The Trentons of 1896-97.
|1900: Basketball's first dynasty|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
| Professional basketball entered the 20th century a brand-new, bruising sport with a band of five men from Trenton as the nation's reigning champions.
Known simply as the Trentons, this local team became the first true dynasty in basketball -- capping their historic run by winning two straight titles in 1899 and 1900 in a newly created pro hoops league.
|The Trentons did it with an undersized, all-white cast of athletes who would today look like runts, but who inspired cheers and excited praise from their own fans.
The starting five averaged 5-foot-10, 161 pounds. Needless to say, there was no dunking. No one even took a jump shot.
It was a game that saw lots of passing, the occasional set shot, and -- since referees only called fouls on blatant shoves and punches -- plenty of football-like scrimmages that left blood smearing the creaky gym floors.
Typical scores were 20-14 and 11-7. When the home team managed to score 50 points in a game, a headline shouted: "Half a hundred points scored by Trentons."
Forward Al Cooper was the star with a then-sensational nine points per game. His brother, Fred, was coach. Harry Stout, another forward, was the team's No. 2 scorer; Gus Endebrock, the 5-foot-9 center, was a top rebounder. And the aptly named guard, Chris Stinger, would knock opponents flat on their backs for the ball.
To today's fans, the Trentons look like what they were — a team from a bygone era.
"It was real rudimentary stuff," said Robert Peterson, author of the book, "Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years."
"I imagine junior-high teams from today could play on the same level. But in their day, it was quite exciting — and Trenton did have rabid fans."
Hoops fever was contagious in Trenton almost from the moment James Naismith invented basketball in 1890 in Springfield, Mass. YMCAs, especially in the Philadelphia-New York City corridor, eagerly adopted it as something to do in the otherwise dead winter.
On Nov. 7, 1896, the Trenton YMCA team became the first basketball players to go out on their own and turn professional.
Clad in distinctive uniforms — red, sleeveless shirts, black padded knickers, wool stockings and high-top gym shoes — the Trentons won their first game against the Brooklyn Y, 16-1.
The downtown Masonic Temple hosted the historic event by converting its third-floor banquet hall into a home court. By this time, the peach baskets used by Naismith's first basketballers had given way to portable hoops with cloth netting. But the balls themselves were lumpy, leathery, pumpkin-sized spheres. And the nets had no hole at the bottom — so after every score, an official had to poke the ball out of the net with a long pole.
The court was also ringed by something new to basketball — a 12-foot, chain-link "cage" separating players from fans.
"The Trentons had conceived the idea that a cage would make the game faster by stopping all out-of-bounds delays," wrote Marvin Riley, the referee at that historic game. "That cage was an object of both interest and sarcasm for a long time. It was called 'Trenton's monkey cage.'"
By the 1920s, the cage had been phased out of the game. Still, headline writers fell in love with the word as a synonym for basketball, and players are sometimes still called "cagers."
When introduced, the cage made pro basketball a rough sport as players engaged in hockey-style body checks against the wire. Frenzied fans would stick hatpins and lit cigars through the cage and into opposing player's flesh.
Violence was common between players, too. Bill Himmelman, who lives in Bergen County and is the NBA's official historian, said he heard all sorts of bruising tales when he began a project of interviewing turn-of-the-century players.
"It was an absolute sin to allow an opponent to score a layup," Himmelman said. "The way it worked was this: if a guy got past you to score, you would lay into him and send him to the floor. If he did it a second time, you would use what we'd today a call a karate chop to his nose. With this going on, every player had a broken nose."
In this physical type of game, Trenton excelled. Their players had the muscle to take on other teams' bruisers, but Al Cooper and the team's first captain, Al Bratton, also had devised a snappy strategy of short passing that sports writers of the time called "clever" and "dazzling."
"Through the efforts of Cooper and Bratton, basketball was rescued from its chaotic condition and transformed into a system," Riley remembered.
Trenton had a 19-1 record in 1896-97 and earned the unofficial national championship. They had another strong season in 1897-98 as other YMCA teams — once strict amateurs — began going semipro, too, and challenging Trenton for basketball supremacy.
Hoping to make a buck on the growing fan interest, sports promoters organized the National Basketball League in 1898.
Despite its name, there was nothing "national" about it; no team was more than 70 miles from another. Franchises included Trenton, Camden, Millville, Germantown, Pa., and two teams in Philadelphia. Players earned perhaps $12 a game and considered basketball a second job; Al Cooper, the game's top star, labored at a Trenton pottery.
Despite the league's limited size, Trenton was recognized as the class of basketball, easily capturing the first NBL crown with an 18-2-1 record. (Games could end in ties back then, since there was no overtime).
The next season, in 1899-1900, was Trenton's true test. For one thing, a talented New York City team was admitted to the league.
For another, the season was split into two halves — so even though Trenton finished with an 8-0 record in the first half, easily finishing first, they had a tough battle against Millville for the second-half honors. Millville's homegrown players — who called themselves the "Glass Blowers" — tied Trenton with a 16-6 record in the second half.
League officials decided to hold a best-of-three tiebreaker on neutral ground. Should Millville win, they would be second-half champions, and force another round of playoffs. But if Trenton won the tiebreaker, the Capital City would capture both halves of the season and win the championship outright.
The tiebreak series teemed with ugliness and controversy. In the first game, on April 29, 1900, at Bristol, Pa., Millville took a bruising 18-13 win. "It was rough house, and hold and kick, kick, kick," complained a Trenton True American sportswriter. "It was not a basketball game in any sense of the word."
The gloomy Trenton players were serenaded with a funeral march as they took the train back to Trenton. But they were to make a remarkable, if tainted, comeback.
In the second game, on May 5 in Camden, Trenton protested Millville's use of a player who had illegally jumped from another team. Millville refused to take the player off their roster, so a referee awarded Trenton the game by forfeit.
The third and deciding game in Camden on May 8 was finally played fair and square. Trenton won it, 22-19, on last-minute baskets by Endebrock and Stout, and Trenton's fans went wild.
Trenton continued to produce great players in the first decade of the 1900s, including scoring champ Harry Hough and "Dutch" Wohlfarth, who earned the nickname "The Blind Dribbler" for his then-remarkable ability to dribble the ball without looking at it.
But Trenton would never again win a championship in the NBL, which, broke and riven by disputes, folded in 1903.
However, the city did boast a series of basketball franchises in other leagues that lasted until World War II.
For modern fans, the history of pro basketball begins with the NBA, Himmelman said. However, Himmelman is trying to change that with a campaign to induct the Cooper brothers, along with Hough, into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
"These guys don't have the name recognition of Larry Bird or Michael Jordan," Himmelman said. "But in their own day, they were as important, or even more so, to the game of professional basketball."
|The first basketball "cage" was in Trenton's Masonic Temple.|
|A lumpy game ball from the early 20th century.|