Category Archives: NBA History

The Doctor’s Check Up: Reviewing Julius Erving’s Documentary

The Doctor is a 90-minute excursion into the life and career of Julius Erving. The film doesn’t disappoint but it also doesn’t inspire. Its premise is well-setup and promising. Its execution, unlike Erving’s game, is flat-footed.

The documentary uneasily tries to find a narrative cohesion. At times, it is Erving who dominates the story being told, while at others it is Chuck D. The lack of an all-encompassing narrative voice disrupts the story. Are we hearing Erving’s story of himself? Or are we getting the story of Erving from others? The film tries to do both and it’s an uneasy, rough fit.

The confusing narration slowly weaves its way into an annoying irritation, but the documentary begins in spectacular fashion. The premise of legends, and how that term is defined, is remarkable. A gleeful Isiah Thomas regales a crowd with a story too good to be true, but too amazing to not inspire belief. However, that feel-good high is quickly lost as the narration issue derails the momentum.

Further along in the film, the recollection of Erving’s NBA career is done quite superficially. In 1977, his Sixers lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Finals. Erving is hailed for his sparkling individual performance but the team chided for not displaying the camaraderie of the Blazers. When the Sixers won the 1983 NBA title, Moses Malone receives quick credit for his contributions. That credit doesn’t include that he won the MVP Award that season. Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, and Bobby Jones, all all-star players, received no mention. Meanwhile the “selfish” 1977 team had its principal characters all named and discussed: Doug Collins, George McGinnis, World B. Free, and Darryl Dawkins.

This incongruous assignment of blame and glory is to be expected when the film overall lacks a coherent point-of-view to recall these stories.

The Doc’s ABA career is better discussed. The glowing way interviewees recall seeing Erving in his largely unfilmed ABA days buttresses the premise that legends are lost when their every move is captured. They echo the joyful Thomas at the film’s intro by recalling tall tales that they swear are true. When the film chronicles NBA Julius, legends aren’t created. Instead facts are recalled and, as discussed above, they are recalled incompletely.

The film nonetheless achieves a qualified success. Poignant moments of Julius recalling the death of his younger brother and his son are moving. The rare footage of Erving at Rucker Park, in high school, and in the ABA are brief glimpses of reality in the fantasy world of Dr. J. As a viewer, I was left somewhat satiated, but not full.

I still hunger for a more stirring account of Erving’s life and career.

 

Image courtesy of byronv2 on Flickr

Undefeated: Roger Brown’s Legacy

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9V7iWIECNM]

 

Undefeated: the Roger Brown Story revolves around the fickle but mighty, resolute but transient, power of trust.

The NBA resolutely had none in Roger Brown and banned him from their league after learning of a vague and flimsy connection to a spots gambling ring. Brown, even after winning a lawsuit to lift the ban, never played for that league. That victorious lawsuit was but a small recompense for the way legal system had previously trashed and sullied Brown. With particular individuals, Roger Brown had difficulty locating the right people to trust. He had been burned time and time again after placing his faith in the hands of others.

However, the Brooklyn-born Brown eventually found trust in Dayton, Ohio, and in Indianapolis, Indiana. In both locations, strangers became family for Brown. A married couple in Dayton unable to conceive children of their own invited Brown into their home. This was after the University of Dayton cut all ties with Brown. Later, Brown found camaraderie with the ABA’s Pacers. Those bonds helped keep Roger Brown’s life together. When his life came to an early end due to cancer, members of these two circles kept up their iron bond with the legendary basketball player.

Undefeated: the Roger Brown Story is also a story of remarkable perseverance.

In the face of daunting obstacles, Brown resolved to continue his basketball career by any means. He worked at an Ohio factory during the week while also playing in minor pro leagues, pick-up games on weekends, and finally ascended to the ABA where he reminded the world why he was New York City’s best high school player in the early 1960s.

He carried the Indiana Pacers to three titles in the early 1970s even scoring a record 53 points in one Finals game. His soft and sweet jump shot was deadly to opponents. His desire to take the big shots down the stretch a relief to teammates.

The wonderful interviews with old Pacers like Mel Daniels, Freddie Lewis, and coach “Slick” Leonard are poignant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stops by to recall how he, as a youngster in New York City, watched Roger Brown in total awe. Oscar Robertson recounts the pick-up games where Brown and he would battle to a standstill. Brown’s family and high school friends tear up remembering the remarkable injustice thrust upon the basketball legend. Just as important in Ted Green’s documentary on the Pacers legend is the rare archival footage of Roger Brown in action.

Seeing Brown’s graceful play on the court makes his grueling story that much harder to bear. Still, Green has done a masterful job in weaving together all the tragedy and the triumph that made Roger Brown indomitable on and off the court.  Green’s stirring documentary, alongside Brown’s long overdue Hall of Fame induction this fall, is helping Roger win his last battle: a secure and lasting place in the minds and memories of basketball fans everywhere.

The only shame is that few unheralded legends receive the kind of moving treatment Green has given Brown.

For more information, preview clips, and ways to support Roger Brown’s legacy and documentary, visit WFYI.com.

The Hard Road back from Achilles

So, as I’m sure everyone’s heard, Kobe Bryant has torn his Achilles tendon.

The injury is one of the worst a person can experience. Its place in our collective memory cemented by the Greek hero of centuries ago. We still have to capitalize this large tendon in our lower leg in honor of the great Achilles.

But how will Kobe Bryant fare in his recovery from this injury?

Hell, if I know. The tear happened just last night and the MRI hasn’t been done, yet. What I do know are four historic examples of Achilles tears that may prove valuable for contextualizing Bryant’s recovery.

Chauncey Billups

Billups’ injury may be the closest reflection on what Bryant may endure based purely on age. The 35-year old Billups ripped his Achilles to pieces in the 2011-12 season with the Los Angeles Clippers. Billups has still not truly recovered from the injury. Appearing in just 20 games this year, the point guard just isn’t anywhere near his former self and is now struggling with various other ailments.

That presents the problem for recovery from any injury at an old age. One malady generally produces others as the body recovers slowly and overcompensates on other areas thereby degrading them. Even happens to young players like Ricky Rubio who suffered back spasms based on compensating too much recovering from his ACL injury.

Elton Brand

Brand’s case is a bit hard to disentangle from his shoulder injury in the 2008-09 season that followed his Achilles tear in August of 2007. Whether purely from the Achilles, or exacerbated by the shoulder, there’s no denying Brand isn’t the same player since 2007. Prior to the injury he was magnificent: 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks a game. Afterwards he’s been solid, but not remarkable: 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks a game.

What’s disconcerting is that Brand did this at age 28 and never really bounced back to his old self. The Achilles injury is unkind no matter what the age of the player…

Bob Rule

Rule exemplifies that last point on age. He was a mere 26 years old when his Achilles tore in the fall of 1970. Before that injury, Rule was a rising star in the NBA. The center had just made his first all-star game the previous year and was averaging 29 points in the 1970-71 season’s first 4 games.

Prior to the injury, Rule played 3 full seasons averaging a robust 22 points and 10 rebounds. Returning from the injury, Rule scraped together about 9.5 points and 5 rebounds a game over the next 3 seasons before finally vanishing from the league. Rule’s case is disconcerting, but his injury did occur forty years ago and medicine certainly has become much better at helping tendons heal.

Dominique Wilkins

This is probably the best case scenario for Kobe. Dominique Wilkins tore his Achilles at the relatively old age of 32 back in January of 1992. The Human Highlight Film  returned in time for the start of the 1992-93 season and averaged a scintillating 30 points per game.

Of course, Kobe is 34 not the more youthful 32  years Nique was. Furthermore, Kobe’s played 54,000 minutes in his career between the regular season and playoffs. Wilkins had only mustered 30,000 minutes when he tore his Achilles tendon.

Clearly, the track record isn’t great for players returning from this injury. Given Kobe’s age and minutes played the climb back will be that much harder. However, medicine has never been better at speeding along recovery.

We will see Kobe Bean again, but in what form remains to be seen.

 

(for more on Achilles analysis, check out this piece from Kevin Pelton)

Ship Ahoy! The 1979 San Diego Clippers

raisingirl21 (flickr)

The final years of the Buffalo Braves were a despondent set of circumstances. Abysmal ticket sales and a perilous financial situation enveloped the franchise. A concurrent fire sale of Hall of Fame and All-NBA talent was also taking place. From 1976 through 1978, Buffalo discarded Bob McAdoo, Jim McMillian, Adrian Dantley, and Moses Malone. Whether the chicken of financial peril caused the egg of this revolving door of trades or the other way around may never truly be known. But the death of the Braves was sealed when their owner John Y. Brown conducted the most important trade in franchise history by actually trading his franchise with Celtics owner Irv Levin. Brown took off for Beantown, while Levin took off as well, not for western New York, though. He quickly absconded to his native southern California and rechristened the Buffalo Braves the San Diego Clippers.

The 1st order of the Clippers was to conduct yet another trade with the Celtics, one that would drastically makeover both clubs. The Clippers sent Tiny Archibald, Billy Knight and a draft pick that would become Danny Ainge to Boston for center Kevin Kunnert, forwards Kermit Washington and Sidney Wicks, and swingman Freeman Williams.

In Kunnert the Clippers received a backup center who could mix it up on the boards in tandem or in relief of their starter Swen Nater. The Dutchman Nater was coming off a spectacular final season in Buffalo where he produced 15.5 points and 13 rebounds a game. Standing beside both these men would be the magnificent Kermit Washington, a burly and gritty power forward who was perhaps the most tenacious, if not best, rebounder at that position in the league.

Filling out the forward spots would be veteran Nick Weatherspoon and the newly acquired Wicks. Both men approaching their final years in the NBA, but Weatherspoon had always been a journeyman scrounging out a living as a backup, while Wicks was a former Rookie of the Year and one of the most astounding players of the early 1970s. By decade’s end, though, he’d fallen into the role of reserve after disgruntled years in Portland and his dispassionate stay in Boston.

In the backcourt, San Diego could rely on the Iron Man of the NBA, the venerable Randy Smith. Between 1972 and 1982, Smith set a record of 906 consecutive games played. Although pushing 30, the guard was still quick, explosive and athletic. He was also the last link to the franchise’s glory years in the mid-1970s.

With this tentative roster set, the Clippers tapped Gene Shue as their head coach in August of 1978. Although he was the NBA’s active leader in coaching wins, thanks to stints in Philly and Baltimore, Shue was aware the task at hand in the Pacific Division was a monumental one:

“… San Diego finds itself in a bracket in which every team – Los Angeles, Phoenix, Golden State, Seattle and Portland – had winning seasons last year.

‘That’s  major problem – the unbelievable competition.'”

Shue nonetheless promised an uptempo, enjoyable brand of basketball for the San Diego fans, while also believing that the key to Clipper success was Sidney Wicks returning to his all-star form and also on finding backcout help for Randy Smith and rookie Freeman Williams. In Wicks, an all-star form would not return, but the backcourt help would arrive…

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The Lowdown “Expansion All-Stars”: Jerry Sloan

(Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images)

Pre- “Expansion All-Star” Seasons (1966): 5.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, .415 FG%, .705% FT, 16.1 MPG

“Expansion All-Star” Season (1967): 17.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, .432 FG%, .796 FT%, 36.8 MPG

Post- “Expansion All-Star” Seasons (1968 – 1976): 14.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, .426 FG%, .711 FT%, 35.5 MPG

Last week’s Expansion All-Star was Bob “Slick” Leonard of the Chicago Packers. Well, in an unsurprising development, the next Expansion All-Star also suits up for an expansion teams based in Chicago. The Windy City was a graveyard for major league professional basketball. The Chicago Gears of the NBL, the Chicago Stags of the BAA and the Chicago Packers of the NBA had all failed to survive in the city over the previous twenty years when the Chicago Bulls became the next best hope for pro basketball. Given the history, the Bulls surprisingly succeeded and it’s in no small part thanks to Jerry Sloan.

Sloan’s NBA career began, ironically, with the Baltimore Bullets. This is ironic because the Chicago Packers had packed up their bags and left Chicago in 1964 to become the Baltimore Bullets. The Maryland franchise acquired Sloan in the 1965 NBA Draft with the fourth overall pick ahead of such luminaries as the Van Arsdale twins, Billy Cunningham, Flynn Robinson and future Bulls teammates Bob Weiss and Bob Love.

That Sloan spent only one season as a Bullet and was available in the expansion draft the very next year was revealing of the terrible management involved with Baltimore at the time. Yes, Sloan had not put up amazing stats in his rookie year, but the promise of greatness was certainly there:

“…the Baltimore Bullets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, 119-113, in other Wednesday night action…

Rookie Jerry Sloan’s 15-foot jump shot with 15 seconds left was the big play for the Bullets, who trailed by a point with 48 seconds to go. Gus Johnson’s 28 points led the Bullets and Jerry West’s 33 paced the Lakers.”

Nonetheless, the 4th overall pick was put on the expansion draft chopping block and the Chicago Bulls snapped up Sloan. The key to this was that one of Sloan’s Baltimore teammates had retired and taken over as coach of the Bulls. Johnny “Red” Kerr, a venerable presence in the NBA for over a decade, was the man at the helm of the Bulls and Sloan years later acknowledged Kerr’s help in giving him a chance to shine:

“Red was really the reason for me being in Chicago because of the expansion draft. Johnny helped me get an opportunity to play.”

Sloan’s playing time rose from a scant 16 minutes to 37 minutes a game that expansion season and his other stats predictably rose: the scoring reaching 17.5 points a game and the boards topping off at a career-high 9 a game. The averages were nice but so were individual moments throughout that season. In early March of 1967, Sloan and center Erwin Mueller spearheaded the defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers:

“Mueller scored 20 points and held Wilt Chamberlain to 20 as the Bulls pulled away to a 95-84 third-period margin and never were threatened thereafter. Jerry Sloan had 22 points and 15 rebounds for the Bulls.”

Any victory is nice but the expansion Bulls had just handed the 76ers one of their only 13 losses that season. Just a couple of weeks later, Sloan struck again to keep alive Chicago’s playoff hopes against the Detroit Pistons, the very team they were competing with for the final playoff spot:

“The Bulls whipped the Detroit Pistons on the road Wednesday night 98-91 and moved into fourth place in the Western Division a half-game ahead of the now last-place Pistons. The Bulls have two games left to play in the regular season ending Sunday, the Pistons three.

Jerry Sloan threw in 32 points to lead a second half Chicago rally that erased a 69-62 Detroit lead.”

The Bulls would indeed sew up that final playoff spot thanks to the young Sloan and veterans Bob Boozer and Guy Rodgers. The always superb St. Louis Hawks, however, would thrash Chicago in the postseason in a three-game opening round sweep. Not the sweetest of endings, but for an expansion team, that was quite successful to be bounced in the playoffs no matter what the fashion.

For Sloan this would just be the beginning of a long and lengthy career as “Mr. Bull”. In his 1st year as a Bull, Sloan was selected as an All-Star and would garner one more selection to that event in 1969. Even more importantly, though, Sloan’s reputation as a hellish defender would become well justified and cemented over the ensuing years. Making 6 All-Defensive teams, Sloan was the nightmare of any wing player who came his way, especially when he teamed with the demonic Norm Van Lier in the 1970s. Sloan’s 6’5″ strongly wiry and lanky frame made him perfect to harass the perimeter. Sadly, words are the only thing to really do Sloan’s defense  justice since steals weren’t logged until 1974, at which point a 31-year old Sloan still captured 2.1 per game.

But the words, nonetheless, do Sloan’s defense adequate justice. Just search the Google news archives for “Jerry Sloan defense” and you’ll get a treasure trove of articles glowingly speaking of Sloan’s inspired, cagey and tireless defense. Although that defense never brought Chicago a title, it did lead the Bulls to a Golden Era of success in the early and mid 1970s with Van Lier, Bob Love, Bob Weiss, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle. The Bulls would secure four straight 50-win seasons and two trips to the Western Conference Finals.

As for Sloan, he’d retire in the mid-1970s ranking 3rd in assists and 2nd in points for the Bulls franchise. Meanwhile he led the Bulls in categories typical for him: games played, minutes played, and, of course, personal fouls. Since then, only Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen have passed Sloan in those categories. On top of all this, he was the 1st Bull to have his number retired. All of the success, all of the defense, all of the tirades began with Sloan’s expansion outburst in 1966.

You really did need to hold Sloan back, the man was a loose cannon.

(as always, statistical information retrieved from basketball-reference.com)

The Lowdown “Expansion All-Stars”: Slick Leonard

via Fanbase.com

Pre-“Expansion All-Star” Seasons (1957 – 1961): 8.8 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.8 RPG, .340 FG%, .746% FT, 25.6 MPG

“Expansion All-Star” Season (1962): 16.1 PPG, 5.4 APG, 2.8 RPG, .375 FG%, .752 FT%, 35.2 MPG

Post-“Expansion All-Star” Seasons (1963): 7.1 PPG, 4.5 APG, 2.1 RPG .343 FG%, .694 FT%, 27.5 MPG

William Robert Leonard is a man of a million aliases. Some call him “Robert”. Others “Bob”. But the coolest of us call him “Slick”. As a legendary ABA coach, Slick proved to be tough, if not slippery, for opponents to handle. He took the Pacers to three titles in the upstart, renegade league. However, his time as a professional basketball player isn’t all that memorable.

Except when he tagged along with the expansion Chicago Packers in the 1961-62 season. For his sudden, unexpected and never-repeated performance that year, Slick Leonard is the 1st Expansion All-Star to be featured here in The Lowdown, which is appropriate since the Chicago Packers in 1961 were the 1st NBA expansion team in a decade. And my goodness did they show it on the court. Aside from Slick Leonard and rookie Walt Bellamy this team was absolutely atrocious. Beyond them, 8 other players appeared in 41+ games with the Packers that season. All but 3 would be out of the league the very next season. And only two survived the following year.

So with those facts in mind, it’s little wonder Leonard enjoyed a career season with the expansion Packers. Up to this point, Leonard had been a serviceable guard with the Lakers franchise. His claim to fame there had been a surprisingly great 1957 postseason where he averaged 21 points, 7.5 assists and 6 rebounds in 5 games. His other stake to stardom had been a coach-like  harping of his team’s shortcomings, in particular this rant to the Los Angeles Times:

“We’re so much better than that club (Cincinnati),” he said. “But we just don’t have the fire. We are a second place club, material wise, and we keep saying we’ll make up the games we’ve lost but there are only 31 games left.”

Not content with these salvos Leonard then bit into coach Fred Schaus for trying to make teammate “Hot Rod” Hundley, who he deemed a lackluster play maker, into a point guard:

“You can’t make a leader,” he said emphatically.

These quotes from January 1961 by an aging reserve may have played some role in Leonard’s subsequent availability in that summer’s expansion draft. Just a hunch on my part.

Now a member of the Chicago Packers, Leonard was free to not only shoot barbs but as many shots as he wanted on the court. Early in the season the Chicago Daily Tribune noted his playmaking ability and its impact, particularly on rookie sensation Walt Bellamy:

The Chicago Packers came up with a new star last night. His name is Bob Leonard, once an All-American playmaker at Indiana University.

The 29 year old backcourt man [cast aside in the player draft by the Los Angeles Lakers as being injury prone] dominated a second half rally that brought the Packers their second victory of the season. They have lost three.

Thanks to Leonard’s ball handling, Walt Bellamy… was able to score 35 points. Eleven of Bellamy’s field goals came in the second half and eight were the direct result of passes from Leonard.

Leonard himself had 27 points that game against the Knicks. Chicago stood at that point had 2 wins and 3 losses, a very respectable record for an expansion club. But the hard times hit hard and fast. Just three weeks later, Leonard again scored 27 points but Chicago lost to the Detroit Pistons. It was their seventh straight loss and put them at 2 wins and 11 losses.

In a mid-December contest that saw Bellamy (45 points) and Wilt Chamberlain (50 points) square off within the confines of the game, Leonard and Philadelphia Warriors point guard Guy Rodgers actually squared off following the (you guessed it) Packers loss:

[Leonard and Rodgers] traded punches in center court last night at the conclusion of Philadelphia’s 112 to 110 victory…

The Packers led, 110 to 108, with less than two minutes remaining, but baskets by Tom Gola and Rodgers gave Philadelphia the victory before 3,360.

The losing nights piled up in normal venues (Boston, New York, Philadelphia) and in neutral-site, zany locales like Louisville, Green Bay, East Chicago, Moline and Evansville. At least in February, Leonard secured some measure of revenge against his erstwhile club, the Lakers. Playing with an injured shoulder ol’ Slick scored 18 second half points, including five straight down the stretch, to give the Packers a rare win. However, it’d be important to note  Los Angeles was without Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.

Even the redemption was somewhat in vain this season. In fact, everything was somewhat in vain for Leonard this season. He finally was able to demonstrate his full abilities at age 29 after 5 seasons in the NBA. He averaged a career-high 16 points, 5.5 assists and 37.5% FG while connecting on 75% of his free throws. But his demonstrations came on what is truly one of the worst teams in league history. These Packers went 18-62 and surely would have been worse had it not been for Leonard and, even more so, Walt Bellamy’s incredible campaign.

The next season Leonard would only suit up for 32 games of playing action. The Chicago Zephyrs (yes, they changed their name after one season) were just about as awful as they were the previous season finishing 25-55.

However, the silver lining of this season (and the next) would be that Leonard was given his 1st coaching opportunity. Although, these formative coaching years were unimpressive, they were still instructive. Dismissed by the Baltimore Bullets (yes, the Chicago Zephyrs/Packers had already relocated) after the 1964 season, Leonard’s next coaching job would be with the Indiana Pacers of the ABA and he’d truly make his mark on professional basketball. A mark that should be recognized with some Hall of Fame hullabaloo. But for now we’ll settle with remembering Bob “Slick” Leonard as the 1st Expansion All-Star of the NBA.

 

The Lost MVPs: the 1954-55 Season

jonny2love (flickr)

Like that knock off of Electric Light Orchestra’s LP Discovery, we’ve finally found what we’re looking for… the end of the Lost MVPs! The NBA would get its act together and hand out an MVP the very next season for the very first time. Also of note, this is the 1st season of the shot clock. Team scores bumped up from 79 points a game in 1954 to 93 points a game this year. By 1962 the scores would reach a blistering 119 points a game. So this shot clock was kind of important and transformed how the game was played. In any event let’s see the best players of this first year in basketball’s new era.

The Super Henchmen

Slater Martin (Minneapolis Lakers)– for awhile now Slater Martin has been one of the better point guards in the NBA. His greatness was predicated on being able to pester and flummox opposing guards (see his Game 7 performance in 1957 Finals, holding Bob Cousy to 3-20 shooting) but with George Mikan’s retirement he was able to assume a larger offensive role this year.  His 13.6 PPG were a career high and his APG of 5.9 was 5th in the NBA this season.

Harry Gallatin (New York Knicks) – after cresting the previous season, Gallatin is truly no worse for wear, it’s just that the other candidates (new and old) have stepped their games up. Gallatin was still his dependable self with 14.5 points and 14 rebounds a game for the Knicks.

Ed Macauley and Bill Sharman (Boston Celtics) – a similar story to Gallatin for Macauley. His numbers have again declined a bit, but the serpentine center still posted a line of 17.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4 assists, which is absolutely nothing to sneeze at. Meanwhile his teammate Bill Sharman was continuing his improvement. Sharman staked new career highs in PPG (18.4), APG (4.1), RPG (4.4) and FT% (.897) this year. The Celtics however had their worst season in years with a 36-36 record. Clamors for change began to rumble in Beantown.

Paul Seymour (Syracuse Nationals) – Seymour easily put forth his best campaign ever in the NBA. A healthy 14.5 points and 4 rebounds were augmented by a robust 6.7 assists a game. The Nationals would finish tied for the league’s best record and Seymour was a huge part of that, but just not the biggest. He remained Syracuse’s 2nd-best player. Their big kahuna is further below.

Not Henchmen, But Not the Head Honchos Either

Clyde Lovellette and Vern Mikkelsen (Minneapolis Lakers) – The luxury of being a Lakers fans predates the Los Angeles era. Minneapolis lost their star pivot man in George Mikan and he’s immediately replaced by Lovellette who averaged 19 points and 11.5 rebounds this season. The Lakers nary missed a beat thanks to him and also Mikkelsen, who by now has become one of the team’s elder statesmen. Vern still played with a tremendous spring in his step though. Averaging a career-high 19 points and also 10 rebounds, Vern propelled Minneapolis to yet another great regular season, but the Lakers fell in the Western Division Finals to the Fort Wayne Pistons.

Paul Arizin (Philadelphia Warriors) – returning from his exile to the Marine Corps, 1952 Lost MVP Paul Arizin has yet to fully regain his true form but this 1st season back was still a great one.  Putting up 21 points and 9.5 rebounds are a fairly good season all things considered.

George Yardley (Fort Wayne Pistons) – In his 2nd NBA season, “the Bird” has quickly ascended to a secondary, prized position in the Pistons hierarchy. Larry Foust remained the rock of Fort Wayne, but Yardley was the flamboyant, incendiary scoring machine that could ignite the offense at a whim. In just a few years he’d be the 1st NBA player to tally over 2000 points in a season.

The Finalists

Bob Cousy (Boston Celtics) – Cousy had another one of his fantastic seasons of around 20 points, around 6 rebounds and around 7 assists. However, the Celtics continued a slide and funk that would not end until the 1956-57 season when the trade for Bill Russell went down. Still, Cousy is one of the NBA’s best and he would win a real life MVP in that 1956-57 season.

Bob Pettit (Milwaukee Hawks) – the dynamite Bob Pettit has arrived to the NBA. This is the man who would re-invent the power forward position to its familiar role lasting over 50 seasons. As a rookie, he’s already showing the hustle, drive, rebounding and shooting knack that would make him the 1st player to pass the 20,000 point mark. Like Cousy, Pettit would snag a real life MVP, the 1st one ever handed out by the NBA, the very next season and another in 1959.

Cop-Out Ahoy! Where I Can’t Decide Which of These Players Is the MVP

Neil Johnston (Philadelphia Warriors) – his case is a familiar one to last season, except the opposing players have upped their own cases. Johnston delivered 23 points and a career-high 15 rebounds a game. Both would lead the NBA this season and he’d finish 4th in FG%. The problem is that the Warriors again finished with a losing record at 33-39. This was an improvement on last season though and the next year Philly would win the title. So Johnston has the talent to win this award, his team just needed another piece to their puzzle *cough* Tom Gola *cough*

Larry Foust (Fort Wayne Pistons) – Foust had all of the advanced metrics fans drooling in 1955… you know, if they had existed. He averaged a mere 17 points a game, but he did so shooting 48.7% from the field. This would be a new record for the NBA. He also snared 10 rebounds a game in just 32 minutes of action, easily the lowest minutes per game of the players on this rundown of MVP candidates. The Pistons would finished tied for the NBA’s best record with 43 wins and 29 losses.

Dolph Schayes (Syracuse Nationals) – Schayes’s Nationals would also finish with 43 wins and 29 losses and he was the biggest reason why. He put up a new career-high of 18 points a game along with the typical 12 rebounds, white hot free throw shooting and outside touch that drew opposing forwards outside the lane.

If absolutely forced to choose, I’d go with Neil Johnston for the MVP award this season, but if you ask me again in a day or two, I might change to Schayes or Foust. This is just one of those years where a clear-cut winner doesn’t exist. C’est la vie.

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And with that the Lost MVPs has concluded and I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about not just who “deserved” the MVPs these seasons, but just which NBA and BAA players were of significance in this era. Not that I covered all of them here. Don Barksdale, Dick McGuire, Ralph Beard, Al Cervi, Whitey Skoog, Chuck Cooper and many more didn’t get a mention, but they certainly deserve your attention. Hopefully in the future I can give them and others their light under the sun… under the sun… under the sun…

 

The ProHoopsHistory Podcast: the Lost MVPs

CubaGallery (Flickr)

Like an old man, staring out at the sea, you’re about to hear me ramble on for a bit on the BAA and NBA of 1946 through 1954. I give a rundown of the various players and happenings that occurred in my Lost MVPs series which concludes this Sunday with the 1954-55 MVP. Hopefully a catchy, enthralling is soon to come, but we’ll see for now, listen to my rough recording on bygone hoopsters.

 

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(Note: this is my 1st attempt at basketball podcasting… be gentle, my loves. And to smooth things over with you, this podcast also has funky snippets of The Fatback Band’s “Let’s Do It Again” and Remy Shand’s “Looking Back On Vanity”.)

The Lost MVPs: the 1953-54 Season

aroid (flickr)

This season is the end of an era.

The Minneapolis Lakers would capture their final title, their 6th in 7 seasons. Their leader and the NBA’s marquee attraction, George Mikan, would retire thereafter. The end of the NBA’s 1st dynasty wasn’t the only remarkable ending. This would also mark the final season of the more deliberate, slower-paced brand of basketball that had dominated the NBA, and all of professional basketball, since its inception. Next season, the shot clock would be unveiled and the pace, stats and possessions would all see significant bumps in response.

Without knowing it, this year’s NBA was sitting on a precipice. But before it  tumbled head first into a new era, let’s review the giants of this remarkable season.

#10 Paul Seymour – Syracuse Nationals (42-30)

All-NBA 2nd Team
13.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 5.1 APG, .377 FG%, .813 FT%, 9.3 win shares

One of the all-time great players in the history of the Syracuse Nationals, Seymour would spend 11 seasons total with the Nats. 1954 was his 2nd season of stellar play. The all-around, determined hustle of this shooting guard helped keep Syracuse among the leagues elite for yet another season. The Nationals’ lead guard finished 4th in FT%, 4th in APG and was growing into the team’s emotional floor leader that would later place him in the player-coach position.

In the postseason, Seymour hit one of the great shots in playoff history… a 43-foot heave that captured Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers, 62-60. Syracuse would ultimately lose the series in 7 games, but Seymour gave his all for a Nationals team that by that point was woefully injured.

 

 

#9 Bill Sharman – Boston Celtics (42-30)

16 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 3.2 APG, .450 FG%, .844 FT%, 14.6 win shares

Boston’s dead-eye shooting guard had quite the season. His FT%, despite being the lowest of his career, was good enough to lead the NBA for the 2nd-straight season. His FG% was 2nd in the league. You won’t find too many players in NBA history to finish in the top 2 spots of FG and FT shooting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#8 Ray Felix – Baltimore Bullets (16-56)

Rookie of the Year
17.6 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, .417 FG%, .638 FT%, 8.6 win shares

Playing for an awful Bullets team, Felix was the top pick of the draft preceding this season. He was the 5th player in the BAA’s and NBA’s history to be 6’11” or taller, but Felix was the 1st to actually be more than a stiff on the court. Finishing 5th in PPG, 4th in RPG and 5th in FG%, he was the lone standout for Maryland’s morose NBA squad.

(also, Felix is the 1st African-American player to appear on the Lost MVPs. The times they were a-changin’, finally, for the NBA)

 

 

#7 Larry Foust – Fort Wayne Pistons (40-32)

15.1 PPG, 13.4 RPG, 2.2 APG, .409% FG, .712% FT, 10.4 win shares

Balding and brawny, the Pistons’ big man was surrounded by his best batch of teammates yet (Max Zaslofsky, Andy Phillip and the soon-to-be spectacular George Yardley). Naturally this made it easy for Foust to  return to the MVP countdown after having an off 1953 season. The rebounding rock of Fort Wayne was on the rise, as were the Pistons, but both parties were marinating. Their time had yet to come.

That time would be next season, for what it’s worth.

 

 

 

 

#6 Ed Macauley – Boston Celtics (42-30)

All-NBA 2nd Team
18.9 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, .486 FG%, .758 FT%, 10.4 win shares

The always dependable Ed Macauley has finally shown perceptible signs of deterioration, but you’d never know it viewing his then-NBA record 48.6% FG shooting. However, his scoring average would slide from here on out for every season left in his career. Still, Macauley was one of the NBA’s most offensively gifted centers and would remain excellent for a few more years.

 

 

 

 

 

#5 Harry Gallatin – New York Knicks (44-28)

Gallatin (#11) and Nathaniel Clifton (#8) / SI

 

All-NBA 1st Team
13.2 PPG, 15.3 RPG, 2.1 APG, .404 FG%, .784 FT%, 11.8 win shares

Lost MVP favorite Harry Gallatin finally cracks the Top 5 with his best season as a pro. The 15.3 boards he snagged each night for New York were the 2nd-highest ever in the NBA to that point. Gallatin got to that stellar mark by having the Knicks finally realizng playing their best player as much as possible was actually a good thing. The 37 minutes per game were Gallatin’s highest of his career and one of only two times he played over 33 minutes a night for a whole season.

 

 

 

#4 George Mikan – Minneapolis Lakers (46-26)

All-NBA 1st Team
18.1 PPG, 14.3 RPG, 2.4 APG, .380 FG%, .777FT%, 12.7 win shares

All good things have to come to an end. After 4 MVPs and a runner-up finish over the last 5 seasons, Mikan has finally become semi-mortal. His brand of mortality does still mean finishing 2nd in the league in rebounds and 4th in points despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. Mikan was kept fresh (and perhaps on his toes) by the presence of rookie center Clyde Lovellette who would be a Hall of Famer in his own right. Mikan, however, remained the pivot man for Minneapolis and the Lakers finished, yet again, with the regular season’s best record and the postseason title.

 

 

#3 Dolph Schayes – Syracuse Nationals (42-30)

All-NBA 1st Team
17.1 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, .380 FG%, .827 FT%, 14.8 win shares

In truth, I view Mikan and Schayes as being in a tie, but whatever…

Schayes had another one of his now-typical point forward seasons: lots of rebounding, lots of passing, lots of outside set shots that opposing big men didn’t really want to go out and defend. Ho-hum.

 

 

 

 

#2 Bob Cousy – Boston Celtics (42-30)

Hy Peskin/SI

All-NBA 1st Team
19.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 7.2 APG, .385 FG%, .787 FT%, 8.1 win shares

Settling for a 2nd-straight 2nd-place finish is Boston’s hardwood Houdini. Leading the NBA in assists per game and finishing 2nd in points per game, Cousy again proved his ability to distribute passes and destroy with a dizzying array of scoops, layups, twirling hooks and free throws. His continuing pole position, though, is symbolic of the Celtics in this era. Always great, but never great enough to capture the title (or MVP).

 

 

 

 

#1 Neil Johnston – Philadelphia Warriors (29-43)

SI

 

All-NBA 1st Team
24.4 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 2.8 APG, .449 FG%, .747 FT%, 18.3 win shares

Yes, he’s on a sub-.500 team, but I’m still convinced Johnston was the NBA’s MVP this season. He logged an unbelievable 46 minutes a night for a pathetic team (outside Joe Graboski) that still managed 29 wins. In the face of such a miserable cast, Johnston blew away the competition in points per game. His 24.4 were over 5 points ahead of Bob Cousy’s 2nd-place 19.2.

 

The rebounds slipped from last season, (due to the arrival of Graboski) but Johnston still amongst the top 10 in that category. His FG% was 2nd in the league, which is a miracle of Dr. Naismith considering there was no  one else to worry about offensively on this squad. The win shares he racked up also far outpaced all other players.

Paul Arizin would return to Philly next season providing a dynamic duo, but for this season Johnston was a man alone and the most valuable player.

 

And here’s footage of Game 1 of the 1954 Finals courtesy of Fred Cervantez (@FMCervantez).

The Lost MVPs: The 1952-53 Season

Joseph Robertson (flickr)

Well, our 1952 MVP Paul Arizin is gone and in the Marines. In his absence the Philadelphia Warriors sunk into a terrible abyss, but they still fielded a dominating big man. At the top of the Eastern Division standings, Syracuse, New York and Boston all finished within a game of one another for the top spot.

Meanwhile out west things were in a Talking Heads mood: same as it ever was. Minneapolis and Rochester again finished in the top spots while the rest of the division was mired in perfectly average mediocrity. Naturally, the top flight MVP candidates emerged from these 5 stellar teams, but still, as mentioned, the Warriors would also submit a worthy candidate.

#10 Carl Braun – New York Knicks (47-23)

All-Star
14 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.5 APG, .400 FG%, .825 FT%, 9 win shares

Returning after a two-year hiatus brought about by military service (seriously this was the bane of an NBA player’s existence), Braun was no worse for Uncle Sam’s wear. His sharp-shooting touch was the perfect outside weapon for a New York Knicks squad that had been to back-to-back Finals without him. With him the team achieved what was then its best win percentage and  has been topped just 5 times since.

This season, Braun made the 1st of what would be 5 straight selections to the All-Star game.

 

 

 

 

#9 Bill Sharman – Boston Celtics (46-25)

All-NBA 2nd Team, All-Star
16.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.7 APG, .436 FG%, .850 FT%, 9.8 win shares

The final third of Boston’s Original Big 3 has fully maturated and with Braun would represent the standard for the coming years of what an NBA shooting guard should be. Like Braun he demonstrated a feathery touch from the field and the touch became down right… down at the free throw line. Including this year, Sharman would lead the league in FT% for 5 straight seasons.

 

 

 

 

 

#8 Bob Davies – Rochester Royals (44-26)

All-NBA 2nd Team, All-Star
15.6 PPG, 3 RPG, 4.2 APG, .385 FG%, .753 FT%, 7.4 win shares

The ageless Davies returns once again. The former NBL MVP is still kicking around in the NBA at age 33. No other player of his age in the nascent NBA had yet put together such a refined, respectable season. Even his age aside, Davies was undeniably in fine form. For yet another season he’s led the Royals in scoring and assists while getting them at the top of the Western Division standings.

 

 

 

 

#7 Harry Gallatin – New York Knicks (47-23)

All-Star
12.4 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, .444 FG%, .700 FT%, 11.3 win shares

Another season, another inexplicable year that Gallatin gets left off the All-NBA teams. However, he’s much-appreciated here at Lost MVPs. Carl Braun’s addition is what kicked the Knicks up a notch, but Gallatin was still the Horse drawing this carriage over the long haul. His FG% this year was a new career-high and would remain so. His RPG also were a career-high, but Gallatin would soon surpass even the lofty 13.1 he hauled down this year.

 

 

 

#6 Vern Mikkelsen – Minneapolis Lakers (48-22)

All-NBA 2nd Team, All-Star
15 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.1 APG, .435 FG%, . 752 FT%, 12 win shares

The defensive terror of the Minneapolis frontcourt continued his fine play averaging a new career-high in FG% this season. His slight slip in the Lost MVPs from last season reflects not only the improvment in others we’ll see in a moment, but also his own slip in overall production. Vern’s PPG and RPG went down very slightly, but his defense remained as tenacious as ever, so he’ll comfortably stay here at #6.

 

 

 

 

#5 Dolph Schayes – Syracuse Nationals (47-24)

All-NBA 1st Team, All-Star
17.8 PPG, 13 RPG, 3.2 APG, .367 FG%, .827 FG%, 12.5 win shares

After a couple years of regression, Schayes has surged back to his typical form: outstanding outside shooting for a big man to go with some pretty gaudy rebounding numbers. The Nationals had finally given up on their “let’s not play our best player as much as possible” routine and naturally saw their record improve by 7 games over the previous season. That’s almost a win for each additional minute per game Schayes was given this year. Continuing this trend over the coming years, Schayes is primed to make a serious assault on the MVP award.

 

 

 

#4  Ed Macauley – Boston Celtics (46-25)

All-NBA 1st Team, All-Star
20.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 4.1 APG, .452 FG%, .750 FT%, 14.5 win shares

Easy Ed is basically on cruise control at this point. He again has perched himself at the 20 point-9 rebound-4 assist mark and the Celtics again impress during the regular season. His excellence is seriously getting to the point of monotony and I want nothing more to do with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#3 Neil Johnston – Philadelphia Warriors (12-57)

All-NBA 1st Team, All-Star
22.3 PPG, 13.9 RPG, 2.8 APG, .452 FG%, .700 FT%, 15.3 win shares

Well, here’s our victim of playing on an absolutely horrendous team this year. Neil Johnston clearly put together an amazing season as he led the league in PPG, win shares, and most amazingly FG% despite being the only real offensive threat the Warriors had following Paul Arizin’s departure for the Marines. Like Macauley, the lantern-faced big man was devastating with his hook shot . Not to get ahead of ourselves, but I imagine Johnston will snag one of these highly coveted Lost MVPs in the future.

 

 

 

 

#2 Bob Cousy – Boston Celtics (46-25)

All-NBA 1st Team, All-Star
19.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 7.7 APG, .352 FG%, .816% FT, 7.2 win shares

By now, Cousy has become the focal point and the engine running the Boston offensive machine that led the league in points per game.  Cousy’s Boston teammates, Ed Macauley and Bill Sharman, would be in the top 6 of scorers spurred on by his league-leading 7.7 APG. Cousy himself was able to fill it up as well as he finished 4th in PPG. A point guard who passed first but scored at will was a dangerous weapon in this NBA, but Cousy still falls short of #1 in the MVP race.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#1 George Mikan – Minneapolis Lakers (48-22)

All-NBA 1st Team, All-Star
20.6 PPG, 14.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, .399 FG%, .780 FT%, 14.6 win shares

After being usurped by Paul Arizin following 3 straight MVPs, Mikan comes back to reclaim his throne as the NBA’s MVP. His PPG again slipped this year to a new career low, but it was still high enough for 2nd overall in the NBA. His rebounding was proving like decent boxed wine however. Unlike fine wine it wasn’t getting better but it surely was maintaining its splendid heights. the 14.4 were just barely a career-high but it represented his 2nd rebounding crown.

On the team front, the Lakers finished with NBA’s best record and would be tested by Fort Wayne in the Western Division Finals before thoroughly trouncing the Knicks in 5 games to capture yet another title, their 5th in the last 6 seasons.

Footage of that Finals below courtesy of Fred Cervantez’s awesome work