When the Dust Settled
The Nationals emerged from a rough-and-tumble Finals series against the Fort Wayne Pistons to corral Syracuse’s only title
The 1955 Finals offered a glimpse of the best – and wildest – traits of the league’s infancy. It was in the Wild West times of the NBA, before league enforcement officers preserved, protected and defended the game against violence.
The 1955 Finals featured crazed fans, fights between players, attacks on referees and defenders who mauled anyone foolish enough to make a trip down the lane.
It also featured the last gasp of the small-city atmosphere that dominated the NBA’s early days with small Syracuse playing smaller Fort Wayne, which is about 100 miles northeast of Indianapolis.
Yet the series also served as a preview of the league’s more polished, more successful future. The Syracuse Nationals and Fort Wayne Pistons played seven games, all close, and competed in a running, jazzy style that was a result of an innovation that had taken place before the regular season – the 24-second clock.
The Pistons boasted the best assemblage of talent in the league. Forward George Yardley had the look of a friendly dentist with his skinny frame and balding head. One of the pioneers of the jump shot, Yardley could drop 25 points on anyone. A brilliant man, Yardley came into the NBA with a master’s degree from Stanford and would leave the game, still young, at the height of his skills to build Yardley Enterprises. He became a millionaire.
Mel Hutchins, one of the great defenders in NBA history, anchored the middle, and Andy Phillip, a smooth, wise point guard, directed the offense. Fort Wayne coach Charlie Eckman, a former NBA referee, practiced a democratic leadership approach. He put his players out on the court and left them alone.
The Nationals had chased the George Mikan-led Lakers for years. They came close, but failed to dethrone King George in the 1950 and 1954 title series. Mikan retired Sept. 24, 1954 after winning three consecutive titles, opening the door for the Nats. But Syracuse had to overcome a rather daunting limitation – they had a hard time scoring.
Dolph Schayes was the team’s only consistent shooter, a 6-8 power forward who could sink 25-foot set shots and scoot to layups. He had a marvelous understanding of the game’s secrets and its rhythms. Schayes has often been described as the Larry Bird of Syracuse. Some pioneers would argue that it would be more proper to call Bird the Dolph Schayes of Boston.
The rest of the Nats’ starters – center John Kerr, forward Red Rocha and guards George King and Paul Seymour – specialized in defense. The Nats finished next-to-last in the NBA in shooting percentage, but they embraced coach Al Cervi’s frantic defensive style. Cervi led his team as a charismatic dictator. Eckman sat on the bench and watched. Cervi stormed on the sideline, directing every detail.
The Pistons led the regular-season standing for most victories in the season, but the Nationals were blazing as the season ended. On March 12, 1955, the Pistons and Nats met in a regular-season game at Syracuse’s War Memorial to determine the homecourt advantage in the playoffs. The Nats won by 20, and it would prove a crucial triumph. The Pistons were stacked with talent, but had a damning weakness – they had never won a game in Syracuse.
Another blow awaited the Pistons, and, even during the early NBA days, it was a strange obstacle. They played home games in the Allen County War Memorial, a sleek Art-Deco style arena on the outskirts of Fort Wayne.
One problem: Coliseum officials had booked the American Bowling Congress to use the building. The Pistons were forced to move to Indianapolis for home games. They would chase the world title in front of thousands of empty seats in Indy.
In 1955, the greatest collection of basketball players in the world could not compete against a bunch of bowlers. Strange days, indeed.
The Pistons, mindful of the woeful shooting skills of the Nats, packed tightly around the basket in Game 1 in Syracuse. The strategy almost worked. Kerr, a red-headed rookie center from Illinois, missed 13 of 16 shots while Fort Wayne’s big man, Larry Foust, blitzed him for 26. Schayes scored only 10.
Still, the Nats swiped a victory. With a minute left, and the 24-second clock winding down, Syracuse’s Rocha dropped a long shot. Then the Nats’ Earl Lloyd hit another long shot, again just before the 24-second buzzer, to clinch the victory.
“Luck can’t stay with them forever,” Foust shouted to his teammates in the Pistons locker room. In the Nats locker room, team captain Seymour confronted Kerr and told him to improve his defense. Lloyd broke up the tension by stepping between the two men and announcing, “Fellows, we got by with a win on a bad night.”
After Game 1, Pistons owner Fred Zollner walked into the Pistons locker room. Zollner was a quiet, mysterious man. He also was exceedingly rich. He distrusted emotion, yet he wanted badly to claim a title. He muttered a few words about the importance of victory. Then he pulled a glittering watch out of his pocket. Yardley can still remember how gloriously expensive the watch looked.
“I’ll give each of you one of these,” Zollner said, “if you win.”
Kerr, in a comeback effort, led the Nats to a 2-0 lead with an 87-84 victory in Game 2. He scored 17, and held Foust to four. Syracuse again went into the last minute in trouble. Rocha banked in a 30-foot shot with 12 seconds left – and the shot clock at two – to clinch the win. He did not call the bank. “Chalk that up to luck,” Rocha said later.
Only 3,200 fans bothered to show in Indianapolis, leaving more than 10,000 empty seats for Game 3. The Pistons won, 96-89, but Game 3 is best remembered for the antics of an Indy fan, who threw a chair on the floor and then ran on the court to protest calls by officials Mendy Rudolph and Arnie Heft. Despite his idiotic display, there was no such thing as NBA security men around to escort him out of the arena. He spent the final minutes of the game sitting directly behind the Nats bench, nagging players with his choice insults.
Apparently, Heft had seen enough. Modern-day NBA referees will have a difficult time believing this, but Heft soon announced he would not officiate the rest of the title series. He instead called games for the Harlem Globetrotters’ tour of the Midwest.
The Pistons ripped the Nats’ defense in Game 4 with a 109-102 victory that tied the series. Then, in Game 5, Fort Wayne moved closer to the title with a 74-71 win. Syracuse reserve guard Dick Farley drove inside in the late seconds with the Nats down by one. He got whacked, hard, by Phillip, leaving a long scratch on his shooting arm. There was no whistle. “I fouled him and got away with it,” Phillip shouted to his teammates.
The Nats were on the brink, down three games to two, but managed to remain alive as the series moved back to Syracuse for Game 6. The Nats trailed by 10 late in the third quarter, but they came back in a classic style of the times.
The Nats were a disciplined group of brawlers led by Cervi, one of the most intense coaches in NBA history. Fort Wayne looked on its way to a smooth triumph, but Cervi had other ideas. He knew he had to change the tone of the game, transform it to nasty. The transformation was sudden and complete.
The near-riot of Game 6 began when the Nats’ Wally Osterkorn and Fort Wayne’s Bob Houbregs battled on the floor for a loose ball. Seymour, the Nats’ enforcer, wandered into the tussle and just happened to step on the prone Houbregs. The Pistons sprinted on the court and soon punches were flying and bodies dropping. Seymour, a dangerous man when angry, even pushed official Sid Borgia to the floor. Seymour did not even earn a technical for his behavior.
The Nats awakened. With 38 seconds left, Fort Wayne trailed by two. Farley swiped the Pistons’ inbounds pass and seconds later tipped in a Schayes miss to clinch the victory. The Pistons had lost for the 21st straight time in Syracuse.
The next day, title day in the NBA, was Easter Sunday. Cervi awoke at his home in Syracuse. He was not an especially religious man, but he walked to the nearest Catholic church to attend a mass. He repeated the same prayer over and over. “Lord,” Cervi said, “give us a break. Let us win one.” He lit a candle to St. Jude, then walked home to sit with his wife Ruth. This was the biggest game of his life.
“I would have walked to California and back to give the Syracuse fans the title,” Cervi said in the kind of earnest tone that makes you wonder if he really would have set out on foot to the West Coast. “Syracuse was a small town, and the biggies were always looking down on you, laughing at you.”
The game began at 3:30 on a sunny Syracuse afternoon. The Pistons roared to a 41-24 lead, scoring at an astonishing rate. Fort Wayne looked on its way to 150 points and a rout. A year earlier, the game would have been over. Forth Wayne could have stalled to victory. But Nats owner Danny Biasone had sold fellow owners on the 24-second clock, promising the contraption would prevent stalling, keep games exciting. Biasone sat on the Nats bench, watching his promise come true.
The Nats fought back, outscoring the Pistons 23-8 to cut the lead to 49-47. With a minute left, the Nats caught the Pistons at 91. The score stayed tied for a long time. Syracuse’s Lloyd took a shot for the lead with 42 second left, and the ball bounced, bounced, bounced on the rim before falling off. Yardley was then whistled for palming.
Cervi faced a problem. King was the Nats’ best ballhandler and the worst foul shooter. Cervi gambled, sticking with King. As the stocky King dribbled across halfcourt, a mob of Pistons awaited him, all eager to foul. Frank Brian hacked King, sending him to the line. King is unashamed to admit he hardly brimmed with self-belief.
“Hell, no,” he said recently. “I wasn’t confident.” Cervi couldn’t watch King’s trip to the line. Cervi stared at the floor. He was praying again, “Give us a break, Lord. Give us a break.”
King released a one-handed shot. To everyone’s surprise, including his, the shot dropped. The Nats led, 92-91, with 12 seconds left.
One last chance for the Pistons. One last chance to seize a title and, of course, one of those glorious watches promised by Zollner. Phillip dribbled the length of the court and went to the corner. Seymour hounded Phillip, bumping him, hassling him, flirting with a foul that was not called. Phillips reversed his dribble to turn away, but King had left his man to double-team, and stole the ball.
The game and the series had finally ended. Seven games of excitement. Syracuse fans danced in the streets. Fort Wayne fans were despondent, as they were the next year when they lost to the Philadelphia Warriors in the Finals.
But it would get worse in both cities. In 1957, the Pistons moved to Detroit and, in 1963, the Nats moved to Philadelphia and became the 76ers.
That was in the future, however. The night of their title victory was a glorious one for the Nats, who gathered for an all-night party. Cervi remembers waking up in the wee hours, looking around the living room of business manager Bob Sexton. Cervi’s head was pounding, but he found joy in the sight.
The floor was covered by fully-dressed, sound-asleep Nats. Most of the world champions were smiling.
At the time, it was not a tradition to hang championship banners. The city of Syracuse finally got around to it during the NBA at 50 celebration. On February 1, 1997, a banner was raised in Onondaga County War Memorial, commemorating the title.
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