Born: October 26, 1921
Died: March 21, 1976
Position: Power Forward
Philadelphia Warriors (BAA/NBA): 1946-1954
“They give me the ball and I shoot it. That’s all there is to it.”
– Joe Fulks
Looking back seven decades, it seems that the 1940s has all its rough edges smoothed out and its sharp points dulled. The excitement, the revolutions, the uncertainty of it all gets smothered in the process as we create comforting wistful looks at a seemingly quaint era.
Joe Fulks, however, was one of those revolutionary excitements that gets bored down and washed away in assuming things were quaint. The way he played was instrumental in not only progressing the game of basketball, but also in merely helping the Basketball Association of America (BAA) to survive long enough to become the National Basketball Association.
“Jumpin’ Joe” didn’t earn the bouncy nickname for stupendous dunks. Instead his effervescent revolution was having practically no restrictions on what shots he would take.
Growing up in Kentucky, Fulks would spend his days (and nights) shooting at a hoop outside the local school. He started out shooting tin cans and then moved up to an old beat up ball. Finally, his neighbors collected enough money to buy Joe a brand new basketball. A highly-sought college recruit thanks to an excellent high school basketball career, Fulks chose to attend Murray State before joining the Marines during World War II. In 1946, Fulks would become a 25-year old rookie in the BAA after signing a whopping $8,000 contract with the Philadelphia Warriors.
The backwoods Kentuckian set the basketball world aflame in 1946 with his use of jumping shots. Some contemporaries demeaned it as show-boating, but when Fulks led the BAA in scoring with 23 points per game in the 1946-47 regular season they began to realize it was indeed a good show nonetheless.
And that’s 23 points per game for an individual at a time when teams averaged 67 points per game as a whole.
Fulks’s Philadelphia Warriors wound up capturing the BAA’s first title in five games over the Chicago Stags. In Game 1 of the series, Fulks came out firing on all cylinders.
The Chicago Stags, ordinarily no pushovers, were suffering today from a bad case of Joe Fulks jitters, an ailment common to teams in the Basketball Association of America.
Fulks, a skinny Kentuckian with the shooting eye of a well-drilled Blue Grass feudist, scored 37 points last night as his Philadelphia Warriors defeated the Stags, 84 to 71, in the first of a seven-game series for the league championship.
Chicago was only six points behind at the end of the third period, after which Fulks settled down to do some serious scoring. He sank eight field goals in nine tries and five out of five free throws for 21 points in the final quarter.
In the close-out Game 5, Fulks had a handsome 34 points to eke out an 83 – 80 victory. In the jubilant locker room, Fulks was asked when he was going back home to Kentucky.
“As soon as I can,” Fulks responded, “I’m already two weeks late in planting my potato crop.”
For an encore in the 1947-48 season, Fulks again led BAA in points (22 per game) and again led the Warriors to the BAA Finals. This time, however, they were defeated by the Baltimore Bullets. In the 1948-49 season, the BAA raided the NBL and acquired the Fort Wayne Pistons, the Indianapolis Kautskys (rechristened the Jets), the Rochester Royals, and the Minneapolis Lakers.
Fulks in 1949 averaged a career-best 26 points per game, but it was second to George Mikan’s 28. Fulks that season, however, left a sizzling mark of 63 points in a game:
Joe’s 63 points cracked the league record of 48 established by Minneapolis’ George Mikan Jan. 30 against Washington. His 27 field goals also was a nine better than the league record he held jointly with Mikan and Carl Braun of the New York Knickerbockers.
That 63-point outburst would remain the single-game scoring record until Elgin Baylor set the mark at 64 a decade later. However, his most productive days were now behind him, as the BAA merged with the National Basketball League in 1949-50 to form the NBA.
Age, but more importantly alcoholism, began to take its toll on Fulks. He was already 28-years-old despite being just a fourth-year professional. “Jumpin’ Joe” no longer leaped and glided as he used to. For the last five years of his career he’d average just 12.5 points per game after a 23.9 average over his first three seasons.
In 1951, Fulks put together a renaissance season where he averaged 19 PPG and eight RPG while leading the NBA in free throw percentage with a .855 clip. He was selected to play in the very first NBA All-Star Game that season. He also appeared in the 1952 edition of the game. But his final seasons in 1953 and 1954 were disastrous as he fell deeper in the grip of alcohol.
The bottle ultimately ended Joe’s life in 1976. Residing in Kentucky once again, Fulks got into a drunken argument with his girlfriend’s adult son. The younger man eventually grabbed a shotgun and shot Jumpin’ Joe, instantly ending his life at age 54.
The man who had been nearly the only gate attraction for the fledgling BAA in 1946 has garnered little attention since. Modern analysts or enthusiasts with no historical perspective can point to his woeful career field goal percentage of 30% and call it horrendous. But with historical perspective it’s revealed that the average FG% in 1947 was 28% for the whole league. By 1953, it had risen to a more respectable 37%. Fulks was a decent percentage shooter for his era, but how he took his shots is what makes him extraordinary.
As a stringy forward who loved to swing long-range hook shots, one-handers, contorting jumpers, and all kinds of shots believed to be uncalled for, Fulks should be heralded. He’s one of those few men who genuinely expanded the boundaries of what constituted acceptable forms and styles of play. He may not have perfected the methods, but he undoubtedly struck a match that fueled the forging fire of modern basketball.
3x All-BAA 1st Team (1947-’49)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1951)
2x All-Star (1951-’52)
Regular Season Averages: 489 Games
Playoff Averages: 31 Games