The Story of Joe Fulks: A Basketball Innovator

In the rich, star-studded annals of basketball in the state of Kentucky, few have accomplished the wide-reaching, game-changing success of Joe Fulks.  Yet, Fulks is relegated to "head scratching" status at the mention of his name.  Ten-to-one odds that as you read the headline of this article, you were asking yourself, "Joe Fulks, who's that ... a new Cal recruit?" 

No such musings are necessary when recalling past Kentucky greats such as Richie Farmer, Rex Champman, King Kelly Coleman, Darrell Griffith, or Allen Houston.  They are household names, at least in the Commonwealth.  But none came close to accomplishing the individual achievements of Joe Fulks. 

In the modern age of ESPN, Fox Sports, Yahoo! Sports, and the many other media giants like them, along with the inundation of Internet sites devoted to the coverage of high school, college, and professional sports teams, it seems odd that someone who meant so much to the game of basketball could be overlooked, and in some cases, forgotten.  And in a state whose population holds round-ball accomplishments so close to the heart and mind, neglecting by omission one of the sports greatest and most innovative players is tantamount to heresy.  Perhaps because Fulks' greatest accomplishments were outside the boundaries of Kentucky, and in a time when very few US households had the luxury of television, his legacy is not as renown as it should be.  But overlooked and/or forgotten is the predicament Joe Fulks finds himself in.

Fulks' Early Life

Born in Birmingham, Kentucky (Marshall County) on October 26, 1921, Fulks took a liking to basketball at a very early age.  After watching the local high school team practice, Fulks became enthralled with the game and could be found tossing tin cans into a basket on an outdoor court.  His family was much too poor to afford an actual basketball, but he was quickly given a used ball by the local high school coach who was impressed with the pre-adolescent's skill level.

A few years after Fulks' discovery of basketball, though, his family was forced to move from Birmingham, because of the Tennessee Valley Authority's damming of the Tennessee River, which left Fulks' hometown underwater in what is now Kentucky Lake.  Kuttawa, Kentucky (Lyon County) is where the Fulks clan relocated, and where Joe's basketball skill grew to a whole other level.

Attending Kuttawa High School, and now 6-5, Fulks dominated the local competition in the late 1930's.  Fulks broke every Kentucky state basketball scoring record while earning the nickname, the "Kuttawa Klipper," and leading his tiny high school to the Kentucky High School Basketball Tournament in 1940; the one and only appearance in the state tournament for Kuttawa.  And although Fulks' squad lost in the first round, University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp was impressed enough to offer Fulks a scholarship.

Fulks, though, turned down The Baron's offer, and opted to instead attend Millsaps College in Mississippi.  But shortly after arriving on campus, Fulks had a change of heart, and returned to Kentucky to play at Murray State Teachers College (now Murray State University), then an NAIA school.

Fulks' College Years

Playing for coach Rice Mountjoy from 1941-'43, Fulks averaged 13.2 points per game during his three years with the Racers; an astounding figure for its time (for comparisons sake; prior to 1949 the only UK players to average more than 13.2 points per game in a season were All-Americas Leroy Edwards and Aggie Sale).  His senior year, Fulks earned NAIA All-America status (1943), and was later inducted into the NAIA Basketball Hall of Fame.

Murray State is most importantly where Fulks introduced to the world his new-fangled way of shooting the basketball.  In an age of one and two-handed set shots, Fulks would often leave the floor, twisting in the air to get off a shot from above his head; the shot was named a "turnaround jumper", and in the early 1940's this technique was something altogether new and befuddling.  The "turnaround jumper" Fulks mastered complimented quite nicely his (what is now) traditional jump shot, which was also a never-seen-before attempt to score the ball.  Fulks, along with Chuck Diven (Penn), Hank Luisetti (Stanford), Kenny Sailors (Wyoming) and Garland Pinholster (North Georgia) are credited with innovating the modern-day jumper.  But Fulks was the first to utilize the shot on a regular basis, and with such overwhelming success.  

As if his "unusual" way of shooting wasn't enough, Fulks once again solidified his standing as an innovative basketball pioneer by virtue of the unique skill of being able to make shots with both his left and right hands.  A player being ambidextrous, at that time, was simply unheard of.

After leaving Murray State in 1943, Fulks joined the Marines where he served for three years.  Although Fulks served in Guam and Iwo Jima, he still played ball, traveling around the United States with an elite basketball team of Marines called the All-Star Leathernecks.  Fulks served three years for his country, most of the tour overseas, before returning to civilian life in 1946.

Fulks' Professional Years

The formation of the Basketball Association of America (forerunner to the NBA) the same year Fulks left the Marines, now, seems like divine intervention.   Philadelphia Warriors head coach Eddie Gottlieb was searching for basketball talent to fill out his roster for the BAA's first season, and knowing of Fulks' exploits while with the Leathernecks, Gottlieb offered the ex-Marine $5,000 (an extraordinary sum at the time) to join the upstart Warriors in the newly formed professional league.  Fulks counter-offered with $8,000 and a new car, and Gottlieb agreed.

History was on the cusp of being made.

It did not take long for Gottlieb and the rest of the BAA-NBA to realize Fulks wasn't like other professional basketball players.  Fulks wowed crowds with his array of jump shots, floaters, and his "turnaround jumper" he would often take (and make) from excess of 20 feet.  Maddening to some defenders must have been another of Fulks' unique abilities: transferring the ball from one hand to the other in mid-air, and then shooting. 

Fulks' gift for making the revolutionary jump shot from all over the court quickly propelled him to superstar status not only in Philadelphia -- where a song was written about him and a sandwich named after him -- but also the rest of the country.  For Fulks would invade enemy arenas, and mesmerize with his creations, those watching history in the making.  His athleticism and wide range of shots were simply something no one had ever before witnessed on the basketball court.  So famous was Fulks that he earned what may be the first nickname in the history of pro basketball: "Jumping Joe."

In that first season (1946-'47), Fulks led the league in scoring by averaging an astronomical 23.2 points per game in the pre-shot clock era, and when few teams scored even 70 points per contest.  As if to emphasize his dominance, Fulks' 23 points per game was a full six-points ahead of his next competitor for the scoring title (Bob Feerick). Furthermore, Fulks and Feerick were the only two players in the entire league to average more than 15 points per game. 

Fulks now had a bounty on his head, but it didn't matter.  In the 1947 BAA-NBA Finals, Fulks scored 37 points in one game -- 34 points in the title contest against the Chicago Stags -- and continued to amaze those who watched him perform while leading the Warriors to the first BAA-NBA championship. 

In his second year in the BAA-NBA, Fulks averaged 22.1 points per game, and would have once again led the league in scoring, but at that time the scoring title was awarded to the player with the most total points.  And with Fulks missing five games with an ankle injury, Max Zaslofsky won the title by scoring 1,007 points to Fulks' 949.  Fulks did, though, lead the Warriors to the BAA-NBA Finals, where they lost in six games to the Baltimore Bullets.

In his third year, 1949, Fulks averaged a career-best 26.0 points per game.  And in February of '49, Fulks secured his place in NBA history by setting the professional scoring record with 63 points (a record that would stand until 1959) in a 108-87 Warrior victory over the Indianapolis Jets.  In that historic game, Fulks made 27 of 56 shots and set records for points in a half (33); field goals made and field goals attempted.  Perhaps in response to Fulks' incredible scoring ability, that same year The Sporting News called Fulks "the greatest basketball player in the country."

Fulks would go on to play professional basketball for a total of eight seasons, retiring in 1954 at the age of 32.

The accomplishments Fulks achieved during his pro career outline how great of a player he was:

  • One-time NBA-BAA champion.
  • Scored 8,003 points, averaging 16.4 points per game for his career.
  • In 31 playoff games, Fulks averaged 19.0 points per game.
  • Played in two NBA All-Star games.
  • 3-time All-NBA First Team.
  • Left the game as the NBA's second leading scorer behind George Mikan.
  • A member of the NBA Silver Anniversary team (announced in 1970) along with Mikan, Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Bill Sharmon, and Sam Jones.  
  • Inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978.

So dominating was Fulks throughout his time on professional courts, that legendary Boston Celtic coach and owner Red Auerbach said this about the Kentuckian:

"He could shoot from anyplace.  We set up our defenses to revolve around him."

No bigger complement has Auerbach ever given a player.

And Fulks' NBA coach, Eddie Gottlieb, gushes:

"Joe was one of the game's pioneers.  He had the greatest assortment of shots I've ever seen in basketball; then, now, or who knows when."

 

 After Joe Fulks retired from the NBA in 1954, he returned home to Marshall County.  He worked for many years for GAF Corporation in Calvert City, Kentucky, and also served as an NBA scout for the Philadelphia franchise until 1965.  In 1976, shortly after becoming the director of recreational activities at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville, Fulks was tragically murdered.  He was 54 years old.

Fulks will be remembered for his innovations, his vast array of shots, and his scoring prowess.  But, what he should be remembered for is the fact that he's a Kentuckian ... a Kentuckian who mastered the game which seems "unmasterable" ... a Kentuckian who changed forever the game Kentuckians love so dearly.

A Big Thank You   

If you, the reader, enjoyed reading about Joe Fulks, you have A Sea of Blue's own oldcat70 to thank for it.  Oldcat introduced me to Fulks last year in an email (I recognized the name, but didn't know who Fulks was), and has waited patiently for me to write this piece. 

So a very sincere thank you to oldcat for bringing to my attention a player so important to the history of basketball in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!

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