Legends of the periphery

From time to time, even some of the greatest and most prolific heroes in all of sports fall through the cracks of obscurity and are lost to the world at large. Legends of the Periphery celebrates the best of the best among the forgotten, the bizarre, the esoteric and the obscure.

There’s something enticing, even exciting, about rooting for an underdog. Maybe it’s the fact that no one expects them to prove competitive in the first place, maybe it’s the fact that they represent that rare, unpredictable variable in sporting events. Maybe it’s because deep down, each and every one of us likes to believe that even the meekest of individuals can, given the right circumstance, ascend to the height of greatness and thwart the would be champions. It is for this reason that we pause for a moment to celebrate the 1952/1953 Baltimore Bullets, perhaps the greatest of all underdogs.

In short, the Baltimore Bullets were a professional basketball team that in 1953 qualified for the NBA playoffs despite a 16-54 regular season record. But there’s much more to the story that just that.

Over its entire seven year lifespan, the Baltimore Bullets franchise was a member of the American Basketball League, then later the Basketball Association of America and finally the National Basketball Association. In such a short span of time, it’s the kind of existence that could give fans whiplash.

In 1946, only two seasons removed from the franchise’s creation, the Bullets won the ABL league championship 3-1 against the Philadelphia Sphas. Two years later, in 1948, the Bullets won the BAA championship against the Philadelphia Warriors 4-2. Indeed, these were the glory years for the short lived Baltimore team. In only a few short seasons they would become part of the NBA, a league in which they would fail to qualify for the playoffs in all but one of their six seasons.

The Bullets had already achieved high levels of success in the ABL and the BAA but by the 1950s the makeup of the team itself began to change. To make matters worse, the NBA proved to be a much more competitive league overall. This was caused by the fact that the NBA was formed through the merging of several other basketball leagues without the expansion of teams. In a small amount of time, the talent pool got larger while the playing field got smaller.

The consolidation of league teams meant that some clubs got much stronger. The Bullets, however, got weaker in comparison. In their first season in the NBA the Bullets missed the playoffs with a record of 25-43. In the next four seasons the team consistently lost more than 40 games a year. But in 1953, something magical happened. Something so fantastic, so outrageous that in almost 60 years since, no one team has yet to replicate the feat. The Baltimore Bullets qualified for the playoffs despite losing more than 75 per cent of all regular season games.

How did this happen, you ask?

Since the first year of its existence, the NBA was undergoing a process of consolidation. Within the first three years the number of basketball teams went from 17 to 10. The league was in such dire need of playoff teams that by 1953 there were only two teams in each conference that failed to qualify. In other words, 80 per cent of the league’s teams made the playoffs.
Ordinarily this wouldn’t create a problem. However, in 1953, despite how desperately poor the Baltimore Bullets performed, there was one team that was even worse. Even though the Bullets only won 16 games that year, the Philadelphia Warriors won four less, securing a catastrophic 12-57 regular season record. At one point, the Bullets lost 12 straight games but still managed to stay ahead of the Warriors in the standings.

Not ones to be discouraged in the face of great adversity, the Bullets stood up to the challenge and squared off against the number one team in the Eastern Conference, the New York Knickerbockers. Led by the future Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee, the Bullets took the attack to New York, keeping the score close at all times and making a series out of what most considered to be a formality.

Ultimately, Baltimore lost both games against New York and failed to complete the greatest underdog story of all time. What should be remembered about these 1952/1953 Baltimore Bullets, however, is the fact that they showed up at all.

With a record of 16-54, there was certainly no shortage of media pundits predicting an easy series for the Knickerbockers. In all likelihood, there were probably a fair number of people criticizing the fact that the Baltimore Bullets even got to participate in that year’s NBA postseason.

In the face of all this adversity, what the Baltimore Bullets represent is the smallest glimmer of hope that can exist in even the darkest of places.

Even though they were arguably one of the worst professional teams to step onto the court that year, Bullets guard Dick Bunt still showed up when he was asked to do so. Don Barksdale, George McLeod and Ralph “Buckshot” O’Brien all showed up and played their hearts out as part of the team that, realistically, should never have been invited to the dance in the first place.

The Bullets never got a chance to duplicate their gutsy 1953 postseason effort, as less than two years later the franchise folded without ever again reaching the glorious heights of the NBA playoffs.