The NFL wasn’t the only major American sports league to play on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963.
The NBA had one game scheduled on that date, which later came to represent one of the greatest regrets of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle‘s career. Oscar Robertson scored 32 points to lead the Cincinnati Royals past the visiting St. Louis Hawks, 122-113, on the same day pro football staged, with extreme mixed emotions, its slate of 12 games across the country.
President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas on Friday afternoon, but the mourning that descended on the nation didn’t completely bring sports to a halt.
Rozelle’s decision to stick to the NFL schedule was criticized at the time and, in hindsight, almost certainly would have been handled differently today. In a Los Angeles Times story looking back to that weekend and the Rams’ game against Baltimore, writer Paresh Dave recounted Rozelle’s thinking:
In New York, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle received call after call from owners. Several thought like the Rams’ crew — they didn’t want to play. At least one said Sunday’s games should go on.
The competing American Football League games and nearly every major weekend event, except for a few high school and college football games, had been canceled.
Rozelle diverged, making a decision that would later dog him and remain a major consideration for decades to come whenever unimaginable calamities befell the nation.
The deciding factor for Rozelle was a call that day with the “uniquely situated” Pierre Salinger, according to the book about the 1963 season “Clouds Over the Goalpost.” Salinger, the White House press secretary, said to Rozelle, “Jack would have wanted you to play the games.” U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, had also wanted the games to continue.
But what about the NBA? It split the decision.
Harvey Pollack, 91, one of the league’s walking treasures as its one-man archives and statistical repository, couldn’t pull the details immediately from his memory banks. But a handy past copy of his own “Harvey Pollack Statistical Yearbook” was all he needed.
“I almost forgot I had this in my book. Postponed, cancelled or moved games … pages 162-163,” Pollack said, setting the phone aside momentarily.
Turns out, the NBA had three games scheduled on the night of the day that Kennedy was slain. All three – New York at Baltimore, Boston at Philadephia and the L.A. Lakers at San Francisco – were postponed by commissioner J. Walter Kennedy.
Given the chance to do things over, the NFL probably would have done the same thing to its Sunday schedule, according to the Times story:
“If we offended anybody, we apologize,” Rams owner Dan Reeves said after attending Sunday morning Mass. “But there can be no disrespect to President Kennedy’s memory when none was intended.”
Reeves offered refunds to fans unwilling to come to the Coliseum, where Kennedy had accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president three years earlier in front of 50,000 people.
Two days after his death, almost 49,000 people entered the Coliseum. It was a slightly above-average crowd for the Rams. Four of the six other NFL games that Sunday sold out.
But the NBA already was back at it, its lower profile on the American sports scene perhaps shielding it from the second-guessing the NFL faced. On Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, its two regularly scheduled games went off as usual: the Knicks won at home over Detroit, 108-99, and St. Louis also won at home, beating Cincinnati 133-121. A day later, that Hawks-Royals game was the only one on the NBA schedule — it was a nine-team NBA back then — and the Royals got even on the tail end of their home-and-home set.
Pollack was asked what else he might have remembered of that weekend. Naturally, he was working. The master statistician also handled football games for Temple University and wound up heading to Gettysburg, Pa., in the hours immediately after JFK’s murder.
Informed that the 76ers’ game against Boston was being postponed, Pollack — who otherwise would have missed the Temple game on Saturday — hopped in the car with the school’s sports information director.
“I told him, ‘OK, I’ll go,’ ” Pollack recalled. “When we got to the motel in Gettysburg where the Temple team was staying, there was a sign on the door: Game postponed Saturday.”