Take It Easy, Ed

Editor’s Note: this article first appeared at Hardwood Paroxysm on November 9, 2011, the day of Macauley’s death

Photo via Life Magazine

“Ed matured quicker than most of us. He was an all-around type of guy who had a stablizing effect on us as a leader. We all learned something from him.” – Bob Cousy

Via 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time by Alex Sachare

This is the trouble in idolizing and adoring legends from bygone eras when you’re a 20-something like me. The shrouded mystique and the tantalizing aura of what these people did draws me in. I thoroughly enjoy the play of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and other greats of today’s NBA. The music of Erykah Badu and the Black Keys thrills me too. But there’s something about catching deep-from-the-vaults archival footage of James Brown & the Famous Flames taking impassioned begging to new heights or the shrouded mystique and aura of players from the 50s captured primarily in still photos like the one above.

Even when you know the era wasn’t totally charming and had its flaws, there is still a sense of quaintness about these rare snippets of a departed era. And like those eras, we all eventually depart. On Tuesday, Ed Macauley took his leave.

A 6’9″ beanpole that weighed in at 190lbs, “Easy Ed” was one of the top centers of his day in both college and the NBA. Macauley was from St. Louis and he led the St. Louis University Billikens to the NIT title in 1948 and was a two-time All-American, in the process becoming a towering legend in the area. With due respect to Jo Jo White, Ed’s  the best basketball player those parts have ever seen.

After his college days, Macauley starred in the NBA as the go-to pivot man on the 50s Celtics. Teaming with Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, the team was an offensive juggernaut and the most entertaining watch in pro ball. Cousy, working his dribbling magic, garnered the name “Houdini of the Hardwood”. Sharman was the quiet, stoic type; an assassin who would kill you with his jump shots. Then there was Easy Ed flowing like quicksilver up the court for fastbreak layups and serpentine hookshots that allowed him to slither past giants like George Mikan.

In his 6 seasons in Boston, Macauley never failed to suit up for the C’s in the NBA All-Star game. In the inaugural contest, Ed took home MVP honors with 20 points and 6 rebounds. Three times he made the All-NBA 1st team and achieved a 2nd team selection as well. The Celtics were always a regular season success never finishing below .500 and always making the playoffs.

However, once in the playoffs the team floundered three years in a row to the New York Knicks, finally defeating them in 1954 only to discover the Syracuse Nationals standing in their way for that year and the next two. Sensing the team, as constructed, had gone as far it would. Red Auerbach engineered one of the fateful trades in NBA history: Ed, along with draftee Cliff Hagan, was sent to the St. Louis Hawks for draftee Bill Russell prior to the 1956-57 season.

And this is where nostalgia for the past must be coupled with sobering reality. On the one hand, St. Louis was the NBA’s southernmost outpost and the fans were certainly not beyond racist jeering in the 1950s. Certainly, having Bill Russell on the roster would not have gone over well. On the other, Macauley’s son was suffering from spinal meningitis in St. Louis, so although he had the power to veto the trade out of Boston, he sullenly welcomed it in order to be near his sick child.

Often cited as one of the great swindles, this trade actually worked out quite well for both teams (though obviously better in the long-run for Boston). Both made their first NBA Finals the year of the trade, squaring off in a series for the ages. It went the full 7 games, bookmarked by identical 125-123 2OT finishes. Unfortunately for Macauley, the Hawks took Game 1, but the Celtics got the Game 7 win and the title. The very next year the Hawks got revenge on the Celtics taking the crown in 6 games, including perhaps the greatest close-out game performance in Finals history as Hawks PF Bob Pettit scored 50 points.

Regrettably for players of the day, their careers peaked and finished early. Only 29-years old, Macauley was already past his prime. After just 14 games in the 1958-59 season, Easy Ed retired from playing. However, he strode the sidelines as coach for the Hawks for the rest of the 1959 season and also 1960 when the Hawks again made it to the Finals only to lose to Boston in 7 games for a second time. Ed retired from coaching after that Game 7 with 89 wins and 48 losses. Quickly following that retirement, at the tender age of 32, Macauley was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He remains the youngest inductee ever.

If two games had swung the other way, he’d be “3x NBA Champion Ed Macauley” and maybe given more popular acclaim. But as it stands, Ed Macauley is and was beloved by those who knew him. Celtics fans were heartbroken in 1956 when they lost their adored Macauley to St. Louis for the unproven Russell. Undoubtedly Russell’s race exacerbated the vitriol, but the affection for Macauley was true. They were giving up someone great, a 6x all-star who delivered 18 points and 8 rebounds a night. This was no scrub, in terms of skill or heart, they were giving up. Owner Walter Brown seemed like he was trading a friend instead of a player:

I don’t want to make the deal, Ed because you are part of this organization. I can’t imagine the Celtics without you.

Easy Ed had that kind of effect on people.

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