Gory Days

In the time before million-dollar contracts, athletes earned their money the hard way. Just ask basketball barnstormer Steve Magula.

"A lot of people don't believe it," says George Hall, one of Magula's teammates on the 1957 mini-tour and now a retired tire-company executive living in Gadsden, Alabama. As well they might not; factually speaking, the story is filled with holes and details that don't check out. To give one minor example, the book mentions at one point -- but doesn't actually describe -- a border-crossing by Magula and Hall from Mexico to the States. Asked how the crossing occurred, Magula says the two men swam the Rio Grande; Hall says they drove through a checkpoint in a Chrysler at four in the morning. "Did I tell you that George Hall has had two strokes? One of them was just two months ago," the Vagabond King says when questioned about conflicting depictions of the trip, a hint of anxiety in his voice.

Then there's the fact that, although Magula maintains the book was published by a reputable publishing company that has since gone out of business, the publisher's address listed on the title page is Magula's home address. Still, even if Magula has dramatized the information somewhat, the book is a great read. And maybe a little hustling is to be expected in a book that describes a world filled to the brim with hustlers and con artists of one kind or another.

In the jockeying for bookings and paying audiences, barnstorming promoters were constantly dreaming up ever more outlandish gimmicks. There was the House of David, a team whose every player sported a Hasidic beard, ZZ Top-style. There were the "All-American Indians," a team of white men who played a series of games on a Montana reservation as the home team; the "Indians" wore feathered headdresses and played with their faces slathered with war paint.

In the book Magula tells at one point how the star attraction of the 1957 mini-tour, a famed college shot-artist of the time named Clarence "Bevo" Francis, quit the team at the last minute. It looked like the tour would have to fold and with it Magula's chance to make some money. Magula came up with a solution that saved the tour: "'Everyone's ass is in a crack -- right? We have to get another Bevo!... I'll call the sportswriter of the Birmingham News. He'll know all the athletes around. It's a million-to-one shot, but what the hell, it's better than what we have now. Hell -- I don't have ten cents to my name -- a family to feed and no other job -- we have got to try it for all of our sakes. For the promoters who have money tied up, and for the fans, and for us.' I was reaching for tattered strings with all I had and [my partner] knew it. You couldn't bullshit an old pro like him."

They did find another Bevo, and the scam did work -- for one game. In the second game, played in Jackson, Mississippi, it turned out that somebody in the crowd had seen the real Bevo Francis play, and the game ended in a near riot. Until that point, though, it had been a damn good show.

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address: Paul_Belden@newtimesbpb.com

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