Basketball Urban Legends Revealed #12

This is the twelfth in a series of examinations of basketball-related legends and whether they are true or false. This week, did future Hall of Famer Red Holzman make it into the NBA specifically because he was Jewish?!?! Plus, was Walt Chamberlain drafted while still in high school?! Find out the answers to those questions as well as learn which NBA player was confused – on national television – with an accused sex criminal!

Click here to view an archive of all the previous basketball legends.

Let’s begin!

BASKETBALL LEGEND: Red Holzman got his start in professional basketball due to the fact that he was Jewish.

STATUS: Basically True

William “Red” Holzman was one of the most successful coaches in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA). He coached the New York Knickerbockers to their only two NBA championships in 1970 and 1973. He was the head coach of the Knicks from 1967-1982 (with a short break in the late 1970s when Willis Reed took over as coach) and retired with 613 victories. That was the same number the Knicks used when they retired his number in 1990 (as coaches don’t have numbers). The Knicks retiring his number came five years after he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even to this day, over ten years since Holzman passed away in 1998, his legacy impacts the NBA with his former pupil, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, continuing Holzman’s tradition of winning. Days before setting the new record for most titles won by an NBA coach, Jackson spoke of Holzman to the New York Daily News, “He is the reason why I am a coach.”

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While Holzman is a legend in the NBA, he actually got his start in professional basketball in the National Basketball League (NBL), one of two precursors to the NBA (the other being the Basketball Association of America (BAA)) that merged together to form the NBA in 1949. And what’s amazing is that he got his start in the NBL due to one simple fact – he was Jewish

Red Holzman was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1920, the son of two Jewish immigrants from Romania and Russia, respectively. He attended Franklin K. Lane High School during the 1930s where he played both handball and basketball. During his high school years, like other basketball standouts of the time, he was given a job working as a waiter at a resort in upstate New York. It was at this time that he met Andrew “Fuzzy” Levane, a fellow high school basketball standout. The two would become friends for the rest of their lives. Holzman attended the University of Baltimore and the City College of New York. He graduated from CCNY in 1942 as a two-time All-American in basketball. At this time he also got married.

Upon graduation, with World War II raging on, Holzman enlisted in the United State Navy. He was stationed in Virginia as part of the Navy’s morale division. After his military career ended in 1945, Holzman was looking for a career – he was surprised to learn what that career would be!

One of the results of all the enlisted men returning to home life after World War II was that professional sports leagues could really begin to flourish, as the amount of quality players was now much higher. In fact, things seemed to look so bright that one Rochester businessman decided to take his “somewhat” professional basketball team into the big leagues! Lester Harrison had been a player, coach and organizer in the world of semi-professional basketball throughout the 1930s. His teams were sponsored by liquor companies, most notably Seagrams and then later the Eber Brothers (the teams were called the Rochester Seagrams and the Rochester Ebers). Harrison began getting a lot of pressure from the newspapers in Rochester to disassociate himself and his team from the liquor companies, so Harrison and his brother decided to form their own semi-pro team called the Rochester Pros (an informal name) in 1944-45. With World War II over, though, Harrison decided to join the NBL with his team being called the Rochester Royals. Harrison already had a number of strong players on the team, including Basketball Hall of Famer Al Cervi, who had played for Harrison since the Rochester Seagrams days and was now ready to come to the NBL with him. Football Hall of Famer Otto Graham was also a member of the first NBL season for the Rochester Royals (as you would imagine, the great quarterback Graham was also a good point guard).

While putting his squad together, though, Harrison would scroll the list of players about to be discharged from the military and sign them. He signed John Mahnken and Al Nagretti as soon as their service ended. Similarly, Harrison signed Fuzzy Levane right out of the service. Here’s where things get a bit interesting. While Levane was a fine player, that was not necessarily the reason Harrison signed him. You see, Harrison felt that the Italian-American Levane was Jewish. Rochester had a large Jewish population at the time and Harrison was following a practice that had been made popular by the barnstorm Original Celtics during the 1930s, which was to so-call “mix ethnicities,” so that different fans of the area would have reasons to support the local team. “Hey, look, they have an Irish guy! I’m going to root for him!” “Oh yeah, well, I’m rooting for the Italian guy!” Stuff like that. In fact, Harrison would break ground by taking that approach to the next level in 1947 by signing an African-American player, Dolly King, for a season!

In any event, when Harrison discovered that Levane was not, in fact, Jewish, he asked Levane if he knew of any Jewish players worth signing. Levane recommended his friend Red Holzman, and Harrison signed him sight unseen. I believe Holzman signed with the team literally the day after he was discharged (and very soon before the NBL season was to start in late November 1945).

Neither Levane nor Holzman got much playing time at first, as they had not had much practice time with the team. However, by the end of November, Holzman had a stand-out game, scoring 15 points (matching Cervi and Rochester’s center, George Glamack). Looking back, Holzman would recall that being the game where he changed from being effectively a Jewish mascot into being an actual member of the team. Holzman ultimately began starting for the team, eventually winning the NBL Rookie of the Year as the Royals would go on to win the NBL Championship.

I would say that the rest is history, but Holzman would actually need to help of Levane a couple more times in his career. Holzman was about to retire in 1953 when Levane, now the coach of the Milwaukee Hawks, convinced him to be his assistant coach. When Levane was fired, Holzman got his first head coaching experience. After Holzman, too, was fired a few years later, he was going to start selling insurance when Levane convinced him to come to New York (where Levane was now the head coach) to become a scout for the Knicks. Ten years later, Holzman was the coach of the Knicks and then the rest is history!

If you’re curious about further details about the relationship between Levane and Holzman, I did a recent piece at Knickerblogger.net on how Levane kept helping Holzman out. You can read it here.

Thanks to Murry R. Nelson’s great book about the NBL, The National Basketball League: a history, 1935-1949 for much of the information for this piece! And thanks to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News for the Jackson quote!

BASKETBALL LEGEND: The Philadelphia Warriors drafted Wilt Chamberlain while he was still in high school.

STATUS: Effectively True, Technically False

In 1971, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Haywood v. National Basketball Association, which involved NBA Star Spencer Haywood, who left college after his sophomore year at the University of Detroit and was eventually outright signed by the Seattle Supersonics. At the time, the NBA had a rule that stated that no player could join the NBA until four years after they graduated high school (they adopted this rule soon into the NBA’s existence). So, naturally, the NBA took issue with Haywood playing for the Sonics and the Sonics countered by backing Haywood in an anti-trust suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 7-2 that players should be allowed to be drafted sooner than four years after graduating high school, although the rule was predicated on the player in question being able to demonstrate economic hardship that required him to pursue a professional career right away. The 1971 NBA Draft saw the introduction of a special “hardship draft” for these players.

This was not the first time the NBA saw a player join the league before he finished college, though, as back in the 1962 Draft, the Detroit Pistons picked prep star Reggie Harding out of high school. The league disallowed Harding to play for the Pistons, but eventually agreed that he could play in the NBA after waiting one year after his high school class graduated, provided that the Pistons spend another draft pick on him in the 1963 Draft. So Harding had to play in a minor basketball league for a year before finally entering the NBA in the 1963-64 season. Harding’s personal problems in his short NBA career (including a number of run-ins with the law) likely led to the NBA going back to a strict interpretation of the “no player can play in the NBA sooner than four years after graduating” rule that led to the Haywood lawsuit.

But even earlier, in the 1950a, the NBA saw a high school player effectively be drafted out of high school, as the Philadelphia Warriors basically drafted Wilt Chamberlain right out of high school with their territorial pick!

In case you are unfamiliar with the concept, since the very early days of the National Basketball League (heck, before it was even CALLED the NBA – the idea began in 1946 with the Basketball Association of America before they merged with the National Basketball League in 1949 to form the NBA) the league had a special draft rule called “territorial picks.” This rule said that certain players would not enter the regular NBA draft be open to be drafted by any team, but rather that teams would be allowed to pick players that played for colleges within their “territory.” The reasoning behind this rule was twofold – 1. The NBA at the time was not nearly as popular as collegiate basketball, and the NBA was really in a state of constantly eking out a living, so anything that could give the league a boost in attendance was taken seriously, and having collegiate stars play for their hometown NBA team was seen as just such a sales boost. Fans who adored Oscar Robertson as he starred for the University of Cincinnati would logically wish to follow him to the NBA to play for the Cincinnati Royals (or so the logic went) and 2. As you would imagine, the “territorial picks” tended to be the very best and the brightest players in the draft, so if a team was already assured that they were the ones who were going to get a certain player then there was less of a chance of teams bidding against each other for players (in a similar way that goes on to this day in the Major League Baseball draft, where players fall from spots where they normally would be drafted because teams don’t think they would be able to afford them, so they slip to teams that are willing to pay them bigger bonuses).

So that’s what the NBA did for the first few years of its existence. The very first three territorial picks are all in the National Basketball Hall of Fame (1949 saw Ed Macauley picked by the St. Louis Bombers and Vern Mikkelsen picked by the Minneapolis Lakers and 1950 saw Paul Arizin picked by the Philadelphia Warriors), although the next few were not as successful. Now, in 2010, I’m sure you smart readers out there have already figured out a way for someone to manipulate this system, and the basketball executives of the 1950s were just as smart as you were, so when outstanding high school center Wilt Chamberlain graduated high school in 1955, every team in the NBA wanted Chamberlain to play for a college within their territory so that they could use their territorial pick on him in 1959. When you add in the fact that over a hundred colleges wanted the star player ANYways it became an almost circus-like atmosphere with numerous charges of bribery being thrown around and lots of cynical jokes being made across the country (like “when Wilt Chamberlain goes to the NBA, he’ll have to take a pay cut!”).

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Chamberlain attended high school in Philadelphia, so naturally, Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb was familiar with him, and he was determined that he would get Chamberlain. What really scared Gottlieb was other owners manipulating the system to gain Chamberlain. The man who scared him the most was Boston Celtics General Manager Red Auerbach, who (as I detailed in a Sports Legends Revealed here) was already quite well aware of how great Chamberlain was from seeing him play in summer games at the Catskills between his junior and senior years of high school. Auerbach had greater access to Chamberlain than any other NBA executive, and Gottlieb was rightfully terrified by the idea of Auerbach convincing the young star to play for a college in New England.

Therefore, at a owners meeting in 1955 (before Chamberlain graduated), Gottlieb suggested that he be allowed to use a territorial pick on Chamberlain NOW. That he, Gottlieb, would certify that no matter what happened to Chamberlain during college Gottlieb would still use his 1959 territorial pick on the center. Gottlieb’s theory was that A. Chamberlain was a special case, as he was already a star in Philadelphia just based on high school play, so shouldn’t that go along with the spirit of the territorial pick rule? and B. If the league was afraid of teams bidding against each other for players, then this would rule that out. Yes, it benefits him this time around, but next time it could benefit another team!

The owners were torn on the point, but Gottlieb, as one of the original owners of the league, had a lot of sway. They basically seem to have agreed on a sort of “let’s see where Chamberlain decides to go to school – if it is in no one else’s territory, then I suppose we can let you have him.” It really was not as official as passing a new rule, and in fact, Auerbach spent the summer still trying to convince Chamberlain to go to Harvard so that he could contest Gottlieb’s claim. For his part, Gottlieb was recommending the University of Kansas to Chamberlain because it was outside any team’s territory (which would help Gottlieb with his plan) and it would also keep Chamberlain out of a local Philadelphia college (which would hurt the attendance for the Warriors). Chamberlain eventually did agree to go to the University of Kansas, but who knows how much of an effect Gottlieb had on his decision (I tend to doubt Wilt would have let Gottlieb affect his thinking THAT much, but who can really say what he was thinking at the time?).

The “false” part of the story is that often this story is reported as “The Warriors used their 1955 pick on Chamberlain,” which clearly isn’t the case, as they not only made a first round pick in the 1955 Draft, but they specifically used a territorial pick, picking up future Hall of Famer Tom Gola from La Salle. No, they did not officially draft Chamberlain until the 1959 NBA Draft, although Gottlieb did try to lure Chamberlain to the NBA when Chamberlain left Kansas a year before graduating. Gottlieb argued that he was sure he could get the NBA to waive the rule that said players had to wait four years after graduating high school – which, looking at the Reggie Harding case, likely WAS true. Gottlieb was outbid by Abe Saperstein of the Harlem Globetrotters, who got Chamberlain to play for the Globetrotters for a year before being drafted by the Warriors in 1959.

The only other player “chosen” under this new high school “rule” was Ohio high school star Jerry Lucas, who the Cincinnati Royals made a similar claim in the 1958 season. As it turned out, Lucas ended up going to Ohio State so it did not matter and the Royals would have been able to use their territorial pick on him ANYways. So, really, in the two instances that this “rule” was used, the situation never really arose where any other team would be in a position to challenge it, so I can’t say what would have happened had, say, Jerry Lucas attended St. Johns or if Wilt Chamberlain attended Harvard.

In any event, yes, the story is effectively true, but as it is often reported (including by Wilt himself) as “Wilt Chamberlain was drafted while in high school,” that’s a bit misleading, but basically true.

Thanks to Terry Pluto’s classic Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA for the most comprehensive look at this “rule” (most other sources are fairly vague on the details).

BASKETBALL LEGEND: News reports mixed up NBA great Eddie Johnson with another former NBA player with the same name when the latter person was arrested for sexual assault of a minor!

STATUS: True

Eddie Johnson was a famous NBA sixth man for a number of teams. A prolific scorer, Johnson has the somewhat notable distinction of having scored the most career points without ever making an NBA All Star team. He DID win Sixth Man of the Year in 1989, however.

After a long and impressive career, Johnson retired and began to get involved in broadcasting for the Phoenix Suns (where he played for a number of years).

It was while a broadcaster in 2006 that Johnson got the shock of his life. You see, there was ANOTHER Eddie Johnson who played in the NBA. Four years older than the Sixth Man of the Year award winner, “Fast Eddie” Johnson had a ten-year NBA career that actually saw him make TWO NBA All-Star Games.

However, once his career ended in 1987, Fast Eddie’s life went bad. He had drug problems and was arrested numerous times in connection with his drug problem. This all came to a tragic end in 2006 when Fast Eddie was arrested for molesting an 8-year-old girl. He is currently serving a life term in prison.

The tragedy took a bizarre turn when many media outlets CONFUSED THE TWO PLAYERS!!!

Eddie A. Johnson, the Sixth Man, saw HIS photo used along with the coverage of Fast Eddie’s arrest. Eddie A. is six foot seven, while Fast Eddie is six feet two!!! Eddie A. had never gotten into any notable police problems (some traffic tickets were all he had against his name) and yet he was confused with a child molester!

Suffice it to say that Eddie A. was quite upset, and considered suing for defamation. I do not believe he went through with it.

Still, I can’t imagine how annoying the situation must have been for the former NBA great.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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