Legends profile: Paul Arizin
In the early days of the NBA a handful of pioneering players laid the groundwork for what would become “modern” basketball. What Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Cy Young were to baseball, these early hoopsters were to the game of basketball. One such player was Paul Arizin.
Playing in an era of old-fashioned, two-handed set shots and slow-up offenses, Arizin burst into the league in 1950 with a repertoire that included a daring new weapon: the jump shot. By the time Arizin was leading the league in scoring as a second-year player with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1952, only a few other players had mastered the shot.
In addition to his unrivaled shooting accuracy, “Pitchin’ Paul” was a great leaper, a slick ballhandler, and a tough defender — an early version of Michael Jordan or Sidney Moncrief. During basketball’s equivalent of baseball’s low-scoring Dead Ball Era, Arizin averaged at least 20 points for nine straight seasons, a remarkable achievement at a time when only a handful of players averaged 20 points or more in a season.
In 10 seasons with the Warriors, Arizin made the NBA All-Star team every year, won two scoring titles and an NBA championship ring, and recorded the third-highest scoring average in the newly formed league. Along with George Mikan, Bob Cousy, Larry Foust, Bill Sharman, Dolph Schayes and teammate Joe Fulks, Arizin was a pioneering force in a circuit that was decades behind baseball and football in popularity. Arizin and those other stars gave the fledgling NBA the boost it needed to achieve respectability.
Arizin was the original grunter. Because of a chronic sinus problem, he wheezed and groaned as he ran down the court or whenever he left the ground to launch one of his trademark jumpers. An unruly cowlick springing from the back of his head added to an unmistakable court presence.
Arizin was born in South Philadelphia in 1928 to a French father and an Irish mother. He went to La Salle High School, which shared a campus with La Salle College. In high school Arizin tried out for the basketball team, but his coach didn’t think he was good enough. As a senior he was cut after playing sparingly in a few games. Undeterred, Arizin joined intramural, church and independent leagues, competing in gyms and halls throughout the city. At one point he was playing on six or seven teams at the same time and sometimes played two games a night. “I just did it because I loved to play,” he told The Christian Science Monitor many years later.
It was at this time that Arizin discovered the jump shot. “It came by accident,” he said. “Some of our games were played on dance floors. It became quite slippery. When I tried to hook, my feet would go out from under me, so I jumped. I was always a good jumper. My feet weren’t on the floor, so I didn’t have to worry about slipping. The more I did it, the better I became. Before I knew it, practically all my shots were jump shots.” Ceilings in some of the halls were low, forcing Arizin to fire line drives into the basket. That shot, with its low trajectory, remained a part of his arsenal throughout his career.
A fine student, Arizin enrolled at Villanova University in the fall of 1946 and began to study chemistry. He continued to play in various basketball leagues, which at the time were stocked with men just returning from military service in World War II. Wildcats coach Al Severance saw Arizin play and offered him a scholarship to join the varsity squad in his sophomore year.
It took Arizin a few weeks to get his bearings at the collegiate level. He made only spot appearances in the first seven games. In the eighth game he went scoreless, but he collected 10 points in the ninth game, against Manhattan College. By the end of the season Arizin, playing center, had pitched in a team-high 267 points to help the Wildcats to a 15-9 record.
Arizin averaged 22.0 points during his junior year, only his third season in organized basketball. In one game he scored 85 points; only Frank Selvy (100) has scored more points against a non-Division I opponent. The 22-3 Wildcats advanced to the 1949 NCAA Tournament, where Arizin pumped in 30 points in a matchup with All-American and future NBA star Alex Groza in an 85-72 loss to eventual-champion Kentucky. In the consolation game against Yale, Arizin scored 22 points against All-American Tony Lavelli while holding Lavelli to only eight points.
As a senior Arizin’s 735 points were just five points shy of a new national scoring record, and his average of 25.3 points was the second-highest ever posted at the time. Only three years removed from the dance-hall leagues, the All-American Arizin led Villanova to a 25-4 record in 1949-50 and was named College Player of the Year by The Sporting News. He had led the Wildcats in scoring in each of his three years with the team, averaging 20.0 points over 80 contests. Villanova retired his No. 11 uniform. Arizin also excelled in the classroom, graduating with honors.
The Philadelphia Warriors made Arizin a territorial selection in the 1950 NBA Draft. He earned $9,000 per year as a rookie, comparable to what other former collegiate stars were making. In 1946-47, the Warriors had won the first title in the history of the league (then called the Basketball Association of America), but the year before Arizin was drafted the team had slumped to 26-42.
In 1950-51, Arizin sparked a 14-game turnaround and helped the Warriors return to the top of the Eastern Division. He averaged 17.2 points and a team-high 9.8 rebounds, ranking among the league’s top 10 in both categories. Arizin would undoubtedly have been a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year honors, but the award wasn’t created until 1952. In the first of his nine All-Star Game appearances Arizin contributed 15 points. However, in the 1951 NBA Playoffs, the high-scoring Arizin and teammate “Jumpin’ Joe” Fulks couldn’t lift the Warriors past the Syracuse Nationals, who swept a best-of-three Eastern Division Semifinal series.
Pitchin’ Paul achieved stardom in only his second year as a pro. He erupted for a league-high 25.4 points per game-only Mikan and teammate Fulks had ever recorded higher averages. Arizin also emerged as one of the league’s strongest rebounders, with 11.3 boards per game. His career-high .448 field-goal percentage was among the best in the league. Arizin played with 63 minutes in a triple-overtime affair against the Minneapolis Lakers on Dec. 21, 1951, a record for most minutes played in a single game that stood for almost 40 years. In his second All-Star appearance, Arizin posted 26 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field and added 6 rebounds en route to winning the game’s MVP Award. The East won the game, 108-91. During the postseason, the Nationals again stymied the Warriors in the opening round.
Fans and sportswriters alike were awed by Arizin’s graceful and fluid play, and particularly by his sweet jump shot. In the words of one Philadelphia writer, “Flicking the ball on the crest of his leap like a man riding an invisible surf, this is Arizin’s moment of expression.” Not even superstars like Schayes and Bob Pettit, both considerably taller than the 6-foot-4 Arizin, could put up a strong defense against his deadly jump shot. He could score from the inside as well and Arizin’s spectacular drives to the hoop made him one of the most acrobatic players of his day.
Arizin, at the age of 24 and nearing his prime, was plucked out of the NBA by the Marine Corps before the 1952-53 season. He served for two years during the Korean War but still managed to maintain his skills while in the military. During Arizin’s absence the Warriors posted abysmal records of 12-57 and 29-43. The team also lost living legend Joe Fulks, who retired at age 32.
In 1954, Arizin made a triumphant return to the league, placing second in the NBA in scoring (21.0 ppg) behind new Warriors center and future Hall of Famer Neil Johnston. Arizin also returned to the All-Star Game; he would not miss another midseason classic for the remainder of his career, although he sat out the 1960 contest because of an injury. But despite a number of fine individual performances, Philadelphia’s 33-39 record was not strong enough to earn the team a spot in the playoffs.
In 1955-56, Philadelphia finally became a winner. Four Warriors — Arizin (24.2 ppg), Johnston (22.1), forward Joe Graboski (14.4), and playmaker Jack George (13.9) — placed in the league’s top 20 in scoring. Rookie Tom Gola from La Salle, another future Hall of Famer, gave the Warriors an additional boost with his scoring, rebounding, and ballhandling prowess. The well-rounded Warriors finished the year with a league-best 45-27 record. In the postseason Philadelphia edged Syracuse in five games in the division finals and routed the Fort Wayne Pistons, four games to one, in the NBA Finals to win the franchise’s second title in 10 years.
Arizin won his second league scoring title the following season with a 25.6 average. He added 7.9 rebounds per game and shot .829 from the foul line to earn a spot on the All-NBA First Team. However, with Gola taking his turn in the U.S. military, the Warriors fell to third place in the division with a 37-35 record and were swept in the first round of the playoffs by rival Syracuse.
Arizin averaged 20.7 points in 1957-58 and scored 24 points in the NBA All-Star Game. He reached the 10,000-point mark the following season, accomplishing the feat faster than any player before him. His 26.4 scoring average in 1958-59 was the highest of his career, although he lost the scoring title to Pettit, the explosive forward of the St. Louis Hawks.
In each of Arizin’s final three seasons, Philadelphia came in second behind the powerhouse Boston Celtics in the Eastern Division. During those years, Arizin continued to average at least 20 points and to place among the league’s top 12 in scoring. The addition of Wilt Chamberlain to the team in 1959 helped give the Warriors one of the league’s most explosive offenses. But Boston’s superior team play kept Philadelphia from returning to the top of the league until the late 1960s.
On Dec. 1, 1961, Arizin scored 33 points in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers to become only the third player to reach the 15,000-point plateau, after Cousy and Schayes. Following the 1961-62 season the Warriors moved to San Francisco. At age 34 Arizin still had at least one good season left, but he decided to retire and remain in Philadelphia.
Arizin left the NBA having amassed 16,266 points (22.8 ppg), 6,129 rebounds (8.6 rpg) and 1,665 assists (2.3 apg) in 713 games — all with the Warriors. In 49 playoff games, Arizin averaged 24.2 points and 8.2 rebounds. But Pitchin’ Paul wasn’t ready to put away the basketball just yet — he played in the Eastern Basketball League from 1962 to 1965.
In 1970, Arizin was named to the prestigious NBA Silver Anniversary Team. Seven years later, at age 49, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame along with former teammate Joe Fulks. In 1996, he was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Arizin looked back on his unlikely rise to NBA stardom: “People ask me to describe how I feel, and I think the easiest way is to put the question back to you. How do you think being enshrined here with all these illustrious names feels to a guy who back in high school was only playing intramural ball?”