By Michael Hogan
Waiting for Godot describes the story of two men who are waiting for a promised visit by the mysterious Godot. While they wait, the men pass the time talking, eating, and being visited by odd passers-by. In the end, Godot never arrives and we're left to wonder if he actually exists or if he was simply a figment of the men's imaginations. The play ends on an indefinite note, and it seems plausible that these men will continue to await Godot's arrival for the remainder of their lives.
We wait. We are bored.Critics have suggested that Beckett's play might be about many different things, such as man's wait for God or the early stages of the cold war, which dominated the headlines in the early 1950s. With so many alternative theories swirling about the meaning of this masterpiece, allow me to submit another: Samuel Beckett was a Knicks fan.
- Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (and NBA fans at the trade deadline)
Beckett's play unintentionally provides a wonderful metaphor for the ever-renewing cycle of resignation and hope that comes along with NBA fandom. In a league where fans continue to cheer on their favorite clubs while knowing that their climb to the league's peak will be lengthy and uncertain, hope always springs eternal. It must. When your favorite team finally wins the Larry O’Brien trophy, fans finally have the opportunity to release years of pent-up anxiety. But for fans of most teams in any given era, that time never comes.
Mavericks Fans Celebrate the 2011 NBA Championship
Photo by Dallasborn&bred (Own work)
Waiting for Godot premiered on stage in Paris in 1953, the same year that the United States announced that it had developed the hydrogen bomb, Watson and Crick published their description of DNA, and Sir Edmund Hillary reached the top of Mount Everest. 1953 also witnessed the American installation of the Shan in Iran, John Kennedy’s marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier, and Earl Warren’s appointment at Supreme Court Chief Justice.
In the NBA, fans of the Minneapolis Lakers were again on top, as the Lakers regained the NBA title in 1952 and would defend it again in 1953 and 1954, while fans of the Rochester Royals could look back on their recent 1951 championship to salve any NBA-related wounds.
Indianapolis Olympians fans, stung by the college point shaving scandals that led to the lifetime bans of the once-promising team’s best players, would finally be put out of their misery when the team folded during the summer of 1953. And fans of the New York Knicks were left wondering about what might have been, as their team had lost in the finals each year between 1951 and 1953. Knicks fans would have to wait almost 20 years before their team again advanced to the championship round.
Some dreams had been fulfilled, but most were left waiting for that elusive goal: The NBA championship.
Waiting in Line at the Los Angeles DMV
By Tillman at en.wikipedia
[Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
But followers of Championship Belt of Basketball know that championship trophies aren't all that matters, and that raising the Belt doesn't always require a feat of Himalayan strength. To raise the Belt once only requires defeating the right team on the right night, making the Belt much more democratic and accessible than an NBA Championship. (Read answers to your questions about the Championship Belt of Basketball here.) In fact, bad teams occasionally end the season on a positive note, finishing with the Belt and hope for the future. As we will see, the 1953-54 season was the first in which the NBA champion didn't raise the Belt, leaving a sort of championship schism that allowed a terrible team to spend the summer of 1954 with a glimmer of hope that would eventually be fulfilled.
In the wake of the college point shaving scandal and subsequent suspensions, the Indianapolis Olympians folded before the beginning of the 1953-54 season. Their demise left nine teams in the NBA, with five in the Eastern Division (New York, Boston, Syracuse, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) and four in the West (Minneapolis, Rochester, Fort Wayne, and Milwaukee). Despite the disappearance of the promising Olympians, the NBA signed its first national television contract, which allowed audiences across the country to witness thirteen games throughout the league's long season. This was a promising development, but in the last season before the 24 second shot clock and the five foul per quarter limit (the penalty), the games themselves still involved a lot of waiting around for real action. The NBA of 1953-54 was still a slow-paced slug-fest.
Notable 1953 rookies included the Baltimore Bullets' Ray Felix, who won rookie of the year honors, and future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers Bob Houbregs, Frank Ramsey, and Cliff Hagan. 1953 also witnessed the births of future NBA stars Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes, and World B. Free.
The video biography above about 1953 rookie and eventual Hall of Famer Frank Ramsey gives us great perspective on the NBA during the early 1950s. Ramsey, who had to be convinced to play for the Celtics after he was drafted, says, "At that time, in the early 50s, basketball was not the hottest thing in the world. And then the Celtics were really never heard of. Boston Garden was old and our dressing room was about ten by ten. We had one shower head and one commode for all of us and everybody had two nails they could hang their clothes on." He also reminds us that standards of physical fitness were much different in the early fifties, as Celtics star Tommy Heinson smoked two packs of cigarettes each day and could only play in stretches of about eight minutes before needing to be replaced.
Times have certainly changed.
As readers will recall, the 1952-53 NBA season left off with the Belt in the hands of the champion Minneapolis Lakers. After their summer break, the Lakers immediately lost the Belt to the Milwaukee Hawks. The Hawks, who went on to finish last in the Western Division with a record of 21-51, didn't hold the Belt long, losing it to the Fort Wayne Pistons in their next game. The lowly Hawks were led by Chuck Share and rookie Don Sunderlage, who were the only two men on the team to average over ten points per game during the 1953-54 campaign. Sunderlage was an All Star in 1954, but was traded to the Lakers before the next season, which would be his last in the NBA. Share had a longer career, playing for the Pistons, Hawks, and Lakers between 1951 and 1960, but never played at an All-Star level.
The Pistons' victory over the Hawks continued a streak where no team held the Belt for more than two games until the Minneapolis Lakers took it on November 29 for the first time that season. As usual, George Mikan starred for the Lakers during their four-game stretch with the Belt, winning player of the game honors in three of the four Laker victories. On December 13, Arnie Risen and the Rochester Royals took the Belt from the Lakers and held it for a total of three games. The Lakers won it back on December 19, and then immediately lost it to Dolph Schayes and the Syracuse Nationals. The Belt again passed from team-to-team until the Nationals went on a five-game streak with it in mid-January.
Onandaga County War Memorial Arena
Home of the 1953-54 Syracuse Nationals
[Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
The Syracuse Nationals of 1953-54 were an impressive group. They were led by Dolph Schayes and Paul Seymour, who both had notable individual careers. In 1954, Schayes was only five years into his fifteen year Hall of Fame career. Of George Mikan's contemporaries, Dolph Schayes was probably the closest to Mikan in his ability to dominate the game, and he would be rewarded with the NBA championship in 1955. Schayes still ranks in the top 50 in career Win Shares, just ahead of Moses Malone and one spot behind Patrick Ewing. He'll be the subject of a future TBCB spotlight, where I'll spend much more time and space on his career. (Note: For more on the Nationals, I suggest you visit the Salt City Cagers website, which includes lots of great information about basketball in Syracuse.)
Paul Seymour is another Nats player who gets very little recognition today, but also had quite a successful career. In addition to his 1955 NBA title, Seymour was a three-time all star and two-time member of the All-NBA Second Team. According to his New York Times obituary, Seymour was a feisty player who, in his older days, admired the toughness of the 1990s Knicks. His wife recalls that he stayed up to watch the end of a 1998 Knicks-Pacers game the night before he died of heart disease. Seymour was also a man with strong principles. As a coach, he was fired in 1962 for refusing to reduce the playing time of black player Cleo Hill when white players complained that Hill was taking too many shots.
After the Nationals lost the Belt on January 23 to the Baltimore Bullets, it was again passed from team to team, with only one more streak of note before the regular season concluded. (For the full details of the Belt's path through the 1953-54 season, visit the TBCB Champions page.) Specifically, on March 7, the Rochester Royals took the Belt from the New York Knicks and held it for five games.
Rochester Mirage, 1871
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Among the stars of the the Rochester Royals were guards Bob Davies and Bobby Wanzer. Together with their dominate center Arnie Risen, in 1951 the Royals became the only team that was able to write their names in the records of NBA champions during the reign of George Mikan's Lakers. The 1953-54 team also included Jack McMahon, who had relatively quiet but successful eight year career after debuting with the Royals in 1952. In 1953-54, McMahon was growing into his future role as a key assist man, ranking third on the team in assists behind Davies and Wanzer. He would later finish in the top ten in the league in assists during a three season stretch from 1956-1959.
In the Royals' final game of the regular season, they lost the Belt to the lowly Milwaukee Hawks, 91-53. The Hawks didn't qualify for the playoffs, so they didn't have an opportunity to defend the Belt until the beginning of the next season. As a result, they took the Belt back to Milwaukee, where it rested until the 1954-55 season began later that fall. Two years later, the Hawks would move to St. Louis, where they would go on to win 1957-58 NBA championship with the help of point guard Jack McMahon, who spent the Hawks' championship season setting up his high-scoring teammates Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan, Ed Macauley, and Slater Martin.
With the Belt, there is always hope.
By Juliane Collins (Own work)
The 1953-54 season was one of the most democratic in the early history of the NBA, with only three teams raising the Belt more than ten times. These teams were led by the New York Knicks and Rochester Royals, who tied for TBCB's Team of the Year award by each raising the Belt 14 times. The Knicks and Royals were followed closely by the Nationals, who held the Belt for 11 games.
Consistent with the theme of the season, 34 different players won player of the game honors during the 72 games involving the Belt, with only two men winning the award five or more times. Just like the previous season, the award came down to a battle between Ed Macauley of the Celtics and Dolph Schayes of the Nationals. However, this season Schayes came out on top by winning the award on six occasions, which was one more than Schayes. Five other men came close, with Arnie Risen, Carl Braun, Harry Gallatin, Larry Foust, and Neil Johnson each winning the award four times.
Risen, Foust, and Macauley have recently been inducted into the TBCB Hall of Fame for their performances in games involving the Belt between 1947-1955. The next inductee will be announced very soon.
Although the Belt completed its journey before the NBA playoffs began, a recap of the 1953-54 season wouldn't be complete without also checking in on who won the NBA championship. In particular, the 1953-54 season was special because it marked the last of George Mikan's Lakers' long reign of dominance. His knees were creaky, but he still dominated the paint.
This was also the season in which the NBA began the playoffs using a round-robin format that included the top three teams from each division. It was an odd way to determine the two teams most deserving of playing in each division championship, but it produced mostly expected results. While Syracuse and Boston advanced over top-seeded New York to battle it out for the in the Eastern Division title, the Knicks were only two games ahead of the Nats and Celtics in the standings. In the West, the top two teams, the Lakers and Royals, ended up taking the top two spots in the round robin competition and fighting for their respective division crown.
The Lakers and Nationals won their division championships and advanced to the finals, making the 1954 NBA championship a battle between two long-standing rivals who were both beginning to age out of contention. As seen below, the Lakers won the first game, 79-68, in Minneapolis. The Nationals then edged the Lakers, 62-60, before the series moved to Syracuse for the next three games. George Mikan scored 30 points in game three to lead the Lakers to a 81-67 victory, but the Nats came right back and won game four, 80-69, to tie the series. Vern Mikkelsen led the Lakers to a win in game five, and then Paul Seymour led the Nats back in game six, tying the series again after six games. However, as usual, the series belonged to the Lakers, who won the final game and the NBA championship, 87-80, behind 21 points from Jim Pollard.
For more on the 1953-54 NBA season, visit the NBA's season summary here. For more on George Mikan, stay tuned to TBCB for an upcoming profile of Mikan, who retired after the 1954 season.