The American Basketball League (1901-02)
Delaware came slowly to basketball. For years the game was caged in YMCA fitness classes and dusky gymnasiums. Most Delawareans had never seen a game of what was popularly known as “indoor football.”
In 1901 Wilmington found itself with a franchise in the fledgling American Basketball League, battling with teams from all the big eastern cities. Games were played once a week in the Pyle Cycle Academy at 10th and Market streets. In the first home game Wilmington slipped behind Chester 6-5 at the end of the 20-minute first half but ground out a 12-10 win. The several hundred fans on hand went home happy but many still weren’t sure what they were watching.
By the third home game, however, 1500 fans cheered the blue and white to their third straight win in the Pyle Academy cage. The League shaved down to five teams and Wilmington was the best of the survivors, emerging on top with a 20-7-1 mark. The attack featured the league’s top scorer in Jack Reynolds who poured in nine points a game. In post-season play Wilmington tangled with Bristol, winner of the National Basketball League, for national supremacy. In two tightly played games the Delawareans lost the United States Championship 39-27 and 30-27.
The next year Wilmington stood in third place with a 14-12 log when the league disbanded with four games to play. Delaware was out of professional basketball but nevermore would basketball be out of Delaware.
The Tri-State Basketball League (1930-31)
The evolution of basketball was a slow, halting process. Play was rough and quality arenas scarce and the game attracted little of the fans’ sporting dollar at the professional level. For years struggling professional leagues peppered the country.
In 1930 the Tri-State Basketball League formed with Wilmington’s Jack McGowan at the helm. The circuit boasted teams in Trenton, Bridgeton, Reading, Germantown, Philadelphia and Wilmington. The Wilmington Chicks were guided by Tommy Barlow, a Trenton native known to his Delaware admirers as “Caveman Tommy.”
McGowan was 34 years by this time and had played for at least ten pro teams on the East since 1912 - many simultaneously. He stood an imposing - for the time - 6’1” and weighed a burly 195 pounds. Caveman Tommy was the highest paid cager in the game for much of the 1920s - pulling down as much as $45 a game. His tenacious defense, rebounding and just enough scoring would earn Barlow admission into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1981. He retired in 1932 after an apparently brutal game in Wilmington.
The early basketball games were hardly fan favorites. The Chicks dumped Reading in their home opener 41-36, but 66 fouls were called in the game. Wilmington scored only eight field goals to Reading’s six as the bulk of the scoring came from the parade to the foul line. In a 24-16 loss to Trenton the next week Barlow’s Blue and Gold scored only three baskets.
McGowan struggled to hold the Tri-State League together as Trenton and Germantown disbanded. When Philadelphia deserted he was able to re-establish the franchise in Chester but when Reading left the Tri-State staggered on with just three teams.
The Chicks jumped to a 5-0 start among the survivors in the second half of the split season and were slated to meet Bridgeton, the winner of the first half, in a 5-game row for the Tri-State Championship. The battle went the full five games with no game decided by more than 6 points. In the final, played before 2200 at the National Guard Armory at 10th & Market, the Chicks built an early 7-point lead and froze the Tri-State title 22-16.
It would be the only Tri-State Championship. The next year the Tri-State League and the Eastern League were absorbed into the American League to become the strongest basketball league in America. The champion Chicks disbanded and most of the players quickly filled rosters in the new league.
The American Basketball League (1931-32)
For two years the Wilmington Cardinals played ignominiously through the Eastern Basketball League. Performing mostly in front of family and friends in the Salesianum School gymnasium, the Cardinals seldom escaped the basement of the professional circuit.
With the consolidation of area pro leagues into the American Basketball League in 1931 the Cardinals were now part of the top basketball league in the country. Assembled by Bill Sweeney, the Cardinals were more than competitive, dribbling to a 5-1 start and even annexing a 30-28 win over legendary Eddie Gottleib’s South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, the SPHAs.
The Cardinals closed out the first half of the 1931-32 season in third place at 8-7 and challenged for the early lead in the second session before settling into third again. But the team was not drawing well and the owners tried local Delaware players to hype the gate. Thus reinforced, the Cardinals lost their final four games which did nothing to inspire attendance.
For the 1932-33 season the Cardinals surrendered their franchise to a strong local five, St. Mary’s. St. Mary’s tried a blend of hired pros and local stars but in the first six games Delawareans Mike McCall and Jack Warner never got off the pine. The discouraged owners discovered they couldn’t compete for high salaried players at this level of ball and professional basketball passed quietly out of Delaware once again.
The American Basketball League (1941-49)
In 1941 Bob Carpenter landed a franchise in the American Basketball League, then the reigning basketball league in America. Carpenter rented the State Armory at 10th and Du Pont streets, hoping to squeeze in 3000 fans. He built bleachers for 2700 and scattered chairs for another 640 around the court. The Blue Bombers also installed the first glass blackboards in Delaware.
The city of Wilmington was ready for the return of professional basketball. Over 1000 fans attended a Blue Bomber drill and scrimmage. A season ticket for 20 Wednesday night home games cost $16; otherwise a general admission ticket was 65 cents.
The Bombers were orchestrated on the court by diminutive ex-New York Celtic coach Barney Sedran. In the home opener Wilmington ran off 17 straight points for a 20-3 lead on their way to drubbing Eddie Gottleib’s defending champion Philadelphia SPHAS 40-24. The Bombers would go on to beat the powerful SPHAS seven straight times, always to the deafening backing of a full Armory house when in Wilmington.
Playing a split season with Philadelphia, Trenton, Washington and New York the 1941-42 Blue Bombers became the first team ever to sweep both halves of the schedule. But with the advent of World War II the government reclaimed the Armory and the undisputed American Basketball League champs were left with no place to play and the franchise was abandoned for a year.
With the revival in 1943-44 the Bombers featured a strong front line of Ben Goldfaden, Ed Smith and Ben Auerbach. Wilmington rolled to a first place finish in the first half before dropping to third the next half to force a playoff. The Blue Bombers dropped the SPHAS yet another time to win the championship again.
In 1944-45 the Bombers started once again as the class of professional basketball, winning eight of their first 11 games. But because of military obligations Wilmington could not put the same team on the court two games in a row. Sedran kept a very fluid roster with captain Moe Frankel the only sure starter from night to night. The depleted Bombers fell to the archrival SPHAS in the first round of the playoffs.
After the war the Bombers constructed their team around Paul Chadick, a Wilmington native who led the Bombers into the playoffs after returning from the Marines. With Chadick’s high scoring the 4th place Blue Bombers played the champion SPHAS tough but lost 69-65 and 75-72 to once again exit post-season play early.
The big games with the SPHAS found Delaware fans hanging from the rafters but the American League began deteriorating into a haven for low priced homegrown talent as other leagues paid more money to players. The Blue Bombers slumped to 15-20 in the 1946-47 season and when they again lost use of the Armory they suspended play. When the American Basketball League went out of business shortly thereafter with the formation of the National Basketball Association and the suspension became permanent.
The Eastern Basketball League (1957-58)
The Wilmington Jets played a brand of basketball befitting their modern name - up-tempo with a 24-second clock that produced scores in the hundreds. Unfortunately for the Jets they were most often on the wrong end of those high scores. The Wilmington entry in the 8-team Eastern Basketball League was a classic “doughnut team” with no one in the middle.
Nearly 1000 saw the return of professional basketball to Delaware after a decade as the Jets romped over Reading 108-96. But the Jets sagged to 2-8 and coach and general manager Jim Donegal stepped aside in favor of Charley Eckman, two-time NBA Coach of Year from the Detroit Pistons. But Eckman stayed only two games declaring, “I couldn’t help this team.”
Dick Koffenberger, a former P.S. du Pont High school star and designated “local” reserve on the Jets,took over the reigns to finish the season. The Jets got consistent 20-point scoring from Gerry Paulson and Kurt Englebert but could only struggle to the end of the regular season 6-22. Attendance had cascaded to barely 300 a game as the Jets played out the string. The owners vowed to keep the franchise in Delaware but the 1958-59 season opened with the Jets in Allentown.
The Eastern Basketball League (1963-1971)
In 1963 eleven local investors brought Wilmington back into the Eastern Basketball League, then in its sixteenth year of play. The EBL played on Saturdays and Sundays and fans could glimpse an occasional preview of a future NBA star or catch the odd Hall-of-Famer, like Paul Arizin, winding down a basketball career with the Camden Bullets. But what the fan got mostly from the EBL was fast-paced entertainment - a high-voltage NBA All-Star type style of ball that typically produced team scores in the 120s.
In 1966-67, for example, 11 Eastern Leaguers averaged more than 27 points. The local draw for the new Wilmington Blue Bombers was 6’6” Nate Cloud, a Conrad High School All-Stater and the best player yet to come out of the University of Delaware. Cloud scored 1187 points in his 62 Blue Hen games and was named MVP of the Middle Atlantic Conference in 1962. He failed to make the NBA after being drafted in the 4th round by the New York Knicks and became the first Blue Bomber signee. He would stay more than six years, enjoying his best season in 1967-68 when he averaged a little better than eight points a game.
Also on that inaugural Bomber team was Waite Bellamy, a sharpshooter from Florida A & M who would lead the Bombers in scoring for much of their existence, 6’9” All-American Paul Hogue of Cincinnati and guard Raymond Flynn who would go on to be mayor of Boston. Al Severance, retired from 25 years at Villanova, was tabbed as first Bomber coach but his collegiate style did not translate easily into the EBL and he was deposed after a 7-21 last place finish.
Playing in the Salesianum gym at 18th and Broom streets Bomber crowds averaged about 1400. In the off-season the Bombers drafted John Thompson and Willis Reed, neither of whom would ever suit up in Wilmington. Future coaches Jim Lynam and George Raveling failed to make the Blue Bombers. A more important off-season addition was Neil Johnston who took over coaching duties. The Blue Bombers were slow to adapt to Johnston’s methods and stumbled to an 0-5 start. But by the end of the season the Bombers were the best team in the league as they fell just short of the playoffs.
The strong 1964-65 finish was a prelude to a championship season in the Blue Bombers’ third year. Under Johnston Wilmington won 16 of its final 20 games to tie for the league title in 1965-66. The fans responded to the Bomber stretch run with five straight crowds of over 2000 and for the playoffs there were turn-away crowds at the Salesianum gym.
In their first playoff series the Bombers dumped the Trenton Colonials two games to one behind the three-point bombs of Fred Crawford who tallied 36 in each of the last two games. The finals against Wilkes-Barre also went a full three games with the Bombers erasing a 43-30 second period deficit in the rubber game to win 114-104 before a standing room home crowd of 2417. Waite Bellamy pumped in 21 to lead five Bombers with 17 or more. After the championship season Johnston moved on and left the team to his hand-picked successor, forward Barney Cable.
In 1966-67 the Blue Bombers put their finest team ever on the court. Crawford and Bellamy were deadly marksmen and future NBA star Bobby Weiss orchestrated the attack from point guard. With Weiss commanding a blistering fast break the Bombers several times scored more than 150 points and routinely put eight players in double figures. Weiss set an EBL record with 24 assists in one game. Wilmington easily captured the Eastern Division flag with a 21-7 record. But before the season closed the Bombers sold Weiss to the Philadelphia 76ers and Crawford to the Knicks.
With two stars gone for the playoffs Bellamy stepped up his game. In the opening rounds he led Bomber blitzes of New Haven 136-119 and 155-130 and of Hartford 141-117 and 155-138. In the finals against the Scranton Miners Bellamy reached an all-time Bomber single game high of 46 in a 119-116 win. Wilmington finally lost a playoff game in a 149-142 loss at Scranton and the teams exchanged home wins before the deciding game in Wilmington. The Bombers won the title by crushing the Miners 143-100 as Bellamy went for 53 points and added 11 rebounds. He finished the nine playoff games with 330 points.
But the Bombers great success on the court was not matched by enthusiasm at the box office. Crowds of 2000 became as rare as a charging foul in the Sallies gym. Attendance at Blue Bombers games was reduced to a wildly partisan core of about 1000. Only 517 were on hand for the first 1966-67 playoff game and despite their great title run only 1217 turned out for the final game. In 1967-68 the Bombers won their first 13 home games, often to crowds as small as 600.
In 1968-69 the Bombers once again went to the finals but off court needed to initiate a ticket drive to stay in Wilmington. Bomber attendance continued to dive in 1969-70 despite charging only $2.50, scarcely more than a high school game. Sunday games were switched to afternoons as Wilmington again went to the league finals before losing. By 1970-71 the financial situation had become dire for Bomber management.
General Manager Joe Horwitz moved the franchise to a new gym at St. Mark’s High School in search of new fans. In a desperate attempt to pare the league’s highest payroll - at $100 to $200 per game - he asked Bellamy, Maurice McHartley and John Savage to accept pay cuts. When they refused Horwitz had no choice but to drop his three stars. He dressed only eight players instead of the normal 12, including player-coach Frank Corace.
The three players eventually returned but the Bombers were rife with dissension by this time. Players wouldn’t speak to each other or ride in the same car to away games. Wilmington still sported the best talent in the league but the players didn’t care and the once-proud Blue Bombers crumbled to last place at 11-17. The last game was played before only 225 diehards.
It was the final season for the Blue Bombers. Horwitz claimed losses of over $100,000 and bemoaned the lack of corporate support for his team, calling Wilmington “almost like a bush town” as he left. The same certainly couldn’t be said of his Blue Bombers who amassed two championships and four trips to the EBL finals in their 8-year run.
From beginning to end there was always Bellamy. Number 9 rising up on the left side to swish another jumper. In eight years with the Blue Bombers Waite Bellamy scored more than 4500 points, always among the league leaders.
A 6’4”, 200-pound guard, Bellamy was drafted in 1963 by the St. Louis Hawks. He hobbled through summer camp trying to hide a broken foot but the injury finally sidelined him and he was forgotten by the NBA. Bellamy worked out a deal with Scranton of the EBL but before he could play a game for the Miners he was shanghaied by Bill Kauffman who was organizing a new team in Wilmington.
Bellamy spent his early years with the Blue Bombers as an instant-offense sixth man. He averaged nearly 40 points per game in the 1966-67 playoffs. The next year he finished third in the league in scoring and in 1969-70 he won his only scoring title with 29.6 points per game. That year Bellamy was the Eastern League Most Valuable Player.
Still, the NBA did not come calling. While Bellamy watched other teammates - including Bobby Weiss, Fred Crawford, Jim Caldwell, Tom Hoover, Maurice McHartley and George Sutor - graduate to the major leagues he continued to make the weekend drives to Hartford and Binghamton while teaching school during the week. Perhaps he was a step slow but mostly he was never in the right place at the right time.
Instead he remained in the bushes lighting up the tiny gyms in the Eastern League and building an indelible legacy in Wilmington. So much so that the memory of the Blue Bombers and Waite Bellamy are inseparable.
The Atlantic Basketball Association (1993-1994)
Weekend professional basketball games returned to Delaware after a two-decade hiatus in 1993. The new Delaware Blue Bombers were the inspiration of coach and owner Scott Barker and his wife and general manager Carolyn. The team consisted of players ranging from recent college graduates to 35-year old career re-treads, many cut from Continental Basketball Association camps. Recruits were paid $50 to $100 for each game on the 30-game Blue Bomber schedule.
The Bombers opened before 1300 at Newark High School, an attendance which quickly settled in around 500. Like their ancestors the new Blue Bombers played a fast-paced open floor game. Delaware featured a strong 3-guard offense who combined for 64 points per game. Two of the backcourtmen, Tee Jay Jackson and Donnie Seale, became league All-Stars, along with forward Anthony Tucker. Seale, out of North Carolina State, was the league’s second-leading scorer with 28 points per outing.
Delaware completed the regular season with a 12-15 record, winning their final six home games to finish 4th and make the playoffs. Their first season was extended only briefly, however, as the Blue Bombers were bounced by Allentown in the double elimination tournament in two games.
Lou Moser is the only Delawarean ever to be on the court in an NCAA Mens National championship game. The veteran official worked the 1981 showdown between Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tarheels and Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. It was the biggest of more than 1,500 games officiated in a career spanning more than three decades.
Moser was born in Philadelphia but came to Wilmington at the age of 5. He played basketball at P.S. du Pont High School, West Chester State College and Goldey College but began his officiating career as a local baseball umpire. As a basketball referee he graduated from Delaware CYO leagues to the college level while juggling his career in a newspaper circulation department.
Moser got NBA assignments as a fill-in in 1967 and worked 4 1/2 years at the professional level in both the NBA and the old American Basketball Association. Moser was a regular official in the rabid Atlantic Coast Conference for 19 years, building a reputation that culminated in his selection as an official for the 1981 Final Four at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
Delaware Basketball Players
Ed Koffenberger. After his senior year at Duke University in 1947 Ed Koffenberger, a former P.S. duPont cager, was named to the Helms Foundation’s Basketball All-America first team. No Delawarean before or since has ever been a first-team All-American in basketball.
The 6’3” center, known for his sweeping left hook, set an all-time school record for scoring in 1946 with 317 points. The next year Koffenberger led the Conference - then known as the Southern Conference - in scoring with another record 416 points. He paced the league in rebounding as well.
In addition to his recognition as a basketball player Koffenberger was cited as an All-American in lacrosse as well, After graduation Koffenberger forsook his career as a DuPont engineer for a brief professional dalliance with the Richmond Barons. He led the Barons in scoring but shortly returned to Delaware and his engineering profession.
Terence Stansbury. On October 31, 1984 when Terence Stansbury came off the bench to score four points in a 101-100 Indiana Pacer loss to the Dallas Mavericks it was the first time a Delawarean ever scored a point in the NBA. Stansbury grew up in Wilmington, honing his game in the West Center City Community Center. His silky outside shot earned him games with older players despite his lack of size. He moved to California for a year when he was 16 and when he came back to Delaware he had sprouted to 6’3” on his way to 6’5”.
During his senior year at Newark High School Stansbury led the state in scoring with more than 26 a game and was named Player of the Year. Temple won the recruiting battle for the talented guard with a 43” vertical leap and he went on to become the Owls’ all-time leading scorer with 1,811 points. In his final two seasons with Temple Stansbury missed only seven minutes of playing time.
Stansbury became the only first-round NBA draft pick from Delware when he was selected by the Dallas Mavericks as the 15th player in the 1984 draft. However, he embarked on a disastrous salary holdout on the advice of his agent. After nine days he fired his agent and signed on his own. But the damage was done. Already seriously behind in his workouts Stansbury was shipped to the Indiana Pacers before his rookie season began.
Stansbury got enough floor time to average 7.1 points but gained his greatest fame when he slammed his way to a third place finish in the All-Star Game Dunk Contest with his immortal Statue of Liberty dunk. Stansbury began 1985 as a starter but nagging injuries and inconsistent play relegated him to the end of the bench by season’s end.
After a short stop in Seattle Stansbury took his explosive talent to Europe where he developed into a continental star playing for Holland and Belgium. He joined a professional team in France where he became a national sports hero, scoring more than 25 points a game and beloved for his acrobatic “smashes” - the French term for dunks. Stansbury married a Parisian woman and settled into the cosmopolitan lifestyle - the great potential he first displayed in Delaware finally realized.
A.J. English. A.J. English was a two-time All-Stater at Howard High School and the 1986 Delaware Player of the Year. He matriculated at Division II power Virginia Union where he performed well enough (33.8 ppg and 7.4 rpg) to be named to an Olympic-sponsored team that toured China. He was the only small college player in the elite group. The 6’4 1/2” guard used the international recognition as a springboard into the NBA, playing two years as a part-time starter for the Washington Bullets. English averaged nearly 10 points a game and scored a career high 31 but after the Bullets failed to meet his salary demands before the 1993 season he too resumed his career in Europe.
Dexter Boney. Dexter Boney’s #24 was the first number retired at Brandywine High School and it could not have been much of a decision. The 6’4” scoring machine was first-team All-State three years with the Bulldogs and was Delaware Player of the Year in 1988 after pouring in 30.3 points per game and pulling down 10 rebounds. Boney was the first high schooler to score over 2,000 points in a career, finishing with 2,318 and eclipsing the previous standard of 1,821 established by Wes Townsend of Selbyville.
Boney’s college ball started at Hagerstown Junior College in Maryland where he averaged 31.6 points as a sophomore. He moved up to Division I at the University of Nevada Las Vegas where he scored 11.2 points per game in his two seasons.
Boney started his professional career in the Continental Basketball Association and in 1997 he was the league’s Most Valuable Player with the Florida Beach Dogs which earned him an eight-game audition with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. He scored 19 points and earned a second 10-day contract before being waived and embarking on a professional playing odyssey that took him to Italy, Alaska, Israel, Venezuala, France and North Dakota.
Monick Foote. Monick Foote left the court at Sanford School in 1994 as the most honored basketball player in state history. There were three first-team All-State nods and two Gatorade State Player of the Year awards. After leading the Warriors to the school’s first-ever state championship and collecting a Delaware record 1,609 points Foote was also named Gatorade National Player of the Year. At the University of Virginia Foote finished her career as the Cavaliers’ 14th all-time scorer. She was a 35.3% shooter from three-point range and her seven treys in the NCAA tournament against Florida in 1995 remains a school record.
Laron Profit. A native of the South Carolina Lowcountry, Laron Profit was part of an Air Force Family and his stepfather landed at Dover Air Force Base long enough for him to star at Caesar Rodney High School and be named Gatorade Player of the Year in 1995. It was then off to the University of Maryland where the 6’5” Profit wound up his four-year career as the Terrapins’ 10th all-time leading scorer and second all-time ball hawk with 252 steals. The two-time honarble mention All-American was the 38th player taken in the 1999 NBA Daft, by the Orlando Magic. Profit carved out a three-year NBA career, starting 18 games and scoring 441 points. His professional career spanned eleven years with stops in Turkey, Argentina and China before returning to the NBA as an assistant coach with the Magic.
The Best Basketball Player Ever To Play In Delaware
Walter Davis came from North Carolina to the Sanford School in 1973-74 to polish his academic skills for a year before entering the University of North Carolina. Davis had already completed four years of high school at South Mecklenburg High School where he played on two consecutive North Carolina state championship teams.
Recruited by Sanford coach Don Frazier - who had ties to the Tarheel State - the 6’6” Davis simply overwhelmed his Independent Conference opponents. He scored 603 points in the Warriors’ perfect 19-0 season and could easily have poured in another several hundred had he been so inclined. As it was Davis averaged more than ten assists.
That Davis was the best player to ever step onto a Delaware high school basketball court was obvious. Still, many coaches opposed his nomination to the All-State team. Even though Davis was only 18 years old he was declared ineligible for the state tournament as a fifth-year player and many reasoned he should be excluded for post-season honors as well. In the end his 31.7 scoring average could not be ignored and Davis was named to the 1973 Delaware All-State basketball team.
Walter Davis was on a journey to the highest echelons of basketball. He starred under Dean Smith at North Carolina, won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, was the NBA Rookie of the Year and a long-time All-Star. And the best schoolboy basketball player ever to play in Delaware.