Sheboygan Red Skins: A fading memory of the NBA's origins

Story highlights

  • One of the NBA's founding teams
  • Hailed from a city of just 42,000 people
  • Reached the playoffs in the opening season
  • Forced out of league after just one year

(CNN)It's a scorching hot day in August -- the air is still and sticky; a storm is coming.

I'm waiting outside a towering old building on the banks of Lake Michigan in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It's a city by name, but it feels like a small town.
The imposing concrete fortress above me is a monument to the history of the NBA -- a fading memory of very different times.
    Inside, the heat is stifling. It's obvious that they used to play basketball here -- the hoops are still hanging at either end of the court -- but it's been a while since a ball went anywhere near them. A long while.
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    The once-polished wooden boards are split and broken, bird excrement is splattered everywhere, and every surface is coated with a thick layer of black dust.
    I wander up to the first-floor balcony, where fans used to identify their seats by the numbers stenciled onto long, varnished wooden benches.
    As the light streaks in through the cathedral-sized windows on either side of the court, my eye is drawn to the scraps of paper that have seemingly landed from another time. I pick up a filthy old brown card that has been folded into the shape of a paper airplane.
    It lists the team lineups from a game of basketball, Central vs. Appleton. It's dated February 1, 1952.
    This is what became of the Municipal Auditorium and Armory, a triumph of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policy, and the once-proud home of a pioneering NBA team -- the Sheboygan Red Skins.

    At the forefront

    John Posewitz can remember it being built in 1941, and opening the following spring. He was just five years old at the time and can recall the local excitement as they constructed an arena for "my Dad and his buddies to play basketball."
    As the professional game began to develop in the United States, John Posewitz Snr. and his brother Joe were at the forefront of the Sheboygan team.
    Champion of the National Basketball League in 1943, Sheboygan remained one of the NBL's elite sides until it merged with the Basketball Association of America to create the National Basketball Association -- the NBA -- in '49.
    One of the NBA's founding teams -- known as a charter member -- it came from a city of just 42,000 people. Kenny Suesens was also a star of that groundbreaking team, and by the inaugural NBA season he was its coach.
    In what was -- and still is -- a small community, his daughter Pam Gottsacker couldn't escape his celebrity status.
    She was born the day he retired, so never saw him play, but still. "I was known as Kenny Suesens' daughter for 30 to 40 years," she says. "I didn't have my own identity."
    She wasn't complaining, that's just the way it was.
    The team helped put Sheboygan on the map, she told me. "Everyone at that time was heavily into the idea of community and the Red Skins were so popular that they drew us all together."
    Posewitz Jnr. attended many of the games, and he doesn't think the place has changed much since then -- the same paint job, the same basket hangers, the same insulated ceiling.
    His father owned a gas station, and his celebrity with the team ensured plenty of extra custom and boosted the "family fortunes."
    On game day, the Armory was stuffed with 3,800 fans; 65 years later we walked across the cracked old floor as he cast his mind back to the golden age.
    "This place reeks of memories," Posewitz reminisced. "I remember a lot of noise. Sheboygan fans were on both sides of the room, packed to the walls."
    He gestures to up to where the broadcast booth was located, for the benefit of the radio listeners tuning in at home.
    "This was really the highlight of Sheboygan in the 1930s and '40s," he says. "And it really was a heartbreak when they said, 'You're not in the league anymore.'"

    A different era

    The Armory, which doubled up as a theater, is nothing like today's modern basketball venues.
    The coaches and bench players sat on the stage, behind one of the hoops; entering the fray came at the risk of a twisted ankle.
    The players changed in cozy locker rooms upstairs, mingling with the fans as they made their way down to the court. The playing surface was big for its time -- 90 feet by 50 -- but there wasn't much room for anything else.
    Posewitz recalls one of the coaches being ejected by the referee and -- with nowhere to go -- he was made to sit on the step outside.
    This may have been professional basketball, but it was light years away from the megastar, mega-rich game that we know today.
    The average NBA franchise in 2015 is valued at over a billion dollars. It cost just 40 cents to watch Sheboygan play.
    LeBron James was recently paid six figures just to send a tweet; these guys would have been lucky to make that much in a lifetime of playing the game they loved.
    Many of the early anecdotes revolved around travel.
    The players, most of whom were over 6 foot 3 inches or taller, would squeeze themselves into a couple of cars and drive thousands of miles.
    On one occasion, members of the Sheboygan team crashed into a ditch, and their next opponents heard about the accident. Since Sheboygan didn't want the injured players to be targeted for especially physical treatment, everyone on the team took to the court with bandaged limbs.
    Everyone was in on the shell game.
    Seventeen teams played in the NBA's inaugural season; Sheboygan was in the Western Division along with the Indianapolis Olympians, the Anderson Packers, the Tri Cities Blackhawks, the Waterloo Hawks and the Denver Nuggets.
    The season highlight was a home win against the eventual champions, the Minneapolis Lakers, and a record of 22-40 was good enough to make the playoffs.
    But Sheboygan was the smallest market in the league, playing in the smallest arena. And its unfashionable name led, eventually, to its downfall.
    The way John Posewitz's son tells it, a trip to New York proved fateful.
    The team ran into some trouble on the road up to Madison Square Garden and they didn't arrive until 10 minutes before tipoff. As they hurried into the venue, kit bags in hand, the Knicks' president Ned Irish realized that he was trying to promote a game -- at a venue of 18,000 fans -- against a team from the boonies.
    "He says, 'This is bush league, I can't live with that,'" Posewitz recalls. "He declared that if Sheboygan was in the league next year, then he wouldn't be."
    Posewitz laughs at the story, acknowledging the inevitability of the team's demise.
    "No matter how much fire we had in our bellies in those days, it just wasn't enough to kick us over the top," he adds. "You can't fight City Hall!"
    After just one season in the NBA, Sheboygan was done. It tried to play on as an independent team but within two years it was completely out of business.

    A proud city

    Sixty-five years later, all but one of those Sheboygan players have passed away. But the city remains fiercely proud of its place in NBA history.
    I spoke with several locals and everyone seemed to know someone who was related to one of the players.
    Despite the fact the league went on to become a global brand and a multibillion-dollar industry, there doesn't seem to be any regret or sadness, just a quiet satisfaction that their intimate community helped lay the foundations.
    As Pam Gottsacker put it: "Sheboygan will always be known for the Sheboygan Red Skins and we were part of the NBA. Things have changed and Sheboygan has changed a lot, but that doesn't take away any of the memories they had."
    Basketball remains a popular sport in this part of the world. Gottsacker played all her high school games at the Armory, and the historic old venue hosted fiercely competitive scholastic games until 2006.
    When the new NBA season tips off on Tuesday, a Sheboygan native will hit the big time -- the Houston Rockets drafted forward Sam Dekker in the first round.
    "Another Sheboygan Knight is going to the NBA," says Gottsacker, "and it's wonderful for everyone here. We're thrilled!"

    What next?

    But as young Sheboygan players move on to make their fame and fortune in what is now a global sports juggernaut, the site of that historic first season is facing an uncertain future.
    The Armory's doors were locked permanently in 2010 and the heating shut off last fall; the city could no longer justify spending $30,000 a year on energy bills.
    I guess at some point in the last few years, the little paper airplane I found there worked its way loose from the rafters and completed its journey through time.
    Sheboygan's mayor Mike Vandersteen says various attempts have been made to redevelop the site, but none involve saving the Armory.
    "The court is very tight, high school players were getting injured, and it's not the safest place to play," he says.
    Emphasizing the point about the venue's cramped quarters, he recalls an old Bob Hope story: The comedian once entered through the Armory's back door and quipped, "Whose garage is this?!"
    The Armory is likely to be demolished next year.
    Just as the people of Sheboygan accepted the fate of their NBA team, they're also pragmatic about the team's old home.
    "I think everyone loves the Armory," says Gottsacker. "But it will probably be demolished because it just isn't worth it."
    Posewitz agrees.
    "I hate the thought of losing this place, but it's an awfully expensive monument to maintain," he says. "If anyone wants to buy a piece of early basketball history, we'll give you a good deal!"
    It seems inevitable that one day soon, memories will be all that remain of Sheboygan's NBA team. But there is no denying its place in history and the story might not yet be over.
    Despite only one season in the NBA, Kenny Suesens fought for and was awarded an NBA pension. When he died in 1992, he was trying to gain admission to the Basketball Hall of Fame; still in his typewriter was a letter that he was writing to the Hall.
    According to his daughter, a local journalist campaigns every year for him to be admitted. "There's always an opportunity that he will make it still," she says.