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Hard Court Heroes and Smoke-Filled Gyms

The early days of New York sport are something of quiet passion of mine, from the Polo Grounds of John J. "Muggsy" McGraw before the first World War up through the post-war golden era. That's a half century that helped to define what New York is now, and what it always will be: a great metropolis and center of urban culture. Like music and art and finance, New York sports did not merely grow with the times - they helped the modern passion of New York burst into existence.

Two things stand out about that half century of competition: the sheer exuberance and the scale. The money was smaller, to be sure, but the competition itself was grander. There were times when you might guarantee that every ear nuzzled a radio speaker for a prize fight or a World Series game; it was an era when a pile of daily newspapers sent scores of sports writers into the field to capture the action. I've been reading No Cheering in the Press Box, Jerome Holzman's canonical 1973 work of oral history on that golden era and it's just a fantastic window into sports history, particularly the dominant New York culture. And while it's easy to erect a sentimental gauzy barrier and squint through its occluded viewfinder at the vanished age of flannels and afternoon baseball, Holzman's  history - compiled just before most of its subjects died - does contain an appealingly gruff and honest view of wonderful times. Everyone it seems, from Babe Ruth to the highest-paid writers of the day, lived closer to the ground.

And yes, they played for money in those days; Ruth and DiMaggio were famous hold-outs. But that exuberance was clearly there - they played because it was what they did, what they were good at, what they were obsessed with. And indeed, outside of baseball and prize-fighting, there were ranks of professional athletes of that golden era who had to be content with small change and a little glory. So when Carl Braun's widow says “he loved the game and he would have paid the Knicks to play for them,” you know it rings true.

Braun played professional basketball in New York in an era of wooden floors and wooden seats, in the mid-town Armory and the old Madison Square Garden. He is one of the great Knicks of all time, and still ranks fifth on its scoring sheets for a career, though he compiled his points in a slower, lower-scoring era before the shot clock, the extra step, and the three-point line.

Carl Braun was also the father-in-law of my buddy Scott Williams, a huge sports fan and long-suffering Mets denizen, so I paid some extra attention to some of the obits today and was struck at how today's super-corporate MSG culture (and frankly, its losing ways) stand in stark contrast to Braun's career. Straight outta Brooklyn and Garden City, Braun was a scoring machine who finished his career as player-coach in the late 50s with the Knicks, before adding valuable minutes to the Celtics' championship in 1961, his final season. He was a five-time all-star and one of the fledgling league's starts; just as importantly, he was a homegrown hero.

Yet the name Carl Braun doesn't live in Knicks history like the names on the 69-70 squad. Blame it on management. As Peter Vescey noted in today's Post, guys like Braun - and their below-the-rim era - are underappreciated in the extreme: "Braun, who scored more than 10,000 points in his NBA career, was seemingly unappreciated by his hometown team (his No. 4 does not hang from the Garden rafters)."

Here's saying it should.
Tags: Sports

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