In a League of His Own

SIGNIFICANT events don't always hit you with the impact of a letter from the Internal Revenue Service: They happen so fast that only years later do you begin to realize just how meaningful they were.

I'm not talking about my first balloon-tired bicycle here. I'm talking about (1) the afternoon in 1952 when I auditioned to become the play-by-play announcer of the Boston Celtics, and (2) the day 21 years later when I became the 17th-round pick of the National Basketball Association Cleveland Cavaliers and the 205th player drafted overall.

Undoubtedly the five college stars selected after me were not thrilled when they learned that I was roughly the age of Jack Benny, hadn't touched a basketball in years, and was barely taller than Mickey Rooney.

My first shot at the big league came in 1952, when I was a clerk in the New England News Department of The Christian Science Monitor. A member of the paper's sports staff told me that the Boston Celtics, at that very moment, were holding auditions for a new play-by-play announcer.

It was a little after 2 p.m. when a dubious but benevolent city editor gave me an hour off so that I could go visit the nearby radio station where the tryouts were being held. Even though I ran all the way, I was still late. But with 29 would-be Celtics announcers ahead of me, several candidates were still in line when I got there.

My radio experience at the time consisted of having been the "color man" the previous fall for nine high school football broadcasts over radio station WKOX in Framingham, Mass. WKOX at that time was attacking the air waves with the power of 1000 watts.

I was the last to audition, and I could sense that the producer in charge was not too happy to add me to his list, especially with the dinner hour approaching. I had already exceeded the city editor's one hour of free time by more than 60 minutes, and I kept wondering how Ted Husing and Bill Stern, two premium sports announcers I had admired as a boy, would have conducted themselves.

When my time to audition came, I was ushered into a large studio where there was a movie screen and a projector. Behind me in a glassed-in balcony was Walter Brown, president of the Celtics, and men I assumed to be several club and studio officials. Although I would frequently have lunch with Brown at the Algonquin Club in later years, at that time we had never met.

My only instruction from the man in charge was to sit in the chair provided, talk into the microphone on the table in front of me to get a voice level, and then raise my hand when I was ready for them to run the film and broadcast the action.

It was an outdated film of an old Celtics game against the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers - and there was no beginning to it. The action just appeared on the screen. I was dumbfounded. Worse yet, I didn't know the names of any of the Celtics players, and I knew only world-famous George Mikan on the Lakers.

So for the next three minutes my broadcast consisted mostly of identifying the players of both teams by their numbers. That is, except for Mikan, who gave me a break by scoring so often and by controlling both backboards.

When I finished my play-by-play, the man in charge dispatched me with the obligatory words that everyone dreads. "Don't call us," he said. "We'll call you."

Forty-eight hours later I read in the morning paper that the Celtics had chosen Johnny Most, a New Yorker, to be their play-by-play announcer. I believe the story said that Most had been the unanimous selection of both the Celtics and studio officials.

John, who had once been the No. 2 man to announcer Marty Glickman in New York on both pro football (the Giants) and pro basketball (the Knicks) broadcasts, could talk faster than a machine gun and still be understood.

In fact, Most would later gain a mouthful of fame by losing his dental plate during a 1959 Celtics playoff game and then catching it in mid-air as it was about to fly over a balcony railing at Boston Garden.

Despite a voice that sounded like two cement trucks spinning their wheels in a gravel pit, John had a style that appealed to every Celtics fan from East Port to Block Island. He maintained that sound by consistently ignoring the strongest recommendations of the US Surgeon General. Still, John would be the Voice of the Celtics for 37 years.

In 1973, the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers were still one of the have-not teams in the National Basketball Association. Only once in the Cavaliers' brief history had they ever won more than 30 games.

But they had a clever head coach in Bill Fitch who, while laying the foundation of a team that would eventually win its division title, used humor as a way to keep the fans buying tickets. Baseball's Casey Stengel had done the same thing to keep the pressure off the original NY Mets, while they lost 100 or more games four years in a row.

From covering the NBA on a regular basis, I had come to know Fitch well. So well, in fact, that I could ask him anything (even about rival teams and rival players) and get a straight answer. Bill's only reservation was that I would protect him on the controversial stuff by putting his comments into my own words.

When the 1973 NBA player draft was only a few weeks away, I casually suggested to Fitch that he and I might make a splash on the national wire services if he made me one of the Cavaliers' draft choices.

Fitch, who occasionally liked to tweak the establishment's nose, liked the idea.

On draft day my name did indeed go whizzing over the nation's sports wires as the newest member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In Boston, Celtics Coach Red Auerbach, listening and participating in the draft over an NBA telephone hookup, reportedly spilled Chinese food all over his slacks.

The following week Monitor readers and friends began mailing me newspaper clippings from the Marlboro Enterprise, New York Times, Buffalo Courier-Express, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and other papers.

A woman in Los Angeles wrote a letter saying she was starting a Phil Elderkin Fan Club with membership cards, dues, and a monthly newsletter that I might prefer to write myself. It was signed Ruthanne.

However, the most professional job of investigative reporting was done by the editors of Sports Illustrated, who actually assigned one of their correspondents to interview Fitch.

On May 14, 1973, the following paragraph appeared in the Scorecard section of the magazine:

"Phil Elderkin, a 5ft. 6in. guard from Boston, was the last name submitted by the unfearsome Cleveland Cavaliers on their supplemental list of National Basketball Association draft choices for 1973. Phil Elderkin, it turns out, is the sports editor of The Christian Science Monitor. Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch explained his move. `He was the only guy I could find who didn't have an agent, will play for the 1960 minimum, and will bring his own shoes.' "

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