KEN SEARS: Hardwood Classic

by Dennis D’Agostino

When Ken Sears was told that the Knicks were bringing back the uniform design he helped make famous for this season’s Hardwood Classics nights, he had one question.

“Are they bringing back the shorts, too?” asked the 82-year old from his home in Watsonville, Cal.

Well, yes and no. Truth is, we’ll probably never see basketball shorts as, well, short as they were during Ken’s playing days. But the snow-white uniforms with the distinctive horizontal orange-and-blue trim down the sides and at the neck are proving a huge hit this year with Knicks fans, the vast majority of whom weren’t even born when Sears and his teammates wore them from 1953 through 1961.

Those uniforms have brought Sears back into the Knicks’ consciousness. A man who, amazingly, has not visited New York since his playing days ended more than half a century ago, Sears had become somewhat of a faded memory. But this year’s Hardwood Classics uniforms have reminded a city about a Knicks era marked by individual achievement and team frustration. . .an era in which Kenny Sears played a starring role.

Sears’ Knicks odyssey began as the fifth overall pick in the 1955 NBA Draft --- which also included the likes of Hall of Famers K.C. Jones, Jack Twyman, Tom Gola and Maurice Stokes --- following a standout college career at Santa Clara. For the Northern California native, his arrival in the Big Apple provided its own unique brand of culture shock.

“At that time the Draft didn’t mean an awful lot,” remembered Sears. “Now there’s so much hoopla and it’s a big deal. I was considering going to the Phillips Oilers, the great AAU team. Phillips Oil would set you up in the business. You’d play ball, you wouldn’t have to do much work, and then when you couldn’t play anymore you’d have an occupation there.

 “My coach at Santa Clara was a fellow named Bob Feerick, who was one of the best players in basketball when the NBA first started. As a matter of fact, he was on the team that started the season 15-0 [the 1948-49 Washington Capitols]. He told me I’d be better off going to New York. He helped me with my contract, which wasn’t any big deal, although it was to me at the time.

“So I packed my bags, and they told me to come to Madison Square Garden on 49th Street, to the employees’ entrance. I had a big bag, I gave the cab driver five bucks, including a 50-cent tip. I looked through the door and down this hallway at all those people down there. There were about three or four seven-footers there and I wondered, `Who the hell are these guys?’ I walked down the hallway and recognized Joe Lapchick, the coach. I walked over to him and he said, `Which one are you?’ I said, `Well, I’m your number one draft pick.’ He might have been letting me know that I was no big deal, I guess.“

Ah, but Ken Sears was a very big deal in the world of the mid-1950s Knicks.

A blond, 6-foot-9 forward with a deadly outside shot, Sears led the Knicks twice in scoring, with 18.6 points in 1957-58 and a career-high 21.0 in 1958-59. For decades, he stood as the only Knick to ever lead the NBA in field goal percentage, with back-to-back titles in 1958-59 (.490) and 1959-60 (.477), until Tyson Chandler (.679) won the League’s accuracy honor in 2011-12. He still ranks 18th on the all-time Knicks career list with 6,854 points in orange and blue.

He was a headline performer on a team that featured Hall of Famers Richie Guerin, Sweetwater Clifton, Harry Gallatin and Dick McGuire and such stalwarts as Carl Braun, Willie Naulls and Ray Felix. But the team that originated this year’s Hardwood Classics look was anything but classic when it came to crashing the post-season party. In Sears’ six full seasons as a Knick, they made the Playoffs exactly once, with a 40-32 mark and a quick first-round exit in 1958-59, the only year of his New York tenure in which the Knicks finished above the .500 mark.

In a center-dominated NBA where first Bill Russell and then Wilt Chamberlain ruled, the Knicks of that era always came up painfully short.

“We just couldn’t compete,” says Sears. “One year we drafted Darrall Imhoff thinking he was 6-foot-11 and he was really 6-foot-8. We drafted another big guy out of Cincinnati, Paul Hogue, who turned out to be a dud. Playing a team like Boston, who we played, like, a dozen times, we just couldn’t compete with them. And then when Chamberlain came in the League, we were nowhere.

“One year we traded Harry Gallatin and Sweetwater Clifton, two Hall of Famers, to Detroit for Mel Hutchins, who played about ten games for us and blew out his knee and that was the end of him. Bad luck again.”

Sears rose above the disappointment to earn back-to-back NBA All-Star honors in 1958 and 1959. But according to Ken, he should have been a three-time All-Star, following a 1957 scenario that would be impossible to imagine today.

 “(Coach) Vince Boryla came up to me and said, `Kenny, you’ve been selected for the All-Star Game.’,” he recalled. “ `Really?’ I said. `That’s wonderful.’ And he said, `But. . .I think you’d do better if we gave you two or three days off and give your position to Sweetwater Clifton; it might inspire him to do bigger and greater things this season.’  I’m being a dummy and it was only my second year so I said, `Yeah, I guess so.’  And Vince said, `But we’ll still give you the $50 that they’re gonna give you for making the All-Star team.’  I got the money. I don’t think there was any trophy involved.”

Fifty dollars went a long way in those days, especially with the somewhat Spartan living conditions for a young NBA player in the Big Apple. Sears’ first Knicks contract called for all of $8,500. Later, he signed a two-year deal for $18,500 per year, a pact negotiated and signed at the Watsonville bar that Sears owned at the time.

“I lived in the Belvedere Hotel right across from the Garden on 49th Street with a couple of other guys, Gene Shue and Dick Atha,” says Sears. “Then one game my side was killing me, and you know we were eating in those greasy spoons on Eighth Avenue, so they decided that because I might have some future with the team, they put me in the New York Athletic Club on 59th Street. I was there for two years, I guess, with a free tab where I could eat whatever I wanted. I was eatin’ good there.”

With the NBA just beginning its western expansion, one of the lasting symbols of the Knicks’ struggles in those days was their short-lived mode of transportation, one of the League’s first team-owned charter planes, a venture dubiously nicknamed “Sput-Knick”.

“I think in my third year, (Ned) Irish or somebody decided that our traveling on buses and trains wasn’t working out too good,” says Sears. “So they got themselves an airplane. It was a DC-3. Our first trip was to St. Louis. We play a game in New York and we’re playing an afternoon game the next day in St. Louis. I guess we had a little headwind and it took 12 hours to get there. That was the end of the airplane, one trip.”

Following a 21-58 season in 1960-61, a frustrated Sears left the Knicks to become one of the first NBA players to jump to the newly-formed --- and short-lived ---- American Basketball League, as the centerpiece of his hometown San Francisco Saints. Boryla, then the Knicks’ general manager, made a futile in-person attempt to keep his star forward.

“My last year there, I had a broken jaw and I was very unhappy with the Knicks,” says Sears. “We were going nowhere, lousy team, lousy drafts. Boryla came out to California, and I had already been in contact with the San Francisco Saints. They wanted a guy who had played in Northern California. I didn’t know if I was stuck with a contract with the Knicks.

“Anyway, I went up to meet Boryla in a restaurant in San Francisco and I knew I wasn’t going to sign with them. I just showed up. He’s telling me, Well, we can do this and we can do that and if you do well, we’ll give you a bonus. I told him I’d think about it, but I already knew what I was going to do. So within a day or two I signed with the San Francisco Saints.”

Formed six years before the much-more famous ABA, the ABL, the brainchild of Harlem Globetrotters magnate Abe Saperstein, was a rebel league in every sense. It poached a number of NBA stars (including coach Bill Sharman and future Knick Dick Barnett), competed directly against the NBA in several markets, gave George Steinbrenner his first exposure as a pro sports owner (of the champion Cleveland Pipers), employed the first African-American head coach in major league sports (Hall of Famer John McLendon), and, in its most lasting legacy, originated a three-point basket from long distance, a shot which became a trademark of the ABA and now, of course, is an NBA staple.

The ABL folded in the middle of its second season, on New Year’s Eve 1962. Sears bailed out after the first season, then found himself caught in the middle of a potentially nasty triangle ---- wooed back to his old NBA team on the one hand, and being the centerpiece of a million-dollar lawsuit filed against him and his now-defunct employers on the other.

“The Knicks got a hold of me and said, `Do you want to come back?’,” he remembers. “And I said yes, but I wanted to get paid what I got paid from San Francisco and they agreed. It was $21,500. They thought we’d have a better team, but we were still lousy.

“(Then) I got papers from the Knicks in that they were suing not only me but the team that signed me for a million dollars. What the heck was that? We had a top-notch lawyer who said we weren’t going to lose the case, and he kept throwing around the Sherman Antitrust Act and all that. I guess I was the first one to jump, and then about a dozen or so other guys did. But when I went back to New York everything was fine. I don’t think I ever saw Irish or that he welcomed me back, I doubt that he did.”

Despite the settlement of the antitrust suit, Sears’ Knicks days were numbered. He played in 23 games in 1962-63, then returned home when he was traded to the Warriors, freshly arrived in San Francisco from Philadelphia. Sears got to the NBA Finals with the Warriors in 1964, then retired at the age of 31 after San Francisco fell to Boston. He finished with a career 13.9 scoring average in eight NBA seasons.

Sears’ post-NBA life has been spent both in Mexico and his native Northern California, where he sold recreational vehicles for years. In Mexico, he became a local legend with his charity work, including his donation of hundreds of bicycles (which he refurbished himself) to impoverished children. Now permanently settled in his native Watsonville, Ken and his wife have two children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Despite recent health issues, Ken continues his charity work with local hospitals and his hometown Twin Lakes Church. In recent years, he helped care for John Burton, a post-war star at San Francisco State College who is widely credited as one of the pioneers of the jump shot. Burton passed away in 2014.

And in all the decades since, he has never returned to the city of his NBA youth.

“When I was with the Warriors, we played one (final) game back there,” said Sears, referring to the night of February 29, 1964, when he scored 17 points in a win over the Knicks at the Old Garden. “That was the last time. My travels have been south of the border. During that period of time I got some letters from various people from the Knicks inviting me to come back, but I always declined. I guess it’s too late now.”

Still an avid fan, Ken’s TV is equipped with NBA League Pass and he watches and records several games a night. Curiously, he’s not a big fan of his hometown team, the defending champion Warriors.

“I loved watching Michael Jordan when he played,” he says. “I love watching LeBron James, and when LeBron went to Miami they were my team, period. Now that he’s back in Cleveland a lot of people hated him for doing that, he was a fellow who jumped from his team. Well, I was a jumper, too.

“I was just happy to have a place to play, and (New York) was the best place of all. I would have hated to think of myself stuck up in a place like Rochester or Fort Wayne or someplace like that. When we got married we moved out to Long Island, and it was a good time. I’m very appreciative to the NBA, guys are getting a nice pension and everything is good.”

No conversation with Ken Sears is complete without bringing up his most unique and everlasting distinction. . .he was the very first basketball player featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  The publication was barely four months old when, as a Santa Clara senior, he graced the cover of the December 20, 1954 issue.

“Our publicist said there was going to be somebody coming to take my picture,” remembered Ken. “Okay, so I put my uniform on. They smeared a bunch of Vaseline on my face to make it look like I was sweating. Then I think I stood on a ladder in front of the basket and was shooting, and they took the picture and it came out in this magazine. I never dreamed it would be the first, but it was. They had just started business.”

Ken still receives a few copies of his long-ago SI cover every week from autograph-seeking fans. But that still leaves plenty of time for TV-watching, including looking in on his old team which, all these years later, once again features a blond, long-range game-changer.

“This rookie they have, Porzingis,” says Kenny. “He looks a lot like me when I was there, only a lot taller. And a lot better, too.”

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