Willie Naulls

Knicks Hardwood Classic: Interview with Willie Naulls

In honor of our second Hardwood Classics night of the year celebrating Knicks basketball from 1953-61, we asked four-time All-Star and former Knicks Captain Willie Naulls to recount his memories of playing in NYC during that time and becoming the first African-American captain of any major professional sports team. Enjoy his thoughtful responses in the interview below.

How would you define the style of basketball when you played?

To answer this question, I have had to do some retrospective pondering.

From the segregated South, living in a ghetto in Dallas, my parents, Daily and Bettie Naulls, moved with their children –- Billy, William, Jerry and Judy -– to an integrating San Pedro, California, a port town in the Los Angeles Harbor. It was the summer of 1943.

Impressed with recreated major league baseball games on the radio, I began my athletic career as a dodge ball king of my grammar school which my parents thought remarkable since I was overweight when we left Texas and very much a non-athlete. I became a big fan of Major League Baseball. There was a recreation center in the housing project our family lived in which overlooked the Harbor and Todd Shipyard where my father worked repairing large ships that came in from the various wars around the world. My cousin, three years older than I, moved from East Texas to San Pedro and had an immediate impact on my athletic career. He taught me the game of basketball through using me as his dummy in one-on-one scrimmage. By the time he was out of high school, he was a two-time All City player and went on to Portland University and a brief career with the Harlem Globetrotters. 

Surfing upon the wave of athletic sports teams’ integration in California, we “integrators” went out to different communities around Los Angeles County. We competed against very few African-American kids playing basketball except those in East Los Angeles and the Watts district, 25 to 30 miles to the north. I was a 6’6” tenth grade guard on an undefeated team. For the next two years I was twice All-City and most of the teams we played against were all white although more African-Americans had moved into San Pedro and we comprised three to four of the 15-player Pirates roster.

This introduction is to give you a background of the environment from which I am answering your question about the “style” of play. Most teams had two forwards, two guards and a center in customary locations. Passing and setting picks to get a clear running shot or a layup was the primary objective. I am quite confident that I was the first athlete in San Pedro to run and jump shoot. In the seventh grade I just did it one day. I think most of the competition in our project was very aggressive with pushing and pressure to get the ball in order to shoot it. Our high school won the City Championship during my sophomore and senior years. We beat all of the schools in Los Angeles – I think because of our aggressive style which our coach promoted with rebounding and getting down the court to get a basket.

One night when I was at a store with my father, several people outside the store were watching a UCLA-USC basketball game on a television set sitting on a platform. The players on both teams were all white. It was a different tempo because the UCLA players were running up and down the court and putting pressure on the ball. The John Wooden “fast break style” exposed the non-competitive level of ball control and mastery of fundamentals of the USC players individually and collectively as a team. USC was trying to “stall” as it was called in those days. I thought, UCLA is playing an interesting type of basketball. A month of so later, Coach John Wooden spoke at our basketball banquet. Before everyone there, he said, “You have a young man in your program that I think is outstanding and I would like very much to have him join our program” and he looked at me. The rest is history.

Coach Wooden’s style revolutionized the game while I was there into a new urgency of growth of the mastery of fundamentals. A couple of years after I went on to play in the pros, I’m told his assistant Jerry Norman introduced the “zone press” into their game, pressuring the ball from one end of the court to the other rather than from mid-court. (Remember, there were no 24-second clocks back then. USC was notorious for stalling the ball in the back court.) Coaches across the country openly voiced their disapproval of Wooden’s style of play and said it would take basketball to the brink of being a “ghetto game.” Coach Wooden won ten out of twelve National Championships prior to his retirement from UCLA. 

When I became a pro with the St. Louis Hawks, Coach Holzman focused on the center position of receiving a pass just outside the three-second zone and had the guards and forwards, especially Hall of Famer Bob Petit, come off a screen and be free to take advantage of whoever was guarding him because he was 6’9” and very talented. 

The Celtics won the NBA Championship eleven out of thirteen years from the day that two defensive geniuses, Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, entered the league after winning two straight NCAA Championships with the San Francisco University Dons. They pressurized the other players, forcing them to make decisions outside their comfort zone. The basketball minds of John Wooden, Red Auerbach and the basketball ability of Bill Russell and K.C. Jones revolutionized the style of play from athletic events to athletic entertainment. The players in the professional game became stars with brands. Thus, that style of play, in which I participated during my last three years in the NBA, emphasized defense featuring the best defensive player in the history of the game, Bill Russell, and K. C. Jones, the best defensive guard in the history of the game. 

This is a complete picture of the different coaching styles of basketball I learned and played under during my amateur and ten-year professional career. 

 
What did it mean to put on a Knicks jersey?

Being traded away from the St. Louis Hawks in the segregated South and sitting in the locker room dressed and ready for my first Knicks game was one of the highlights of my NBA career. My parents took us out of the South to experience the freedom of competition and of choice of the integrating West Coast. To go to St. Louis and its segregated hotels, restaurants, cabs, living districts and attitude was a cultural shock. As a 21-year-old man, I had rarely experienced that since I was eight years old. A few years later, it was the Knicks players, coaches and organization who honored me by naming me the Knicks Captain –- the first African-American Team Captain in the history of integrated professional sports.

The Knicks fans are the greatest! They always treated me with respect.

Spiritually and mentally, I had great growth spurts there just walking around New York City, talking to people in the streets, in the garment district, with employees of such businesses as Nedick’s restaurant and Sam Goody record store. All the Broadway plays, 42nd Street theaters, etc. I spent time at Birdland for jazz and Coca Cabana for Sinatra and Bennett.

Meeting my idol, Jackie Robinson, the former UCLA Bruin who came to one of our games, with a chance to hug him and tell him how much I loved, respected and appreciated him was a highlight of my time with the Knicks. Living in the same town of Montclair, New Jersey, I became friends with Larry Doby, the first African-American player to integrate the American Baseball League and to win the home-run championship. I had the opportunity to meet Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Roger Maris and other Yankees as well as Sandy Koufax and Don Newcombe with the Dodgers. Baseball was my favorite sport growing up as I was a high school baseball phenom who sold out to basketball! 

How was New York basketball different from basketball in other places?

New York was different in that it had players who had played together for an extended period of time who needed a point guard whom the leadership thought would get them into the realm of championships. They acquired Slater Martin from the Minneapolis Lakers and were experiencing a degree of success when they announced the trade for me.

The style of play was considered New York basketball, “below the rim,” with no play “above the rim,” with set plays and a slowed-down, predictable offense with no hint of being able to complete with the style of the emerging fast break of Bill Russell/Red Auerbach in professional sports and John Wooden in the collegiate game. 

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