For more than 50 years, Harvey Pollack has been the ultimate numbers cruncher
The Original Superstat
For his longtime contributions to the game of basketball, 76ers Director of Statistical Information Harvey Pollack received the 30th annual John Bunn Award, the highest honor bestowed to an individual outside of actual Enshrinement, on Friday, Sept. 27, by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Walk into Harvey Pollack’s office at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and you expect to encounter 50-plus years of basketball history. The expectation of seeing images of former Philly greats such as Jumpin “Joe” Fulks, Neil Johnston, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Charles Barkley is not realized when you enter the small, five by five office. Instead of hardwood heroes, starlets of the silver screen greet you. Black and white prints of Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Heather Graham, Demi Moore, Elizabeth Berkley -- to name a few -- wallpaper his office.
“These are publicity photos the studios send me before I screen a movie,” said Pollack, the Philadelphia 76ers Director of Statistical Information, who has been writing a weekly entertainment column for The Guide Newspaper in Philadelphia. “And the theaters also send photos before I review a show,” he added, referring to a Patti LaBelle portrait located on the wall near his desk.
The office décor is somewhat of a revelation because within NBA circles Pollack is known as the Stat King. He earned that reputation because he has been calculating minutes, field goals, free throws, rebounds and other statistical categories for the 76ers and before them, the Philadelphia Warriors, dating back to 1946. The Warriors played in the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner of the NBA. Only Red Auerbach equals Pollack as being with the league from day one. The 2002-2003 season marks Pollack’s 56th year and at 80 years old, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
“As soon as I get up in the morning, I’m rarin to go,” said Pollack. “When I walk into my office, it’s never like, ‘Geez, I guess I have nothing to do today.”
That’s because during the season and offseason, there is no off switch for Pollack. He oversees his stat crew operation or as they call themselves “The Syndicate” on a year-round basis. The Syndicate can be seen at all 76er home games at First Union Center as well as at basketball and football games at the famed “Big Five” colleges in Philly -- LaSalle, Penn, St. Joe’s, Temple and Villanova. Pollack has been keeping stats for the Big 5 since 1945. And to ensure he doesn’t get bored, Pollack also keeps stats for Drexel and Philly’s professional lacrosse team, the Wings.
During the Sixers’ offseason, Pollack and his interns analyze 1,189 play-by-play sheets from the previous season to produce Harvey Pollack’s NBA Statistical Yearbook, a 204-pagecornucopia of rare basketball information that takes statistical analysis to a new level. Want to find out the distance of every field goal taken by every player in the league from last season? Ever wonder which players get their shots blocked the most? And every year Pollack raises the bar by adding a few more nuggets of information to his book.
“I like the challenge of coming up with new categories,” said Pollack. “With stats, you have to have an interest in the end result and to me, the end result is every time my book comes out and the comments I receive from everyone around the league.”
The statistical yearbook is an invaluable resource for writers and broadcasters, providing a wealth of information at their fingertips.
“It’s an event every year when the book comes out,” said Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News, who started covering the 76ers in 1973. “I find that when you’re looking for notes or something unusual in the league happens, for example, either some high or low number of assists in a series of games --- it’s going to be a category in Harvey’s book.”
Upon graduation in 1943, Pollack entered the Army during World War II. When he returned to Philly in the fall of 1945, he was hired as a sportswriter for the now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, which had utilized him as a stringer during the war. That was one of several jobs Pollack would assume when he returned from the war.
“When I started at the Bulletin, my pay was $28 a week,” he said. “I learned early in the game I had to be a moonlighter.”
Besides working at the Bulletin, Pollack enrolled in a master’s program at Temple while still finding time to be the statistician for the Big 5. He kept stats at the college doubleheaders that took place at Convention Hall, and it was at these games where Pollack caught the attention of Eddie Gottlieb, the Warriors’ coach and general manager and future owner. Gottlieb was looking for a statistician and someone to generate publicity for the upstart franchise. Pollack fit the role perfectly.
“Gotti figured, ‘Hey, this is our man. Not only can he do the job with the stats but he can get us publicity with the paper.’ And he was right,” said Pollack, who was hired as the Warriors’ assistant PR director. “I wrote a lot of features on Fulks, Howard Dallmar, George Senesky and all of those guys that year.”
“I don’t know how it was done in other cities,” continued Pollack, who became the team’s PR director in 1952. “But the PR director in Philly had to write advance stories for the papers. They don’t do any of that today.”
The early NBA was a far cry from today’s league on many levels. The BAA’s first year consisted of 11 teams and the average ticket price was $1.25. There weren’t any national television contracts and games weren’t consistently aired on the radio. It was primarily a regional league with seven teams in the East and four in the Midwest. The arenas were small, poorly lit buildings that seated no more than 5,000 fans, who sometimes didn’t even watch a complete game.
“In those days, ice hockey was the main source of income for the buildings,” said Pollack. “The basketball games were played on top of ice and were often postponed because of condensation that came up through the floor.”
Fans certainly had to be loyal because city affiliation didn’t necessarily mean that’s where the home games were played. Guaranteed gate receipts usually dictated the definition of home games of that era.
From 1950-54, the Warriors served as the warm-up to the Harlem Globetrotters. The Warriors played in the preliminary game while the ’Trotters were the main attraction.
“We played home games in Pittsburgh, Fargo, N.D., Tulsa – wherever the Globetrotters traveled. And this is before frequent flyer mileage,” said Pollack laughing.
When the games were played in Philly, the starting times were often pushed back to ensure that more people would attend.
“Gotti always felt that people that owned businesses wanted to go to games,” said Pollack. “So the games started at 8:30 or 9 after the businesses were closed.”
Pollack can laugh at the irony of today’s information age where fans all over the world can log on to their favorite team’s Web sites and access real-time stats. When he became the team’s statistician, he literally had to start from scratch.
“There weren’t any box score forms in the early years,”said Pollack. “And there was no such things as Xerox machines. We didn’t even have mimeograph machines. It was awhile before we could produce box scores with ditto machines. So we started out with a five-sheet carbon and had guys copy the information again.”
Pollack created the box score forms for every home game and wrote the game story and one-page fact sheet. He distributed copies to the visiting team and the local newspapers and kept a set for his records.
The morning after a game, Pollack would call the league office in New York and dictate the stats to one of two secretaries. If the games were on the weekends, Pollack would call the secretaries at home with the information. The league compiled all of the box scores and mailed them to the teams and various newspapers every Monday morning. The NBA office at the time consisted of four employees.
“Eddie Gottlieb would turn over in his grave,” said Pollack, reflecting on the league’s enormous growth. “He saw that it was coming, that’s why he sold the team [in 1962 to a group from San Francisco]. He saw that salaries were going up. He had to pay Wilt $100,000. Imagine what he would have to pay today?”
It was the Chamberlain era that Pollack recalls as being his favorite in all of his years in the league. There were actually two Wilt eras in Philly. The first one – and Pollack’s favorite – was from 1959-62 when Wilt first entered the NBA and before the team moved to San Francisco. The second era began when he returned as a member of the 76ers in 1965.
One of those highlights for Pollack occurred on the night of March 2, 1962 when Wilt performed the single greatest individual feat in basketball – scoring 100 points in a game. The Warriors-Knicks game was held in Hershey and Pollack was the game’s official scorer and also wrote a game story for the Philadelphia Inquirer and phoned in the game story to two wire services. His 24-year-old son also contributed by dictating the box score when Harvey was finished.
“Out of all the years in the NBA, that was the busiest night in my whole career because I was wearing so many hats that night,” said Pollack who scribbled “100” on a piece of paper that Wilt held up to photographers to document the night. “It is a mythic game because Wilt scored exactly 100, no more, no less.”
Although he no longer handles day-to-day PR duties, Pollack’s passion for stats and maintaining a full schedule keeps him energized without any thoughts of retiring.
“My life is filled with happenings virtually every day,” said Pollack. “There’s so much variety between the games and the social events. As long as I have that, why should I retire? What should I do? Sit home and twiddle my thumbs?”
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