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.

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Bob Davies

Bob Davies
Bob Davies

One of the very first players to routinely toss slick passes and weave through defenses with fancy dribbles, Bob Davies is a legend of the highest stylistic order. He is, after all, the man who brought the behind-the-back dribble to the big leagues.

The Rochester Rocket wasn’t all flash. There was definite substance behind his glitzy play.

As the leader of the Rochester Royals’ guard-heavy attack, Davies was Most Valuable Player of the NBL in 1947, an NBL champion in 1946, and an NBA champion in 1951. Over the course of his 10-year career, he was five times selected to an all-league 1st Team split between the NBL, BAA, and NBA.

Those Royals teams were something special. With Arnie Risen, Al Cervi, Bobby Wanzer, and Red Holzman, they were perennially among the best teams in whatever league they happened to be playing in thanks to their all-star roster concocted by their owner Les Harrison who spared no expense…

“Eber Bros. and Seagram [corporate sponsors of Harrison's independent team] didn’t want to go big-time, and my brother and I mortgaged everything we had or could lay our hands on and we got a franchise in the National Basketball League, the only big league at the time. I think it cost us $25,000.”

Harrison’s independent outfit became the Royals of Rochester and won the NBL title in 1946, their first season in the league. Over the next decade the Royals sported a win percentage of .642, equivalent to winning 52 games every year in today’s NBA.

Davies was the only man around for every one of these seasons and was Rochester’s linchpin for success. He was a basketball mind who flashed his brilliance all over the court with deadly mid-range shots and blind passes. Opponents, when not ticked off on how he was beating them down, could only look on in bewilderment at how Davies manipulated the basketball.

Despite all the fanciness he could pull off, Davies was at his best when he simply rocketed straight ahead to the hoop with reckless abandon. His blinding speed coupled with his dexterity prevented any opponent from swiping the ball away. He’d get to the rack and finish with sinewy acrobatic layups.

And although the Royals have long since left Rochester, Davies’ #11 is retired by the Sacramento Kings. A respectful tribute that’s well deserved for perhaps that franchise’s greatest player.

Years Played: 1945 – 1955

Rochester Royals
Rochester Royals

Accolades

NBL -
Champion (1946)
MVP (1947)
All-NBL 1st Team (1947)
All-NBL 2nd Team (1948)

BAA -
All-BAA 1st Team (1949)

NBA -
Champion (1951)
3x All-NBA 1st Team (1950-’52)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1953)
4x All-Star (1951-’54)

Statistics

NBL - 107 Games
11.0 PPG, 74.6% FT

BAA - 60 Games
15.1 PPG, 5.4 APG, 36.4% FG, 75.1% FT
APG Leader (1949)

NBA - 402 Games
14.2 PPG, 4.8 APG, 2.9 RPG, 38.0% FG, 75.7% FT

Contemporary BAA/NBA Ranks (1948-49 through 1954-55 season)
4th Assists, 4th APG
7th Points, 13th PPG
7th FGs Made, 27th FG%
10th FTs Made, 28th FT%
9th Games Played, 19th Minutes Played*

*stat not kept until 1951-52 season

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Bob Wanzer

Bob Wanzer

A wee fellow of only 5’11”, Bob Wanzer was a big part of the Rochester Royals’ great teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

His first games with the Royals came during the 1947-48 NBL season when he was 26 years old. The long wait was simply because Wanzer was fulfilling his duties as a United States Marine. Wanzer’s later fame and glory weren’t gleamed from this rookie year. The sage rookie averaged a pitiful 4 points a game as he played backup to Bob Davies and Al Cervi.

The Royals, however, bolted for the BAA after the 1948 NBL season. Cervi, for his part, bolted to the Syracuse Nationals, leaving a bigger role for Wanzer to fill in the new league with the same old team. Ostensibly the “off-guard”, Wanzer helped dribbling wizard Davies orchestrate the pass-heavy Royals offense that never depended on one super scorer in marked contrast to their George Mikan-driven rival, the Minneapolis Lakers. Those battles with the Lakers raged in the NBL, the BAA and, finally, as the BAA merged with the NBL in 1949, the NBA .

In 1951, the Royals finally knocked off their nemesis Minneapolis and then downed the New York Knicks for the NBA title. Wanzer, true to Royals form, never carried eye-popping scoring numbers, but he more often than not gave the Royals some extra zest in the postseason.

During that 1951 title-winning postseason, Wanzer delivered a pretty good 12.5 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists on some incredible shooting: 47% FG and 91% FT. For some perspective, the average FG% was .357 and the average FT% was .733 back in 1951.

This turned out to be a habit for “Hooks.” From 1950 to 1955, he averaged 15 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists while shooting 44% FG and 89% FT in the playoffs. Meanwhile in the regular season he was good for 13 points, 5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 40% FG, and 81% FT.

The man clearly had a sense of the moment and the pressure, and could sink free throws with the best of players:

“Little Bobby Wanzer, the Rochester Royals’ eagle-eyed guard, is proff that you don’t have to stand 6-foot 6-inches or better to make your way in professional basketball. Wanzer… yesterday equalled the all-time NBA foul shooting record for a single game by rolling in 15 of 15 chances.”

Given his five All-Star and three All-NBA selections, the Toledo Blade was right in their assessment of Wanzer back in 1951. A stellar shooter in every regard with the notable distinction of being the first NBA player to make over 90% of his free throws for a full season. A noble distinction for one of Rochester’s regal guards.

Seasons Played: 1948 – 1957

Rochester Royals
Rochester Royals

Accolades

NBA -
Champion (1951)
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1952-’54)
5x All-Star (1952-’56)

Statistics

NBL - 40 Games
4.2 PPG, 82.6% FT
BAA - 60 Games
10.2 PPG, 3.1 APG, 37.9% FG, 82.3% FT
NBA - 508 Games
12.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.2 APG, 39.5% FG, 80.1% FT
FT% Leader (1952)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1950 – 1957)
9th Assists, 11th Points
10th FTs Made, 15th FGs Made
10th Games Played, 15th Minutes Played

12th FT%, 21st FG%
19th APG, 21st PPG

Pro Hoops History HOF: Jack Twyman

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Jack Twyman was a man with a soft touch and a soft heart. He is most famous for caring after his Royals’ teammate Maurice Stokes who was paralyzed by an on-court accident. For over a decade Twyman helped raise funds for Stokes’ medical care and personally visited Maurice every week for the rest of the fallen all-star’s life.

All the while, Twyman was delivering his soft touch on the court.

He debuted with Stokes on the Rochester Royals in the 1955-56 season. The rookie Twyman scored a very respectable 14 points and nabbed 6 rebounds a night at small forward. Over the years, and after Stokes’ debilitation, Twyman assumed a bigger offensive load:

1956: 14 PPG
1957: 16 PPG
1958: 17 PPG
1959: 26 PPG
1960: 31 PPG

That rise in Twyman’s scoring average coincided with the decline in the Royals’ on-court fortune. Sure he was, along with Wilt Chamberlain, the first player to average over 30 points for a season, but the Royals won only 19 games. Help came the next year, though, in the form of Oscar Robertson.

Twyman no longer needed to dominate the offense, but he still was an instrumental cog averaging 25, 23 and 20 points over the next three seasons.  His average was declining but his FG% stood at 48% during this period compared to 43% before Oscar arrived. Robertson had the ability to hit Twyman at the right time for the right shot for Jack to nail.

Illustrating this last point, in 1966 the Royals held Jack Twyman Night in honor of the man who was retiring at season’s end. Robertson decided to make the nigh truly special by feeding Twyman over and over. Jack who was averaging 7.5 points in that final year netted 39 against the hapless Knicks. It was one final spectacular display of the thing Twyman did so great: taking and making jumpers.

Perhaps there was a shot Jack Twyman met that he didn’t like. We’re still looking for it, though.

Years Played: 1956 – 1966

Accolades

NBA -
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1960, 1962)
6x All-Star (1957-’60, 1962-’63)

Statistics

NBA - 823 Games
19.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 45.0% FG, 77.8% FT
FG% Leader (1958)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1955-56 through – 1965-66 season)
4th Points, 16th PPG
3rd FGs Made, 17th FG%
9th FTs Made, 32nd FT%
15th Rebounds, 17th Assists
2nd Games Played, 4th Minutes Played

Pro Hoops History HOF: Maurice Stokes

Maurice Stokes
Maurice Stokes

Although he played a career that lasted just three seasons, Maurice Stokes left us a surefire Hall of Fame career with the Rochester and Cincinnati Royals.

To begin appreciating Maurice, consider how many players have averaged over 15 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists in one reason. The consideration only includes Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Elgin Baylor… and Stokes. Maurice accomplished the 15/15/5 feat in his final NBA season (1957-58) but he had been running close to that milestone all his career:

1955-56: 16.8 points, 16.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists
1956-57: 15.6 points, 17.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists
1957-58: 16.9 points, 18.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists

At 6’7″ and a muscled 230 pounds (that’s the official listing, he reportedly weighed more), Stokes was one of the strongest and most physically imposing basketball players in the 1950s NBA. He could snare a defensive rebound and push the ball all the way up the court. This was a skill few, if any, forwards could pull off. Especially a forward so big. He was basically a steamrolling powerhouse when it came to the break.

In his three seasons, Stokes was always an all-star and always a member of the All-NBA team. He was the 1956 Rookie of the Year. He led the league in RPG his rookie season and finished in 2nd place his final two seasons. He finished 3rd in APG in back-to-back seasons. In his rookie year, he was one of the rare handful of players to ever finish in the top 10 in PPG, APG, and RPG in the same season.

However, his career was indeed much too short. Falling on his head during the final game in the 1958 season, Stokes played in only one more game before he slipped into a coma. He ultimately emerged from the trauma but remained paralyzed for the rest of his life passing away at age 36.

His career is a cautionary tale, but his life is an inspirational one. We’d be fools to ever forget the lessons and triumphs of Maurice Stokes.

Years Played: 1955 – 1958

Accolades

NBA -
Rookie of the Year (1956)
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1956-’58)
3x All-Star (1956-’58)

Statistics

NBA – 202 Games
16.4 PPG, 17.3 RPG, 5.3 APG, 35.1% FG, 69.8% FT
RPG Leader (1956)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1955-56 through 1957-58 season)
1st Rebounds, 1st RPG
2nd Assists, 2nd APG
11th Points, 9th PPG
10th FGs Made
16th FTs Made
35th Games Played, 6th Minutes Played

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Arnie Risen

Arnie Risen
Arnie Risen

Arnie Risen’s pro basketball career spanned 13 years that saw dramatic change in the sport. The NBA didn’t exist. Towns like Sheboygan were in the major leagues. Regulation games were 40 minutes long just like in college. And, of course, there was no shot clock. The game may have been different, but legends arise in any era and Arnie Risen is certainly a legend of the game.

He began his pro career with the Indianapolis Kautskys of the NBL. The Kautskys snagged Risen midway through the 1945-46 campaign after Arnie was dismissed from Ohio State for low grades. It was a fortunate occurrence for Indianapolis since Risen had been the anchor of two Final Four squads with the Buckeyes.

Stilts, as the tall Risen was called, didn’t last too long in Indy, however. The Rochester Royals bought Risen midway through the 1947-48 season from the Kautskys who were suffering financial difficulties. Loud cries of protest rose from other NBL clubs  since the transaction occurred a week after the league’s trade deadline. The transaction was nonetheless upheld and the upstate New York team, known for its fantastic guard play, now had a center to combat the mighty George Mikan of Minneapolis.

From 1948 to 1955, the Royals jumped from the NBL to the BAA to the NBA and boasted a spectacular 339 – 197 record along the way. Risen was instrumental in the success. His tough rebounding and stout defense, helped slow down opposing centers like Mikan. On offense, Risen was no less important.

In the 1951 playoffs, Risen and Mikan went toe-to-toe in the Western Division Finals. Big George scored 32 points and Stilts 26 in Game 4 of the series which the Royals won to finally dethrone the Lakers. In the next round, the Royals took on the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals. Risen was amazing the entire series leading all players in points (21.7) and rebounds (14.2) per game. If Finals MVP awards existed at that point, Risen would have took home the honors as he led the Royals to their only NBA title.

Rochester slowly declined thereafter, but Risen continued his success appearing in the first four NBA all-star games. In 1955, the Royals endured their first losing season finally dismantled their squad selling Risen to the Boston Celtics after that season. Nearing basketball retirement, Risen was a sage influence for the NBA’s next dominating center, Bill Russell.

The NBA’s greatest winner credited Arnie Risen with helping him adjust from college to the more physical play of the NBA. Risen wasn’t entirely washed up just yet, though. In Game 7 of the 1957 Finals, Stilts summoned up one final moment of glory tossing in 16 points. Every single one of those points was needed as the Celtics barely survived 125 – 123 to defeat the St. Louis Hawks in double overtime to win their first title.

50 years later in 2007, that Celtics team reunited. Russell and Risen were just as chummy then as they were back in the 1950s. The affable Arnie had that kind of influence on people. One of the great players and great people in basketball history.

NBA Photos
NBA Photos

Seasons Played: 1946 – 1958

Accolades

NBL -
All-NBL 2nd Team (1947)

BAA -
All-BAA 2nd Team (1949)

NBA –
2x Champion (1951, 1957)
4x All-Star (1952-’55)

Statistics

NBL – 184 Games
13.1 PPG, 66.1% FT
15th All-Time in Points, 16th All-Time in FGs Made, 15th All-Time in FTs Made

BAA - 60 Games
16.6 PPG, 1.7 APG, 42.3% FG, 66.0% FT
FG% Leader (1949)

NBA - 577 Games
11.5 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 1.7 APG, 37.5% FG, 70.5% FT

Warm and Fuzzy thoughts on Andrew “Fuzzy” Levane

Editor’s Note: This was originally written May 6, 2012, shortly after Levane’s passing.

PatrickSmithPhotography (Flickr)

Andrew “Fuzzy” Levane passed away last Sunday. Obviously, I’m a bit slow on putting something together acknowledging his contribution to professional basketball, but the Internet has ably taken care of that.

The New York Times put together a great piece on Fuzzy:

A personable and gregarious figure, Levane was head coach of the Knicks during the 1958-59 season, leading them to a 40-32 record, a second-place finish in the N.B.A.’s Eastern Division and a playoff appearance, though he resigned under pressure early in the 1959 season after the team lost 19 of its first 27 games.

His biggest contribution to the franchise was probably his hiring of a scout, a longtime friend named Red Holzman, who would later coach the Knicks to their only league championships, in 1970 and 1973.

As you’ll see reading through the rest of that article, Holzman and Levane were practically inseparable. One would salvage the other’s career only to return the favor a couple of years later. The native New Yorkers most famously led the Knicks to their 1970 and 1973 titles, but for children of the 1990s like myself the most lasting Levane impact was his discovery of Anthony Mason.

But as I’ve mentioned, the Times did an excellent job summarizing Levane’s life and career, as did our friends over at Knicker Blogger.

All I can add is that Levane’s passing leaves us with one fewer voice to recall the sights, sounds and action of the early days of professional basketball. He got his start playing for the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League in shortly after his Coast Guard duty in World War II ended. The NBL, around since the mid-1930s, was the premier professional league and would later merge with the Basketball Association of America (BAA) to form the NBA.

Established in 1944, the Royals were the brainchild of Lester Harrison, a local Jewish businessman. Seeking to attract interest in the Royals amongst the local Jewish population, Harrison had signed Levane assuming he was Jewish because of his last name. Much to Harrison’s surprise, the 6’2″ forward was actually Italian. Nonetheless, Levane tipped Harrison off on a possible Jewish guard to fill the role mistakenly given to himself. That guard of course would be Red Holzman.

Despite the initial, comical mix-up, Levane adored his time with the Royals and pro ball in general:

We were millionaires! I was making five grand a year! Before that I didn’t know that you could get paid for what we were doing. I got married in 1945 and bought a house in Rochester and we stayed there until 1949.

- via The National Basketball League: A History 1935 – 1949

The times were grand in Rochester as Levane played on a team stacked from top to bottom with Hall of Fame and All-NBL talent: Bob Davies, Bobby Wanzer, Holzman, Arnie Risen, and Al Cervi chief amongst them. A different game usually brought a different leading scorer for the plucky club that played their games in an arena the size of a pillbox. They took home the NBL crown in 1946 and lost in the NBL Finals in 1947 and 1948.

Perhaps it was Levane’s experience with this egalitarian Royals team that later influenced how the early 1970s Knicks, so famous for their effortless passing and camaraderie, came about. What is certain is that Fuzzy Levane was one of the true ambassadors of the game and it’s a shame, as inevitable as it is, that he’s now gone.