1956 NBA Finals: Philadelphia 4, Fort Wayne 1
Warriors Reign Over League's 10th Season
The Fort Wayne Pistons made it back to the Finals by winning the weak Western Division with a 37-35 record, then nosing St. Louis in five games in the division finals.
Now in his third year, Fort Wayne's George Yardley had developed into a star. "He could get rid of the ball as quickly as anybody," Pistons coach Charlie Eckman said. "He wasn't big, but he could give that head fake. Bingo! The shot was up and gone."
The Pistons' talent, however, could carry them only so far. Like the Syracuse Nationals, Fort Wayne seemed to be shouldering too many troubles to win a championship. That honor fell to a team that had found an answer to its own troubles.
The Philadelphia Warriors had always had plenty of talent. Among their top achievers was center Neil Johnston, a 6-foot-8 veteran out of Ohio State, whose hook shot made him a formidable scoring machine. For three straight seasons (1953-55) he had led the league in scoring. The Warriors also had 6-foot-4 Paul Arizin, a jump-shooting forward who had led the league in scoring in 1952 and had finished second behind teammate Johnston in 1955.
But even with the top two scorers in the league, the Warriors had finished dead last in the East in 1955. It was obvious they needed something more. They got it in the draft that spring in the form of 6-foot-6 Thomas Joseph Gola, the son of a Philadelphia policeman.
Gola had played his college ball right in Philly at LaSalle. As a freshman Gola had helped his team to the NIT championship and had won a share of the MVP award for himself. Two seasons later he carried LaSalle to the NCAA championship and was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
"When Gola came, it changed the whole team," said Warriors coach George Senesky. "He was the first big guy to convert from center in college to backcourt in the pros. He was 6-foot-6 and showed 'em it could be done. He had played against bigger guys where he could shoot on them. Moving to guard required a transition; it took a little while. But after he went around the league once or twice, he learned. He didn't get beat that much on defense by the smaller guys. But he would get quick fouls, and he missed some playing time because of it."
As a freshman at LaSalle he had come in and helped mold his older teammates into a championship team. He did the same for the Warriors. "He didn't play like a rookie," Senesky said. "He was a leader. We had confidence in him. He got along well with everybody."
Because of his local college success, many Philly fans were already in love with Gola. "Whenever he scored, public address announcer Dave Zinkoff would say, 'A goal by Goooalla!' He'd have the town going crazy," said Eckman.
Gola was paired in the backcourt with 6-foot-2 Jack George, a third-year pro who had spent part of his college career at LaSalle. George's height gave Philly the tallest backcourt in the league, enabling them to see over opposing defenses. George ranked second and Gola fourth in the league in assists, and as a team the Warriors led the NBA in that category.
Arizin and Johnston, averaging about 24 and 22 points, respectively, benefited from the solid passing game. But they didn't carry the burden alone. George and forward Joe Graboski each hit for about 14 points per game, and Gola averaged 10.8.
The Warriors were clearly the best team in the league in 1955-56. They finished with the best record, 45-27, six games ahead of Red Auerbach's Celtics.
Philadelphia fought off a dogged Syracuse team in the Eastern Division Finals, which left the Warriors tired and tentative in Game 1 of the league Finals. The series opened in Philadelphia before a crowd of 4,100. The Pistons, the best defensive team in the league, shut down the Philly offense in the second period, allowing just one field goal in nearly nine minutes. Midway through the period the Pistons took a 37-22 lead.
Then Senesky put 6-foot-4 Ernie Beck in the game. A second-year player out of Penn, Beck immediately went inside and got the job done, both rebounding and scoring fiendishly. (He finished with 23 points.)
"Beck was a good shooter," Eckman said. "He shot line drives right off his ear, like a catcher throwing to second base." By halftime, Philly had cut the lead to 49-40.
Beck led the Warriors with 11 points in the third quarter as they turned a nine-point deficit into a nine-point lead, 73-64, at the end of three. Mel Hutchins, Larry Foust and Bob Houbregs had completely disrupted Johnston's game. They held the Philly center to three field goals (one in the first half) for the game. But Beck and Arizin provided more than enough firepower, and Gola ran the show and did the defensive work.
Fort Wayne fought back in the fourth but never got closer than four points, with the final margin 98-94. Arizin had scored 28 points for the Warriors, and Yardley had countered that with 27 for Fort Wayne. The difference had been Beck's offense and Gola's heady leadership.
Game 2 was played in Fort Wayne, where the Pistons evened the series at a game apiece with an 84-83 win. The big points came on free throws from Yardley with 43 seconds left. Ironically, the big defensive play came from Fort Wayne's Corky Devlin, who wasn't known for his defense.
"Devlin was a good offensive player," Eckman said. "But defense? He couldn't spell the word." Still, he intercepted a pass with 28 seconds left, then missed a shot, which gave the Warriors one final chance. Yardley, however, blocked Arizin's shot underneath to preserve the win.
The close series brought the city of Philadelphia to life, and a record crowd of 11,698 packed Convention Hall for Game 3. Arizin scored 27 points for the second game in a row, and Johnston finally found his hook shot and added 20. Even so, the Warriors were down 51-48 at the half before finding just enough of an edge in the third period. They took the series lead with a 100-96 win. Foust knocked down 19 points for Fort Wayne.
Game 4 was scheduled for April 5 in Fort Wayne, where Philadelphia hadn't won in four years. The Warriors played smartly as a team in Game 4. Arizin was unstoppable for the fourth straight game, hitting just about everything he put up -- reverse layups, corner jump shots, long set shots and short hooks. And he was 8-for-8 from the line to finish with 30 points. George added 20, Gola 19 and Johnston 18 to give Philly its first victory in Fort Wayne since February 1952.
The Warriors took a 106-100 lead with less than two minutes left. But Foust and Yardley hit field goals and Hutchins swished a free throw to pull the Pistons to 106-105 with 40 seconds to go. Then George Dempsey made a free throw to move Philadelphia ahead 107-105. As time expired, Devlin threw up a long prayer that went in, but the officials ruled it was after the buzzer.
Ahead three games to one, the Warriors headed home confident that they could close out the series. Once there, they turned on the offense. Arizin scored 26 points and Graboski 29. Yardley put in 30 for Fort Wayne, but it wasn't enough. Philly stayed strong down the stetch and won 98-88 to give team president Eddie Gottlieb his second league title.
Arizin had scored 289 points in 10 playoff games. Only Mikan had scored more in previous history. It wasn't a bad finish to the NBA's first 10 years. Philly, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Rochester and Syracuse had all won titles. Almost overnight, it seemed, the second decade was upon them, and just about everyone eagerly anticipated the future.
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