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In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer Maureen Fulton talked with Cal Christensen, who played basketball for the University of Toledo from 1947-50 and in the NBA for five years. Christensen was part of the first class of UT's Varsity "T" Hall of Fame in 1977.
Toledo native Cal Christensen defines himself as a journeyman NBA player and called himself "one of five guys" on the University of Toledo men's basketball team.
He wasn't overly impressed by his playing career, but was thankful for the opportunities it gave him to experience the world, especially as part of traveling teams after playing in the NBA.
"I didn't make any money but I got to see the world," Christensen said. "When you travel you realize how lucky you are to live in this country."
After a standout career at UT from 1947-50, Christensen played in 291 NBA games in five years. A 6-foot-5 center, Christensen used the skills taught to him by UT coach Jerry Bush to become effective scoring in the post and a defensive stalwart.
Christensen grew up in Toledo and graduated from Macomber High School in 1945. He joined the Rockets in early 1947 after completing his service duty and joined the team that semester, playing three more years after that.
The teams Christensen played on at UT had a record of 56-23. His sophomore year the Rockets finished 21-5 and his senior year they were 22-6. In 1949 the Rockets defeated third-ranked Michigan 57-36. In Christensen's final game against rival Bowling Green, a team that had recruited him in high school, the Rockets beat the Falcons 58-55 on the road.
Christensen was drafted in the fourth round of the 1950 NBA draft by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. It was just the second year of the league's existence. He played two years with the franchise, which moved to Milwaukee in his second year. Milwaukee cut him before the next season started and he signed with the Rochester Royals in New York, where he played three seasons.
Christensen averaged 5.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in his NBA career. His best season statistically was his rookie year in 1950-51 when he put up 6.6 points and 7.8 rebounds.
Roster spots were tight in the early NBA, with eight teams in 1954-55 and 10 players to a team. After Christensen concluded his NBA career he found several more opportunities to travel and play basketball. He traveled with teams such as the Hawaiian Surf Riders, the United States All-Stars and Texas Cowboys, going to places like Central and South America, Australia and New Zealand, Japan and Europe.
When he ended his playing career Christensen got a job with Johns-Manville Fiber Glass, Inc., working in human resources and sales.
Christensen, 80, lives in Waterville with his wife, Sharon. They have three children. He has season tickets for UT basketball.
"I went into the service after graduation and was in about 16 months. I didn't think they'd take me because my eyes were so bad, but they were taking everybody at that time.
"When I came back I enrolled at Toledo in early 1947. I knew Mr. [Bill] Orwig, and my high school coach said if you're going to make a name for yourself you might as well do it in your hometown.
"I TRIED TO PLAY football my sophomore year. We didn't have football at Macomber. I was only out for practice about three weeks and tore ligaments in my knee. As long as it was warm I could run, as soon as it got cold, I couldn't. I drug my leg around for a year and a half but still played. They finally put a cast on it and the swelling went down.
"Coach Bush changed the game as far as I'm concerned in the Toledo area. He taught the give-and-go, picks. Basically I think he improved the game in Toledo, the overall coaching and style of play. The high school coaches used to come out and watch us practice and pick up things. I thought he did a great job and helped us learn more about basketball. I learned how to face the basket. I was not a good shooter but I could face the basket.
"BOWLING GREEN COACH Mr. [Harold] Anderson recruited me once in high school but I went to the service. He made All-Americans. With Bush we were just one of five guys. We didn't have the horses Bowling Green did. They were as good as Kentucky. They had some great players.
"In college we used to scrimmage against the Rochester Royals, which I later played for, and I knew I could play in the NBA then. I got a feel for it. They brought a lot of rookies into camp my first year and I was the only one who survived and made the team.
"WE HAD THREE GUYS the first year I played in the Tri-Cities who were reserves in the military. On a 10-man roster, we probably had about 18 ballplayers coming through because of the Korean War. As a rookie I had to take care of the dry cleaning, be the ball boy. A whole team's payroll was approximately $80,000. The most I ever made was $5,500 a year. I was a journeyman ballplayer.
"The interpretation of the rules is so different now in the NBA. We weren't allowed to dunk in pro basketball. You take a guy like Magic Johnson, he carried the ball. If he had to dribble straight up and down, a smaller guy would take the ball from him. They changed the game so a big guy can be a guard. I don't understand how the two steps and a hop isn't a travel. That is so ridiculous."
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