Anybody remember the Los Angeles Red Devils?
Long before the Lakers, even before the NBA, the Red Devils were Los Angeles’ professional basketball team.
They didn’t last long, but they were good. They went 13-3 in their short season of 1946-47 and split two games with George Mikan and the Chicago American Gears, champions of the National Professional Basketball League, forerunner of the NBA.
The big names were Jackie Robinson -- yes, that Jackie Robinson -- from UCLA; Eddie Oram, an All-American guard from USC, and Art Stoefen, a 6-foot-5 center who had played at Stanford with the great Hank Luisetti.
Their coach, manager and founder was Jack Duddy, a one-time star at Hollywood High and Chapman College who put the Red Devils together in hopes of getting a franchise in the NPBL.
“Duddy told us that if we were representative, we would get into the pro league, but by the time we broke up the league had folded and that was the end of that,” recalled Irv Noren, who played with the team before signing a baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and playing 11 seasons in the major leagues.
The Red Devils proved their point, splitting with the champion Gears and taking two from the Sheboygan Red Skins, Flint Dow A.C. and the Salem Trailblazers, but when their three-month season was over, professional basketball was in confusion and Duddy folded his dream.
Maurice White, owner of the Gears, tried to found his own league to capitalize on the popularity of Mikan, and when he failed, the team was broken up and Mikan was assigned to the new Minneapolis Lakers of the NPBL. The next year, 1949, the Lakers and the NPBL merged with the Basketball Assn. of America to form the NBA.
The Lakers did not come to Los Angeles until the 1960-61 season.
Scoring was not what it is today; teams rarely got more than 45 points and leading scorers no more than 10 or 15. There was no 24-second shot clock and goaltending was permitted.
Robinson, who had led the Pacific Coast Conference’s Southern Division in scoring in 1940 with a 12.4 average and 1941 with an 11.1 average, was playing for the Red Devils in the off-season between his minor league year with the Montreal Royals and his rookie year with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Four of Duddy’s players either were or became big-league baseball players. In addition to Robinson and Noren, who became an All-Star outfielder with the New York Yankees, the roster included George Crowe, who played eight seasons with the Boston Braves and Cincinnati Reds, and Everett “Ziggy” Marcell, a nine-year veteran of the Negro League who came from the Harlem Globetrotters.
Robinson and Marcell also played pro football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs, making them members of a select group who played three professional sports.
“Marcell was quite a guy, he taught us all the Globetrotter tricks and he was a heck of a guard too,” said Noren, who a year earlier had been California junior college player of the year at Pasadena.
The Red Devils, in black uniforms with red and gray trim, played most of their games on a portable floor in the Olympic Auditorium at 18th and Grand, with occasional visits to Loyola High and the El Monte American Legion gym.
“We worked out at Chapman, on Vermont Avenue in L.A., where Duddy had a deal, and we kept changing players but we could hold our own with anyone,” Noren said. “The Gears had Mikan and were the pro champions and we beat them.”
Mikan, who played at DePaul before turning pro, was named the “greatest basketball player of the first half century” by Associated Press. A 6-10 center, he was the first of the game’s dominant big men.
In back-to-back games on Nov. 22-23, 1946, the Gears won the opener, 59-56, even though Stoefen scored 24 points to 14 for Mikan. The next night, Stoefen looped in a one-handed hook shot in the last minute to give the Red Devils a 47-46 victory. Robinson was high scorer with 13 points.
When Noren, Stoefen and Bob Cotton, a 6-7 center from Texas Wesleyan, joined the Gears in early 1947 after Duddy closed up shop, one Chicago newspaper said that a Gear spokesman referred to the Red Devils as “the American Gears’ farm team.”
“I was just out of Pasadena Junior College and the Gears paid my way back to Chicago and gave me $100 a game. I thought I had it made,” Noren said. “The Gears didn’t want their fans to know they’d brought back someone from a junior college, so when they’d introduce me, it was ‘Irv Noren, forward from UCLA.’ Nobody knew the difference back then.”
Duddy was a Pasadena businessman and 1942 graduate of Chapman, when the school was located in downtown Los Angeles. He later served on Chapman’s board of trustees and when the campus moved to Orange in 1954, the Chapman Tower, an 18-foot-high landmark in front of the Guggenheim Gallery and Moulton Center, was dedicated in Duddy’s memory.
“Duddy had a good idea, he was just ahead of his time,” said Noren, 79, who lives in Oceanside and owns thoroughbreds that run at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar.