The Blue Coats, the G League affiliate of the Philadelphia 76ers, have several young players who are loaded with potential, including Zhaire Smith (first-round draft pick in 2018), Jonah Bolden (second round in 2017) and Marial Shayock (second round in 2019), who averaged 38 points in the Blue Coats’ first two games.
But this isn’t the first time that players with NBA potential and/or experience have laced up their sneakers around here.
People of a certain age (and by that we mean “old”) will remember another minor-league basketball team in Wilmington that also had our state’s favorite color in its name – the Wilmington Blue Bombers.
The Blue Bombers existed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. They played in the Eastern Basketball League (EBL), which, like the G-League, was one step away from the NBA and almost all of the EBL players spent time in the NBA.
When the Blue Bombers entered the EBL in 1963, the NBA had just nine teams, which meant a lot of really good players didn’t make NBA rosters – today, there are 30 teams in the NBA. And, just like today when players who can’t make muster end up in the G League, back then they ended up in the EBL, which was actually older than the NBA.
Also, the Blue Bombers didn’t play in a palatial arena like the 76ers Fieldhouse – for the first seven years of their existence they played at Salesianum School, which had the nicest gym in the state at the time.
It’s also important to remember that this was back in the days when you only got three channels on your television set and streaming was something you did in a canoe.
It was also not nearly as easy to get to Philadelphia in those days before I-95 was finished and it was more of a trek than a trip to get to the big city to see the 76ers. So, if you wanted to see good, professional basketball, the Blue Bombers were your team.
And they were my team. I would regularly attend Blue Bombers games on Saturday and Sunday nights at Sallies with my grade school friends – somebody’s parent would drop us off and another would pick us up. It was a wide-open, run-and-gun league that never lacked for excitement.
And even though they played in a minor league in a high school gym, the Blue Bombers had some terrific players who would have had long careers in the NBA if the league had 30 teams back then instead of nine.
And they did it for $50-$150 per game – all of the games were played on weekends and almost all of the players had day jobs during the week.
Those players included:
Cliff Anderson, a star at St. Joseph’s University who also played for the Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers and 76ers in the NBA and Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association.
Barney Cable, who played at Bradley and played in 362 NBA games with six different NBA teams, some of which don’t exist anymore or exist in a different city – the Detroit Pistons, Syracuse Nationals, St. Louis Hawks, Chicago Packers, Chicago Zephyrs and Baltimore Bullets.
Freddie Crawford, who also had stints with several NBA teams, including the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, the Buffalo Braves and the 76ers.
Art Heyman, who was the national player of the year at Duke and was the first overall selection in the 1963 NBA draft by the New York Knicks.
He averaged 15.4 points in his first year and was named to the all-rookie team, but he would also have several run-ins with management, fans and other players and his pro career never matched his college career. He also had cups of coffee with the 76ers and Cincinnati Royals, as well as stints with the New Jersey Americans, Pittsburgh Pipers and Miami Floridians of the ABA – he won an ABA championship with the Pipers in 1968, averaging more than 20 points per game.
Ken Spain, who played in the same frontcourt with Hall-of-Famer Elvin Hayes at the University of Houston when they snapped UCLA’s record 47-game game winning streak against a team led by Lew Alcindor. That game, played in 1968 the Astrodome before a then-record 52,693 fans, was the first college basketball game broadcast in prime time and became known as “The Game of the Century.”
Spain also won a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics on a team that included future NBA stars Spencer Haywood, Charlie Scott and Jo-Jo White. He was the 20th overall pick of the Chicago Bulls in 1968, but he never made it in the NBA and played just 20 games with the Pittsburgh Condors of the ABA before his career ended Spain died in 1990.
Bob Weiss played for the Blue Bombers in 1965-66 and one year later was part of the 76ers’ NBA championship team. That team was once voted as the best team in NBA history with a lineup that included three Hall-of-Famers – Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham. Weiss also played briefly for the Chicago Bulls, Buffalo Braves and Washington Bullets. But he really made his mark as an NBA coach – he was head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers and Seattle SuperSonics and was an assistant with six other NBA teams.
Finally, we saved our two favorite Blue Bombers for last:
Tom Hoover, who was a sentimental favorite because he played at Villanova, where my father was a starting forward in the mid-1930s. But Hoover was also a 6-foot-9 bear of a man who always had a smile on his face and played the game with flair. He was a first-round pick of the Syracuse Nationals the year before they moved to Philadelphia and became the 76ers, but his NBA career never really took off and he had stints with the Knicks and Hawk in the NBA and the Houston Monarchs, Denver Rockets, Minnesota Pipers and New York Nets in the NBA.
And, finally, Waite Bellamy, the greatest Blue Bomber of them all, who, ironically, never played a minute in an NBA game. Bellamy played eight seasons in Wilmington and he was the star of the Blue Bombers teams that won consecutive EBL championships in 1966 and 1967.
He averaged 32 points per game over his career (with a career-high of 62 points in one game), won three EBL scoring titles and was named the league’s MVP in 1967. The 6-foot-4 guard from Florida A&M was smooth and silky and could shoot the lights out, and I could never figure out why he couldn’t cut it in the NBA.
Of course, there were only about 100 players on NBA rosters back then (today there are 510), so there was a lot more competition.
The Blue Bombers moved from Salesianum to the brand-new St. Mark’s gym in 1970 and immediately attendance went down – St. Mark’s gym was bigger and brighter, but something was lost when they left Salesianum.
The Bombers folded after that season, but by then I-95 was constructed and the Sixers had moved into the Spectrum and the Bombers were no longer the only game in town.
The Blue Bombers – gone, but not forgotten.