February 7, 2012
Kentucky winters are brightened by the game of basketball. The full force of fan hysteria arrives at its annual crescendo in early spring of each year.
It’s then that basketball comes crashing down the stretch through the rushing flume of tournament action. In Kentucky, at least, it becomes larger than life. While college and high school teams battle on the hardwood, fans talk of the game at country stores, coffee shops, and church socials.
Ultimately, great names of basketball lore are cast about. Hagan and Ramsey. Unseld and Givens. Rupp and Diddle. “King” Kelly Coleman and Clem Haskins. Cotton Nash and Kenny Walker. On and on the names are legendary and endless. From the glittering roster of winters past, stars will be compared and enlarged. Most likely, and inexplicably, one basketball giant will never be mentioned.
In his day, he was the best. Joe Fulks, the Kuttawa Clipper.
Maybe it’s the passage of time or the drastic change in the nature of the game since he played. But for some reason, “Jumping Joe”–the lanky, good-natured star from the Tennessee River bottom–has faded into the gray, forgotten wasteland of yesteryear. Even his hometown has been erased from the face of the earth. Like the legendary continent of Atlantis, little Birmingham, Kentucky has sunken beneath the waters. Only “Birmingham Island” can be seen today arising out of Kentucky Lake. Most of the dead, who once slumbered there, have been removed from their resting places to Birmingham Cemetery several miles away.
Birmingham was in Marshall County on the Tennessee River some twelve miles from the county seat of Benton. A ferry ran back and forth, connecting the community with Lyon County and the towns of Eddyville and Kuttawa. It was there that Joe was born to Leonard and Mattie Fulks on October 26, 1921. The small river town of less than 400 residents did have a high school–a substantial brick building in the middle of town. And the high school had a basketball team.
Joseph Franklin Fulks fell in love with the basketball early in his life. On cold winter nights, this dreary little shanty town would brighten as the lights at the high school gym, generated by the school’s own gasoline dynamo generator, glowed through the darkness. Old cars, pickup trucks, and even a few mule drawn wagons from up and down the valley surrounded the school on ball game nights as crowds packed the cozy gymnasium.
Joe gazed upon it all through wide, young eyes of wonderment. He went to the games and silently admired the older boys who performed under the bright lights on the shiny hardwood floor. It was a fantasy land where young, strong athletes–mere mortals by day–transformed into something heroic at night under the thunderous approval of the friendly crowd and the adoration of pretty girls.
But in the early impoverished years of Joe Fulks, a basketball was a rare luxury–one which he had to do without. So he improvised. The high school varsity team practiced on an outside court when the weather allowed. But every morning they would find the nets on the goals riddled to pieces. The coach of the little school, Robert Goheen, was baffled by the mystery of the disappearing nets. So after practice one evening, Goheen decided to solve the mystery. He hid in the weeds beside the ball court and waited. Around dark, a tall, ambling youngster came upon the scene, playfully tossing half of a brick up in the air and catching it with the greatest of ease when it came back down. The trespasser then walked onto the court and began shooting the brick through the basketball goal with uncanny accuracy. The coach watched in amazement as one net was demolished and the hoopster moved on to finish off the other one. With both nets in shreds, he nonchalantly walked off the court, still tossing the brick in the air.
It was Joe. The next day Coach Goheen gave Joe a basketball and told him to keep it up. And so he did. Joe became a star at Birmingham High School. But drastic change and upheaval were enveloping the town and the entire lower Tennessee River Valley. In 1938, the construction of Kentucky Dam began just a few miles downstream. The village of Birmingham was doomed to be torn down and flooded by Kentucky Lake. With the town going down the tubes around him, Joe became a star on the Birmingham five.
Then, just before his senior year, he moved with his parents to Kuttawa. For the Lyon County team, it was manna from heaven. But it led to allegations against the school for illegal recruiting. A full blown investigation was conducted by the Kentucky High School Association Board of Control. The school was charged with securing employment in Kuttawa for Joe’s father in order to lure the high school star away from Birmingham. The evidence was deemed insufficient to suspend the school, but the final report “deplored a tendency of schools to build up winning teams through use of imported athletes.” A concern that is still with us today.
Fulks led the Kuttawa Lions to a brilliant 22-2 record and included a trip to the state tournament. The Lions were beaten there by Morganfield in overtime. The slender youngster was a pure shooter–inside, outside, right hand, left hand. A terrific rebounder, the 6-foot-3 center could do it all. In the little river towns of Birmingham and Kuttawa, Joe Fulks developed a shooting technique that would revolutionize the game of basketball. He explained it later: “People were shooting on the run during those days. But I discovered that by stopping and jumping, I was much more accurate and able to get open more for better shots.” The World Book Encyclopedia reported years later that “the one-handed shot was the most popular shot in basketball until Joe Fulks popularized the jump shot . . . it became the most popular shot in basketball and greatly increased scoring.”
Legendary Coach Ed Diddle of Western Kentucky University practically spent the summer of 1940 with Joe Fulks. Diddle was competing with Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and Indiana coach Branch McCracken in the recruiting war for the Kuttawa Clipper, as Fulks was now being called. He fooled them all and went to Murray State. At Murray, Joe played varsity ball for two years and was named All American. While there he acquired the label that would follow him the rest of his days–“Jumping Joe.”
As good as he was, Joe Fulks was about to enter a phase of his life which would propel him into the superstar range. World War II came along and he was drafted out of college and went into the Marine Corps. He had grown to six-feet-five-inches without losing any of his grace and agility. He was assigned to a Fleet Marine Force basketball team which toured the South Pacific entertaining the troops. The military rosters were filled with some of the top basketball players of war time America.
It was a great recruiting arena for professional teams back home. Eddie Gottlieb, coach and owner of the Philadelphia Warriors, headed out that way on a scouting trip. Gottlieb–the premier basketball guru of his day–was primarily interested in All American Andy Phillip of the University of Illinois. But he quickly learned that across the broad South Pacific, the basketball player everyone was talking about was a skinny kid from Kentucky with wavy hair. Joe was playing circles around them all. Gottlieb was impressed and signed Fulks to the tune of a $10,000 bonus–a gargantuan sum in those days.
The slender and likable country boy from Kentucky exploded upon the professional scene. In his rookie year of 1946-47, he led the league in scoring with a 23.2 point average. These were the fledgling years of the National Basketball Association when there was no shot clock or three-point line and the game was played at a much slower pace. Consequently, teams scored far fewer points. During his initial year, for instance, the Warriors averaged only 68.6 points with Joe scoring a third of them. The New York Knicks had no player to average in double figures. Four of the league’s teams couldn’t match Fulks’ output with their top two scorers. It all makes his performance that much more remarkable.
In short, the shy and soft spoken cager with the southern drawl was an overnight sensation. He almost single-handedly propelled professional basketball into national prominence. His Warrior team was the first to utilize air travel for road games. “If it hadn’t been for Joe,” Hall of Famer and former Warrior Paul Arizin put it, “I don’t think pro basketball would have made it those first few years.” Just as he was at Birmingham, Kuttawa, Murray State, and in the wide Pacific, Jumping Joe was a winner. In that first year, he led the Warriors to the championship. In the first game of the playoffs against Chicago, Joe scored 21 points in the final quarter. Five men guarding him throughout the game accumulated a total of 20 fouls. The single quarter scoring record stood until Isaiah Thomas broke it forty-one years later.
During his first season in the pros, Fulks hit 49 free throws in a row. He missed and then hit 49 more in a row. The Warriors gave Joe a brand new Buick as a bonus for leading the league in scoring. That summer, he proudly drove it home to Kuttawa to show it off to his friends. But Joe was the same old Joe–quiet, friendly, and unassuming. Success did not go to his head. For three straight years, Joe was the leading scorer in the NBA. On the cold winter night of February 10, 1949, in Philadelphia, the few fans who had braved the raging blizzard were rewarded with an epoch-making performance. From the same hands that had shredded nets with a half brick in tiny Birmingham came an incredible barrage of baskets. Before the night was over, Joe had scored a whopping 63 points–a record held in the NBA until broken by Elgin Baylor in 1959 after the advent of the shot clock. Joe left the game with two minutes to play. This modest boy from Kentucky with his winning ways took Philadelphia by storm. Fans adored him and he was the toast of the town. Due in large part to Joe’s popularity and his draw at the gate, the city began construction of a new basketball arena. A cartoon in the local newspaper showed a caricature of Joe shooting basketballs into a concrete mixer.
The Kuttawa Clipper was hailed as the “Babe Ruth of basketball.” In 1948, the prestigious Sporting News acclaimed him as “Athlete of the Year.” To place this honor in proper perspective, it should be noted that Joe beat out some heavy timber. Such names as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Doak Walker, Ben Hogan, Pancho Gonzales, and Joe Louis were at their peaks. Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, who performed just a few blocks away from the Sporting News office, batted .376, stroked 39 home runs, drove in 131 runs, and was selected the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1948.
Joe played in the NBA for eight years. But personal problems–basically alcoholism–cut his career short and narrowed his heroics to a five-year span. Joe closed out his playing days in 1954–a time of positive transition in professional basketball for which he was largely responsible. He amassed a total of 8,003 points– an average of 1,000 per year. His career average of 16 points a game is deceptive since his playing time was severely limited during his final two years. “He was a great, great player,” says Hall of Fame coach Red Auerbach. “He could shoot them any way, from any place.”
As much fanfare as Joe received in the “City of Brotherly Love” and elsewhere, Joe never lost his love for his native west Kentucky. He would return to the land of his birth in the off season. Once, some of his old high school friends traveled to St. Louis to watch him play. After the game, he threatened to go home with them. That was Joe. Sensational and yet simple, with his heart always close to home.
The name of Joseph Franklin Fulks has now been enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. At the 1971 NBA All Star game in San Diego, Joe was recognized for being selected as one of the ten members of the Silver Anniversary Team of the National Basketball Association. The others were Paul Arizin, Bob Davies, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Bill Russell, George Mikan, Dolph Schayes, Bob Pettit, and Sam Jones.
During the early morning hours of March 21, 1976, Joe Fulks died in Eddyville, just two miles from the site of the old Kuttawa gym. How would Joe have fared in today’s game of muscled titans, three-point lines, and shot clocks? Probably not as well. Too thin, too slow, and too polite. But the giants of today may also not have fared as well in Joe’s day. Too powerful, too undisciplined, and too erratic.
Greatness must be judged in the context of the times. Lincoln may not have made a great television president. Television made John F. Kennedy. Suffice it to say, there was a time when Joe Fulks was the best basketball player in the world.