Harry Truman Throws out the First Pitch in 1952
Photo by the Executive Office of the President
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The days of I Love Lucy and The Red Skelton Show were a half-century removed from today's celebrity culture and well before individuals were celebrated as brands. Before basketball, Mikan wanted to become a priest, and after his playing days concluded, the man who was the Greatest of All Time became a lawyer and focused as much time as possible on his family.
But things were slowly beginning to change.
A quick check of the people born in 1952 reveals a litany of big mouth babies who would later have significant impacts on our culture. The world of professional wrestling would soon meet 1952 babies Jim Ross, "Gorgeous" Jimmy Garvin, and "Macho Man" Randy Savage, and the music would later be introduced to David Byrne, George Strait, Isabella Rossalini, and Joe Strummer, along with part-time musicians David Hasselhoff and Dan Aykroyd.
In the sports world, 1952 produced announcer extraordinaire Bob Costas, Hall-of-Fame center Bill Walton, boxer and Saturday morning superstar Mr. T, and unfortunate-national-anthem-singer Rosanne Barr. 1952 also gave us a man who no one would ever consider a big mouth, San Antonio Spurs legend "Iceman" George Gervin.
For the first time in the NBA's young history, the 1952-32 season began with no major scandals or turmoil, and the nine teams that began play in 1951 were the same nine that began the 1952 season. Led by George Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers, Harry Gallatin and Carl Braun's New York Knicks, and Bob Cousy's emerging Boston Celtics, the league was on relatively solid footing.
The Regular Season
The NBA Champion Minneapolis Lakers, who also happened to hold The Basketball Champs Belt after taking it from the Knicks in the 1952 NBA Finals, began their season by seeking to defend the Belt against the up-and-coming Boston Celtics on November 1. Led by Vern Mikkelsen, the Lakers won their first game and went on to win the next three before losing the Belt to Dolph Schayes and the Syracuse Nationals. The Belt then traded hands several times before landing in the hands of the Indianapolis Olympians on November 23.
The Olympians, once a proud and promising team initially comprised of the University of Kentucky players who led the United States to Olympic gold in 1948, were limping along after losing their two star players due to the college point shaving scandals, and were in the midst of their final season in the NBA. They finished the 1952-53 season with a 28-43 record and then folded after the season's end, unable to recover from the lifetime suspensions of Ralph Beard and Alex Groza. On November 23, the Olympians raised the Belt for the final time in franchise history.
On November 26, the Fort Wayne Pistons raised the Belt after defeating the Milwaukee Hawks, who had defeated the Olympians on the 25th. The Pistons were led by rookie Don "Monk" Meineke, who scored 19 points to lead his team to a 80-72 victory. Meineke, a University of Dayton graduate, was the 53rd overall pick of the 1952 draft and the winner of the NBA's first ever rookie of the year award in 1953. Unfortunately, Meineke's 1952-53 season was his best as a pro, and his scoring would decline from his rookie high of 10.7 points per game to between five and seven points per game for the rest of his five-year NBA career. (For a short read on a modern day run-in with Meineke, check out John Kelly's piece My Friend Don Meineke on his blog, This Hard Land.)
Not Monk Meineke
By Hans A. Hornemann (1866–1916)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Three games later, the Belt found its way to the Syracuse Nationals. In 1952-53, the Nationals were led by Dolph Schayes, a dominate center who TBCB readers will read much more about as this blog continues to cover the 50s. Led by Schayes, Paul Seymour, and Red Rocha, the Nationals held the Belt for four games until losing it to the Milwaukee Hawks on December 8. The Hawks only held the Belt for one game. Their brief reign was followed by a four game streak by the Pistons and then a six game reign by the Rochester Royals. Then the Celtics took the Belt and held it for seven of the next eleven games. (Visit TBCB's Champions page for a complete list of all the games involving the Belt from 1947-1960, including the 1952-53 NBA season.)
During the middle of this stretch, the Boston Celtics lost the Belt to the Baltimore Bullets in an three game series that was played in three different locations on three consecutive nights. On January 9, the first game in the series was played on what was officially considered a neutral court in Worcester, MA. However, Bob Cousy lived in Worcester, which is very close to Boston, so it wasn't exactly neutral territory. Despite the location, the Bullets, who at the time had a record of 8 wins and 23 losses, won the game 94-90 behind a 32 point outburst from Paul Hoffman. The Bullets then won the second game at home on January 10, 126-105, with six players scoring in double figures. On the following night, the Celtics avenged their previous two losses by crushing the Bullets 131-87 in Boston, improving their overall record to 26-13 and regaining the Belt. In this final game of the series, the Celtics were led by Bob Cousy's 23 points.
U.S.S. Chimaera in Baltimore Harbor, c 1945
[public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
At the time, the Boston Celtics were beginning to form the core of a dynasty that would emerge later in the decade and rule the NBA for years. Bob Cousy was already in place as their superstar guard and he was joined in the backcourt by second year player Bill Sharman from the University of Southern California. Both of these two men would play prominent roles in the future Celtics dynasty, along with coach Red Auerbach, who joined the Celtics in 1950 after coaching the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in 1949-50 and the Washington Capitols from 1946-1949. The Celtics roster also included Ed Macauley, who would later be involved in the trade that brought Bill Russell from the Hawks to the Celtics after Russell was drafted by St. Louis in 1956. On January 22, the Celtics lost the Belt to the Knicks, who held it for eight games in what was the longest streak of the season.
The Knicks were in the midst of a season that would take them to the NBA Finals for a third consecutive year. They were a balanced team, whose top scorer, TBCB Hall of Famer Carl Braun, averaged 14 points per game. Braun was supported by six other men who averaged over ten points per game: Harry Gallatin (12.4 ppg); Ernie Vandeweghe (12 ppg); TBCB's Player of the 1940s Max Zaslofsky (11.9 ppg); Connie Simmons (11.2 ppg); Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton (10.6); and Vince Boryla (10.2 ppg). Gallatin led the team in both Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 minutes.
Watching the Knicks play in 1953 was much more affordable than watching today's Knicks. According to a January 31, 1953 Celtics at Knicks program, ticket prices ranged from $1.50 to $3.50 for a game played at the 69th Regiment Armory, which is where the Knicks played when Madison Square Garden was booked with higher profile events. As of mid-December 2012, the least expensive ticket available to watch the Knicks play in New York on a popular ticket resale website was $43. The ticket is in the nosebleed section for a April 9, 2013 match-up with the lowly Washington Wizards, and it's priced about $10 below any other tickets in the same section for the same game. The most expensive ticket for the same game is available for $19,023.
Advertisement from the January 31, 1953
Celtics at Knicks program
(scanned from the author's collection)
On February 5, the Knicks lost the Belt to the reigning NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers. The Lakers, who featured All-NBA players George Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen, as well as Jim Pollard and Slater Martin, were again a juggernaut. However, in contrast to the balanced Knicks, only these four players averaged over 10 points per game, with Mikan leading the way with 20.6. For the entire season, Mikan's points per game total ranked him second to the Philadelphia Warriors' prolific scorer Neil Johnston, and Mikan led the league in rebounds with over 14 per game.
After early February, the Belt passed from team to team often, with no team securing a streak longer than three games until the Boston Celtics ripped off a five game streak from March 3 to March 11. Ed Macauley led the Celtics to victory in four of these five games, including a 46 point outburst against the Minneapolis Lakers on March 6. The Celtics streak ended when they lost the Belt to the Nationals on March 12.
The Nationals, again led by 24 year old Dolph Schayes, held the Belt for three games after defeating the Celtics. In Syracuse's final game of the regular season, Schayes scored 30 points to lead the Nats to a 84-68 victory over the Indianapolis Olympians and take the Belt into the team's first round playoff series with the Boston Celtics.The Olympians folded after the 1952-53 season, so this loss represents their last appearance in a TBCB season summary.
Home of the Indianapolis Olympians
Photo by Peetlesnumber1
The Belt's path through the 1953 playoffs began with a one game playoff between the Celtics and Nationals, who were tied for second place in the Eastern Division with identical 46-24 records. The Nats won the playoff, and then played game one of a best of three first round series against the Celtics in Syracuse. However, they lost game one in Syracuse and then game two in Boston, bringing the series to and end before the Nats had an opportunity to play game three back home in Syracuse.
In the second round, the Celtics and Knicks battled for the Eastern Division title in a best of five series. The Knicks took the first game in New York, 95-91, but lost game two in Boston, 86-70. The Knicks then pounded the Celtics 101-82 back in New York behind 23 points from Harry "the Horse" Gallatin and 21 from Vince Boryla. Carl Braun and Sweetwater Clifton then led the Knicks to a 82-75 victory in game four in Boston, clinching the Knicks' third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.
After losing both the 1951 and 1952 NBA Finals in seven games, the 1953 finals provided the Knicks with yet another opportunity to mark their names in the annals of NBA champions. In game one, the Knicks showed that they would again be formidable opponents, defeating the mighty Lakers 96-88 in Minneapolis. However, after game one, the Lakers found ways to slow down the Knicks offense and take control of the series.
Minneapolis won game two at home, 73-71, and then game three in New York, 90-75. The pivotal game four was also a slow motion slugfest, with the Lakers finishing on top, 71-69. Finally, already with a 3-1 series lead, the Lakers finished the first half of game five with a nine point lead and then held on for a 91-84 victory. With the victory, the Lakers finished the season with both the NBA Championship and the Belt for the fourth time in five years.
Although the Minneapolis Lakers took home the NBA Championship, they only held the Belt for five games during the regular season. The Fort Wayne Pistons raised the Belt ten times, giving them third place overall in the TBCB season standings. The Syracuse Nationals held the Belt 12 times, placing them second. In first place were the Boston Celtics, who raised the Belt a total of 15 times.
The Nationals' Dolph Schayes and the Celtics' Ed Macauley both won eight TBCB player of the game awards. However, Schayes won another in the playoffs, giving him the edge over Macauley and earning him TBCB Player of the Year honors. Bob Cousy, who won six player of the game awards, and Harry Gallatin and Larry Foust, who each won four, rounded out the top five players in the TBCB season standings.
Coming soon: TBCB will continue counting down the top players in the NBA from 1947-55 and then tell the untold story of a mid-1950s Kansas Jayhawks star. Until then, enjoy this rendition of a popular David Hasselhoff tune as sung by Dirk Nowitzki and the German national basketball team, which begins about 10 seconds into the following video.