Legends profile: Al Cervi

The early NBL and NBA legend won titles as both a player and coach.

Al Cervi (back row, last on right) was successful both as a coach and player in the NBA.

Few early professional basketball figures were as admired or revered as Al Cervi. Success seemed to follow Cervi no matter what role he filled or what uniform he wore and he was a winner, pure and simple.

In a 22-year career spanning the mid-1930s to the late 1950s, Cervi was a star player and brilliant coach in the National Basketball League and the NBA, primarily with the Rochester Royals and Syracuse Nationals.

He won all-league honors five times, played for a championship team, and won an MVP Award and a scoring title. Cervi also coached a championship team and won several Coach of the Year Awards. He was the first great player-coach in the professional ranks and perhaps the most successful in NBA history.

As a player, Cervi was a defensive and ballhandling wizard whose animated, often confrontational style made him a crowd favorite and a headache for opposing teams. Like a pugilist, he taunted opponents on and off the court. Cervi, nicknamed ‘Digger,’ enjoyed slashing his way to the hoop for daring layups which often resulted in three-point plays. Cervi was blessed with both physical and mental tools — big hands, long arms, speedy legs and a natural feel for the game.

As a coach, whether he was wearing a uniform or a business suit, Cervi was the ultimate motivator. In his eight years in Syracuse his teams never missed the playoffs. Cervi’s combination of intensity, intelligence, and humor helped him to inspire players as few other coaches of the day could. And he never thought twice about going toe-to-toe with an official, no matter how futile the argument.

Those who knew the blond-haired Cervi remembered him as one of the most competitive people ever to lace up a pair of low-tops or draw up a play on a chalkboard. Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone once told writer Paul Spartone: ”To me, there is no question that Al Cervi was the fiercest individual competitor the game has known.”

Nationals teammate and Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes added that Cervi was ”the scrappiest player and coach I ever saw. Al always played to win, no matter what the game or the stakes. He didn’t know what it was to lose. And this feeling filtered down to his players.”

From early in Cervi’s life there was little doubt that he would become a star athlete in one sport or another. He played organized basketball for the first time at the downtown Buffalo YMCA. He captained both the basketball and baseball teams in grade school and at East High School. As a prep star, he made the all-city teams in both sports.

After Cervi graduated from East High he decided to forgo college and to try his hand at professional basketball. A dominant national league had not yet emerged, so Cervi joined the mass of young cagers searching for a way to stay out of the factories and have some fun at the same time. He played for a number of independent teams throughout the states of New York and New Jersey, including Syracuse, Auburn and Newark.

In 1937, at age 20, he signed a contract with the Buffalo Bisons to play in the National Basketball League’s maiden season. In 1938-39 Cervi was named MVP of the Bisons, who had dropped out of the NBL.

Cervi went on to play for an independent team in Rochester that was owned and coached by the dynamic Lester Harrison. In 1941, Cervi joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Niagara Falls, enabling him to play in some of Rochester’s games. He spent a year away from basketball while stationed at Foster Field in Texas. Following his discharge, the 28-year-old Cervi was reunited with the Royals, who had since joined the NBL.

During the 1945-46 season Cervi shared the Royals’ locker room with a host of colorful characters, including stylish playmaker Bob Davies, 5-10 scamp William ‘Red’ Holzman, George ‘Blind Bomber’ Glamack and former St. John’s star Andrew ‘Fuzzy’ Levane. Coming off the bench were All-American quarterback Otto Graham, major league catcher Del Rice and a two-sport athlete named Chuck Connors (later the star of television’s The Rifleman).

With Harrison still at the helm, the Royals beat the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons in the first round of the playoffs in four games and swept the Sheboygan Redskins in three games in the NBL Finals. Cervi, the Royals’ captain, made the All-NBL Second Team and averaged 10.7 ppg during the regular season.

The 30-year-old Cervi led the league in scoring in 1946-47 with 14.4 ppg, a remarkable achievement for a player shorter than six feet. Cervi earned a berth on the All-NBL First Team and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. Rochester paced the circuit with a 31-13 record, six games ahead of second-place Fort Wayne. In The Finals against the Chicago American Gears, a stellar performance by the Gears’ big rookie center, George Mikan, helped sink the Royals in four games.

Cervi had another outstanding scoring year in 1947-48, averaging 13.4 points and placing sixth in the league in scoring. He was named to the All-NBL First Team for the second year in a row. Coach Harrison had a busy offseason, drafting forward Andy Duncan and guard Bobby Wanzer and buying the rights to 6-foot-9 center Arnie Risen from the financially strapped Indianapolis Kautskys franchise.

Rochester repeated as Eastern Division champs, but in The Finals the injury-riddled Royals were no match for the larger-than-life Mikan and his Minneapolis Lakers. Risen was out with a broken jaw suffered in the semifinals, Holzman was hobbled by a hurt leg, Cervi had a bad knee and Levane injured his foot. Wanzer and the walking wounded played valiantly, even scratching out a 74-60 win in Game 3. But the Royals were simply overpowered by the Lakers, 3-1, in the series.

In another eventful offseason, a feud with Harrison prompted Cervi to jump to Syracuse, where he became player-coach. The Nationals had a new starting five that year, most notable among them the seasoned Cervi, guard Billy Gabor and Schayes, a powerful, sweet-shooting forward just out of New York University. Cervi, the league’s Coach of the Year for 1948-49, directed the Nats to a 40-23 record, second only to the Anderson Duffey Packers. He was also named to the All-NBL First Team for the third and final time.

The formative years of professional basketball proved to be chaotic. Prior to the 1948-49 season, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Rochester had moved from the NBL to the 2-year-old Basketball Association of America, which was quickly gaining momentum and fans. Rochester’s Lester Harrison implored Nationals owner Danny Biasone to join the other teams in the BAA. But the strong-willed Biasone wanted to stick it out in the NBL. So did Anderson owner Ed Duffey, who craftily acquired the entire University of Kentucky national championship team, which included several members of the 1948 U.S. Olympic squad.

Following the 1948-49 season the BAA and the NBL merged to form the National Basketball Association. Syracuse was one of six teams from the NBL in the new 17-team league.

The Nationals, with Cervi still serving as player-coach, tore through the new league in 1949-50 with a 51-13 record, tying the Lakers and the Royals for most wins. Cervi made the All-NBA Second Team and was named Coach of the Year by several organizations. (The league wouldn’t institute the official award until 1962.) Cervi, now age 33, averaged 10.2 points and played in 56 of the team’s 64 contests. Schayes became one of the league’s most dominant forwards, scoring 16.8 ppg.

In the postseason Syracuse swept the Philadelphia Warriors in two games in the Eastern Division Semifinals and then bested New York in the division finals, two games to one. That set up an NBA Finals that pitted Cervi and the Nationals against George Mikan and the Lakers. Minneapolis won the first game, 68-66, on a buzzer-beating bomb from Bob Harrison. Syracuse took Game 2 but dropped Games 3 and 4 in St. Paul. Back in Syracuse, Cervi led the Nats to an 83-76 win, but that victory only delayed the inevitable. Mikan scored 40 points in Game 6, which the Lakers won, 110-95.

Cervi continued his dual role for three more years, leading the Nats to a 40-26 record and another division title in 1951-52. Cervi’s playing time and scoring output gradually dropped — from 8.6 ppg in 53 contests in 1950’51, to 7.6 ppg in 55 games in 1951-52, to 3.8 ppg in 38 games in 1952-53.

After hanging up his sneakers in 1953, Cervi devoted his energy to building the Nationals into a championship team. In 1953-54 Syracuse went 42-30, good enough for second place in the division. Schayes (17.1 ppg, 12.1 rpg) was maturing into a true superstar, and Paul Seymour (13.1 ppg) led a deep crew of supporting players. After dispatching the Celtics in two straight games in the division finals, Syracuse once again faced rival Minneapolis in The Finals. The Lakers, the league’s first true dynasty, had won four titles in the previous five years.

Minneapolis took the opener at home, 79-68, and the teams traded wins the rest of the way. Two Syracuse victories came on last-second buckets — Seymour hit with seven seconds left to win Game 2, 62-60, and Jim Neal scored with four seconds left in Game 6 to win a shocker on the Lakers’ home court, 65-63. But Minneapolis overpowered the Nats in Game 7, winning before a delirious home crowd, 87-80.

With Mikan in a short-lived retirement, the Nationals –and the rest of the league, for that matter — found the going easier during the 1954-55 campaign. Schayes was still in peak form (18.5 ppg, 12.3 rpg) and Seymour increased his output (14.6 ppg) as Syracuse rose to the top of its division with a 43-29 mark. During the offseason Cervi had coaxed center Red Rocha out of retirement and signed another pivotman, 6-9, 230-pound Johnny Kerr from Illinois. In the postseason the Nationals whipped Boston in the division finals, three games to one, to advance to The Finals against the Fort Wayne Pistons.

With the series tied at three games apiece, the Nationals got some help from a new rule pushed through in the preceding offseason by none other than team owner Danny Biasone. With the 24-second clock now in effect, the Pistons couldn’t stall to hang on to their lead in Game 7. Syracuse scratched back to tie the game at 91 with 12 seconds left. George King sank a free throw to give the Nats the lead and then stole the ball from Pistons guard Andy Phillip to preserve the win. (That championship was the only one Syracuse would win; the team was sold in 1963 and became the Philadelphia 76ers.)

The Nats slipped to 35-37 in 1955-56. The next year, after a 4-8 start, Cervi resigned as coach and relinquished his duties to Seymour. Cervi took a year off, then returned to coach the Philadelphia Warriors in 1958-59, the year before Philadelphia drafted Wilt Chamberlain from Kansas. With Hall of Fame center Neil Johnston slowed by a serious knee injury, the Warriors limped to a 32-40 record. It was the only time a Cervi-coached team didn’t make the playoffs.

Cervi’s career regular-season coaching record was 366-264; as a player-coach his mark was an even more impressive 210-120. Cervi was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984 and died in 2009.

He died in hospice on Nov. 9, 2009, in Rochester, New York.