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It Happened In Jersey...


Six decades before Donald Trump left his impetuous imprint on Atlantic City, a newspaperman named Marvin Riley (right) fired every member of a future Hall of Fame basketball team. The year was 1922, the bootleg liquor flowed freely along the Jersey Shore, and professional basketball was still in its freewheeling wildcat days. The unquestioned class of the hoops universe were the New York Celtics—a team owned by entrepreneur Jim Furey that featured such immortals as Nat Holman, Joe Lapchick, Benny Borgmann, Honey Russell, Barney Sedran and Tom Barlow. In Ferbuary, the Celtics decided to jump from the Metropolitan League (where they were 12–0) to the Eastern League, which promised better competition and fatter revenues.

To do so, the Celtics had to swap uniforms and become the Atlantic City Sandpipers. The owners of the Sandpipers agreed to pay Furey and his players $900 a week, with two-thirds of that amount split between the players. The Celtics/Sandpipers played their home games in an arena at the famous Steel Pier. As expected, they continued rolling over the competition. But to the chagrin of their new owners, the more the team won, the fewer tickets they sold. Apparently, Atlantic City tourists wanted close, exciting games, not blowouts.

After three weeks, just before Christmas, the team was sold to the aforementioned Marvin Riley. Riley’s present to his new team was a salary hit from $900 a week to $400. The players refused to take the paycut. So Riley fired the entire team!

originalcelticsRiley was no basketball neophyte. On the contrary, he was among the individuals who brought the game to the Garden State in 1892. A Trenton newspaper writer, he spent the next quarter-century moonlighting as a highly respected referee—often for a percentage of the gate—and so pocketed as much from officiating games as writing about them.

Riley knew where to dig up local talent. He hired new players for the Sandpipers and announced that he would coach the club himself. After three games (all losses), Riley gave up and the club folded. The Eastern League itself limped through the first two weeks of 1923 before disbanding.

As for the Celtics, they became a barnstorming club after that. Their record for 1922-23—including the stints in the Metropolitan and Eastern Leagues—was 193–11, with one game declared a tie. Furey estimated that his club performed for close to a million people that season—including a crowd of 23,000 in Cleveland. The Celtics would go on to revolutionize team play and bridge the pioneer and modern eras of basketball.


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