Remembering the Eastern Professional Basketball League’
- Authors: Syl Sobel and Jay Rosentein
- Pages: 240
- Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield
- Price: $38
Patrick McKenna has been associate editor of The Times-Tribune since July 1990. He is a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, a role in which he helps to formulate editorial policy. As editorial and op-ed editor, he is responsible for most of The Times-Tribune’s opinion content and the author of most of the newspaper’s editorials. A 1978 graduate of Penn State, Pat started at The Scranton Times in March 1978. He has won multiple statewide awards for editorial writing, and the national WIlliam Allen White Award for Editorial Excellence. Pat is a Scranton native and lives in Clarks Green.