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Before the Wizards, there were the Capitols, the first “flame out” in NBA history

The Capitols were one of the Basketball Association of America’s best teams from 1946-51, though they were title-less. Their most notable “flame out” was in their inaugural season in 1946-47 with a team coached by the late Red Auerbach.

Boston Celtics
Red Auerbach coached the Washington Capitols in its first three seasons.

Earlier today, SB Nation NBA Editor and Bullets Forever founder Mike Prada introduced a four-part series of the NBA’s best titleless teams. In the first part of his series, he went over 16 teams that “flamed out.” The Washington Wizards were represented because the 1968-69 Baltimore Bullets made the list.

Though the Bullets made the list (they ultimately made the NBA Finals in 1971 and 1975 before winning it all in 1978), you will also find that there was a team that played in the nation’s capital, namely the 1946-47 Washington Capitols (not spelled Capitals like the NHL team). The Wizards franchise was founded in 1961 as the Chicago Packers before moving to Baltimore in 1963 and then to Washington in 1973.

So who were the Capitols? And why did the Capitols “flame out” or “choke?”

The Capitols were a charter team of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), a predecessor to the NBA.

Before the NBA adopted its current name, there were two competing basketball leagues that merged. One was the National Basketball League (NBL), which consisted of mostly midwestern cities and the other was the BAA, a 16 team league based both in the United States and Canada. The NBA considers the BAA’s history as its own.

In the BAA’s first season in 1946-47, there were 11 teams. The Capitols were one of them along with some current NBA teams like the Philadelphia (now Golden State) Warriors, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics. The BAA merged with the NBL in 1949 where the new league took the now-current National Basketball Association moniker.

Back in the BAA’s and NBA’s early days, players weren’t earning the high salaries their counterparts do today. And teams weren’t as heavily covered as they are now. Many BAA/NBA teams also folded, including the Capitols, who went out of business midway through the 1950-51 season.

The Capitols played at Uline Arena, which is located in the NoMA neighborhood at 1140 3rd Street NE. When it was a multipurpose arena, Uline Arena hosted Presidential balls and even Beatles concerts during its heyday. Currently, it’s retail and office space in one of Washington’s trendier areas.

Who were some famous players or coaches on the Capitols?

The most famous Capitol wasn’t a player, but rather, their first head coach. Naismith Hall of Famer Red Auerbach was behind the bench for the team’s first three seasons from 1946-49. Auerbach then spent a season with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks) in 1949-50 before beginning his famed tenure with the Boston Celtics from 1950-66 where he won nine NBA championships.

Among the players, long-time Santa Clara Broncos men’s basketball coach Bob Feerick was among Washington’s best players, especially in their first two seasons.

Bones McKinney, a BAA First Team honoree in 1946-47, was also Wake Forest’s men’s basketball head coach from 1957-65 where the Demon Deacons made their only Final Four in 1962.

Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame player Earl Floyd also played for the Capitols in their last season.

Why did the ‘47 Capitols flame out?

The Capitols were 49-11 in their inaugural season where they led the Eastern Division and had a 14 game lead over the Warriors. In fact, they were the best team in the regular season by 10 games over the Chicago Stags, the Western Division winners.

The 1947 BAA Playoffs were a six-team tournament where second and third place teams faced each other in the first round and semifinals while the Eastern and Western Division winners faced each other in the second semifinals series. The Capitols lost the series to the Stags, four games to two despite sweeping Chicago 6-0 during the regular season. What’s even more frustrating was that Washington lost each of the first two games of the playoff series by double digits at home.

I can’t argue with Mike’s assessment that the this team was a flame out.

Where do the Capitols fit in D.C. professional basketball history?

The Capitols aren’t part of Wizards history, at least directly. However, the Capitols have some connections with major players in basketball history and played not too far from Capital One Arena and even closer to Union Station.

It will be interesting to see if the Wizards wear a green and white Caps throwback uniform sometime in the near future. After all, Auerbach went to college at George Washington University in Foggy Bottom and Lloyd went to high school in Alexandria, Va. near Washington.