The Lowdown: Richie Guerin

Years Active: 1957 – 1970
Regular Season Stats: 848 games, 32.4 mpg
17.3 ppg, 5.0 apg, 5.0 apg, 41.6% FG, 78% FT
Playoff Stats: 42 games, 32 mpg
15.6 ppg, 5.1 apg, 3.5 rpg, 42.9% FG, 80.3% FT
Accolades: 6x All-Star (1958 – ’63), 3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1959-’60, 1962), Coach of the Year (1968)

Photo via nasljerseys

“It is inconceivable to me that any coach in any sport, even under the most severe emotional strain, would threaten ‘there will be a lot of blood spilled on that floor tomorrow night’ and that ‘certain players may not be around the game is over.'”

NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy explaining why he fined Richie Guerin $1000 in 1970

Few have played basketball with as much intensity as Richie Guerin as he careened up and down the court leaving a wake of destruction. A point guard of fury, he routinely jawed, elbowed and belittled opponents and teammates alike. This pitbull of the hardwood wanted nothing more than to win, but like many greats, the ultimate success of a title would elude Guerin. However, in his quest he left a dubious mark as one of the pioneering score-first PGs in the NBA.

A standout guard for Iona College while averaging 20.5 points per game, Richie Guerin was drafted 17th by his hometown New York Knicks in the 1954 Draft. The Knicks would have to wait two years, however, to get their point guard. Guerin had been a Marine Reservist since he was 15 years old and now Uncle Sam called him up for active duty. Guerin served his two years at Quantico, Virginia, the recent home base for NBA all-star Paul Arizin. As the 1956-57 season loomed, Guerin finished his service and headed to New York.

The Knicks at this point was a team in transition. Since its inception a decade earlier, the franchise had always made the playoffs and from 1951 to 1953 strung together three straight appearances in the NBA Finals, although losing each time. The heroes of those teams were still around: Harry Gallatin and Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton in the middle and Carl Braun and Dick McGuirre in the backcourt.

For Guerin the presence of these veterans limited his role. He played only 25 minutes a night and averaged 10 points his rookie season as the Knicks missed the playoffs for the 1st time ever. After the season, New York overhauled the roster and turned the team over to Guerin and fellow youngster Kenny Sears. Clifton, McGuirre and Gallatin were all traded. Also of import was the barrel-shaped, 6’6″ PF/C Willie Nauls who was acquired by trading superfluous PG Slater Martin to the St. Louis Hawks.

The revamped roster loosened the noose around Guerin. His scoring average would increase every year from his rookie season in 1957 until 1962 when he averaged a career high 29 points per game. Mirroring this scoring rise was the effectiveness of his shooting. As a rookie, Guerin shot 37% but by the 1962 season he was hitting 44% of his field goal attempts. From the free throw line, his percentage astoundingly went up from 62% to 82%.

Guerin achieved these numbers with a relentless style of play. Although he certainly could hit them, jump shots were not his preferred method of scoring. Drive, drive, drive and more drive was what the doctor ordered for Richie. He possessed a fantastic hesitation dribble to freeze opponents before barreling into the lane. Or he would just blow by them without the hesitation dribble. Either route to the basket usually ended with a layup or a trip to the foul line.

Prior to the NBA/ABA merger in 1976, Guerin was one of 7 guards to average at least 6.5 FTAs per game for a career. And during his peak years of 1958 to 1963, only Jerry West and Oscar Robertson averaged more FTAs than Guerin’s 8.1 per game.

If Guerin didn’t feel like driving, he could use his 6’4″, 200-lbs frame to pound and grind smaller point guards into submission. His bullying post play even went so far as to make Bob Cousy beg for mercy during a game against the Celtics in the late 1950s.

Guerin certainly didn’t let up on Cousy, other opponents or even teammates. He and Nauls would get into flareups over each others’ shot selection. Guerin went apoplectic in 1962 during the game Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points. He tore into teammates for their supposedly terrible defense and still fumes at what he considered a charade at his Knicks’ expense:

…that game was not played as it should have been played. The second half was a travesty. I don’t care what the Philly people say, I’m convinced that during the half they decided to get Wilt 100. He took nearly every shot. In the normal flow, Wilt would have scored 80-85 points which is mind-boggling when you thing about it. I’m sorry, this may be basketball history but I always felt very bad about that game. I got so sick of it that I intentionally fouled out.

Before fouling out, Guerin took out his frustration by tossing in 39 points, cussing up a storm and even putting the fear of God into heckling fans (who happened to be wrestlers) by tersely asking, “What did you say?” Such a simple question from Guerin could make the most burl of men crawl into a ball. Future 76ers coach Alex Hannum picked up on the hatred and fury Guerin had toward losing and the tremendous pride he held:

I think the only guy who feels a stigma from that game is Richie Guerin. He is a combative ex-marine who never took any crap from anybody, and having Wilt score 100 against his team had to hurt.

Guerin himself, however, had a scoring exhibition for the ages three years earlier in 1959. His scoring binge was reminiscent in spirit of what Chamberlain would do in the future. The Knicks had already buried the Syracuse Nationals, ultimately winning 152-121, but he continued to press on stomping out the Nats. In the process, he set Madison Square Garden’s then single-game scoring record at 57 points:

Guerin, in his fourth season with the Knicks after two years in the Marines, scored 20 points in the first quarter and 12 in the second stanza for 32 at halftime. He slumped to 7 in the third period but wound up with a flourish as he netted 18 in the last 12 minutes…

Guerin broke Carl Braun’s Knick scoring record of 47 points set 12 years ago. He also eclipsed the Garden pro mark of 50, established by Philadelphia’s Neil Johnston in February 1954 and the college standard of 56 two seasons ago by Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati.

Guerin would also set the Knicks record for assists in one game with 21 in December of 1958. The scoring record has since been passed by Bernard King and the assist record by Chris Duhon. His stellar play was recognized to the tune of six straight all-star games from 1958 to 1963 and three All-NBA 2nd Team selections during that same period.

But for all these personal milestones, the Knicks were mediocre. Perennially stuck behind Boston, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, they achieved only one winning season and one playoff appearance, both in 1959, during Guerin’s tenure. Two games into the 1963-64 season, Guerin was traded to the St. Louis Hawks where he would turn into a most unusual commodity…

Transitioning into a 6th man role behind starting PG Lenny Wilkens, Guerin saw his numbers drop into a steady stream of 14 points and 4 or 5 assists a night. However, never had Guerin enjoyed such team success. In his first season, the Hawks came within one game of reaching the NBA Finals, losing to the San Francisco Warriors in 7 games.

Mid-way through the 1964-65 season, Guerin took over as head coach of the Hawks in addition to his playing duties. As player-coach, Guerin guided St. Louis to the Western finals in 2 of the next 3 seasons with a stable of players including Lou Hudson, Wilkens, Zelmo Beaty, Paul Silas, Joe Caldwell and Bill Bridges. Widely hailed as one of the best coaches in the league, the 34-year old Guerin retired from playing following the 1967 season to focus full-time on coaching and in 1968 he took home Coach of the Year honors.

As the Hawks moved from St. Louis to Atlanta for the 1968-69 season. Guerin would come out of playing retirement for a few games in 1969 and 1970, but for the most part he stuck to the sidelines with much success. The Hawks appeared in back-to-back Western Division Finals in their first two seasons in Atlanta, losing each time to the Los Angeles Lakers. After 1972, Guerin retired from coaching as well and went on to over 30 years of work as a stockbroker.

Guerin’s career is a stark study in how individual greatness means nothing if arranged poorly within a team. His talents largely went to waste in New York when they were at their height. Nauls and Sears were fine players, borderline hall of famers even, but the team was thin outside of them. As Guerin entered his 30s, the talents became harder to elicit but his team finally found success with the cavalcade of all-star caliber players listed earlier.

But it was Guerin’s days in New York that presented the most astonishing portrait of his game. His inexorable scoring terrified opposing guards. He rebounded exceptionally well for his position and size with only Jason Kidd and Fat Lever being as consistently comparable. And although he probably passed less than he should have, Richie also had a keen eye for play-making.

But the old Marine’s tenacity and spirit dictated a more forceful approach than setting up others and hoping they finished the job. He was a demanding teammate who was disgusted by players who didn’t play better or up to their potential. For better or worse, he assumed a survival-of-the-fittest mentality and unleashed 48 minutes of pure hell.

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