Every time New York and Toronto face off during the season, like on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, a piece of special history comes along with the matchup: the Knicks and Toronto Huskies, years before the Raptors, headlined the first game ever in the NBA—then called the BAA (Basketball Association of America)—on Nov. 1, 1946, at Maple Leaf Gardens.
And just last week, Toronto became the first non-U.S. city to host All-Star Weekend, bringing more awareness to the birthplace of the NBA.
Seventy years later, only one person truly understands the significance of those early days of basketball: Gino Sovran, the last surviving member of the two inaugural teams in 1946. He’s now 91 years old living in Troy, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. Aside from having some trouble with stairs and being a bit hard of hearing, he’s managing well living alone since his wife, Kathryn, passed away in 2004.
“It’s amazing to me how fast people talk these days,” he tells the NBPA. “You see it on television and with younger people.”
But once Sovran understands your question after usually two or three tries talking more slowly and clearly, his amazing memory of that first NBA season, and his younger life in basketball, unravels with detail after detail.
Sovran is a living legend.
After growing up in Windsor, Ontario, he became one of the best scorers at the local Assumption College for three years (from 1942-45)—averaging 17.1 points as a junior—and later was the top scorer at the University of Detroit for one year (from 1945-46). At the end of that final season, Sovran was allowed to rejoin Assumption College for the Canadian Senior A playoffs, leading the team to the Eastern Canadian Championship. Then he had his historic run with the Huskies.
Years later, Sovran was inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame and the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame. He’s also been recognized at several Raptors games, including one in 1996 with former commissioner David Stern who honored the 50th anniversary of the Huskies’ first game, with surviving members of the team and Knicks on center court.
Out of all of them, Sovran has a unique quality.
“There were 165 players in the BAA, and I was the second youngest in the league,” he says. “And as of today, from what I’ve been told, there are only four survivors and I’m the youngest one. I was usually the youngest guy on the teams I played with, and part of that was I skipped a grade when I was in grade school. Also, after World War II an awful lot of the players had been in military service during the war and made them older.”
Something monumental happened in Berlin in the summer of 1936, which inspired Sovran to start shooting hoops at 12 years old: basketball was an Olympic sport for the first time, and the Canadian national team, which was from his hometown of Windsor, played against the United States in the championship. While Canada lost, the exposure was enough for Sovran to want to play in high school, and he was on the All-City basketball team and a track and field champion in high jumping.
“I was quick and fast, and I could jump,” he says. “I was a runner in the 200 meters and I did high jumping and triple jumping.”
Those leaping abilities defined Sovran’s game, which is a complete 180 of the NBA today. Compared to how the 6’3″ Stephen Curry scores the ball, mostly from beyond the arc, the 6’3″ Sovran made his mark literally standing right next to the basket. But dunking, which he could do, was illegal back then, for reasons he still doesn’t know.
“In all the years I played college basketball, very seldom did I have to play against somebody bigger and taller than me,” he says. “And most of my scoring was in close to the basket. It was called the pivot. To get a shot, I’d have to go either to the right or the left around the player behind me, and it was usually a hook shot or an awful lot of tip-ins. I had so many points tipping in rebounds because the shooting wasn’t anything like it is today.
“In those days, I could go any place I wanted on the floor, and the person guarding me got behind me and there was essentially no contact, or it would be a foul. If you compared that to the NBA today, that’s a football game.”
A career highlight occurred for Sovran in 1945 while playing at Assumption College, which only offered basketball. He was left two points short of 1,000 when he scored 23 points in a win over Canisius College in Rochester, N.Y., but not without badly spraining his ankle. That basically ended his season, but his teammates wanted him to reach 1,000. So in the final game, Sovran started the game and just stood under his team’s basket. He was eventually thrown the ball and collected those final two points.
After earning his liberal arts degree at Assumption in 1945, Sovran played his fourth and final season of college ball at the University of Detroit through the spring of 1946.
Then a few months later in October, he received a pivotal phone call.
“It was from a man in Toronto whose name I recognized because he had been the sports editor of the Windsor newspaper,” he says. “He told me there’s going to be a new professional basketball league, and Toronto is going to have a team in it. Are you interested in trying out for it? Since I was in a work semester of an engineering program at Detroit, I said, ‘Well, why not?'”
The BAA was founded by owners of the major ice hockey arenas in Canada, and the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. There were 11 teams: from Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, St. Louis, Toronto and Washington, D.C.
The owners planned to tip off the season with five games on Nov. 2, 1946, but because Saturday night was hockey night in Canada, the Huskies’ home game at Maple Leaf Gardens against the Knicks was moved up to Friday, according to Sovran. That’s why it’s credited as the first-ever NBA game. The other four contests stayed on schedule for Saturday.
But Sovran didn’t participate in the first game, nor did for he for three weeks. That’s because his first tryout was on November 4 in Toronto, and then he had to wait to see if he would get signed, only attending local practices and getting paid for his time. Sovran believes the holdup was because the team wanted to reserve its final roster spot for Joe Krol. According to Sovran, Krol was “Canada’s most prominent athlete” and the Huskies were trying to convince him to leave the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League.
Finally, without Krol obliging, Sovran was able to sign a contract for around $550 per month, which was the lowest on the Huskies as the total team salary couldn’t surpass $55,000 for all 12 players.
“I knew they were going to sign me; the question was when,” he says. “Now, those days that was a lot of money. There weren’t many jobs you could get paid that much. I gave my contract to the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame.”
Sovran’s first game was on Nov. 22 against the Celtics, scoring five points in the Huskies’ home win. Quarters were 12 minutes long like they are today, but once they experimented with 15 minutes, according to Sovran.
The Huskies’ system was simple: get the ball down low to Ed “Big Ed” Sadowski who was their biggest player at 6’5″ and 240 pounds. In fact, Sovran says in all of his years playing basketball, he was never trained in skills development; he had to learn on his own. The coaches at the time basically managed the rosters and decided who played in the games.
Sadowski was also the team’s first coach, getting paid a dual salary and bringing in the American players, before leaving after 12 games and joining Cleveland as just a player. Red Rolfe, who was the starting third baseman on the World Series champion Yankees with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, eventually took over the helm with his basketball coaching background at Yale University after retiring from the MLB in 1942.
Notably, the housing was separate between the Canadian and American players. While Sovran, Hank Biasatti and Roy Hurley roomed on the second floor of a home in Toronto, their nine American teammates lived in another part of the city. They basically only saw each other for games, as they almost never practiced. As a result, Sovran never made any close connections with his teammates until years later when he reconnected with Harry Miller and Ray Wertis.
Sovran sums up his time with the Huskies as “dysfunctional.”
“Out of the 12 players that started the season, only three were still there at the end of the season,” he says. “There were lots and lots of trades. I think it was Red Rolfe just trying to find players with capabilities that would fit into his style of basketball.”
Sovran’s favorite memories reflecting back involved the travel. The Huskies stayed in five-star hotels, with food covered, and traveled first class by train. But to get to the station sometimes was another story.
“The typical procedure was we would play in Toronto on a Friday night, drive around the lake to the train station in Buffalo, New York, and take a train to the next game,” he says. “The first time I was in Washington, D.C., that was a big deal. One time we were going to play in Providence, but the train had left. We took taxi cabs and traveled from Buffalo to Providence. Now that took a little while.”
After Sovran played in six games, he was waived by the Huskies on Dec. 29 for reasons he’s still unclear about. But things continued to fall apart for the team. Not only did players leave, but also the 7,000 attendance on opening night on Nov. 1 dwindled over time. And the 1946-47 season was the first and last for the Huskies, who completed a 17-43 record.
“They tried to convince people that basketball was faster than hockey, and that wasn’t going to sell at the time,” he says. “The team folded after one year because they couldn’t get the fans to come.”
After his short tenure with the Huskies, Sovran went back to school and earned a total of three mechanical engineering degrees from Detroit, Northwestern and Minnesota, ending with a PhD.
“I was a student who played basketball. I was not a basketball player who went to school,” he says. “Schooling was No. 1.”
Sovran also had a teaching assistantship at Northwestern, where he met “a beautiful blonde from Iowa” named Kathryn who was working on a master’s degree in piano. They got married in 1949 and had four children, Daniel, Victoria, Ralph and Andrew—the boys all of whom played basketball. Sovran still has a hoop on his driveway, but he hasn’t taken a shot in a long time.
Sovran started his post-basketball career teaching thermodynamics at the University of Minnesota, and he would’ve continued if the pay was better. He ended up joining General Motors and was there for 40 years, retiring in 1994 at 70 years old. He worked in the Research Laboratories at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich., eventually specializing in vehicle fuel economy. He finished his final years as a Principal Engineer, the highest title for an active researcher at the Research Laboratories. He developed a simple procedure for determining the energy a vehicle requires for driving the two Environmental Protection Agency schedules used for fuel economy evaluation.
“My name is well-known because of that,” he says. “But almost nobody at General Motors knew about my basketball background. I never made noises about it.”
Sovran wrote many technical papers on vehicle fuel economy—even one three years ago. He spends his days now rereading some of them and going through his memorabilia, which includes Huskies-branded drinking mugs that the team gave the players on Christmas in 1946. He also enjoys eating out at area restaurants, where he runs into Hall of Famer Dave Bing, who calls Sovran his “Canadian friend.” While Sovran’s kids live nearby in Troy, Mich., his two brothers, Rino and Americo, reside in Canada. They are 85 and 94 years old, respectively.
Sovran, previously a Pistons’ partial season-ticket holder, also tunes into NBA games here and there. He watched last weekend’s All-Star Game, which took place in Toronto. And he’s in awe of how one of the All-Stars, at 6’3″ like himself, is changing the way basketball is being played.
“The one that’s really caught my eye is Steph Curry,” he says. “He just blows me away—the way that guy can shoot, pass and do everything. He’s just an amazing basketball player. I saw him the other night and everything goes in. It looks like he’s throwing the ball away and it goes in.”
Now imagine Curry’s reaction if he watched Sovran’s highlights. A 6’3″ player who scored off tip-ins! Sovran not only created a unique niche at his position, but he also did beyond basketball in his General Motors career. It makes Sovran’s success that much more special to celebrate.