> Archive 75: Hal Greer | 75 Stories: Hal Greer
“Consistency,” Hal Greer once told the Philadelphia Daily News. “For me, that was the thing…I would like to be remembered as a great, consistent player.”
Over the course of the 15 NBA seasons turned in by the slight, soft-spoken Hall of Fame guard from West Virginia, consistency was indeed the thing. He turned in quality performances almost every night, scoring 19.2 points per game during his career, playing in 1,122 games, and racking up 21,586 points.
He remained with the same franchise throughout his career, starting with Syracuse in 1958 and then moving with the Nationals when they became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963. He was an All-Star for 10 straight seasons and a seven-time member of the All-NBA Second Team. He was also the second-leading scorer on Philadelphia’s vaunted championship team of 1966-67.
Harold Everett “Hal” Greer grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, where he starred for Douglass High School. The first African-American to receive a scholarship at Marshall University, he averaged 19.4 ppg in his three varsity seasons. He was an all-conference selection in 1957 and 1958, and an All-America pick in 1958. After being selected by the Syracuse Nationals in the second round of the 1958 NBA Draft, Greer came to his first training camp as a skinny kid who lacked confidence.
“I didn’t think I had a chance at all [to make the NBA],” Greer recalled. “In fact, when I first got there I didn’t even unpack my bag.”
But in his first season Greer already showed the skills that would eventually make him a star: a deadly jump shot, quick penetrations to the basket, and tenacious defense. He came off the bench for 11.1 ppg in 1958-59, shooting .454 from the field and .778 from the line. His field-goal percentage was the fourth-highest mark in the NBA that year.
In 1959-60, Greer shot even better from the field, hitting at a .476 clip to place second in the league. Syracuse finished with a 45-30 record but was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Philadelphia Warriors.
In 1960-61, his third NBA season, Greer moved into a starting role and emerged as a star. He raised his production to 19.6 ppg and earned his first trip to the NBA All-Star Game. He ranked second on the team in scoring to Dolph Schayes, who averaged 23.6 points. The Nationals made it through the Eastern Division semifinals but were demolished in the division finals by the Boston Celtics, winning just one game.
Greer averaged 22.8 points the next year, adding 7.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per contest. With injuries limiting Schayes to 56 games, Greer took over the team’s scoring mantle. He ranked 13th in the NBA in scoring and ninth in free-throw percentage (.819). In the 1962 NBA All-Star Game, Greer racked up a team-high nine assists — one more than the legendary Bob Cousy –and hauled in 10 rebounds, just two fewer than another legend, Bill Russell. Greer led the Nationals to the playoffs, where they fell to the Warriors in the Eastern Division semifinals.
The smooth guard broke into the ranks of the top 10 NBA scorers in 1962-63 by garnering 1,562 points, an average of 19.5 per game. He also had the fifth-best free-throw percentage in the league at .834. As an acknowledgment of his superb offensive performance, Greer was named to the All-NBA Second Team at season’s end. Syracuse finished second in the Eastern Division with a 48-32 record, then lost to the Cincinnati Royals in the division semifinals.
The Nationals changed ownership after the 1962-63 season and moved to Philadelphia for 1963-64, to be reborn as the Philadelphia 76ers. The new surroundings seemed to suit Greer just fine. He settled into a seven-year stretch in which he averaged at least 20 ppg in each season. He made the All-NBA Second Team in six of those years and played in the All-Star Game in all seven campaigns. Greer’s production was aided by the arrival of WIlt Chamberlain during the 1964-65 season. “When you have Wilt, you don’t work as hard to get your shot,” Greer told one writer.
If Chamberlain was the team’s go-to guy, then Greer was its quarterback — the man who made the action happen. But he wasn’t flashy or flamboyant and didn’t attract much attention from the media. In fact, one Herald-Tribune sportswriter claimed that “If there were an award given for a player who is most respected by basketball insiders, while getting the minimum public appreciation, Greer could win hands down.”
One of Greer’s strong points was his jump shot. His favorite spot to hit from was inside the top of the key. His one-time coach, Alex Hannum, said Greer could sink that shot about 70 percent of the time and encouraged him to take it whenever he had the opportunity. “Hal’s quickness enables him to free himself for the moment of daylight that he needs,” Hannum said. “He’s so good on his jumper that it startles you when he misses.”
Greer played a major role on what many feel was the greatest team of all time, the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers. That squad, which also included Chamberlain, Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham, Wally Jones, and Lucious Jackson, romped to a 68-13 record, the best in league history at the time until the Los Angeles Lakers went 69-13 in 1971-72 and then the Chicago Bulls’ 72-10 record in 1995-96.
The Sixers, who won 45 of their first 49 games, rolled through the postseason, finally defeating the San Francisco Warriors in six games in the 1967 NBA Finals. For the season, Greer contributed 22.1 ppg, second on the club to Chamberlain’s 24.1. Greer then stepped up his game in the postseason, pouring in 27.7 ppg.
“It was a beautiful, beautiful season,” Greer told the Philadelphia Daily News. “We had everything. We knew we were going to win most of our games — it was just a matter of by how much.”
Greer saved his finest individual performance of his career for the following year, 1967-68. He shot a career-best .478 from the field and averaged 24.1 ppg, fifth best in the NBA. In the 1968 NBA All-Star Game he was 8-for-8 from the field and tossed in 5 of 7 free-throw attempts in only 17 minutes to lead the East to a 144-124 victory at Madison Square Garden. His 21 points included a record 19 in one quarter and earned him the game’s MVP Award.
The Sixers had another sensational year in 1967-68, finishing with a 62-20 record, eight games ahead of second-place Boston in the Eastern Division. But in the division finals against the Celtics, Philadelphia blew a two-game series lead, losing to Boston in seven games.
Philadelphia traded Chamberlain to the Los Angeles Lakers before the 1968-69 season, and although the Sixers remained competitive they dropped from serious title contention. After a 55-27 regular season, Philadelphia managed just one postseason victory in a five-game conference semifinal series against Boston. Cunningham (24.8 ppg) and Greer (23.1) picked up some of Chamberlain’s scoring load, ranking third and seventh in the league, respectively. Greer was an All-Star for the ninth straight season and earned his seventh and final berth on the All-NBA Second Team.
Greer had his last All-Star season in 1969-70, averaging 22.0 ppg for a Sixers team that dropped to 42-40 and fourth place in the Eastern Division. Still going strong at age 33, Greer helped the franchise to its 12th playoff visit in his 12 seasons. It was a short trip, however, as Philadelphia lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in a five-game conference semifinal series.
Greer played three more seasons for the Sixers, his production and playing time dropping steadily each year. In his final season, 1972-73, Greer also served as the team’s assistant coach. He split time between the bench and the court, appearing in 38 games and averaging just 5.6 points. At season’s end he retired, ending an illustrious 15-year playing career. At the time of his retirement Greer had appeared in more games (1,122) than any other player in NBA history. His 21,586 career points ranked among the all-time top 10, as did his totals for minutes played, field goals attempted and field goals made. His efforts earned him a place on the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996.
Greer believed that in order to succeed in the NBA a player had to keep learning and adjusting. The advice he once gave to young players reveals something of his philosophy toward the game: “Each player should try to improve,” he said. “Each game, each minute, each time on the floor, you should try to learn something different. That was the way I went about things.”
During his induction speech after being elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1981, Greer said that before he entered the NBA in 1958 there were four things he had wanted to accomplish in basketball. The most important was to buy a new, shiny car, the kind that players who grew up in small towns often dreamed about. In descending order, the other goals were to be an All-Star, to win an NBA championship, and to get into the Hall of Fame. While most NBA players achieve Greer’s first goal quite easily, few accomplish even one of the other three.
Greer did it by virtue of a solid, workmanlike approach to the game that few players could emulate even then, and that even fewer could probably maintain today. “Hal Greer always came to play,” Schayes told the Philadelphia Daily News after Greer was inducted into the Hall of Fame. “He came to practice the same way, to every team function the same way. Every bus and plane and train, he was on time. Hal Greer punched the clock. Hal Greer brought the lunch pail.”
He died at the age of 81 on April 16, 2018.