Pro Hoops History HOF: Kenny Sailors

Kenny SailorsThe pro career of Kenny Sailors was never as grand as it should have been. Institutions are always slow to accept change. And basketball, as an institution, was slow to adopt the pet move – seen above – that Sailors helped popularize.

The following exchange, noted in The Origins of the Jump Shot, during Sailors’ rookie season helps show the resistance to Sailors’ extraordinary brilliance:

Kenny was about to step into the shower after that first practice when [Cleveland coach] Dutch Dehnert approached him. “Say-lors,” Dutch pronounced Kenny’s name. “Where’d you get that leapin’ one-hander?”

“I been shootin’ it ever since I was a kid.”

Whether that satisfied Dutch or not, his face gave no hint.

“And that dribblin’ of yours,” he continued. “You don’t dribble in this league. You pass the ball.”

Kenny shrugged. “I have to dribble to shoot my jumper, Dutch.”

“I’m gonna give you some advice, Say-lors. If you’re gonna go in this league, you gotta forget that dribblin’.”

Kenny turned to enter the shower.

“And you gotta get yourself a good two-hand set shot,” Dutch shouted after him.

Needless to say, Say-lors never had much opportunity to win over the recalcitrant Dehnert. Nonetheless, the way Sailors played basketball has gone on to shape and influence nearly every player since.When was the last time you’ve seen a player let loose a two-hand set shoot?

So, although just 5’10” tall, Sailors’ greatest contribution to the game was elevating it to new heights.

Literally.

He was one of the first prominent players to use the jump shot back in the 1940s. Sailors did not invent the jumper. It had been around since the 1920s, at least. What makes Sailors notable is just how reliant he was on the shot. His diminutive height made it necessity for him to jump while shooting, otherwise he’d constantly be blocked by earthbound, yet taller opponents.

With the jumper in hand, however, Sailors could more than equalize the situation turning it completely to his favor. Not only could he lift his release point higher by jumping, his opponents were unfamiliar with the shot, so they didn’t know how to defend it. Used to earthbound two-handers and set-shots, the defenders couldn’t adjust on the fly to Sailors.

Sailors attended college at the University of Wyoming and was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1943 NCAA tournament en route to leading Wyoming to the championship that year. In 1942, 1943, and 1946, Sailors was named an All-American as well. The disruption in his college career came thanks to his service in the Marine Corps during World War II.

Kenny Sailors card

Naturally, the delay in finishing college meant his pro career was also delayed. At age 24, Sailors finally entered pro basketball with the Cleveland Rebels in 1946. Unfortunately for Sailors, his pro career was racked with chaos, misfortune and the skepticism of coaches like Dehnert. Sailors’s website does an excellent job summing up the dysfunction caused by the unstable financial situation of many ball clubs in the BAA and early NBA.

  • July 27, 1947 – Drafted by the Chicago Stags from the Cleveland Rebels in the dispersal draft when Cleveland folded
  • November 1947 – Sold by Chicago to the Philadelphia Warriors
  • December 1, 1947 – Sold by Philadelphia to the Providence Steamrollers
  • July 16, 1949 – Signed by the Denver Nuggets as Providence folded when the BAA merged into the new NBA
  • June 22, 1950 – Sold by Denver to the Boston Celtics as Denver folded
  • December 1, 1950 – Traded by Boston to the Baltimore Bullets where Kenny retired after one season and finished his professional career

After failing to impress in Cleveland and cast aside by Philly and Chicago in short order, Sailors’s greatest success in the pros came with the Providence Steamrollers and the Denver Nuggets from 1947 to 1950.  Sailors was freed to shoot his jumper. For the 1949 and 1950 seasons Sailors finished in the top 5 in scoring in the BAA/NBA while also finishing 7th and 6th, respectively, in assist per game.

For his stellar 1948-49 campaign with the Steamrollers, Kenny was named to the All-BAA 2nd Team. His 1950 season with the Nuggets was worthy of similar honors, despite his exclusion.

Unfortunately for Sailors, the free-wheeling offenses that let him loose in Providence and, especially, Denver weren’t to last. Providence folded in 1949 and Denver in 1950. Sailors  was picked up by Boston prior to the 1950-51 season, but with Bob Cousy in hand they had no use for Kenny. Traded to Baltimore, Sailors was now 29 years old and longing to return to the West. So after that 1951 season with the Bullets, Sailors retired from pro ball and headed back to the other side of the Mississippi.

The pros never quite appreciated the revolution Sailors was instigating back in the 1940s. Even today, very few appreciate the role that Sailors commanded in what is one of the largest transformations in basketball’s history.

Thanks to his simple boldness to take a jumper, shooting was on the road to greater accuracy. The game was to become more exciting. The little man added another weapon to offset the domination of the leviathans in the paint.

So even though his own personal greatness never blossomed due to the inertia of tradition, Sailors has a hand in all the great players since who’ve jumped and taken a shot.

Years Played: 1946 – 1951

Accolades:
All-BAA 2nd Team (1948-49)

Statistics:
12.6 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.0 RPG, 32.9% FG, 71.2% FT

St. Louis Hawks Franchise History: 1956-57 through 1965-66

St. Louis Hawks 1960s

Championships: 1
Conference Titles: 4
Division Titles: 5

Regular Season Record: 425-355
Regular Season Win Percentage: 59.9%
Playoff Appearances: 9
Playoff Series Wins: 8
Playoff Record: 47-43

Welcome to the Glory Days of the Hawks franchise.

Behind 1959 NBA MVP Bob Pettit, the Hawks made the playoffs every year in this period except in 1962. They made the NBA Finals four times squaring off with the Boston Celtics on each occasion. In 1957 and 1961, the Hawks barely lost in dynamic 7-game slug fests. In 1958, Pettit scored 50 points (including 19 of  St. Louis’s last 21) in the decisive Game 6 to give the Hawks their only championship.

There was more to this club than the superb Pettit, however. Cliff Hagan roamed as his sidekick at forward flinging in his hook shot at will. In 1960, Pettit (26/17), Hagan (25/11) and Clyde Lovellette (21/11) became the only trio of teammates in NBA history to all average over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. At the end of this era, the buff and imposing Zelmo Beaty took over for Lovellette as the Hawks’ center. Reliable back ups in Chuck Share, Bill Bridges, and Ed Macauley provided these heavyweights with some in-game respite.

In the backcourt, Slater Martin was a defensive pest rarely seen. His reign of terror ended in 1960, but Lenny Wilkens picked up the slack as a floor general who unflappably delivered the ball to his high-scoring frontcourt.

The only thing that prevented the Hawks from enjoying even greater success in this period was owner Ben Kerner’s obsession with hiring and firing coaches. During this 10-year period, 10 different men served as head coach of the Hawks. Despite the revolving door of coaches, the St. Louis Hawks put together one of the best 10-year stretches in NBA history.

STARTING FIVE

C – Zelmo Beaty (1962-’66) – 299 Games
15.4 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 46.4% FG, 73.5% FT

F – Bob Pettit (1956-’65) – 648 Games
27.1 PPG, 16.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, 43.9% FG, 76.5% FT

F – Cliff Hagan (1956-’66) – 745 Games
18.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.0 APG, 45.0% FG, 79.8% FT

G – Lenny Wilkens (1960-’66) – 395 Games
14.2 PPG, 4.9 APG, 4.8 RPG, 41.4% FG, 74.5% FT

G – Slater Martin (1956-’60) – 248 Games
9.7 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.7 RPG, 34.3% FG, 76.1% FT

BENCH

C – Clyde Lovellette (1958-’62) – 245 Games
19.3 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 46.1% FG, 82.5% FT

G – Richie Guerin (1963-’66) – 215 Games
14.1 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.3 RPG, 42.1% FG, 80.3% FT

C – Chuck Share (1956-’59) – 216 Games
8.3 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 40.9% FG, 68.7% FT

Boston Celtics Franchise History: 1956-57 through 1965-66

Boston Celtics

Championships: 9
Conference Titles: 10
Division Titles: 9

Regular Season Record: 554-216
Regular Season Win Percentage: 71.9%
Playoff Appearances: 10
Playoff Series Wins: 20
Playoff Record: 81-41

After four years of abject mediocrity in the 1940s, the Celtics stumbled upon the Big 3 of Bob Cousy, Ed Macauley, and Bill Sharman. Their combined offensive genius hit the end of the road in 1956. Macauley was sacrificed to St. Louis in the Russell trade. Sharman and Cousy, however, remained on board for this new era.

Trading for Bill Russell in the spring of 1956 wound up the biggest move in building a title contender. But it was certainly not the only move.

Arnie Risen, Jack Nichols, and Andy Phillip were three key veterans at the end of their career who would provide know-how and timely reserve minutes to spur on their younger teammates. Risen was a former All-Star center traded by the Rochester Royals to Boston for cash in the fall of 1955. He in particular nurtured the young Bill Russell and taught him the fine points of playing as an NBA center. Nichols was a tough rebounding forward also nearing the end of his career, but had been with Boston since 1953. Phillip, another former All-Star, was brought in to back up Cousy in 1956. These cagey vets would be augmented by a bevy of young up-and-comers.

Russell was the cream of the young Celtics crop. However, he didn’t join the team until December 1956 as he played for Team USA in the 1956 Summer Olympics – held in Australia, hence the odd timing for those in the Northern Hemisphere.

When Russell finally joined the Celtics, they were an NBA best 16-8 thanks to the aid of fellow rookie Tom Heinsohn and the blossoming of Jim Loscutoff and Frank Ramsey. Heinsohn and Ramsey were scoring machines, but delivered the offensive fireworks at different times. Heinsohn was in the starting lineup, while Ramsey came off the bench. Meanwhile, Loscutoff was the burliest power forward you could ever meet. Never afraid to rough up other players, Loscutoff more than earned the nickname “Jungle Jim”.

This formula of in-their-prime stars (Cousy, Sharman) with cagey vets looking for a title (Risen, Nichols, Phillip) and hungry youngsters (Russell, Heinsohn, Loscutoff, Ramsey) would be the formula to see Boston to many titles over the next decade.

Heading into the 1956-57 playoffs, the Celtics exorcised past demons by sweeping the Syracuse Nationals in the Eastern Division Finals. Remember, these were the same Syracuse Nats that had beaten Boston in the previous four postseasons. In the Finals, the Celtics matched up with the St. Louis Hawks. Led by Bob Pettit, the Hawks also underwent a dramatic transformation in 1956 by acquiring Macauley and Cliff Hagan from Boston and Slater Martin from the New York Knicks. All four of these men would become Hall of Famers.

In Game 1 of the series, St. Louis won 125-123 in double overtime on Boston’s home court. Several exciting games followed, culminating with a Game 7 victory by Boston. The score? 125-123 in double overtime. Clearly the series could have gone either way and Boston was fortunate to escape with its first title.

Over the next four seasons, Boston and St. Louis would play in three more championship bouts attempting to settle who the NBA’s foremost franchise was. The Hawks quickly struck back winning the 1958 title over Boston. In 1960, the rubber match went to seven game before Boston subdued the Hawks. By 1961, it was clear Boston was winning the arms race with the Missouri ball club. The Celtics routed St. Louis in five games.

With four championships in five years, the Celtics asserted themselves as the first class team of the NBA. Young faces like K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, and Tom “Satch” Sanders stepped in to replace and relieve retiring veterans seamlessly keeping the green machine running. Likewise, as old enemies faded (the Hawks and Nationals) new ones appeared in the Philadelphia Warriors featuring Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.

These two challengers nearly dethroned Boston in 1962.

The Celtics survived the Warriors’ onslaught, 109-107, in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals. In the NBA Finals, Boston escaped the Lakers in Game 7 by a final score of 110-107 in overtime. The road to the title in 1963 proved nearly as difficult. The upstart Cincinnati Royals, led by Oscar Robertson, pushed Boston to seven games in the East Finals. Sam Jones (47 points) and the Big O (43 points) gave a duel for the ages that Boston won 142-131. In the NBA Finals, Boston again faced the Lakers. And again they won the title by a tiny margin. The decisive Game 6 ended 112 to 109 in favor of Boston.

That would be Bob Cousy’s final game as a Celtic.

New Era, Same Results

Hondo and Russ

Typically, Boston bid farewell to a key piece but had other men ready to step in. For the 1963-64 season veteran ringers in Willie Naulls and Clyde Lovellette beefed up Boston’s frontcourt while Larry Siegfried was rescued from obscurity to help sop up some of the point guard minutes with Cousy gone. Perhaps most important of all, John Havlicek, a second-year forward, blossomed as a sixth man extraordinaire. By the time “Hondo” retired in 1978, he would be the Celtics’ all-time leading scorer. In fact, he still is.

As these changes and new faces took their place, the constant was Bill Russell. His basketball genius did not remain constant, though. His defense, shot-blocking, and rebounding were as spectacular as ever, but now his offensive game grew to new heights to replace some of the magic lost by Cousy’s retirement. By 1966, Russell had been flirting with 5 APG for 5 straight seasons making him one of the league’s premier passers among big men equaled only by Wilt Chamberlain and Johnny Kerr.

Speaking of Wilt, the Celtics defeated his San Francisco Warriors in 1964 for Boston’s first post-Cousy title. After a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers, the following season, Chamberlain was again bounced by Boston in the Eastern Finals. With his growing collection of championship hardware, Russell became the poster boy for team play and team success juxtaposed to Wilt’s seemingly selfish play. Even the Lakers duo of West and Baylor seemed to be a misguided one-two punch never able to knock out the invincible Celtics. At least that’s how some media would tell the story.

Looking closely at the Celtics over this span strips away the veneer of undisputed, easy dominance. Intricate examination actually reveals cracks in the façade, especially by 1966.

For the first time since 1957, Boston did not finish with the NBA’s best regular season record in that 1965-66 season. In the playoffs, they were pushed to brink by the Royals and then again by the Lakers in the Finals. After going up 3-games-to-1, the Celtics escaped with another title thanks to a 95-93 victory in Game 7 over Los Angeles. That razor thin win prevented one of the largest collapses in playoff history, especially considering the Lakers were down 16 points entering the fourth quarter.

During that nearly catastrophic Finals series, Auerbach made it official that Bill Russell would succeed him as Celtics coach for the 1966-67 season. That would make Russell the first black coach in major American pro sports. But after nine titles in 10 seasons, could Boston maintain its ridiculous run under a new coach and with age creeping up on its most important player?

STARTING FIVE

C – Bill Russell (1956-’66) – 727 Games
16.1 PPG, 23.4 RPG, 4.0 APG, 44.0% FG, 56.1% FT

F – Tom Heinsohn (1956-’65) – 654 Games
18.6 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.0 APG, 40.5% FG, 79.0% FT

F – Frank Ramsey (1956-’64) – 559 Games
13.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.7 APG, 40.0% FG, 81.0% FT

G – Sam Jones (1957-’66) – 656 Games
17.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 45.7% FG, 79.4%

G – Bob Cousy (1956-’63) – 496 Games
17.7 PPG, 7.9 APG, 4.3 RPG, 37.9% FG, 80.0% FT

BENCH

G – Bill Sharman (1956-’61) – 334 Games
19.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, 42.5% FG, 90.4% FT

G – KC Jones (1958-’66) – 598 Games
7.6 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.6 RPG, 38.6% FG, 64.9% FT

F – John Havlicek (1962-’66) – 306 Games
17.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.7 APG, 41.4% FG, 75.3% FT

F – Tom “Satch” Sanders (1960-’66) – 460 Games
10.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 43.2% FG, 74.6% FT

F – Jim Loscutoff (1956-’64) – 440 Games
5.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 0.7 APG, 34.2% FG, 64.6% FT

Boston Celtics Franchise History: 1946-47 through 1955-56

Celtics 1940s

Championships: 0
Conference Titles: 0
Division Titles: 0

Regular Season Record: 330-328
Regular Season Win Percentage: 50.2%
Playoff Appearances: 7
Playoff Series Wins: 2
Playoff Record: 9-16

Later synonymous with championship success, the early years of the Boston Celtics were abysmal. During their first four seasons (3 in the BAA, 1 in the NBA) the Celtics failed to post a winning record and made the playoffs once. The only player who demanded any attention for on-court ability was the leviathan Ed Sadowski who averaged 19.4 PPG and made the All-BAA 1st Team in 1947-48, the lone season Boston made the playoffs.

At least future TV star Chuck Connors shattered the backboard in the Celtics’ very first game back in 1946. Not from a dunk though. The Rifleman actor just happened throw a halfcourt shot way too hard during warm ups. The frantic search for a new backboard took a couple of hours clearly delaying the game.

Boston would have been staggering aimlessly if not for the momentous 1950 offseason. Arnold “Red” Auerbach was hired as coach and the well-known Celtic luck began to work its magic.

For starters, the Celtics shook up the NBA by drafting the first black player in league history. Owner Walter Brown informed the league he was taking Chuck Cooper. When informed of Cooper’s skin tone, Brown said he didn’t care if Cooper was one of any variety of colors, he was Boston’s selection.

In late August 1950, the disbanded St. Louis Bombers had their roster dispersed across the league via a draft. The Celtics fortunately secured the big prize from the defunct roster: lanky offensive center Ed Macauley. “Easy Ed” would go on to a marvelous career blending quick hook shots with timely passing. He’d lead the league in field goal percentage twice and was the MVP of the NBA’s 1st All-Star Game in 1951.

In October 1950, luck struck again after the Chicago Stags also went belly up. With the center spot secure with Macauley, Boston desperately needed a guard. Chicago had two of the premier guards: Max Zaslofsky and Andy Phillip. Zaslofsky was the big prize, while Phillip would be no disappointing consolation. However, Boston got into a tussle with the New York Knicks and Philadelphia Warriors on who got to pick when. Fed up, Commissioner Maurice Podoloff simply wrote the team names on scraps of paper and drew them from a hat to determine selection order.

New York won the pull and smugly selected Zaslofsky. Philadelphia was pulled next and happily took Phillip. Boston was the odd man out and had to select the third guard on the roster, someone Red Auerbach had passed over in the college draft back in April. Auerbach didn’t just pass on him, though. He defended the move to local Boston press deriding the player as some “local yokel”. The Local Yokel eventually wound up being the NBA’s MVP and led the league in assists eight straight seasons.

Yep, it was Bob Cousy,

Macauley, Cousy, and Cooper under the coaching of Auerbach propelled Boston to a 39-30 record for the 1950-51 season. It was easily Boston’s best season to that point. In April of 1951, the Celtics made the first of what would be innumerable trade swindles. They traded center Chuck Share to the Fort Wayne Pistons for guard Bill Sharman. Although Sharman would go on to greatly mold the shooting guard role in basketball, he was hardly someone to cherish at that point. He had averaged 12 PPG in just 31 games for the Washington Capitols. Sharman had played 10 times as many minor league baseball games than NBA games to that point.  It was only the good word and advice of Bones McKinney – Auerbach’s trusted friend and Sharman’s old coach and teammate with the Caps – that led Boston to acquire Sharman.

Soon enough Sharman gelled with Macauley and Cousy to form Boston’s first Big 3.The Celtics became the league’s most exciting offensive show. By 1955 the Celtics offensive output was superb thanks to their Big 3…

Cousy: 21 PPG, 8 APG, 6 RPG
Macauley: 17.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 4 APG
Sharman: 18.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4 APG

However, a new theme would develop to haunt Boston: painful playoff heartache. In 1951 and 1952 the Celtics were defeated by the New York Knicks. In 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1956 the C’s were bounced by the Syracuse Nationals. The final defeat, a 102-97 loss on their home court to Syracuse, put Boston at a crossroads in the spring of 1956.

With six straight postseason disappointments, Boston was panned as a run-and-gun team. They were all offense with no defensive or mental resiliency to advance to the Finals. Auerbach knew there was a truth to the critique. In 1956, Boston led the NBA in points scored with 106 but also gave up a league-leading 105 points a game.

A shakeup was needed to give Boston a defensive edge. Auerbach wanted the offensive fire, but he wanted fueled by a center who could sweep the boards and kick-start a fastbreak. As great an offensive center as Macauley was, he was never a great rebounder. Good rebounder, but not great.

So, during the 1956 draft, Auerbach orchestrated a trade sending Macauley and the draft rights to Cliff Hagan on to the St. Louis Hawks for the draft rights to Bill Russell. That was the biggest move of a 1956 offseason that saw Boston go from also-ran to potential dynasty. That same trade also wound up jolting the Hawks into potential dynasty mode, too.

Over the next few seasons, the two clubs would vie for NBA supremacy.

STARTING FIVE

C – Ed Macauley (1950-’56) – 416 Games
18.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 3.7 APG, 44.7% FG, 77.4% FT

F – Jack Nichols (1954-’56) – 124 Games
12.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 39.8% FG, 78.6% FT

F – Chuck Cooper (1950-’54) – 272 Games
6.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 34.1% FG, 73.9% FT

G – Bill Sharman (1951-’56) – 346 Games
16.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.4 APG, 43.1% FG, 86.4% FT

G – Bob Cousy (1950-’56) – 421 Games
19.4 PPG, 7.2 APG, 6.3 RPG, 36.9% FG, 80.6% FT

BENCH

F – Don Barksdale (1953-’55) –  135 Games
9.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 38.0% FG, 65.5% FT

F – Bob Donham (1950-’54) – 273 Games
6.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, 48.0% FG, 50.7% FT

C – Ed Sadowski (1947-’48) – 47 Games
19.4 PPG, 1.6 APG, 32.3% FG, 69.7% FT

St. Louis/Milwaukee/Tri-Cities (Black)Hawks Franchise History: 1946-47 through 1955-56

Championships: 0
Conference Titles: 0
Division Titles: 0

Regular Season Record: 263-390
Regular Season Win Percentage: 40.3%
Playoff Appearances: 4
Playoff Series Wins: 3
Playoff Record: 11-12

Founded as the Buffalo Bison in 1946 in the National Basketball League, what is now the Atlanta Hawks performed quite the vagabond act during their first decade. Early in the 1946-47 NBL season, Ben Kerner moved his Bison franchise to the Tri-Cities of Illinois and Iowa, rechristening the team the Blackhawks. The club was a modest success in the NBL sporting an 85-83 record over three seasons and racking up two playoff appearances.

During the 1946-47 season, the Tri-Cities rostered William “Pop” Gates, an African-American player famous for his time with the New York Rens. Also on board was former New York Celtic and Fort Wayne Piston, Bobby McDermott. McDermott was hailed as the best long-distance shooter of pre-NBA basketball. The dominant force for the Blackhawks in these years, however, was 6’10” Don Otten who won the NBL’s MVP award in 1949.

Joining the NBA for the 1949-50 season, the Blackhawks spent two more mildly successful seasons in the Tri-Cities before moving to Milwaukee where the franchise became simply the Hawks.

They also simply stunk.

During their four seasons in Milwaukee, the Hawks never made the playoffs and “boasted” a win percentage of .324. During these years center Chuck Share and Mel Hutchins (one of the great defensive forwards of the era) were about the lone bright spots. Nonetheless, the situation was grim and dire as the franchise threatened to shut down. Fortunately, in the 1954 draft, a savior arrived in the nick of time.

Bob Pettit stormed the NBA winning Rookie of the Year for the 1954-55 season. The very next season he was named the league’s first MVP. Kerner – sensing Milwaukee was a lost cause – had packed up the Hawks and moved to St. Louis for Pettit’s MVP campaign. The Hawks’ fortunes seemed to immediately respond tot he change in scenario and Pettit’s greatness. Their 33-39 record in 1955-56 was their best since a 30-30 season in 1948. Although below .500, the Hawks sneaked into the playoffs, beat the Minneapolis Lakers, and barely lost to the Fort Wayne Pistons in the Western Division Finals.

With Pettit as the mainstay and savvy veterans like Chuck Share, Jack Coleman, Jack McMahon, and Alex Hannum,  the Hawks were on the cusp of being perennial contenders. Armed with the #3 pick in the 1956 draft, the Hawks decided to swap the draft choice with the Boston Celtics.

Thanks to the exchange, the Hawks received Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley and would catapult to 4 NBA Finals and a championship in the next five seasons. The Celtics for their part got some rookie center named Bill Russell.

STARTING FIVE

C – Don Otten (1946-’50, 1951-’53) – 295 Games
12.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 36.0 % FG, 72.1% FT

F – Bob Pettit (1954-’56) – 144 Games
23.0 PPG, 15.0 RPG, 2.9 APG, 41.9% FG, 74.2% FT

F – Mel Hutchins (1951-’53) – 137 Games
10.5 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 3.0 APG, 37.3% FG, 65.0% FT

G – Frankie Brian (1950-’51) – 68 Games
16.8 PPG, 3.9 APG, 3.6 RPG, 32.2% FG, 82.3% FT

G – Bobby McDermott (1947-’49) – 82 Games
10.6 PPG, 73.3% FT

BENCH

G – William “Pop” Gates (1946-’47) – 41 Games
7.6 PPG, 52.2% FT

G – Dike Eddleman (1949-’52) – 182 Games
13.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 35.1% FG, 65.5% FT

C – Chuck Share (1953-’56) – 188 Games
12.4 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 41.2% FG, 70.2% FT

Pro Hoops History HOF: Johnny “Red” Kerr

(University of Illinois Archives)
(University of Illinois Archives)

The Syracuse Nationals lost a heart-breaking NBA Finals against the Minneapolis Lakers in 1954. Several of their players were hobbled, if not lost to injury. Still they dragged the mighty Lakers – winners of three of the last four NBA titles – to seven games. For the Nationals, the loss stung but with a healthy roster they could return to the Finals and win it all the following year.

Indeed, that’s exactly what they did, but they had more than good health. Syracuse was bolstered by a young center who helped shore up the middle: Johnny “Red” Kerr.

The 6’9″ center initially backed up Ephraim “Red” Rocha, but by the 1955 NBA Finals Kerr was the team’s second-leading scorer behind the venerable Dolph Schayes. Schayes was certainly the star, but the Nationals prided themselves on being a selfless well-balanced team. The decisive Game 7 against the Fort Wayne Pistons saw seven Syracuse players score between 10 and 15 points as the Nats pulled out a 92-91 win.

Kerr’s playing style was tailor-made for the Nationals gaggle of talented players. With guards like Larry Costello and Paul Seymour, Kerr would set devastating “big ass screens,” as Warriors forward Tom Meschery called them. Kerr’s sideways picks utilized his ample posterior to knock opponents off balance and he’d then roll to the rim for a bucket.

Kerr was even more dangerous when he was the man with the ball in a screening situation. Those “big-ass picks” would clear a wide lane to the basket for Costello, Seymour, and later Hal Greer to drive to the basket. Sure, Red could pass off the ball normally, but the flamboyant center wouldn’t hesitate to bounce a pass between his legs and hit the cutter perfectly in stride.

Although he played himself into shape during training camp, Kerr rarely missed a game once the season started. In fact, he played 844 games in a row during one stretch of his career. It was a record that stood for almost two decades until Randy Smith claimed the title of Iron Man.

Actual basketball skills aside, Johnny Kerr has been widely hailed as one of the best teammates in basketball history. His gregarious, affable sense of humor surely explains much of the adulation. Chet Walker, a man who had experienced considerable racial discrimination, noted Kerr was a veteran presence who didn’t just ease his transition to the NBA, but also was one of the first white men to treat him simply as a man.

Kerr’s humor often belied that serious sentiment he brought to life and basketball. When asked why he kept playing through various injuries during his Iron Man streak, Kerr joked, “I was afraid if I missed a game my wife might make me do the dishes.” Kerr would go on to decades of work in the NBA as a coach and broadcaster, but when his playing career finally came to an end Johnny “Red” Kerr revealed the drive that made him tick for 12 magnificent seasons and also made him sorrowful he’d never lace up the sneakers again:

“My last game was in St. Louis when Baltimore was knocked out of the playoffs. I spent a long time in the dressing room, just taking off my uniform. Finally, I was down to only my stocking feet. I could look out the door and see that Kiel Auditorium was nearly dark. Guys were folding up the chairs, sweeping up the garbage and I heard the popping of paper cups. I put on some clothes, went into the arena and watched them dismantle the floor. I began to think that there would be no more nights after the games, drinking beer with the guys. No more parties at the house with Betsy and the players and no more times when my name was announced and people cheered.  I was 34, I had never made more than $30,000 as a player, and I cried that day in St. Louis. Not because I wouldn’t play again; my body was hurting too much to play anymore. But because I wouldn’t be a basketball player.”

Years Played: 1954 – 1966

Syracuse Nationals
Syracuse Nationals

Accolades

NBA -
Champion (1955)
3x All-Star (1956, 1959, 1963)

Statistics

NBA – 905 Games
13.8 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 41.8% FG, 72.3% FT

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1954-55 through 1965-66 season)
4th Rebounds, 13th RPG
10th Points
7th FGs Made, 13th FTs Made
17th Assists
1st Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played

The 6’2″-and-Under Champions Club

Napoleon

Life should be grand for Chris Paul. He delivered 22.5 points, 12 assists, and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 51% FG, 75% FT, and 45.5% 3PT in the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His regular season saw some injury woes but he’s still likely to make another All-NBA 1st Team, which would be the 4th such selection of his career. Of course the Clippers losing their series against Oklahoma City is dispiriting, but basketball fans can bask in Paul’s great efforts.

Well, some can. Not all.

Roll that beautiful Chris Paul critique footage!

The criticism will start anew after the Clippers playmaker delivered more heartache during his team’s season-ending 104-98 loss to Oklahoma City in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday night at Staples Center.

Paul finished with 25 points and 11 assists but will be recalled mostly for the offensive foul with 3 minutes 35 seconds left that probably sealed the Clippers’ fate.

Paul was dejected after the loss and his continued failure to reach the Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals:

“It’s not just to get out of the second round. It’s to win a championship. I don’t know anybody in our league that plays for the Western Conference finals. That’s not enough.”

Well, given the circumstances of the NBA, having a 6’0″ tall player as your leading man rarely means winning a championship. Extending the height to 6’2″, only five NBA franchises have garnered a title with a player that tall reasonably, not unequivocally, considered their best player.

The Rochester Royals 1950-51

The first franchise was the Rochester Royals back in the 1950-51 season. Their best player was Bob Davies, a 6’1″ guard/forward who was one of the first players in the major pro leagues to dribble behind his back. The Royals, however, were a well-balanced machine with Bob Wanzer and especially Arnie Risen contesting best player honors. Indeed during the postseason, the 31-year old Davies had a miserable time averaging 16 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3 assists on 34% shooting over 14 games. However, Risen and Wanzer rose to the ocassion. Wanzer notched 12.5 PPG, 5 RPG, and 4 APG while shooting 47% FG and 91% FT. Risen was a beast in the post with 19.5 PPG and 14 RPG including a dominating NBA Finals against the Knicks which would have secured a Finals MVP for Risen had it existed then. There was also defensive ace Jack Coleman who threw in 10 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists per game in the postseason.

Davies may have been the best player, but it was truly a full team effort.

The Boston Celtics 1956-57

The Celtics were the next NBA champ to exhibit a wondrous 6’1″ dribbler as their best player. Bob Cousy was the regular season MVP for the NBA and had appeared in the All-Star Game all seven seasons of  his pro career. The Celtics had also made the postseason every year of his career, but had never made the Finals. Finally, in 1957 Boston won the Finals as Cousy averaged 20 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds in the playoffs.

Don’t be too quick to give Cooz all the credit, though. His longtime running mate Bill Sharman averaged 21 PPG. Rookie forward Tommy Heinsohn dropped 23 PPG and 12 RPG. Oh yeah, another rookie – Bill Russell – contributed 14 points and 24 rebounds nightly. Russell would wind up winning MVP the very next season in 1958 quickly supplanting Cousy as the Celtics’ best player.

But in 1957 was Cousy or Russell the better Celtic? It’s debatable. Nonetheless, the point is still standing: a short star needs a some equitable talent.

The Los Angeles Lakers 1971-72

No one can still figure out who was better for the Lakers in 1972: Wilt Chamberlain or Jerry West. The team won 33 straight games on their way to 69 wins in the regular season. They trounced opponents in the playoffs breezing to the title with 12 wins and 3 losses. West and Wilt played vastly different but complementary roles. Wilt cleaned the glass, defended the paint like crazy, and produced highlight dunks here and there. West pestered the perimeter, ran the offense as the point guard, and drained long-range bombs.

Their regular season stats reveal their productive schism.
Wilt – 15 PPG, 19 RPG, 4 APG
West – 26 PPG, 4 RPG, 10 APG

Jerry West, however, played the worst postseason of his career that year. Prior to 1972, he had averaged 31 PPG, 6 APG, and 6 RPG on 48% FG and 81% FT shooting. In 1972 he bottomed out at 23/9/5 – still great for a 33-year old guard – but shot a miserable 37.5% from the field. It was even worse in the Finals where Mr. Clutch put up 20/9/4 on 32.5% shooting. The Big Dipper meanwhile feasted on the Knicks to the tune of 19.5 points and 23 rebounds a game on 60% shooting.

In the end, it’s likely a wash as to who was more instrumental for those Lakers.

The Seattle SuperSonics 1978-79

The champion oft-forgot, the 1979 Sonics were one of the most egalitarian teams to take the title. The youthful trio of Jack Sikma (23 years old), Dennis Johnson (24) and Gus Williams (25) did the heaviest lifting while veterans like Paul Silas, Freddie Brown, and John Johnson capably helped out the young bucks.

The splits of three contenders for Sonics’ best player don’t concretely solve the question, but it gives a tentative answer…

Regular Season

  PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% FT%
Gus Williams 19.2 3.2 4.0 0.4 2.0 49.5% 77.5%
Jack Sikma 15.6 12.4 3.2 0.8 1.0 46.0% 81.4%
Dennis Johnson 15.9 4.7 3.5 1.2 1.3 43.4% 76.0%

Playoffs

PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% FT%
Gus Williams 26.7 4.1 3.7 0.6 2.0 47.6% 70.9%
Jack Sikma 14.8 11.7 2.5 1.4 0.9 45.5% 78.7%
Dennis Johnson 20.9 6.1 4.1 1.5 1.6 45.0% 77.1%

On balance, Gus Williams emerges as the premier, but not definitive, candidate for best player on the 1979 Sonics. The 6’2″ guard would lose out on Finals MVP to the 6’4″ Dennis Johnson. Guess that didn’t help settle matters.

The Detroit Pistons 1988-89 and 1989-90

The only time a multiple championship teams were led by a diminutive player. Still in his prime, but maybe a hair past his peak, Isiah Thomas was the linchpin of the Bad Boys Pistons. If ever a team won a title based on gang tactics, it was these Pistons squads. Bill Laimbeer, James Edwards, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley delivered body blows to frustrate opponents. But the real threat to Thomas’s claim to best player on these teams came from his young, stoic backcourt mate: Joe Dumars.

Dumars proved so valuable he snared the 1989 Finals MVP in a sweep over the LA Lakers. Put winning Finals MVP doesn’t automatically catapult you to best player on the team. When it’s all said and done, Isiah was the orchestrator of the Pistons’s assault even if the disparity between himself and his teammates wasn’t the chasm we like to imagine exists between a team’s best player and the secondary pieces.

So what does any of this mean for Chris Paul? Or for any future pipsqueak star?

It means that they can be the best player on a team that wins an NBA title, but the team has to be extremely well-balanced. And even if that short star plays the role of best player, it’ll be hard for contemporaries and future generations to easily discern that.