Born: February 4, 1929 Died: September 28, 1978 Position: Center Professional Career:
Philadelphia Warriors (NBA): 1951-59
“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
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, however, get a shoulder shrug.
His place in the mid-1950s, even if falsely reduced to merely a placeholder, was still pretty remarkable.
For three straight seasons, Johnston 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.
“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
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)
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
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.”
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
3x All-BAA 1st Team (1947-’49)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1951)
2x All-Star (1951-’52)
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%
2nd Games Played, 46th Minutes Played*
*stats not recorded for every season of Fulks’ career.
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.
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
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)
“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…”
– Paul Arizin recalling life in the Marine Corps
Paul Arizin’s path to basketball stardom began 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 Coach Severance he already attended the school and so the next year as a sophomore, Arizin joined the basketball 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.
Arizin’s success was attributable in large part to his unstoppable offensive weapon, the jump shot. So dependable was his jumper that Arizin is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the creator, the originator, or the popularizer of the jump shot. Not the case, but he was indeed one of its early users.
During his pre-Villanova days, Paul claimed that his intramural games would be played in dance halls with slick floors. The popular shot of the day for a player in motion, aside from layups, was the hook. However, the slick floors prevented Arizin from firmly planting a foot to balance the hook. Already possessing a good one-handed set-shot and unconscionable hang-time, Arizin figured that jumping and firing the one-handed shot was his best option to take advantage of defenses and the slick floors. Another side effect of the dance hall scene was that Arizin’s shot had an incredibly low trajectory thanks to the low ceilings of the venues.
He’d weave through defenders, dribble past his man, slink between crevices and rise up for his jumper which for the rest of his life retained a drifting nature. A vestigial effect of playing on those slick floors.
Jumper aside, Arizin was also adept at diving down the lane, all the way to hoop, where he had some pretty good hang-time for silly layups that still went in.
Leaving behind the dance halls and Villanova, Arizin joined the NBA in 1950. Playing alongside star forward Joe Fulks, Arizin’s rookie season was the least impressive of his career. He averaged a very respectable 17 points a game and proved a tenacious rebounder with 9.8 boards per contest.
The next season, 1951-52, Arizin broke out as the Warriors’ best player as Fulks began to age and battle alcoholism. Not only was it Arizin’s breakout season, it may have been his finest ever. His scoring average of 25.4 led the NBA and he paced all shooters with a field goal percentage of .448. Paul also proved to be the league’s most durable workhorse by playing in all 66 games and led the NBA with 44.5 minutes played per game.
It used to be: stop Joe Fulks, and you stop the Philadelphia Warriors. Not so any more. Not while a gent named Paul Arizin is around. Arizin, a tireless, six-foot-four Jumping Jack , currently is the big gun in Philadelphia’s attack the Warriors have played three games so far and Arizin has been a high scorer each time, netting, in order, 22, 23 and 29 points.
Making his second straight All-Star game in 1952, Arizin would take home the MVP award for that game after scoring 26 points on a scintillating 9-13 shooting from the field and 8-8 from the free throw line. Arizin would also be selected to his first All-NBA 1st Team. The Warriors finished 33-33 and were ousted in the Eastern first round, 2-games-to-1, by Syracuse. The NBA did not hand out MVPs yet, but by my estimation, Arizin is the best choice for that designation in the 1951-52 season.
Arizin had clearly arrived as one of the NBA’s top acts. This was not solely due to his amazing jump shot. That was but one weapon in his arsenal. Helping him further was an innocuous breathing condition that caused him to wheeze loudly. The heavy breathing could take opponents off guard, something they could ill-afford with Arizin. Wheezing aside, Arizin also had just a way of deceptively jabbing his feet and shaking his shoulders to throw defenders further off guard – you’ll see what I mean by watching the video at the end of this article.
If left wide open, he would take a one-handed set shot. If a defender closed out hard, he would counter by dribbling hard himself and close in on the basket. Sometimes he would pull up for the jump shot. (In fact, he never took a jump shot while standing still. It was always off the dribble.) Other times, he progressed all the way to the basket for a winding layup utilizing his spectacular jumping ability or was hammered hard by defenders and would go to the free throw line.
For his career, he nearly averaged as many FTs made (7.0) as FGs made (7.9) per game.
Arizin’s perch atop the NBA was short-lived, though, as he was spirited away by the United States Marine Corps. With the Korean War still raging, the draft was in full effect and Arizin got his call prior to the 1952-53 season. He would spend the next two years on the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, as a bookkeeper. In his absence, Joe Fulks retired and Neil Johnston surged to the forefront as the Warriors and the NBA’s leading scorer. But without a helping mate, Johnston’s Warriors floundered to a 12-win and then a 29-win season. Finally, Arizin returned for the 1954-55 campaign and a dynamite duo was created.
Working his way back into NBA shape, Arizin posted a respectable season as a the Warriors improved to a 33-39 record. The following season, Arizin, Johnston and their band of Warriors boasting Tom Gola, Joe Graboski, and Jack George stormed their way to an NBA best 45-27 record. Arizin rose to the occasion in the postseason and averaged 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-five, 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 four of those five games were decided by a grand total of 11 points, every one of Arizin’s points was sorely needed. Again, contemporary observers were mesmerized by Arizin:
The Fort Wayne Pistons’ biggest problem appears to be stopping Paul Arizin as they try to square their [NBA] championship series with Philadelphia here tonight. Arizin has scored 82 points in three games and the Warriors hold a 2-1 edge in the best of seven series. They won two four-point victories at Philadelphia and the Pistons won by a single point here. Fort Wayne may have to put two men on Arzin to keep the home floor hex working. Philadelphia hasn’t won a game here in four years but almost made it Sunday.
The Warriors were perhaps on the cusp of a mini-dynasty, but bad luck and the military draft happened. Between Tom Gola serving in the armed forces in 1957 and Neil Johnston’ career-ending injury in 1959, the Warriors were never quite able to fulfill their promise, suffering a first-round sweep in 1957, a 5-game smack down by Boston in the 1958 Eastern Finals and missing the playoffs entirely in 1959.
Through it all Arizin, was the one constant for Philadelphia. He again led the league in scoring with 25.7 points per game in 1957 and averaged a career high 26.4 in the 1959 season. He made two more All-NBA 1st Team appearances in 1956 and 1957 followed by a 2nd Team selection in 1959 and was an All-Star every one of these seasons. Indeed, he made the all-star game in every year of his career.
The 1959-60 season saw the Warriors surge back to relevance behind the sensational rookie season of Wilt Chamberlain. His 37.6 points and 27 rebounds were clearly the talk of the town, but Arizin remained steady with averages of 22 points and 8.5 rebounds for the season. With Tom Gola (15 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 5.5 APG) back in the fold and new addition Guy Rodgers (11.6 PPG, 7 APG, 6 RPG), the Warriors appeared a legitimate challenge to defending champion Boston, but fell in six games in the Eastern Finals that year.
10 year veteran Paul Arizin fired in 43 points in 41 minutes last night to power the Philadelphia Warriors to a 110-103 victory over the Syracuse Nationals in the opener of the best of five Eastern Division National Basketball Association playoff. Arizin sank 16 field goals in 28 shots, 11 of 15 free throws and corralled 10 rebounds to his season high and turn in one of the finest performances in 10 years with the Warriors.
With Pitchin’ Paul’s hot start Philadelphia survived in 5 games to face Boston in the Eastern Finals. The series was a back-and-forth struggle in which the home team won every game. Bad news for Philly since Boston had the home court advantage. Losing by 2 points in Game 7, the Warriors decamped from Philadelphia to San Francisco, and Arizin retired from the NBA to stay near his Philly home.
Taking a better-paying job at IBM, Arizin continued playing pro ball moonlighting for nearby Camden, New Jersey’s team in the Eastern Basketball League for three more years. Arizin led the club to the 1964 EBL title and was also named MVP of the league in 1963. Just a couple more feathers to put in Arizin’s illustrious cap.
When Arizin left the NBA he was the league’s third all-time leading scorer with 16,266 points. He was the first player to string together nine straight 20+ PPG seasons. At 6’4″ he’s also the shortest player in league history to average at least eight rebounds a game for his career. If he had not missed two seasons due to the military, he very well could have been the first player to top 20,000 career points.
Arizin got a pretty good haul for a man who was cut from his high school team and even after his All-America days at Villanova thought he had no future in professional basketball.
Years Played: 1950-52; 1954-1965
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)
“Lost” NBA Awards determined by Pro Hoops History –
3x All-NBA 3rd Team (1951, 1955, 1958)
NBA – 713 Games
22.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 42.1% FG, 81.0% FT
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
All-NBA 2nd Team (1958)
5x All-Star (1960-’64)
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.