There is no short supply of New York Depression-era memoirs that, gleaming-eyed, recount a child’s love of the Yankees, the Dodgers, or the Giants. These are the stories in which every kid has a dusty sandlot ballpark, worships Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, and can spit out player statistics like a personal computer 50 years before its time. Reading these, one would think that throughout 1930’s America, baseball was the only game in town.
But in the Midwest, as is often the case, things were just a bit different. Legions of basketball aficionados were braving bitter cold nights to crowd into the bleachers of area gymnasiums and watch their local hoopsters tear up and down the court. In summer, they too loved their sluggers, but in winter, newspapers were giving more column inches to basketball than all other sports combined. It was on one such winter evening that twenty-year-old James Enright, future Naismith Hall Of Fame referee, would step out of the press section and onto the court, little knowing that a simple substitution would cement his place in the story of basketball.
A Lucky Blizzard
Enright never intended to officiate basketball. He was a sportswriter. But in 1930, he was in St. Joseph, Michigan, covering a game between two Lutheran prep school teams for nearby Benton Harbor’s “News Palladium.” A snow storm raged outside, and trapped one of the game’s officials at home. Enright – just a few years senior of the contestants – was asked to step in.
He was a natural. Enright enjoyed the game so much, that he turned his one-time substitution into a full-fledged occupation. He began officiating high school games in southwestern Michigan, while retaining his job as a journalist with the News Palladium.
As refereeing held Enright in its thrall, so did basketball tighten its grip on the Midwest. A 1932 “Saturday Evening Post” article discussing the rise of the sport around the world likened it to germination, “…and in the Middle West the plant appears to have attained its most vigorous growth. Ignorance of basketball in that section is unforgivable.”
As his dual careers took off, Enright moved to Chicago in 1937. This was the same year that the Great Lakes-based National Basketball League (NBL) was born. Though college ball would remain king through most of the NBL’s lifespan, the financial and popular support of professional league teams like the Akron Firestone Non-Skids, the Oshkosh All-Stars, and the Minneapolis Lakers by small Midwestern markets was further evidence that the game at all levels was gaining force.
Enright saw this rise from inside and out. As a sportswriter for the Evening American (which later became Chicago Today) he often covered basketball, chronicling its progress. Enright’s first years in Chicago were a pivotal era for college basketball too – the first National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Men’s College Basketball Championship tournament was held in 1939 in Evanston, Illinois, and the first televised college game between Pittsburgh and Fordham at Madison Square Garden was shown in 1940. Many credit this and subsequent televised events with nationalizing the game.
By this time, Enright had moved to officiating college games, and was regularly working in the Big Ten, Big Eight and the Missouri Valley Conference. His solid calls and general presence on the court earned him respect and popularity with fans, players and coaches alike.
UCLA’s legendary coach, John Wooden, said of Enright, “Jim is such a right-down-the-middle-of-the-road official, I’d always like to have him officiating any road game for me.”
These attributes led Enright to be chosen as a referee for the professional circuit, in which he worked one season each for the NBL and its successor, the NBA. In 1948 he got a shot at sporting’s pinnacle: the Olympics. He refereed the Olympic basketball playoffs in London – which was only the second appearance of basketball as an official medal event. Four years later he reprised his role and worked the 1952 games in Helsinki.
Enright officiated prestigious post-season collegiate games as well, including the 1952 and 1953 NCAA regional tournaments and the 1954 Final Four. He was so sought after on the college circuit that once, when it looked like a triple tie was possible in the Big Eight, he was called away from reporting on the Chicago Cubs spring training camp in Arizona to referee a season-ending game in Columbia, Missouri, between Kansas and Missouri.
James Enright retired from officiating in 1964. In his 34 years as a referee – thanks in large part to television and professional league mergers – basketball had transformed from a regional pastime into a viable national sport. But Enright was far from done with the game.
He continued working for the Evening American until 1974, covering both basketball and baseball. Enright wrote for The Sporting News and the NCAA and Dell Publications, and served as editor of the “Official Read-Easy Basketball Rules.” He became the National President of the United States Basketball Writers Association from 1967 to 1968.
In 1977, Enright was commissioned by the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) to pen its official history. It is there he introduced ‘March Madness’ into popular vocabulary. The term was originally coined in a poem by former IHSA assistant manager Henry Porter, referring to the excitement of the Illinois high school basketball state finals. Following is the final stanza of “Basketball Ides of March”:
With war nerves tense, the final defense
Is the courage, strength and will
In a million lives where freedom thrives
And liberty lingers still.
Now eagles fly and heroes die
Beneath some foreign arch
Let their sons tread where hate is dead
In a happy Madness of March.
– Henry Porter, 1942
Enright’s book, “March Madness, The Story of High School Basketball in Illinois,” made the term so nationally recognizable that it was eventually affixed to the popular NCAA tournament.
The next year, Enright was inducted as a referee into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He had already received a number of accolades, having been named “Referee of the Year” by the Knute Rockne Club of America, and received the Old Timers Official Association Award for loyal service and dedication to basketball officiating. He died just a few years later in December of 1981, after a rich life spent advancing the game that as Henry Porter reminds us, was for corn-fed Midwestern kids in times of poverty and war, just as crucial to their lives as anyone else’s lucky Babe Ruth cards and the greatest of sandlot dreams.