Pro Hoops History HOF: Ed Sadowski

Ed Sadowski
Ed Sadowski

“A scowling brute of a man with close-cropped hair and a game face as belligerent as a clenched fist, Big Ed tallied most of his points with a sweeping right-handed hook shot that was virtually unstoppable. For sure he was virtually immobile and could shoot only with his right hand; the word was that if Sadowski ever had to feed himself with only his left hand, he’d starve to death.”

- Charley Rosen, The First Tip-Off

Ed Sadowski may have been completely unable to shoot any sort of shot left-handed, but when his right-handed hook was so devastating who needed a left hander? Especially considering by that point in Sadowski’s career he was an unmovable 6’5″ and 270 pounds. When the plodding and leviathan center planted himself, there was no way the opposition was going to move him.

Burgeoning obesity aside, Sadowski’s greatest claim to fame was his appearance in the first-ever BAA game on November 1, 1946. As player-coach, he led the Toronto Huskies against the New York Knicks. Big Ed paced all scorers with 18 points, but his Huskies lost 68-66. That defeat in Toronto was followed by another letdown in Cleveland at the hands of the Rebels. Thereafter the Huskies caught relative fire winning two of their next three games.

In the third match of that streak, a home crowd of 6500 fans saw Sadowski score 30 points as the Huskies rolled over the Providence Steamrollers, 85 to 68. The performance was the high-water mark of Big Ed’s Ontario tenure.

Just two weeks later in early December, Sadowski went AWOL and the Huskies suspended their high-priced big man. The disgruntled Sadowski complained he was overwhelmed by his duties as player and coach. He demanded that he – and his $10,000 salary – be traded to the Boston Celtics where he’d be reunited with his old college coach “Honey” Russell. Instead, Big Ed was traded to the Cleveland Rebels on December 16.

This gives Ed Sadowski the distinction of being the first player traded in the BAA’s history.

Although not very mobile on the court, Sadowski’s career was one of constant motion. Playing a truncated seven-year career, Sadwoski nonetheless suited up for seven different teams in the NBL, BAA, and NBA during the 1940s. The scowling Sadowski was a basketball mercenary and rode that mentality to a pretty successful career.

It all began in 1940 as Big Ed joined the Detroit Eagles of the NBL. That Eagles team finished 12-12 in league action with Sadowski leading the squad with 10.7 points per game. The team as a whole scored 40.5 points, so Ed was clearly the centerpiece of the offense with his swinging hook shot. Overall in the NBL, Sadowski finished 3rd in PPG and was 2nd in total points scored. He was the runaway selection for Rookie of the Year and was also named to the All-NBL 1st Team. In the playoffs, though, Sadowski, Buddy Jeannette, Robert Calihan and the Eagles ran into the superior Sheboygan Redskins. They lost their series 2-games-to-1.

Although ousted from the NBL playoffs, the Eagles did appear in an event just as noteworthy back in the 1940s: the World Professional Tournament (WPT). The NBL may have been the best pro league, but great pro teams still existed outside that association. The WPT brought together the best of the NBL, other leagues, and barnstormers to Chicago every spring. The Eagles stunned the tournament by upsetting the Harlem Globetrotters 37-36 (led by Sadowski’s 12 points) in the opening round. In the semi-finals, the Eagles again pulled a one-point upset, this time of the New York Rens, 43 to 42. Sadowski again led the way with 16 points. In the championship game against the Oshkosh All-Stars, Detroit knocked off the NBL champs 39-37 as Sadowski sparkled once more with 11 points.

Sadowski’s chance to repeat his big rookie season was nixed thanks to World War II. The big man served in the US Air Corps during those years and didn’t return to pro basketball until 1945.

The Fort Wayne Pistons signed Sadowski as a ringer before the lastgame of the 1944-45 regular season. Already possessing the NBL’s best record and the defending league champs, the Pistons wanted a guarantee they would score a repeat title performance. Sadowski proved to be quite the unnecessary insurance policy since this Pistons team might have been the greatest squad ever fielded in the NBL: Bob McDermott averaged an obscene 20 points a night alongside Buddy Jeannette, Jake Pelkington, Chick Reiser, and defensive madman Charley Shipp. As it turned out, the Pistons fell into an 0-2 series hole against Sheboygan in the Finals. Which is really bad when it was a best-of-5 series. Fortunately, Fort Wayne righted the ship and staged a comeback winning the next three games and the 1945 NBL title. And for the cherry on top, the Pistons won the 1945 WPT as well.

The next season, Fort Wayne returned all their principal players and Sadowski enjoyed his first full season of basketball since 1941. Big Ed averaged 9.6 PPG to finish second in scoring behind McDermott on the Pistons. The Indiana juggernaut again finished with the NBL’s best regular season record and looked to secure their third straight league title. There was to be no three-peat for the Pistons, though. The Rochester Royals spanked Sadowski’s team 3-games-to-1 in the semifinals.

For his part, Sadowski was easily Fort Wayne’s top performer scoring 14 points a game during the series, but McDermott went ice cold scoring just 6 points in the series as he was hounded by the defense of Rochester’s Al Cervi. As consolation, the Pistons did win the 1946 WPT, but Sadowski’s experience with the NBL was forever done. The next time he’d don a uniform would be for his ill-fated experience with the BAA’s Huskies.

After that situation blew up and he parachuted into Cleveland, Sadowski put together a fine campaign finishing 2nd in FG% and 3rd in PPG in the BAA’s first regular season. In the playoffs, he averaged 24 points on 39% shooting from the field and 79% shooting from the free throw line. Seems terrible today, but that kind of offensive efficiency was sterling in 1947. The runnin’ Rebels were no match for the New York Knicks, however, losing the series 2-games-to-1.

Suffering terrible finances and woeful attendance, the Rebels disbanded after the season and Sadowski finally landed in Boston thanks to the dispersal draft. Now at 30 years of age, Sadowski scored a career-high 19.4 PPG that season, led Boston to its first-ever playoff series, and was named to the All-BAA 1st Team. Sadowski had another big postseason with 20 points per game, but the Celtics were knocked off by the Chicago Stags.

The vagabond Sadowski moved on once more. The mercenary now traveled down the Atlantic Seaboard to play with the Philadelphia Warriors for the 1948-49 season. In this final year of the BAA, Big Ed teamed with “Jumpin'” Joe Fulks forming the highest scoring duo in that league’s short history. Sadowski averaged 15.3 points and Fulks 26. Any hopes for playoff success were dashed by an injury to Fulks and the Warriors were swept by the Washington Capitols.

In his final pro season, Sadowski split time between the Warriors and the Baltimore Bullets in the brand new NBA. The old heavy veteran still tossed up 12.5 points a night, but his days were numbered. Still, Sadowski could take comfort in the fact that during the 1940s, no other center (besides George Mikan) was better at scoring the basketball than he was. In fact, I’m sure he took comfort in that fact.

Years Played: 1940-41; 1945-1950

Accolades

NBL -
Champion (1945)
Rookie of the Year (1941)
All-NBL 1st Team (1941)
BAA -
All-BAA 1st Team (1948)
Other -
World Professional Basketball Tournament Champion (1941, 1945, 1946)

Statistics

NBL - 59 games
10.0 PPG, 67.9% FT
BAA - 160 games
16.9 PPG, 1.8 APG, 36.4% FG, 68.5% FT
NBA - 69 games
12.6 PPG, 2.0 APG, 32.4% FG, 73.5% FT

Contemporary BAA/NBA Ranks (1946-47 through 1949-50 season)
3rd Points, 4th PPG
3rd FGs Made, 18th FG%
4th FTs Made, 46th FT%
11th Assists, 35th APG
7th Games Played

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Neil Johnston

Neil Johnston
Neil Johnston

If ever a player picked a bad time to dominate the NBA, it was Neil Johnston. He rose to prominence as George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers dynasty came to a close. He faded as Bill Russell began constructing a new one in Boston. Dynasties get the glory, interregnums gets a shoulder shrug.

His place in the mid-1950s, if only a placeholder, was still pretty remarkable.

For three straight seasons, he led the NBA in points per game with his ability to nail sweeping hook shots with either hand. So dependable was his hook shot that he also led the NBA in field goal percentage three times, although not consecutively. He was the finest, most dependable offensive weapon in the mid-1950s NBA with the exception perhaps of his Philadelphia Warriors teammate, Paul Arizin.

However, Arizin and Johnston’s mighty formation as an offensive one-two punch didn’t instantly congeal. In Johnston’s rookie season (1951-52),  Arizin led the entire NBA in scoring while Neil mostly sat on the bench. He averaged a scant 6 points per game. The next season, Arizin was drafted by the Marines, and Johnston was given all the playing time he could hope for on a Warriors team that was left pretty atrocious without Arizin. Joe Fulks was well past his prime and most other players on the team never had one.

It was in this landscape that Johnston worked his hook shot magic.

And it would be easy to say he simply scored lots of points on awful teams, but when Paul Arizin returned in time for the 1954-55 season Johnston maintained his exact excellent level of play. Without Arizin, Johnston scored 23.5 points per game with 12.5 rebounds in a staggering 45.5 minutes per game. With Arizin, Johnston scored 22 points with 13 rebounds in a more leisurely 37 minutes per game.

The Warriors quickly added more depth and by 1956 they were title contenders. Securing the NBA’s best regular season record, the Warriors survived a see-saw series with the Syracuse Nationals in the Eastern Division Finals. Johnston pulled his weight with titanic performances like Game 2 (43 points) and Game 4 (35 points).

Defeating the Nats 3-games-to-2, the Warriors dispatched the Fort Wayne Pistons 4-games-to-1 in the NBA Finals. Johnston had a somewhat disappointing series, but the Warriors could now survive if he had an off game, or an off series. Tom Gola, Joe Graboski, Jack George, and Arizin combined for a series of well-played efforts to win the NBA title.

Unfortunately, Johnston’s time at the NBA summit proved short-lived like any interregnum. Bill Russell arrived in the NBA the next year revolutionizing defense and bolstering the Boston Celtics. The Warriors and Celtics clashed in the 1958 Eastern Division Finals, but the Celtics prevailed 4-games-to-1.

A rematch never occurred for Johnston. He missed most of the 1958-59 season with a seriously injured knee that wound up costing him the rest of his playing career. Playing in just 28 games that season, Johnston was right back where his career began: 6 PPG off the bench.

But for the six seasons in between Neil was a truly terrifying offensive force that hooked his way to six All-Star Teams and four appearances on the All-NBA 1st Team. Over the course of the NBA’s 60-plus year history, only Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and, yes, Neil Johnston have led the league in points per game, rebounds per game, and field goal percentage.

So, perhaps someone had to fill in the gap between Mikan and Russell. But Johnston proved without a doubt that he wasn’t just a flavor of the month, but a talent for all times.

Years Played: 1951 – 1959

Philadelphia Warriors
Philadelphia Warriors

Accolades

NBA -
Champion (1956)
4x All-NBA 1st Team (1953-’56)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1957)
6x All-Star (1953-’58)

Statistics

NBA - 516 Games
19.4 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 44.4% FG, 76.8% FT
3x PPG Leader (1953-’55), 3x FG% Leader (1953, 1956-’57)
2x MPG Leader (1953-’54), RPG Leader (1955)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1951-52 through 1958-59 season)
3rd Points, 5th PPG
5th FGs Made, 3rd FG%
2nd FTs Made, 31st FT%
4th Rebounds, 8th RPG
16th Assists, 37th APG
10th Games Played, 7th Minutes Played

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Joe Fulks

Jumpin Joe

Looking back seven decades, it seems that the 1940s has all its rough edges smoothed out and its sharp points dulled. The excitement, the revolutions, the uncertainty of it all gets smothered in the process as we create comforting wistful looks at a seemingly quaint era.

Joe Fulks, however, was one of those revolutionary excitements that gets bored down and washed away in assuming things were quaint. The way he played was instrumental in not only progressing the game of basketball, but also in merely helping the Basketball Association of America to survive long enough to become the National Basketball Association.

“Jumpin’ Joe” didn’t earn the bouncy nickname for stupendous dunks. Instead his effervescent revolution was having practically no restrictions on what shots he would take. The backwoods Kentuckian set the basketball world aflame in 1946 with his use of jumping shots. Some contemporaries demeaned it as show-boating, but when Fulks led the BAA in scoring with 23 points per game in the 1946-47 regular season they began to realize it was indeed a good show nonetheless.

And that’s 23 points per game for an individual at a time when teams averaged 67 points per game as a whole.

Fulks’s Philadelphia Warriors wound up capturing the BAA’s first title in five games over the Chicago Stags. In Game 1 of the series, Fulks came out firing on all cylinders. He made all eight of his first field goal attempts and wound up scoring 37 points in the 84 – 71 victory. In the close-out Game 5, Fulks had a handsome 34 points to eke out an 83 – 80 victory. In the jubilant locker room, Fulks was asked when he was going back home to Kentucky.

“As soon as  I can,” Fulks responded, “I’m already two weeks late in planting my potato crop.”

Joe Fulks

For an encore in the 1947-48 season, Fulks again led BAA in points and again led the Warriors to the BAA Finals. This time, however, they were defeated by the Baltimore Bullets. And this is where Fulks unfortunately hits the shadows. In the 1948-49 season, the BAA raided the NBL and acquired the Fort Wayne Pistons, the Indianapolis Kautskys (rechristened the Jets), the Rochester Royals, and the Minneapolis Lakers.

Fulks in 1949 averaged a career-best 26 points per game, but it was second to George Mikan’s 28. Fulks that season, however, left a sizzling mark of 63 points in a game. It was the record for professional basketball that stood for nearly a decade until Elgin Baylor surpassed it. And for perspective’s sake, the 3rd place PPG leader in 1949 was Max Zaslofsky with 20. 4th place was Arnie Risen with 16.6. Mikan and Fulks were head and shoulders above the rest.

That year was the peak of Joe Fulks, though. Age, but more importantly alcoholism, began to take its toll. As the BAA merged with the rest of the NBL to form the NBA, Fulks was already 28-years old and despite being just a fourth-year professional. “Jumpin’ Joe” no longer leaped and glided as he used to. For the last five years of his career he’d average just 12.5 points per game after a 23.9 average over his first three seasons.

The man who had been nearly the only gate attraction for the fledgling BAA in 1946 has garnered little attention since. Modern analysts or enthusiasts with no historical perspective can point to his woeful career field goal percentage of 30% and call it horrendous. But with historical perspective it’s revealed that the average FG% in 1947 was 28% for the whole league. By 1953, it had risen to a more respectable 37%. Fulks was a decent percentage shooter for his era, but how he took his shots is what makes him extraordinary.

As a stringy forward who loved to swing long-range hook shots, one-handers, contorting jumpers, and all kinds of shots believed to be uncalled for, Fulks should be heralded. He’s one of those few men who genuinely expanded the boundaries of what constituted acceptable forms and styles of play. He may not have perfected the methods, but he undoubtedly struck a match that fueled the forging fire of modern basketball.

Years Played: 1946 – 1954

Philadelphia Warriors
Philadelphia Warriors

Accolades

BAA – 
Champion (1947)
3x All-BAA 1st Team (1947-’49)

NBA -
All-NBA 2nd Team (1951)
2x All-Star (1951-’52)

Statistics

BAA – 163 Games
23.9 PPG, 0.8 APG, 29.5% FG, 76.0% FT
2x PPG Leader (1947-’48)

NBA – 326 Games
12.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.4 APG, 30.9% FG, 77.2% FT
FT% Leader (1951)

Contemporary BAA/NBA Ranks (1946-47 through 1953-54 season)
2nd Points, 6th PPG
2nd FGs Made
2nd FTs Made, 21st FT%
24th Rebounds*
2nd Games Played, 46th Minutes Played*

*stats not recorded for every season of Fulks’ career.

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt Chamberlain

The individual success of Wilt Chamberlain is undeniable and legendary. The first man to average over 30 and 40 and 50 points per game. The first to shoot over 50% and 60% and 70% from the field for a season. The first to score 30,000 points. The only man to average over 48 minutes per game for a season, even though there’s only 48 minutes in a regulation game.

What’s less known, or acknowledged, is Wilt’s team success. The Big Dipper’s teams had a long stream of close calls in dethroning the Boston Celtics with losses in Game 7 to Boston in 1962, 1965, 1968 and 1969 all by a combined 9 points.

When his teams did win the championship they did so in typical Wiltonian fashion, which means they did it in record-breaking ease. The 1967 Philadelphia 76ers won a record 68 games en route to demolishing the NBA. In 1972 the Los Angeles Lakers set a new record with 69 wins and strung together 33 straight victories in the process.

Of course, such success was expected of Chamberlain. He was after all listed at 7’1″ but closer to 7’3″ and by the end of his career was pushing 300 pounds. His dominance is mistakenly chalked up to the competition which was stiff, short, and white… the last of those unfortunately used as a pejorative on the basketball court.

The Big Dipper

Yeah, Wilt was bigger than everyone else, but not everyone was a Liliputian. He went up against Bill Russell, Wayne Embry, Clyde Lovellette, Johnny Kerr, Willis Reed, Walt Bellamy, Zelmo Beaty, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Nate Thurmond. These guys were strong and athletic, but weren’t capable of going one-on-one with Wilt Chamberlain in his heyday. The refs, feeling sorry for the opposition, allowed egregious beatings of Chamberlain to take place down low to even out the score.

But Wilt wasn’t just bigger. He was stronger, he was faster, and he was more agile. These are things God gives but that man refines. Wilt trained to improve all of those attributes and more. He was a skilled passer, in his younger days had exquisite footwork, could nail a fall away jumper flawlessly, was a defensive terror blocking shots that were 12-feet above the floor, and as you can see above could rise up high and throw down heinous dunks.

But for all of that, Wilt’s greatest basketball flaw was that he didn’t believe basketball was the end-all, be-all of life. He trained religiously (albeit on his terms), wanted to win, would feel bad after losses, but didn’t feel as though winning a game excused or absolved everything, or that losing meant all of your effort was for naught.

And his career, despite all of the  winning, still doesn’t get lovingly absolved of its failures. His play was so impressive that it seemed to flow naturally and therefore deserved no human praise. In the end, Wilt Chamberlain is a fascinating, often perplexing man, and an always-mesmerizing basketball player. In ways only he could, the Big Dipper has always forced us to examine, and re-examine, what we think we know about the game of basketball.

Years Played: 1958 – 1973

Accolades

NBA -
2x Champion (1967, 1972)
Finals MVP (1972)
4x MVP (1960, 1966-’68)
Rookie of the Year (1960)
7x All-NBA 1st Team (1960-’62, 1964, 1966-’68)
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1963, 1965, 1972)
2x All-Defensive 1st Team (1972-’73)
13x All-Star (1960-’69, 1971-’73)
All-Star Game MVP (1960)

Statistics

NBA - 1045 Games
30.1 PPG, 22.9 RPG, 4.4 APG, 54.0% FG, 51.1% FT
7x PPG Leader (1960-’66), 9x FG% Leader (1961, 1963, 1965-’69, 1972-’73)
11x RPG Leader (1960-’63, 1966-’69, 1971-’73)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1959-60 through 1972-73 Season)
1st Points, 2nd PPG
1st FGs Made, 2nd FG%
3rd FTs Made
1st Rebounds, 1st RPG
5th Assists, 16th APG
3rd Games Played, 1st Minutes Played

Pro Hoops History HOF: Paul Arizin

Paul Arizin

Paul Arizin is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the creator, originator, or popularizer of the jump shot. To be truthful, Arizin didn’t even take all his long-range shots as jumpers. He still relied upon a set-shot when things were calm and smooth with time to setup the slower shot. However, even Arizin’s set-shot was a one-hander, eschewing the increasingly archaic two-hand method. And things weren’t always calm on the court, so Arizin wouldn’t hesitate to pull out his dangerous jumper to counter defenses.

That leaping shot of his wasn’t straight-up and straight-down, either. It was on the go and on the move.

He’d weave through defenders, dribble past his man, slink between crevices and rise up for his drifting jumper. The drift on the shot was a vestigial effect of Arizin’s early basketball days of playing on slippery courts. Those “courts” were often in old converted ballrooms that had low ceilings. Shooting with too high of an arc would mean your shot nailed the ceiling. So, his shot also had a vestigial line-drive…

Except when he would dive down the lane, all the way to hoop, where he had some pretty good hang-time for silly layups that still went in.

Arizin’s playing days in the NBA all came with his hometown Philadelphia Warriors. Arizin took over as Philly’s go-to scorer in the early 1950s after Joe Fulks aged and battled alcoholism. Arizin, though, would disappear for two years thanks to being drafted into the Marines.

Upon his return, Philadelphia also had witnessed the rise of center Neil Johnston. Arizin and Johnston each won scoring titles and each led the NBA in field goal percentage. With the final addition of Tom Gola in 1955, the Warriors became a title contender. As the 1955-56 regular season turned into the postseason, Arizin rose to the occasion and scored 29 points per game in the playoffs. In Game 5 of their Eastern Division Finals contest against Syracuse, Arizin logged 35 points in the 109 – 104 victory. Since the series was a best-of-5, it’s a good thing Arizin scorched the court that night.

In the Finals against Fort Wayne, Arizin continued the policy of leaving the opponent in ruins. He scored 28, 27, 27, 30, and 26 points in the five games as the Warriors won the series 4-games-to-1. Since the four of the five games were decided by a grand total of 11 points, every one of Arizin’s points was sorely needed.

Pitchin Paul

The Warriors failed to defend their title thanks to Gola now being drafted into the service, and then Johnston’s knee being ruined by injury. But in the 1959-60 season, Arizin again teamed with a high-scoring center who happened to be another Philadelphia native: Wilt Chamberlain.

As Wilt was scoring 30 then 40 and then 50 points per game, Arizin continued his ever steady deluge. Paul averaged 22, 23 and 22 points per game in his three seasons alongside Chamberlain. Twice the Warriors reached the Eastern Finals, but would be thwarted by the Celtics on each occasion.

After their 1962 demise, by 2 points in Game 7, the Warriors moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco, and Arizin retired from the NBA to stay near his Philly home. He continued playing pro ball from 1962 to 1965 with the Camden Bullets of the Eastern Basketball League. Arizin led the club to the 1964 EBL title just for the sake of another feather in his illustrious cap.

One of the great small forwards to ever play the game, Arizin remains a wonder to behold and consider.

Opponents were always thrown off by Arizin’s violent wheezing during games due to a non-threatening breathing condition. Nonetheless, he averaged over 20 points per game every season of his career except his rookie year and that season his average was “only” 17 points. He is one of just 21 players to average over eight free throws a game for a career since defenders had a hard time coping with his dangerous moves. And on top of all this offensive damage, the 6’4″ Arizin also grabbed 8.6 rebounds per game in his career.

Astounding and amazing, it was all in a day’s work for Paul Arizin. And this here post doesn’t even begin to acknowledge it all, so go here to learn more about this forgotten Philadelphia Warrior.

Years Played: 1950-52; 1954-1965

Philadelphia Warriors
Philadelphia Warriors

Accolades

NBA -
Champion (1956)
3x All-NBA 1st Team (1952, 1956-’57)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1959)
10x All-Star (1951-’52, 1954-’62)
All-Star Game MVP (1952)

Statistics

NBA - 713 Games
22.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 42.1% FG, 81.0% FT
2x PPG Leader (1952, 1957), FG% Leader (1952)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1950-51 through 1961-62 season)
2nd Points, 4th PPG
2nd FGs Made, 23rd FG%
2nd FTs Made, 12th FT%
9th Rebounds, 28th RPG
18th Assists
4th Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played

Pro Hoops History HOF: Tom Gola

(Sport Magazine)
(Sport Magazine)

Few players come as versatile as Tom Gola who received the nickname “Mount All-Around” for his jack of all trades capabilities. A native of Philadelphia, who went to LaSalle, Gola was a territorial draft pick of the hometown Warriors in 1955.

Gola arrived in the nick of time. The team featured the best one-two scoring punch the NBA had yet seen in small forward Paul Arizin and center Neil Johnston. The Warriors also had a fine garbage and hustle man in power forward Joe Graboski, and a really good point guard in Jack George. But what they lacked was a player who could congeal and meld all of this talent into a cohesive flawless unit.

Enter Mount All-Around.

In his rookie season of 1955-56 Gola averaged 11 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. He was spry, he was loose, he was every where. His jump shot was beautiful. He was a fantastic rebounder who was quick to get off his feet. Even his height of 6’6″ helped reinforce just how all-around his game could be, but also just how unassuming he could be:

“I have never seen an athlete with better reflexes or one who is less affected by tension,” said Mario Vetere, La Salle’s trainer. “He can put his head on the pillow a few hours before a championship game, immediately fall asleep and awaken refreshed.”

The super-talented Gola was hardly perturbed by anything and expected to put in his due work like everyone else. The hot shot rookie who had won nearly every possible college award, subsumed and meshed his game into that 1956 Warriors squad. Unsurprisingly, the Warriors completed the season with a league-best 45-27 record and then captured the title.

Sadly, this incarnation of the Warriors wouldn’t be a perennial contender. Gola was drafted into the military and missed the 1957 season. When he returned in 1958 Johnston had wreaked his knee and was on the way out of the league. Nonetheless, help arrived in 1960 in the form of Wilt Chamberlain to re-establish the Warriors as an NBA powerhouse.

As time chugged on, Gola became a yearly all-star and continued performing  his all-around duties for the Warriors averaging about 13 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists through the 1962 season.  In addition to the calculated stats, Gola had the routine assignment of guarding other teams’ best offensive forwards and guards. After a devastating Game 7 loss to Boston in the Eastern Division Finals in 1962 (which came about in no small part to Gola being hampered by a sprained ankle and bad back for most of the series), the Warriors left Philadelphia and moved to San Francisco.

The native Philadelphian Gola wasn’t enthused with the move and requested a trade back east. The Warriors obliged and after just 21 games he was headed to the New York Knicks. In 3.5 seasons with the Knicks, Gola was twice more an all-star before retiring in 1966. All the while, he commuted to Knicks games in NYC from his Philadelphia home.

That subdued, unassuming quality was what made Gola a gentleman and community leader in Philadelphia off the court, and it’s what made him the willing and able all-around servant to his teammates on it. With Tom Gola you never came away overwhelmed with one single facet, it was the complete total package that kept you mesmerized.

Seasons Played: 1956 – 1966

Philadelphia Warriors
Philadelphia Warriors

Accolades

NBA -
Champion (1956)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1958)
5x All-Star (1960-’64)

Statistics

NBA Career (1955-56 through 1965-66)
Peak Career Production
(1957-58 through 1962-63)

Average and Advanced Stats

Stat Career Playoff Peak Peak Rank
Games 698 405 20th
PPG 11.3 11.1 13.8 35th
RPG 8 10 9.7 16th
APG 4.2 4.6 4.7 9th
TS% 0.491 0.426 0.489 26th
FG% 0.431 0.336 0.43 29th
FT% 0.76 0.771 0.771 34th
PER 14.1 12.8 14.5 40th
WS/48 0.113 0.097 0.127 28th

Aggregate Stats

Stat Career Playoff Peak Peak Rank
Games 698 39 405 20th
Minutes 22529 1470 15173 7th
Points 7871 432 5602 22nd
Rebounds 5617 391 3924 12th
Assists 2962 179 1890 7th
FGs 2964 142 2136 22nd
FTs 1943 148 1330 23rd
WS 53.2 3 40 16th

Former LaSalle player John Grauer on Philly Basketball in the 1950s

cjelli (flickr)
cjelli (flickr)

Philadelphia has been the stomping grounds of some of basketball’s greatest players. Wilt Chamberlain, Guy Rodgers, Rasheed Wallace, Larry Foust, Tom Gola, and Paul Arizin just to name a few notables. This week I was fortunate to get in touch with one of these Philly basketball players, John Grauer.

Grauer left a remarkable comment on my article encouraging Larry Foust’s induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Grauer played alongside men like Foust, Arizin and Gola back in the late 1940s and 1950s and graduated from LaSalle in 1954.

The following are his insights on playing basketball back in the 1950s and how the game has evolved, which I’ve only edited for formatting here on this site.

On knowing Fort Wayne Pistons star and LaSalle legend, Larry Foust:

 I was Larry’s sub at LaSalle in 1949-50, his senior year. We made the NIT, beat Arizona and lost to Duquesne, who was led by Chuck Cooper. On the way back to the hotel, Larry was very despondent and I said to him, “Larry you will be playing well after everyone else will be long gone and forgotten.” Larry died young [56 years old in 1986] and I went from Philly to Pittsburgh for the funeral and met his family of giants, including a 7-foot son who was a fisherman in Newport, Rhode Island.

On the game’s evolution:

Rules have changed or the interpretation thereof, I guess, to accommodate the great athletes — particularly the black guys that can jump thru the roof. In the NBA [today,] it is football in short pants — without the pads — I don’t know how there are not more serious injuries. Basketball was a game of finesse in my era — except under the boards. Now it is very physical all over the court as well as brainy.

Of course, other rules have changed too…

the block in the lane which was a charge, palming the ball–could not have your hand on the bottom half of the ball; moving the pivot foot, walking with the ball, moving pick; i.e., the picker had to remain rigid or else–cost me a broken nose in high school as I did not move when I should have for safety’s sake!!

Grauer beats out Hall of Famer Paul Arizin for the high school team:

Paul Arizin (all time NBA team) as a senior at La Salle HS did not make the team. I did [as a sophomore]. Also, Nick Maguire, later captain of Villanova did not either–another soph did–we won everything in sight anyway. The city championship was held before the largest crowd ever at  a sporting event in Pennsylvania. Nick and [Arizin] were lifelong friends from South Philly. Our center later went to Villanova and was [Arizin]‘s sub!!! Just like Larry Foust and Charlie Share of Bowling Green as I told you.

Philadelphia being fertile ground for talent in the 1940s and 1950s:
Another irony in my time–my high school ( La Salle college HS in Philly) was a basketball powerhouse and we and other Catholic and public schools furnished most of the players in the “Big Five” (wasn’t called that then). That too has changed—see Villanova. Those school haven’t had many Philly players in the last several decades. Arizin’s great team of 1947-50 was all Philly staffed. I can still name them.

Penn was always an exception, but Ernie Beck, an All American from Philadelphia West Catholic, starred there in the 50’s.
Today, the NCAA tournament is hailed as the premier college basketball tournament. However, for many years, the NIT tournament was the tournament college kids preferred to play in:
The local Philly newspapers resurrected LaSalle from the basketball dead recently and had several stories about the ’54 NCAA team and one in particular concerning the desire of the team to go to the NIT (Madison Square Garden for the whole tournament–real fun and glamour!!) as opposed to the NCAA held in different arenas where your fans could not attend.
Note that the great LaSalle squad mentioned by Grauer that won a college title in 1954 won the NCAA title, not the NIT. What gives?
Little do they know that this was conscious choice of the AD and the coach–who had the choice as [Tom] Gola was the star attraction in the field.  4-time All-American and still holds the college record for total rebounds, 2200. The reason they chose the NCAA was Niagara who had two of the soon to be black jumping jacks that were to permeate the court (Louisville under Denny Crum being a prime example). So when Niagara chose the NIT, LaSalle chose the NCAA–simple as that. Less than 10 people know that story. It’s true–from the co-captain, a life long friend.
For what it’s worth that Niagara team made it to the NIT semifinals that year. Meanwhile, Grauer had joined the Marines and was now married:

After [LaSalle] loss to Niagara mid season 53-54, the coach asked me to return to the team. I could rebound. My wife was pregnant and told him to see the AD and get me money and I would get in shape. Nothing ever happened and I lost the chance twice to be a member of a national championship team: ’52 NIT champs ( was in the Marines) and ’54.

Gola’s ’55 team lost in the finals to San Francisco with Bill Russell and KC Jones, who guarded Gola in the final and shut him down pretty good as I recall.
Finally, Grauer may never have played in the NBA, but he did play against the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors:
the ’50 LaSalle team scrimmaged the Philadelphia Warriors – held our own, but I think the Warriors wanted a look at Larry Foust to see how he would do in the NBA.
I’d like to express my sincere appreciation for Mr. Grauer sharing some of his memories playing alongside and against players who I’ve only been able to admire via stat sheets, still photographs, and published books. His first-hand accounts have given wonderful insight and better understanding of how basketball was 60 years ago.
Plus, I really enjoyed how he explained Hall of Famer Tom Gola usurping his spot on the LaSalle squad:
I went into the USMC after my sophomore year. Returned to play and Tom Gola was the center. Result? End of my career.