The Smallest City to ever Host an NBA Game
The City of Negaunee, Michigan, is known as a mining town in the Upper Peninsula, that has turned into winter sports hub with one of the best luge tracks west of the Mississippi River. With a population of just 4,500 people, it seems to be an unlikely place to find an NBA game. But on January 16, 1952, that is exactly what happened. Negaunee, Michigan, became the smallest city to ever host a regular NBA season game.
Of the four major North American professional sports leagues the NBA has always had a reputation for having some of the smallest markets. Seven NBA markets do not have a corresponding NFL, MLB or NHL team. The BAA's merger with the NBL also added several cities like Waterloo, Iowa; Anderson, Indiana; Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Moline, Illinois to the ranks of small towns home to an NBA team. But by 1952 the NBA had done away with much of the smaller markets in the league.
In the 1951-52 season the NBA was struggling. The league had shrank for the 18 teams it had just 2 seasons prior to just 10 teams for that season. Several of the teams that entered the season were on shaky ground. The Western Division was rife with trouble, all 5 teams had serious financial issues and rumors were rampant about their possible relocation. This relocation talk is what spurred the NBA to look into new markets and other ways to attracted new fans.
Starting in 1950, before the leagues contraction, the NBA started hosting games in neutral cities hoping to relocate teams out of Waterloo, Anderson and the ever problematic Denver, Colorado. On January 30, 1950, the Nationals beat the Olympians in Louisville, Kentucky. The NBA would host 7 more games that season in neutral site venues and a few more in Boston, Philadelphia and New York City.
These Neutral site games where intended to try and save some of these teams, of the 8 games played only Nationals, Blackhawks, Olympians and Warriors would survive the next two seasons.
The NBA kept trying even as neutral site games failed to save teams, the following season the NBA scheduled 7 neutral site games. Two of the games being in Milwaukee, which the Blackhawks moved to and became the Hawks. This brings us to the 1951-52 season and the NBA game in Negaunee, Michigan.
The Neutral site games had gained some popularity as had good attendance, this in turn brought in money. But Negaunee is an odd choice, even by 1950s standards. At the time the city had about 6,400 people and nearby Marquette had just 17,000 at the time. Marquette is the logical choice for the game as it is also home to Northern Michigan University, which has a basketball gym. But the city pushed hard for games to be played there, and prior to the season it was announced that the city would host an NBA game between the Milwaukee Hawks and the Baltimore Bullets.
The game was to be played on January 14, 1952, but heavy fog rolled off of Lake Superior and caused travel difficulties for both teams. The Hawks hosted the Pistons the next day and made their way to Negaunee where the Bullets, who had played the Pistons just prior, were waiting for them.
The game was played in the gymnasium of Negaunee High School, which sat about 1,800 fans. The weather was cold that day so fewer than that actually showed up to the game.
Both the Hawks and Bullets entered the game struggling. The Hawks were just 8-27 and the Bullets not much better at 11-22. The game also started out much like you would have expected with a very low scoring affair. After one quarter the Bullets lead the Hawks 18-15 with Baltimore's Don Barksdale having 6 points.
The middle part of the game actually picked up and ended up being rather competitive with the Hawks taking a one point lead into half-time. The third quarter picked up where the 2nd quarter ended and fans enjoyed a fast paced for the era game. it should be noted that neither team was very good defensively. After three the Bullets leading the Hawks 64-61.
The fourth quarter seen the wheels come off the Bullets, like they had so many times during the season, and the Hawks at one point reeled off 10 straight points. The Hawks ended up winning the game 77-71. The 7 points in the 4th quarter was the third fewest in a 4th quarter in NBA history at the time and stood for almost 60 years. the only teams to score fewer than that was the Lakers (1) and Pistons (3) in 1950, a game where the Pistons held the ball the entire quarter and won 19-18.
Baltimore Don Barksdale lead all scorers with 24 points and Dike Eddleman lead the Hawks in scoring with 18. The Hawks had 5 players score in double figures along with Eddleman, they included Don Boven (16 pts), Don Rehfeldt (12 pts), Dick Mehen (10 pts) , and Mel Hutchins (10 pts). In addition to Barksdale, the Bullets had two other players score in double figures thosing being Stan Miasek (14) and Fred Scolari (13). The game also included four time NBA champion Pep Saul and NBA Hall-of-Famer Alex Hannum on the Hawks.
The game, while having some pace to it, was also really ugly. The teams combined for 80 free throws and Hutchings for the Hawks fouled out, along with Barksdale, McNamee, Kudelka, and Hannum for the Bullets. The Hawks struggled from the line shooting 31 of 48 for under 70%, while the Bullets burnt the net hitting 29 of 31 for over 90%.
With no fan fare both teams got onto trains and headed to Moline, Illinois, where they would face each other again the next night. The Hawks won that game too.
While the game was pretty much an economic disaster, it did not deter the NBA from playing neutral site games in small locations for the rest of the 1950s. Cities like Moorhead, MN, Hibbing, MN, Grand Forks, ND, and Sioux City, IA, all hosted NBA games after Negaunee. The NBA did by the mid 1950s start to move to larger cities for neutral site games like Raleigh, Buffalo, Miami, and New Orleans, and this trend continues to this day.
The NBA has not played a regular season game in a city of less than 50,00 since 1962 when Moline hosted the Packers and Knicks. The NBA's preseason games also have not been in a small city since 1988 when Saint George, Utah, hosted a game between the Jazz and Lakers.
The game on January 16, 1952, has been pretty much forgotten by time. If you where to ask people in Negaunee today what their connection to the NBA is, most would answer Mark Ayotte. Ayotte is from the area and is an NBA referee and previously officiated in the WNBA and CBA. There is nothing to remember the game by, and the local papers did not record much of the action. While getting an NBA game was big, it was not that big at the time. The NBA was much smaller than the other 3 American leagues and basketball just wasn't that popular.
The game faded from history as did the Baltimore Bullets, who disbanded after 14 games in the 1954-55 season. The Hawks lasted in Milwaukee until the end of the 1954-55 season before they relocated to St Louis. While in St. Louis they won the franchises only NBA title in 1958, and relocated again in 1968 to Atlanta. Negaunee's fate was much like that of the Bullets and not the Hawks. The city hit hard times in the mid 1950s when the mines closed, and because of the mining operations of the past about half the city is uninhabitable due to a risk of cave in. Still, for one fleeting moment the city was home to an NBA game.