Forgotten Warriors: Joe Graboski

Years Active: 1949 – 1962
Regular Season Stats: 845 games, 30.5 mpg
11.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, 35.2% FG, 70% FT
Playoff Stats: 40 games, 25.8 mpg
9.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, 32.8% FG, 73.5% FT
Accolades: NBA Champion (1956)

Joe Graboski (fanbase.com)

Back in 1995, Kevin Garnett kicked off the modern-day craze for high school hoopsters which culminated in the drafting of Dwight Howard. Thereafter, the age restriction was instituted and the heyday of 18-year old NBA players was over. Of course, astute observers back in 1995 were quick to note that Garnett was kicking off a modern-day craze. Two decades earlier, Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone had provided a brief breach in the NBA’s college firewall.

But if you want to go back, I mean waaaaay back, into time you’ll see that in the NBA’s very beginning it was using straight-from-high-school players. Tony Kappen and Connie Simmons may have been first, but most prominent was Joe Graboski from Chicago, Illinois. Unlike most players who’ve subsequently done the HS to NBA jump, Graboski had no spectacular talent that rendered college useless. Instead, Graboski had dropped out of Tuley High School and did some time playing in the industrial leagues common in urban areas at the time.

The 17-year old Graboski eventually got a job as a the ball boy for the BAA’s Chicago Stags. At 6’7″, Graboski was a bit hard to miss and after watching him take some shots, John Sbarbaro, president of the Stags, inquired over whether Graboski might consider joining a local university and after some polishing he might join the Stags. Graboski informed Sbarbaro of his academic situation and the Stags president immediately signed him to a deal.

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Forgotten Warriors: Sunset in Philadelphia

Photo by MikeBehnken via Flickr

“What did I get the most thrill out of? It was winning the championship. Individual honors are nice but it’s not like winning. Winning and making a positive contribution is, I think, the most satisfying thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s just a shame we couldn’t have kept that team.”

- Paul Arizin on the 1956 NBA champion Warriors

No matter how great three players are, they cannot write, tell or compose the whole story of a franchise. Before their move to San Francisco in 1962, the Philadelphia Warriors revolved around the trio of Joe Fulks, Neil Johnston and Arizin, but there was certainly more talent in the fold. Those three men played with of some of the finest players of the era and even a couple of other hall of famers and all-time greats.

There was PF/C Woody Sauldsberry. After college ball at Texas Southern University and a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters, Sauldsberry was the 60th pick in the 1957 draft and would surprise everyone by turning in 12.8 points and 9.4 rebounds in his three seasons with the Warriors from 1958 to 1960. His unexpected play made the transition from Neil Johnston to Wilt Chamberlain smoother than it otherwise would have been. An all-star in 1959, he remains to this day the lowest draft pick to ever win Rookie of the Year. And my goodness, does he have a story to tell that sadly reminds of the racism, particularly of the St. Louis Hawks, in the 1950s and 1960s NBA.

Youngsters Tom Meschery and Al Attles made some noise in Philly that would soon become a cacophony when the Warriors moved west. Meschery debuted in the Warriors’ last season in Philly to the tune of 12 points and 9 rebounds. The eventual all-star wasn’t the least bit gun shy that postseason averaging 20 points and 11.5 rebounds as the Warriors went down in 7 games to Boston in the Eastern Finals. Tom also has a personal story worth reading up on. Spending part of your childhood in a Japanese prison during World War II tends to warrant a read.

Attles was a defensive pit bull (nicknamed the Destroyer) with the crew cut to match. He spent two seasons in Philadelphia and would be with the Warriors organization until 1970 as a player, then was coach (winning the 1975 NBA title) until 1983 and was a team executive until… well, until the present. It’s 50 years and going strong for Attles and the Warriors.

Philly native Guy Rodgers was another of the late-50s youngbloods that re-invigorated the Warriors following Neil Johnston’s retirement. The point guard would eventually play in 4 all-star games and lead the league in assists twice. And if anyone can take a heap of credit for aiding Wilt Chamberlain in his 100-point game it was Rodgers who dished out 20 assists that night in Hershey, PA. Rodgers accomplished a Wiltonian feat of his very own the next season in 1963 when he dished out 28 assists to tie Bob Cousy’s single-game record.

Jack George was the man that Rodgers succeeded in the Philadelphia backcourt. Not as dynamic as Rodgers, George was nonetheless the steady hand that routinely gave 12 points, 5.5 assists and 4 rebounds a night. 1956 was his third pro season and his banner campaign. He averaged career highs of 14 points and 6.3 assists, led the league in minutes played, made his first of two all-star teams and earned his only All-NBA selection. His ascension perhaps explains the Warriors’ breakout as NBA champions that year.

Or maybe it was rookie F/G Tom Gola who put Philly over the top in 1956. Debuting with 11 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists per game, he would remain an all-around presence to fill in the holes in Philadelphia as his play barely wavered from that rookie campaign. During his 400 games in Philadelphia, Gola averaged 13.5 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists, made three straight All-Star games (1960-62) and was a member of the 1958 All-NBA 2nd Team.

The final big piece on the ’56 title team was PF Joe Graboski (a name that screams early 50s NBA). He was the third player to enter the NBA straight from high school back in the 1948-49 season with the Chicago Stags. Taken in by the Warriors in 1953, Joe never appeared in an all-star and his shooting percentage was atrocious, but he bruised with the best of them down low. In his six seasons as a starter (1954 – 1959), Graboski averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds.

And the man that sent Graboski to the Philly bench in the 1959-60 season was none other than the Big Dipper, Wilt Chamberlain. It was as a Philadelphia Warrior that Wilt set the single-season records for points per game (50.4), rebounds per game (27.2) and minutes per game (48.5). In 1961 he was the first Warrior and NBA player to shoot above 50% from the field for an entire season.

Of these Philadelphia Warriors greats, only those who spent time in the Bay Area (Chamberlain, Attles, and Merschery) have been recognized by the Warriors franchise with jersey retirements. That’s Golden State’s prerogative, of course, but I disagree with it. Even the Kings have done justice to their previous stops and have jersey numbers retired from their Rochester, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Omaha days.

It’s particularly galling with Arizin who is still splattered all over the Warriors’ record books. He’s top five in games (4th), minutes (3rd), field goals made (4th), free throws made (1st), rebounds (5th), points (3rd), and win shares (2nd). If he stands no chance, the others certainly don’t.

Not that most of these fellows would be around to bask in their own glory. Joe Fulks was murdered in 1976. Neil Johnston passed away in 1978. Jack George exited this world in 1989. Arizin, Chamberlain, Rodgers, Graboski and Sauldsberry have left us too in the past dozen years. Of these greats, only Attles, Gola and Meschery can still attest what it meant to be a Philadelphia Warrior.

And make no doubt about it, they were great times. 16 years, 12 playoffs, 6 Eastern Finals appearances, 3 NBA Finals appearances and 2 titles. As individuals these men collected 27 All-Star games, 18 All-NBA teams, 10 scoring titles, 4 rebounding titles, 2 Rookie of the Year awards and 1 MVP. That’s quite a nice haul from some pretty nice players…

Forgotten Warriors: Paul Arizin

Years Active: 1951-52; 1955 – 1962
Regular Season Stats: 713 games, 38.4 mpg
22.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, 42.1% FG, 81% FT
Playoff Stats: 49 games, 38.6 mpg
24.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, 41.1% FG, 82.9% FT
Accolades: 10x All-Star (1951-52; 1955-62), 3x All-NBA 1st Team (1952, 1956-57), All-NBA 2nd Team (1959), All-Star Game MVP (1952), NBA Champion (1956); 2x PPG Leader (1952, 1957), FG% Leader (1952)

Photo via The Modern Encyclopedia Of Basketball

“We went out to San Diego to play the San Diego Recruit Depot for the Marine Corps championship. And we were told ‘If you don’t win, you’re not coming back. You’re going to Korea.’ Now talk about playing under pressure. That is playing under pressure. Fortunately, we won…”

Via Paul Arizin from NBA Basketballography

Paul Arizin’s Hall of Fame resume began rather inauspiciously, if not down right ignominiously. A native of Philadelphia, Arizin tried out only once for his high school basketball team, during his senior year, but failed to make it. Enrolling at Villanova University as a chemistry major, Arizin continued to play basketball in various intramural, Catholic and independent leagues. Scouting the local talent, Villanova’s head coach, Al Severance, spotted Arizin during one of the games and offered him a chance to go to Villanova. Arizin politely informed him he already attended the school and the next year as a sophomore, Arizin joined the team.

Arizin rapidly progressed to become the nation’s best college player. As a junior he leveled 85 points in a single game. He even topped the 100 point mark in a single game, but the feat isn’t recognized because it came against a junior college. Nevertheless, his scoring average escalated from 11 to 22 to 25 by his senior year when he was declared Player of the Year and selected to the AP All-America 1st Team in 1950.

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Forgotten Warriors: Neil Johnston

Years Active: 1952 – 1959
Career Stats: 516 games, 35.5 mpg
19.4 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 44.4% FG, 76.8% FT
Postseason Stats: 23 games, 30.5 mpg
15.0 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 3.3 apg, 39% FG, 73.4% FT
Accolades: 6x All-Star (1953-58), 4x All-NBA 1st Team (1953-56), All-NBA 2nd Team (1957); 3x PPG Leader (1953-55), 3x FG% Leader (1953, 1956-57), RPG Leader (1955); NBA Championship (1956)

Photo via Sports Illustrated

(note: this is one of my absolute favorite photographs of all time)

“I doubt if Johnston will ever receive the recognition that Mikan got because Neil didn’t come into the league with the fanfare and blowing of trumpets that accompanied Mikan.” And the fact that Chamberlain came immediately after him, in the same city, also didn’t help.

Via Eddie Gottlieb and Alex Sachare from the 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time

Joe Fulks was the pivot man to establish the Philadelphia Warriors as a force in the NBA, winning the inaugural title and being the league’s first superstar in 1947. However, as Fulks aged and wore down, the Warriors struggled to contend. The addition of F/G Paul Arizin in 1951 began the process of renewal. Then in 1952, a 6’8″, 210-pound center was added to the mix. He played a scant 15 minutes his rookie year, but thereafter, Neil Johnston would prove an indomitable force in leading the Warriors back to prominence alongside Arizin.

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Forgotten Warriors: Joe Fulks

Years Active: 1947 – 1954
Regular Season Stats: 489 games
16.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 30% FG, 77% FT
Postseason Stats: 31 games
19.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 0.4 apg, 25.8% FG, 78.2% FT
BAA Accolades: 3x All-BAA 1st Team (1947-49), BAA Champion (1947), 2x PPG Leader (1947-48)
NBA Accolades: All-NBA 2nd Team (1951), 2x NBA All-Star (1951-52), FT% Leader (1951)

joe fulks

“I remember telling my wife,” Fulks said, “‘This is great — I’m going to get paid for doing something I like to do.'”

Via “Legends profile: Joe Fulks” on NBA.com

Nearly two months ago, I wrote that the stories of Joe Fulks and Paul Arizin would have to “wait for another day.” Well, while adding Neil Johnston to the mix, that day has come. Welcome to the Forgotten Warriors mini-series! Arizin, Fulks and Johnston are unquestionably three of the greatest Warriors players yet they are generally forgotten due to playing in the 1940s and 1950s and also playing for the Warriors when they were in Philadelphia. The 1st of this trio to join the Warriors, “Jumpin’ Joe” Fulks will thus be the first chronicled.

Now, you may look at Fulks’ statistics and not be particularly amazed. You could lead the league in assists with less than 4 a game back in the 1940s. Rebound stats weren’t kept at all until 1951. Minutes played weren’t logged until 1952.  But, they did keep track of field goal attempts and Fulks’s field goal percentage is startlingly bad by today’s standards.

However, context is golden.

Consider that Joe Fulks, even if he was a pioneer, was still a product of his era. In 1947, only four players shot over 33% from the field. In 1948, only 2 accomplished the feat. Finally in 1949, a significant amount of players breached the barrier of 33%, with some even reaching the 40% mark! Basically, chiding Fulks for atrocious field goal percentages would be like getting on the Wright Brothers for not being able to fly a 747. We wouldn’t have the 747 without the work of the Wright Brothers and we wouldn’t have the NBA of today without Fulks.

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