1955 NBA Finals: Syracuse 4, Fort Wayne 3
Nats Win First Title of Shot-Clock Era
Danny Biasone revolutionized pro basketball, but not as a player. As a part owner of the Syracuse Nationals, he sat on the bench, rooting his team on. About the only thing that seemed to upset him were the stalling tactics of opposing teams.
"You need a clock," Biasone would tell the other owners after every foul-infested, low-scoring game. Otherwise, he said, coaches would continue to devise stalling tactics to keep even with tall, powerful teams like the Minneapolis Lakers. Some coaches would instruct their players to foul. Others would freeze the ball. In Boston, where the frontcourt was weak, guard Bob Cousy controlled the tempo of many games by dribbling minutes off the clock.
Finally, the owners were convinced. The NBA relented and installed a 24-second shot clock for the 1954-55 season.
The league had decided on 24 seconds based on a test done by Biasone during the summer of 1954. He had gotten together some of his pros and a group of high school players and timed them with a stopwatch. Most shots were taken within 12 seconds, Biasone discovered. He decided to recommend 24 seconds because he figured that over a 48-minute game, each team would get a minimum of 60 possessions.
Almost immediately, the results proved that Biasone had been right. Scores jumped. Coaching and tactics became less of a factor, and pro basketball suddenly belonged to the players. Quickness and athletic ability became prized as they never had been before. Excessive fouling didn't disappear completely, but just about everyone concluded that the clock was good for the game.
It was also good for Biasone's team. Featuring a lineup with exceptional rebounding ability and quickness, the Nationals claimed the league's ninth championship in the spring of 1955.
"It was like we put in the game clock so we could win the title," joked Paul Seymour, the Nationals' star guard and team leader.
Although the 24-second rule stepped up the action, it wasn't enough to generate more cash flow for the Baltimore Bullets, who struggled 13 games into the season, then collapsed, leaving the NBA an eight-team league. Although other clubs faced the same fight for survival, the Nats thrived, packing the War Memorial almost nightly. (The team's financing became secure when Biasone issued stock that brought in a broader base of investors.) This financial stability was matched by their play; they won the Eastern Division with a 43-29 record. In the West, the Lakers struggled without Mikan, who had retired for one season, and finished the regular season three games behind the surprising Fort Wayne Pistons.
The most surprising thing about the Pistons was their coach, Charlie Eckman, a former NBA referee with no previous coaching experience. In fact, Eckman had officiated the previous year's Finals and was considered a solid referee. But he was viewed as somewhat overblown and bombastic, and that opinion didn't change when he went to the bench.
Because of their first-place regular-season finish, the Pistons drew Minneapolis in the Western Division Finals. They finished off the Lakers in four games, twice winning in overtime. Their victory left the NBA with a promoter's nightmare: Fort Wayne vs. Syracuse, two old NBL teams from two small cities. Both were nice places, although hardly media centers. As a result, the Finals were even more unheralded than usual, which was unfortunate, because the two teams battled through a classic seven-game series to perhaps the most dramatic finish ever.
It opened March 31 in Syracuse, where the Pistons took a 75-71 lead midway through the fourth period. Nationals coach Al Cervi sent Dick Farley into the game, and he scored four quick points and hit Red Rocha with an assist to put the Nats back in the lead for good. Syracuse won 86-82. Larry Foust had scored 26 points for Fort Wayne, while Rocha led the Nats with 19.
Syracuse won Game 2, 87-84, behind a fourth-quarter surge led by Dolph Schayes, who finished with 24 points. The Nats had led by 11 points at the half, but with 30 seconds left the Pistons cut it to 85-84. Then Rocha hit a 25-foot set shot with seven seconds left to secure the win.
From there, the series turned into a heartbreaker for Pistons owner Fred Zollner, who had nurtured basketball in the northern Indiana city since 1941. For years the team had played its games at Fort Wayne's North Side High School, until Zollner had finally convinced the city to build an arena.
But few people had figured that the Pistons would ever be good enough to make it to the Finals. So the arena had scheduled another event, a bowling tournament, in spring 1955. Zollner was bitterly frustrated that the Finals had to be played in Indianapolis, where his team had only a marginal following.
"He was really disappointed," Biasone said of Zollner. "He said, 'I'm moving the team to Detroit.' And that's what he eventually did."
Only 3,200 fans showed up on April 3 to see the Pistons win 96-89 in Indianapolis. Mel Hutchins rebounded like a madman and scored 22 points for Fort Wayne, which opened up a 15-point lead in the second half. Rocha and Schayes scored 21 points each for Syracuse, but the Pistons countered with a balanced offensive attack.
Fort Wayne then won Game 4 in Indianapolis, 109-102, to even the series despite 28 points by Schayes. The Nats were troubled by poor shooting, hitting just 32 of 103 shots from the field. At one point the Pistons led 80-62 before coasting to the final margin.
Indianapolis was also the site of Game 5. The Pistons took the series lead with a hairy 74-71 win. They ran up a 15-point lead only to see the Nats pull close again in the second half. Then, in the third period, the action took a bizarre turn.
"All of a sudden there was an explosion," Seymour recalled. "We jumped a mile -- we thought a bomb had gone off. A guy behind the bench had gotten upset and thrown a chair. We turned around and it was this little bitty guy sitting there sheepishly."
"It went flying over our heads on the bench and went out on the floor," said Syracuse's George King. He said something curt to the man, who was led away by the police. Play resumed, and the Nats cut the lead to 72-71 with just over a minute remaining. Rocha, however, missed a key shot, and the Pistons' Frank Brian hit two free throws at the end for the final margin.
Fans immediately crowded the floor and seemed intent on preventing the Nats from leaving. One fan in particular blocked their way. "Cervi grabbed the guy by the front of the shirt and ripped it right off him," King recalled.
A short time later King learned that he had been charged with making threatening statements in connection with the chair-throwing incident. It seemed that the man who had thrown the chair was an off-duty policeman who had later obtained a warrant against King. The matter was settled when authorities dictated that King could merely apologize for his language. King didn't think he had anything to apologize for, but team officials asked him to in order to put the matter behind them. King reluctantly agreed.
The Nats returned to Syracuse trailing in the series, three games to two. But they had reason for confidence. The final two games would be played in the War Memorial, where the Pistons hadn't won in six seasons.
The Pistons didn't play scared, however. Fort Wayne took an immediate lead and extended it by as much as 10 points in the first half. In the second period, the Nats' Wally Osterkorn and the Pistons' Don Meineke traded punches, an outbreak that brought the fans onto the War Memorial floor. The game continued after police restored order.
George Yardley, who finished with 31 points, used his jumper to spark the Pistons to a 74-68 lead at the end of the third quarter. The Nats finally took the lead with just over four minutes to play when Earl Lloyd hit a set shot. At the 90-second mark, the Pistons tied it at 103 apiece. But then Red Kerr hit a jump shot and Farley tipped in a miss. After hitting their free throws, the Nats evened the series at three wins apiece with a 109-104 victory.
Even the shot clock hadn't saved Game 6 from being a foulfest. Syracuse had been whistled for 31 transgressions, Fort Wayne for 33.
Game 7 was even more intense, although it didn't start out that way. The Pistons ran up a big lead, as large as 17 points in the second period. Cervi then pulled Seymour and King and inserted Billy Kenville and Farley. "They picked us up and got us right back in," Cervi remembered.
Fort Wayne closed to 53-47 by halftime and pulled almost even down the stretch. Schayes hit two free throws with 80 seconds left to give the Nats a 91-90 lead, but Yardley tied it moments later with a free throw. Then with 12 seconds left, King, a 61-percent free-throw shooter, was fouled and went to the line for two shots. He missed the first and hit the second, giving Syracuse a 92-91 lead. Brian inbounded the ball to Andy Phillip, who attempted to go left on Seymour. Seymour nudged him enough to set up King for a steal. There was no call, and just like that, the Nats had their first championship.
"I bumped the hell out of Andy," Seymour admitted. "For years after that, whenever he'd see me, he'd tell me, 'You got away with the big foul.' I bumped him a little, King was there, and that was it."
Some thought it poetic justice that Eckman, a former official, had been done in by the referees. As for Biasone, he was elated but sympathetic. "It was a tough game to lose," he said. "I would have felt bad myself."
Mostly, however, Biasone was satisfied with the clock's role.
"If it wasn't for the shot clock, it would have been the dullest game in history," he said. "Fort Wayne was up by 17. Under the old rules, they'd have gone into a stall. Then there'd have been a flurry of fouls."
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