Gory Days

The legs that once pounded the hardwood floors of gyms from Scranton to St. Louis now shuffle along with a painful limp. The lean gut that once sported a cash-stuffed money belt is now beer-soft and bulging. The handsome jutting jaw that once drew many a second glance is now covered with an untamed growth of white whiskers. The country knuckles that once laid a team's general manager out cold on his office floor are now swollen, misshapen, and wrapped in bandages.

The years have done a number on the body of Steve Magula, a 74-year-old former air conditioning repairman now living out a quiet retirement in a shotgun shack in central Plantation. Yet in moments like this -- moments when Magula's mind travels back 40 years in time to relive the days of his greatest glory -- his brown eyes are as bright as ever. There's also a hint of a roguish twinkle that seems to offer much while giving away nothing. The Vagabond King is sizing up another score.

Long before retirement and the descent into what he calls the "black economic cat" of poverty, Magula spent ten years living on the road as coach, manager, promoter, shooting guard, announcer, and money-taker for one of the greatest professional basketball barnstorming teams of all time: the Detroit Vagabond Kings.

The Vagabond Kings were a product of the postwar years, when television was still a novelty and the National Basketball Association had yet to become the financial powerhouse it is today. In those days barnstorming teams filled a demand for live sports action in small towns spread out across the Midwest and South. The highways were crammed with traveling road teams with names such as the Whiskered Wizards, the Donegan Raiders, the Dick Groat All-Stars, and the Harlem Road Kings.

Generally acknowledged as one of the greatest of these basketball teams, the Vagabond Kings featured Bill Spivey at center, Doug Atkins at power forward, and Magula at shooting guard. The team posted a four-year (1948-1952) record of 429 wins and 14 losses. The seven-foot Spivey is on Sports Illustrated's all-time University of Kentucky basketball team. The six-foot-eight, 280-pound Atkins (who had jumped six feet, seven inches for the University of Tennessee track team before taking up basketball) eventually went on to a nine-year career as a defensive end for the Cleveland Browns and a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

For a Pennsylvania miner's son like Magula, the road was a rough-and-tumble world of juke joints and hookers and hustlers and fistfights. It was a world he reveled in and describes in an equally rough and unusual book that he wrote and self-published in 1982 called Before the Big Money.

"Christmas Day, 1952, Wichita, Kansas," he now recounts, sitting in a booth in Denny's, his mind in the past. "We had played the Harlem Road Kings for $3 a ticket in a gym that sat 1000. We were supposed to get half the take, which I figured should have been about $1500. But when I went to collect the money, the promoter handed me a check for $330. I said, 'What are you talking about, $330. Cough it up.' He looked at me and said, 'Go fuck yourself.' There were two satchels crammed full of money just sitting there. So I just started kicking that money all over the room. Before I knew what was happening, there was a gun to my head."

Later that night Magula called the owner of the Vagabond Kings, a Detroit entrepreneur named Cleo King Boring, and explained what had happened. Boring told Magula to take the money and get out of town. There was another game, another gym, another town, waiting down the highway.

There always was. A typical barnstorming tour for the Vagabond Kings was a grueling six-month marathon of nightly games in small-town gyms from Canada to Mexico. A tour normally started in the north and swung south during the winter. There weren't any roadies. The six teammates loaded their own baggage and drove themselves, with four players sharing a Chrysler Imperial touring car and two riding in a smaller car filled with baggage.

"We used to have to drive 300, 400, 500 miles to get to the next town. We'd pile in the car right after the game and hit the road," Magula recalls. "Of course, we usually stopped at a few joints along the way."

Although many of the characters and statistics in Magula's book are verifiably true, there's still a gimmicky quality to the book that makes one wonder whether Magula might be pumping up interest with some of the more outrageous tales. The cover features a crudely drawn machete dripping bright red blood onto a black background over a subhead that screams: "An Exciting, Unorthodox Book About the Blood 'n' Guts of the Barnstormers of Sports, Sex, Sadism, Murder, Love Extraordinary... in Doses and Combinations Least Expected."

The plot line follows the last barnstorming tour of Magula's career, a 1957 mini-tour through the South that was scheduled to begin in Meridian, Mississippi, and to end in Saltillo, Mexico. The tour began with high hopes and ended with the scene to which the machete dripping blood on the book jacket are supposed to refer. Not to give away the ending of the book, but not everybody survives.

"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: [email protected]

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Paul Belden