1951 NBA Finals: Rochester 4, New York 3
Royals Reign, Despite Knicks' Unlikely Comeback
For the first time since they had been in the NBA, the Minneapolis Lakers compiled the league's best regular-season record. Mikan won the 1950-51 scoring crown, as he had the two previous seasons. But as the schedule came to a close, the Lakers' luck took a turn for the worse. Mikan suffered a hairline fracture of his ankle, but even that didn't sideline him completely. "He played, but he was at half speed," said coach John Kundla.
Even so, the Lakers again moved into the Western Division Finals against their old rivals, the Rochester Royals. Minneapolis quickly won the first game at home. But then Rochester coach Les Harrison moved Red Holzman into the starting lineup, and the Royals took command. With Mikan slowed by his injury, the Lakers' juggernaut collapsed quickly, and they lost the next three games. As disappointing as their elimination seemed in Minneapolis, it was one of several events that ultimately favored pro basketball.
The NBA stepped forward in 1951 with the most entertaining Finals in its short history, featuring two New York teams, the surprising Knicks against the upstate Royals. The news value of this series cannot be underestimated. Basketball didn't replace Major League Baseball on the front page of the sports section, but it was no longer relegated to one or two back-page paragraphs. Pro basketball unquestionably gained legitimacy in the public eye. Even better, for the first time in league history the Finals went to a seven-game showdown, although the series at first appeared headed for a sweep.
Teamed with Bob Davies in the Royals' 1951 backcourt was one of his former Seton Hall players, All-American Bobby Wanzer. Holzman, who later coached the Knicks to two championships, also helped out at guard. Wanzer was a great set shooter, and Davies was a Hall of Fame-caliber ballhandler. The combination made them the one team in pro basketball that employed the fast break to get an open set shot.
Arnie Risen led the Royals in scoring in 1951 with 16.3 points per game (just ahead of Davies at 15.2). Rochester also got good frontcourt scoring from 6-foot-7 Jack Coleman (11.4 ppg) and bulky Arnie Johnson (9.4 ppg). Surprisingly, the Royals were one of the weaker rebounding teams in the league, although Risen averaged 12 boards per game and Coleman nine. In spite of that deficiency, they finished at 41-27, three games behind Minneapolis in the Western Division.
Meanwhile, the Knicks only finished in third place in the East, behind Boston and Philadelphia. But they ripped Boston in the first round, then edged Syracuse in five games in the division finals. With 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 5 against the Nationals, Syracuse led by 12 points, but somehow New York stormed back to win the game and earn a spot in the Finals.
The Knicks were coached by former St. John's legend Joe Lapchick, a very popular figure in New York. They had no big man but operated adequately enough with 6-foot-6 Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, whom they had acquired from the Harlem Globetrotters.
Clifton, the first African-American player signed to a contract in the NBA, averaged about eight points and six rebounds. He might have put up better numbers had he not been confined to such a limited role; he and Harry Gallatin (also 6-foot-6), who averaged 12.8 points, did all the rough work, battling against the taller front lines around the league. Also up front was 6-foot-8 Connie Simmons, who had helped Baltimore win the title three years earlier.
Former St. John's star Richard "Tricky Dick" McGuire (brother of Al) ran the Knicks' floor game and finished second to Philadelphia's Andy Phillip in the league in assists with an average of 6.3 per game. The bulk of the scoring was done by Max Zaslofsky, who came to the Knicks after the Chicago franchise failed, and 6-foot-4½ Vince Boryla, a second-year player who led the team with an average of 14.9 points per game. Among the backups was Ernie Vandeweghe (father of future NBA player Kiki), who also doubled as a medical student between practices and games.
That the Knicks made it to the Finals both surprised and delighted their followers at the 69th Regiment Armory and in the New York media. No one really expected them to win the championship, so no one seemed surprised when they quickly fell behind Rochester, three games to none. After all, New York hadn't won a game in Rochester's Edgerton Park Sports Arena in three years. The string continued in Game 1, as they got blown out 92-65. They were a little more respectable in Game 2, falling 99-84, but it seemed to be merely a Pyrrhic victory. Davies scored 24 points and Risen 19 to lead the Royals.
The series moved to the Armory, but the Knicks weren't much better at home, losing Game 3, 78-71, as Risen scored 27 points and dominated inside. The series seemed to be over in the fourth quarter of Game 4 after New York blew a 17-point lead and trailed by six points with less than 10 minutes left.
But as they had against Syracuse in the earlier round, the Knicks awakened and outscored the Royals down the stretch. Lapchick had decided to start Vandeweghe in place of the struggling McGuire, and in the late going, bench players Tony Lavelli, George Kaftan and Ray Lumpp came through in the clutch. Battling inside, Clifton and Gallatin helped push the score to a tie at 69 apiece. If the game had a hero, it was Clifton, who in the closing minutes scored and drew fouls that carried New York to a 79-73 win.
But hopes weren't much higher afterward. The Knicks trailed three games to one, and they had to return to Rochester to attempt one more win. Fortunately, Simmons found the range in Game 5, hitting 9-of-13 from the floor for 26 points, and Zaslofsky added 24. But for most of the game, even that didn't appear to be enough.
Rochester led through the first half and by as much as 10 points in the third period before the Knicks surged ahead. From that point on, Simmons maneuvered for a variety of hook shots, while Risen, playing with five fouls, held back on defense. Zaslofsky hit a free throw for a three-point lead but then missed a running one-hander with 40 seconds left. Rochester controlled the rebound, but didn't have enough time to turn it around. The boys from New York had pulled off the improbable: a 92-89 win in Rochester.
The Knicks returned to New York for Game 6 with some much-needed momentum. There they won again, 80-73, with Vandeweghe playing near-perfect ball and Zaslofsky scoring 23 points. McGuire, who had lost his starting job, added six assists and nine points. Five days earlier the Knicks had been on the verge of being swept. Now they found themselves heading back to Rochester tied at three games apiece, with nearly an even chance at the title.
That Saturday, April 21, they jumped it up in the Arena, where the Royals had rung up a 92-16 record in three NBA seasons. Rochester attempted to snuff New York's momentum quickly, taking a 13-3 lead out of the gate, then expanding it to 32-18. But the Knicks found some life in the second quarter and pulled to 40-34 by the half. They kept close from there, finally tying it at 69 with a little more than six minutes left. Clifton fouled out moments later, but the Knicks took the lead at 71-70 on Gallatin's layup.
That lead improved to 74-72 with less than two minutes to go. But then Risen drew Simmons' sixth foul, and the Knicks had only Gallatin left in the frontcourt. Risen scored on a hook and a free throw to give Rochester the lead, 75-74. Boryla tied it with a free throw at 1:29, and from there the momentum shifted.
Davies drove and drew a blocking foul on McGuire. (New York, of course, argued that it should have been a charging call.) Davies made both free throws for a 77-75 lead, and according to the rules at the time, the teams faced a jump ball after foul shots in the final two minutes of a game. Rochester controlled the jump, and Holzman ran out the clock until Coleman scored at the end for the 79-75 final score.
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