FEATURE: The Giant Ted Bokina
The birth of the first great big man in UMass basketball history took place on December 10, 1940, in a small, sweaty gym in Hartford in front of hostile fans who saw Thaddeus (Ted) Bokina light up the scoreboard for 17 points despite fouling out early in the second half of a 54-53 Trinity victory.
The natural birth of Ted Bokina occurred almost 19 years prior, on January 13, 1922, in Hatfield, a small agricultural town near Amherst. The youngest of four children, Ted was raised on a farm, the son of Polish immigrants who grew tobacco and onions for a living.
The Bokinas were skilled athletes. The eldest sibling, Henry, was a 6 feet, 2 inch center at Smith Academy. Carl, who graduated from Massachusetts State College in 1938 with a degree in agricultural economics, had manned the center spot for MSC basketball in his sophomore, junior, and senior years, but he excelled on the baseball diamond, earning varsity letters in 1936, 1937, and 1938. Ted speaks glowingly of his older brother: "I think he was as good as Vic Raschi," referring to the West Springfield native who was a star pitcher for the Yankees in the late 40's and early 50's, "but he threw his shoulder out just before he went into the service." Athletic talent in the Bokina family wasn't limited to the boys as Ted's sister, Helen, claims that she once scored 54 points in a high school basketball game for Smith Academy.
When the time came for Ted to choose a college, the decision was simple. Massachusetts State was right down the road. The fact that it was also the alma mater of Carl, whom Ted idolized, cemented the decision. The early 1940's were devoid of early recruits, Five Star basketball camps, and seventh graders ranked for their athletic prowess, and Mass. State didn't come calling for Ted. In fact, as he recalls, there was no recruiting at Massachusetts back then; after the hardwood of the basketball court was laid over the dirt floor of the Curry Hicks Cage, all candidates went to open tryouts and played their way onto the team.
By the time Ted was a sophomore, he had grown to 6 feet, 5 inches, hardly a big man by today's standards; in fact, he'd be among the shorter players on today's UMass roster; but in the early 1940's, he was considered huge, many times referred to as a "giant" by the Massachusetts Collegian. Quickly proving that the opener against Trinity wasn't a fluke, Bokina lit up the scoreboard for double figures in five of his first six games and when the 1940-41 season was over, he had led the Statesmen in averaging 12.8 points per game, almost five points per game more than the second leading scorer, senior captain William Walsh. While 12.8 points per game might not seem impressive, Bokina did it in an era when breaking 50 points in a game was an accomplishment and he accounted for 31 percent of the Statesmen's scoring during the season. He also won the Samuel B. Samuels Cup, awarded to the team's best free-throw shooter, and was one of the bright spots on a team that had improved on the previous season's 1-14 record and finished with a 5-9 record.
The 1940-41 basketball season was interrupted when head coach Lou Bush, one of the greatest athletes to ever wear the maroon and white of Massachusetts and in his first year as the head man at his alma mater, was called to active duty in the middle of the season. Bush was replaced for the remainder of the season by Fred Ellert, a German professor who had played for Massachusetts in the late 1920s and coached the team for four seasons in the early 1930's.
For Ted, things hit even closer to home as all three siblings served in World War II. Carl, who Ted had followed to Massachusetts State, became a fighter pilot and flew many missions. In March 1945, with WWII nearly over, the brother Ted idolized would be lost when Carl perished in a training mission over England.
Ted had also been called to service, but his height squelched that. "I was drafted in the army, but I was declared 4-F because I was too tall. The height limit in the Army at that time was 6 feet, 6 inches. At 6 feet, 6.5 inches, Ted just exceeded the limit. Even so, he took a shot at entering the Navy. "I passed everything cold, the oral, the physical, but the height limit in the Navy was 6 feet, 4 inches, so I lost out there."
Ted continued to dominate, again regularly leading the team in scoring as a junior. In one especially impressive performance during the 1941-42 season, he scored 28 of the team's 45 points while leading the Statesmen to a 45-39 win at Wesleyan.
When his senior season rolled around, Ted gained an additional honor when he was named the captain of the 1942-43 squad, and as expected, he was dominant; five games into the season he was averaging 20.2 points per game. His senior campaign would turn bittersweet however as it was cut short midway through the season. On a road trip to Tufts, one of the players from the Boston area arranged dates for a number of players. As Bokina tells it, assistant coach Tommy Eck came in to the hotel room and told the players to get the girls out by 11 p.m. or there would be trouble. Bokina says, "One of the girls couldn't find her overshoes. They were under the bed." When Eck came back and the girls weren't gone, the players were dismissed from the team. Just like that, the college careers of Bokina and a number of his senior teammates were over. A plea by the players to the dean of students fell upon deaf ears. Even playing a shortened season, Bokina finished the season as the team's leading scorer, netting 156 points over nine games, an average of 17.3 points per game.
With his collegiate career over and the NBA not yet in existence, it seemed that competitive basketball would be just a memory for Bokina. Like Carl, Ted had majored in agricultural economics and after college got a job as an agricultural statistician in Boston. He hooked up with the Boston Goodwins, a semi-pro basketball team in the New England Professional League, making $25 per game while playing opponents from Boston to Hartford to Pawtucket. While the NEPL was semi-pro, it was in no way second-rate, with thousands of fans packing the gymnasiums and significant press coverage. Shortly after joining the team, the Goodwins traded Bokina to the Fitchburg PAMCOs, a fact Ted wouldn't soon forget. As one newspaper article stated in a preview of a game between the two clubs, "The Goodwins problem will be to stop their former player Bokina from repeating his performances of the last two games against his former mates. Bokina is the big reason why Fitchburg has defeated the Good-Wins three games in four starts." Behind Bokina, the PAMCOs won the 1945-46 league title.
In the fall of 1946 Ted, who by now had matured in both height (six feet, seven inches) and as a player, hit the big time, signing with the Dow Athletic Club of Midland, Michigan. An independent club sponsored by Dow Chemical Company, the team played a 60-game schedule that saw them crisscross the nation to face some of the best teams in the land. No longer was basketball a part-time job, played solely against semi-pros in small-time gyms; before long, Bokina found himself in Madison Square Garden. Basketball was now his profession and he played with and against players of the highest stature.
Among Bokina's teammates on the 1946-47 Dow team were Ray Patterson, who later became the long-time general manager of the Houston Rockets; Wally Borrevik, a third-team all-American from Oregon who served as Bokina's backup; and Mad Matt Zunic, who would coach UMass for three seasons in the late 50's and early 60's. Bokina says that Mad Matt lived up to his moniker "Matt Zunic was a wild man. He'd run through a wall."
As for opponents, Bokina played against famous names as well, including legendary Red Holzman and the Rochester Royals, the defending champions of the National Basketball League. A merger of the NBL and the Basketball Association of America resulted in the formation of the NBA a few years later. Bokina led the team with 14 points, including a game-winning shot to give Dow a 53-51 win over the Royals and the future Hall of Fame coach of the New York Knicks. Bokina also played against one of the most compelling names in sports history as Dow traveled to Los Angeles in December 1946 for a pair of games against the Los Angeles Red Devils and Jackie Robinson, who just four months later would go on to forever change the landscape of baseball.
While those names are impressive, Bokina's most memorable head-to-head match-up came against none other than George Mikan, one of the best centers in basketball history. Mikan, who was named the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press and was then playing for the Chicago Gears, scored 15 points to Bokina's 11 while leading the Gears to a 70-60 win. While Bokina held his own against the legendary big man and remembers the meeting fondly, he downplays his performance, saying, "I don't take any credit for that because he had been having contractual difficulties and he hadn't played for about six weeks and this was his first game back. He was rusty. He would have killed me ordinarily."
Mikan earned $12,000 that year. Bokina didn't do too badly himself, pulling in a gaudy $7,000 for the 1946-47 season. As he recalled in a 2006 letter, "$7,000 was huge in those days. You could by a new car for $2,000, a home for $10,000. Wouldn't I take 7/12th of what the top man is making today? In a heartbeat!"
Late in the season, Bokina played in the World Professional Basketball Tournament, an invitational in Chicago, the winner of which was crowned the unofficial world champion. After rolling over the Syracuse Nationals in the first round, Bokina and Dow fell to the Toledo Jeeps in the quarterfinals.
Dow officially joined the NBL for the 1947-48 season and Bokina was once again ready to man the center spot before coming down with a case of pleurisy, a painful infection of the lungs that sidelined him for the entire season. He never returned. "I should have gone back, but I figured I was through and that was it. It took me a couple, two or three years to recover."
Bokina describes himself as a good rebounder, so good in fact that he attracted the attention of Red Auerbach while he was coach of the Washington Capitals. Bokina recalls, "Red Auerbach called me. He said I saw you play in Washington and all I remember was those big hands. All we want you to do is rebound." However, when Red moved on to the Celtics, a follow-up call never came. "To this day it irks me to think that the Celtics, looking for players, didn't call me. I lived in Boston, played with the Goodwins, was well know in New England, never got a call."It has been nearly 70 years since the first great big man in UMass basketball history first set foot on the Amherst campus. Now 87 years old, Ted spends his winters with his sister, Helen, in California, where their house overlooks the 16th green of Bermuda Dunes Country Club. "The view from our house is just wonderful," she says. "We watched Roger Clemens make a birdie on the toughest hole on the course. We saw Michael Jordan play. He chili-dipped a shot, took a double-bogie."