Former Wildcat made NBAFebruary 4, 2021
By GREG ECKERLE
If there was a Mount Rushmore of Jasper basketball players, Paul Hoffman would likely be the first one honored.
His credentials may never be matched. When he graduated from Jasper High School in 1943, Hoffman was not given a chance to be named Indiana Mr. Basketball since one was not picked because of World War II. Several coaches and sportswriters of that era said he would have been their choice. In college, Hoffman was selected first team All-Big Ten for four years, and is still the only player so honored. Plus he was an All-American all four years at Purdue. To top it off, he was the Basketball Association of America Rookie of the Year in 1948 and a key starter on the 1948 BAA champion Baltimore Bullets. Hoffman played six seasons between the BAA the NBA.
He excelled at everything on the court — shooting, passing, dribbling, rebounding, defending, footwork underneath the basket, and simply outsmarting and outhustling opponents. His All-Big Ten selections came at three different positions — forward, guard, and center. And in the low-paying NBA, believe it or not, he sometimes even sold popcorn, in his uniform, when he was not on the court.
His style of play earned him the nickname “Pulverizing Paul” at Jasper. Baltimore’s NBA fans quickly dubbed him “The Bear,” which still sticks today, long after his passing in 1998. He was also known as “The Body” and “The Enforcer.”
“I played it tough and hard,” Hoffman told the late Jack Schneider, an area sportswriter, in a 1988 interview. “I took no prisoners at all. I gave nobody anything. My teammates used to get so mad at me, saying, it’s only practice. I said, ‘If you loaf in practice, you’re going to loaf in a game.’ I was very aggressive and hard-nosed. I never stood still when I was playing basketball.”
In a 1977 article about Hoffman’s induction into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, the Baltimore Sun stated, “Occasionally, an athlete will leave behind an attitude that changed the game in some significant way. Paul Hoffman did. He always, always played hard.”
Hoffman broke into coach Cabby O’Neill’s varsity starting lineup late in his freshman year of 1940. He set the Wildcats’ season and career scoring records (since broken), helped lead Jasper to big victories over eventual state champion Washington in 1941 and over number one Evansville Central in 1942, to SIAC crowns in 1941 and 1943, a sectional title in 1942 and a regional championship in 1943. He made the All-State team twice and the All SIAC team three times. The regional title was a highlight for Paul, as his 17 points and game-winning basket with two seconds remaining knocked off two-time defending state champion Washington, 33-31. The 6 feet 1 inch Hoffman had grabbed a rebound at Washington’s end, and as reported in The Herald, “Wheeling around to dart toward his own basket, Big Paul was momentarily stopped by three Hatchetmen, as he went down on one knee. However, he recovered in time and after dribbling the length of the floor calmly laid in a one-hander from the foul circle while the other two Hatchet players looked on.” Jasper was finally derailed by Bedford and its six-four star, John Brennan, in the semi-state championship game, as Hoffman was hampered by two blisters on the bottom of a foot. Hoffman and Brennan were widely considered the state’s two best players. In a column comparing the two, The Evansville Courier’s Dan Scism preferred Hoffman “because (he) can do so many more things well.” Even a Bedford reporter agreed Hoffman was more versatile, faster and more clever. Bill Slyker of Evansville College picked Hoffman, saying he “will be a great player in any league.” Evansville Memorial coach Don Ping agreed, saying “Hoffman is a great player on any part of the court.”
A telling description of Hoffman’s playing style appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal after a victory at Jeffersonville, “Hoffman’s single-handed razzle-dazzle exhibition will be one for Red Devil fans to remember for years to come. ‘Pulverizing Paul,’ a strapping hunk of dynamite, twisted, squirmed and sailed through the air with the greatest of ease to garner 15 points. He did about everything there was to do with a basketball except chew it to pieces.”
After high school, in the midst of World War II, Hoffman enlisted in the Merchant Marines. But when his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of North Carolina, he was flung from the second deck, incurred a double hernia, and was honorably discharged. Yet, just a month after a hernia operation, he started in Purdue’s first basketball game of the 1943-44 season. As a freshman, he scored his collegiate high of 28 points in a big win at Wisconsin. At 6 feet, 3 inches, he was already being assigned to guard the opponent’s best offensive player, whether a guard, forward, or center. That included defending DePaul’s six-ten center, George Mikan, who was named the best basketball player of the first half-century. Mikan scored 13, six below his average, and DePaul won by two. Mikan also knocked out Hoffman’s two front teeth, but they later became close friends, with Mikan serving as best man in Hoffman’s wedding. Hoffman set a Big Ten career scoring mark (since broken), was Purdue’s leading rebounder for four years, and was selected to the Purdue All-Time Basketball Team in 1997. In March, 1947, he was voted the outstanding player of the East-West College All-Star game in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The AP game story said Hoffman was “a bearcat on rebounds and was the defensive ace of the night. He played a scintillating floor game, scored 14 points, and his timely shooting staved off the East’s second-half rally.” A few months later, he was a starting guard for the College All-Stars that beat the world pro champion Indianapolis Kautskys, 68-62, in Chicago Stadium.
He also lettered two years in baseball and one in football at Purdue, despite never having played football as Jasper didn’t have a team. Ironically, Hoffman thought he was a better baseball player than a basketball player. “I liked baseball better than basketball,” he told Schneider. “It was easier for me. I felt my skills were better in baseball, and felt I would have been more successful in baseball.” Seven-time National League batting champion Rogers Hornsby, a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, tried to sign Hoffman to a baseball contract when he was a Purdue sophomore. Hoffman loved to catch, also played the outfield, and was a power hitter. Upon graduating from Purdue, Hoffman was a first round BAA draft choice, but was also offered three baseball contracts, and a football contract from the Philadelphia Eagles, who wanted him as a halfback or fullback. The Bullets’ offer of $4,000 and a car won out. Hoffman also didn’t want to spend time in the baseball minor leagues.
Two months into his rookie year, Sport magazine was already praising Hoffman: “Paul Hoffman is known to his Baltimore teammates as The Body. The pros say he’s the strongest player they’ve ever come up against.” His coach, Buddy Jeannette, regarded him “as the best rebound man in the league.” The Baltimore Sun called him “a bull of a man who wrecked all of basketball’s china shops, and had a deadly one-hander.” Hoffman entered the BAA weighing 210 pounds and retired from the NBA at 225 pounds.
In the 1948 BAA Finals, Baltimore faced the heavily-favored Philadelphia Warriors. The Bullets lost Game 1 and were behind by 21 at halftime of the second game in Philadelphia when they mounted the largest halftime-deficit comeback in Finals history. Incredibly, this was before the inception of the shot clock. A wire story noted, “On the shoulders of Paul Hoffman’s 14 points, Baltimore orchestrated a 46-22 second-half advantage.” A Philadelphia newspaper wrote, “It was the tallies of Baltimore’s Connie Simmons together with the aggressive playing of Paul Hoffman that decided the game.” With four seconds to go, Hoffman tipped in a missed free throw to make the final score 66-63.
Baltimore won Game 3, 72-70. In the pivotal Game 4 at Baltimore, Hoffman had one of his best career performances, hitting 10-of-20 field goals and 7-of-8 free throws for 27 points, leading the Bullets to a 78-75 win and a 3-1 series lead. The Philadelphia Inquirer described him as a “barrel-chested, bull-like speedster,” and a later headline blared, “Warriors must stop Hoffman.” The Bullets clinched the championship with a 88-73 win in Game 6 at Baltimore, as Hoffman scored 15. “The Bullets let me do more or less what I wanted on defense,” said Hoffman. “I guess I helped disorganize things (for the opponent’s offense) once in a while.”
Hoffman had his best scoring season in 1949-50, a team-leading 14.4 points per game, which was the 11th-highest in the NBA. His single game high of 32 came in a 94-90 win over the Boston Celtics in January, 1953. Making that mark even sweeter was it came against Hall of Famer Bob Cousy in his home town of Worcester, Massachusetts, and his Hall of Fame teammates Bill Sharman and Ed Macauley, and their legendary Hall of Fame coach, Red Auerbach. Hoffman said Cousy was the toughest man for him to guard. He recalled the first time Cousy used a behind-the-back dribble against him. “I was really embarrassed. I felt like my feet were nailed to the floor. I said, ‘Cooz, do that again, and I’ll throw you in the stands!’ Cousy did it to me again, and I body-slammed him real good. Years later, when we were both retired, he’d still remind me about it.” In February, 1954, Hoffman enjoyed another great night against those same Celtics, posting a rare triple-double of 19 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds in a Baltimore win. Hoffman finished his NBA career in 1955 with game averages of 10.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists. And he was also usually assigned to guard the other team’s top scorer. In his final year he even coached the team for several games when the head coach was unable to attend. The Bullets went out of business that year when the team was playing on the road. Hoffman had to facilitate sneaking the team out of their hotel when the club couldn’t pay the bill. He then played for New York and Philadelphia before retiring.
From 1955 to 1959, Hoffman was head baseball coach, assistant basketball coach and director of the physical education department at Purdue. He had been promised the head basketball coaching job after Ray Eddy retired. But when Eddy stayed longer, Hoffman returned to Baltimore as a parks and recreation superintendent.
In Hoffman’s Baltimore Sun obituary, team owner Jake Embry said, “He was willing to defend anyone, and when Hoffman got the ball, no one got in his way. He was a big, strong boy who looked like a linebacker.” The same story noted “his first wife, Mitzi, frowned on his playing professional basketball and running around in public in short pants.”
One of Hoffman’s sons, Bruce, delighted in a story his mother Audrey often told. “There wasn’t a lot of money for NBA players, so my father and a teammate actually set up a popcorn stand at the end of the court. When they weren’t playing, they would run down to the popcorn stand and sell popcorn. Mom just couldn’t understand that.”
When his father was general manager of the Bullets from 1963 to 1965, Bruce recalled him coming out of the stands to break up a fight between the seven foot, one inch Wilt Chamberlain and the six foot, 11 inch Walt Bellamy. “My father got between them, put a hand on both of their chests, and just held them apart,” said Bruce, a Bullets water boy at the time. “He never turned a blind eye to a fight.”
Hoffman was also quite a character. He became close friends with Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who had a habit of lighting up a “victory cigar” on the bench when he felt a win was assured. Before one Celtics game at Baltimore in 1964, Hoffman snatched a cigar protruding from Auerbach’s pocket before the game and told him, “You don’t need this.” The Bullets won the game.
Asked by Schneider which level he enjoyed playing the most, Hoffman replied, “I loved them all, high school, college and pro. The most disappointing time of my life is when I knew that there would be a day I would never be able to play basketball again. As much as basketball meant to me, there’s an emptiness. I’m disappointed I wasn’t better. But you’ve got to be satisfied with what you’ve done. I’ve had a good life. It’s good if you can say that at one time you were as good as any basketball player in the country.”
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