55 Color team

Even the Easter Parade was different that day. People poured out of the church and in all their finery headed right for the Onondaga County War Memorial. That's where the action was going to be that afternoon-- April 10, 1955-- as the local heroes, the Syracuse Nationals, were going to have their "showdown" meeting with the Fort Wayne Pistons for the professional basketball championship of the world. And there wasn't a red-blooded fan within shouting distance of the four-year-old, fancy downtown structure who wanted to "see" this one from the outside. After all, these rabid Syracuse fans had suffered through imminent escape from "sudden death" the day before in the best-of-seven series of the NBA's final round. The hot-shooting Pistons had led by as many as 10 points in the second half as they staged a determined bid to squeeze out a fourth straight victory and gain the coveted crown. But the battling Nats were able to wiggle off that hook, 109-104, to knot up the series at 3 victories apiece. It took a courageous stand for coach Al Cervi's men to pull that one off, for they also had to survive a second-period riot that saw the hall turned into mass bedlam. During the scuffle, both benches emptied and spectators poured on the court after Syracuse's Paul Seymour and Wally Osterkorn and Fort Wayne's Bob Houbregs exchanged blows. Adding to the boisterousness of the occasion was a halftime melee that took vigorous police efforts to quell. Referee Sid Borgia, knocked sprawling during the earlier skirmish, got swatted by another psyched-up customer as he tried to get to his dressing room during intermission. But he and his partner, Mendy Rudolph- thanks to the cops- finally achieved the privacy of their inner sanctum. It was this kind of a charged-up atmosphere that greeted these two superbly conditioned, though drawn, teams as they readied for the opening center tap. Coach Charley Eckman's classy Pistons, led by rugged (6-9, 250) Larry Foust, smooth George Yardley and the fiery Frankie Brian, had eliminated the perennial champions, the Minneapolis Lakers, in the semi-final round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, coach Cervi's resourceful Nats, sparked by the tireless Dolph Schayes, the combative Seymour, the flashy ballhandler George King and the pivot-shooting rookie Johnny Kerr, were ousting the Boston Celtics in four games. (Schayes and Foust were selected to the All-NBA first five that season, with Seymour picked for the second unit.) Thus it was an implausible matching of the league's two smallest cities- Syracuse and Fort Wayne- playing for basketball's biggest prize. The stage was set, and now after nearly six months of wearying travel and competition- after a 72-game season plus the playoffs- there was just one game left, 48 minutes of combat that would determine who were "Kings of the Cage." And as little Sid Borgia bounced the ball and signaled the giant centers Kerr and Foust to come to the circle, the jammed throng let go with wild enthusiasm. But the cheering died abruptly. Fort Wayne, starting with a touch and fury that had not been previously evidenced during the hard-fought series, dashed away to a quick lead. The pivotal figure in this rive was Foust. He scored the first 10 points for the Hoosiers and rebounded so strongly that he prevented Cervi's speedier forces from employing their spectacular fast break. When the Nats began to find their range and closed to within 3 points, Foust began to deal the ball off to teammates Brian and Mel Hutchins, who also hit the mark. So when the two squads took a break at the end of the first period, the torrid-shooting Pistons had a 10-point lead, 31-21. They had shot the eyes out of the hoop, hitting 57 percent of their shots to only 36 percent for the Nats. Houbregs, subbing to give Foust a blow, Andy Phillip and Dick Rosenthal continued to bomb the mark as the second quarter opened, and when Hutchins hit still another one-hander from the corner, Cervi asked for time. It was now 41-24--17 big points-- and the red-hot Pistons were making the Nats look like some pick-up team. Old-pro Cervi, one of the more colorful dribblers and playmakers in his day, read the riot act. He called for aggressive defense, then looked to his deep bench and chose Billy Kenville. The lean, pale youngster began driving for the hoop, and when he wasn't hitting his layups, he was drawing fouls. Kenville's spark, together with Schayes' arching rainbows from outside, changed the complexion of the game. So did Fort Wayne's deliberate fouling strategy, which backfired. The Pistons soon got themselves in foul trouble, and when the Nats went on a 14-2 surge, they were right back in business. With only 38 seconds left to the half, Cervi's battlers had closed to within 2 points and the home crowd had come alive. But Brian and Foust hit just before the buzzer to let the Pistons breathe a little easier at halftime, 53-47. Borgia and fellow referee Lou Eisenstein had no trouble making it to the locker room, for the large crowd was still buzzing about the Nats' breathtaking rally. In the third quarter the Nats kept close until Schayes and Seymour hit on consecutive shots. Now the Nats finally looked the Pistons in the eye--it was 57-57, the first deadlock of the struggle since the early going. It was moments later-- after a Pistons basket-- when Brian pulled the "rock" of the day. The Southern speedster, in attempting to spike King's jump shot fouled Red Rocha, a defensive tower of strength. When King's shot was ruled good and Rocha quickly followed with a foul shot to make it a 3-point play, the Nats had their first lead of the afternoon. The scoreboard blinked 60-59, and when fiery Frankie spotted it as he took the ball out of bounds, he blew his cool. A la football's famed Charlie Brickley, Brian dropkicked the ball up to into the stands. A technical foul was immediately assessed, and poised Paul Seymour stepped to the line and cashed in. Here Eckman stepped in and showed his leadership. Sensing this type of a "break" might trigger a collapse, Charley gathered his forces and implored them to stick with the "game plan." And his Pistons reacted superbly and before the third period was over they had knotted the count at 74-all, thanks to some steady firing by Yardley, Brian and Foust. Bouncy Earl Lloyd opened the final 12-minute session by converting on the end of a fast break, and when Rocha popped in a one-hander the Nats led, 78-74. The home folks really turned on the steam as though the championship were in hand. Even Nats' owner-GM Danny Biasone, who gave himself the title of assistant coach so he could sit on the bench, permitted his first smile of the afternoon. However, Brian steamed back and potted a one-handed jumper, and after Kerr pivoted for one of his own, Foust cut the margin to 80-79 by clicking in a 3-pointer to take the wind out of the Syracuse sails. The Nats then opened it to 3 again as Rocha coolly dropped in a pair of free throws. But after Lloyd and Hutchins exchanged hoops, the Pistons drove to an 86-all tie. The Hoosiers appeared to have the momentum now, and when Foust continued the onslaught by hitting on one of his patented pivots, the crowd was stilled. That is, all but the 40 or so Pistons fans who had made up a special section from Indiana. But the rookie Kerr fought back with a free throw, and after Foust hit another foul, Lloyd knotted it up again at 89-89. It was the fifth tie in the hectic half. Moments later, Schayes fouled Phillip, and the free throw sent the Pistons into the lead, 90-89, with just 2:16 to go. The great Schayes had an opportunity to redeem himself quickly, however, when he got fouled driving for the basket. Dolph could put the Nats in front if he netted both his free throws, and knowing this, he knelt- as was his custom in tight situations- and tied his white shoelaces. Now refreshed, the dark-haired Dolph put his right toe gingerly on the line, eyed the hoop, then, with his patented two-hand set shot, tied up matters. Dolph then sent the Nats' followers into rhapsody by also dropping his second attempt to put Syracuse into a 91-90 lead. The clock read just 1:23 to go now, and you could see the faces of the Pistons become rigid and tense. The indefatigable Brian came dribbling up the floor and tried a one-hander from his favorite spot in the corner. But it hit the hoop, then rolled off, and the crowd breathed another sigh of relief. However, the Nats couldn't control the ball and in the frantic skirmish the great Yardley was fouled. Cries of "Miss it! Miss it!" erupted throughout the bubbling building, but the cool, gaunt old pro defied the throng by deadlocking matters at 91-all. The Nats brought the ball upcourt with quarterback Seymour working the ball deliberately. Schayes passed up a two-handed set when he got crowded. Kerr finally found Lloyd in the corner and earl threw up a beauty. The crowd went berserk when it went in- but it popped right back out again and the Pistons got the rebound. Now there were 42 seconds showing on the clock when Eckman called time. The Pistons wanted either Yardley or Foust, their best marksmen, to take the shot from in close, hoping for a 3-point play in the bargain. Meanwhile, Cervi had set his matchups. The rugged Seymour was to dog Phillip. Rocha was to take Yardley. King was to go with Brian on the outside- and Schayes was to help clog the middle. Soon after play was resumed, the Nats got a big break when Yardley was called for palming the ball. Now there were just 18 seconds remaining, and the Pistons needed the basketball. They decided to foul King, and he'd been having trouble throughout the series with his free throws, missing 8 out of 24. So with 12 seconds left, Brian fouled King, and now it was up to the former Morris Harvey dribbling specialist to make good. With his black hair patted in place, the chunky King placed his feet carefully, bounced the ball a half-dozen times, then sent it up one-handed-- straight and true. It was now 92-91, and Fort Wayne came thundering up court with a rush. It was obvious that their strategy had been to trade 1 point for 2 and win the game with a last-second hoop. As playmaker Phillip dribbled near the basket, the clever Seymour checked him closely. He even feinted Andy into changing directions as he got in tighter. This was Seymour's way of baiting him into a trap, for Andy was unaware that King had been closing in from the opposite direction. Sensing the opportunity, King struck like lightning, swooping in and stealing the ball from the usually sure-fingered Piston. Joyously, King dribbled once, possibly twice, before he heard a barking cry from Seymour. "Gimme the ball," ordered the Nats' leader. King obeyed promptly, flipping the ball to Paul before watching the last precious seconds tick off the clock to end the game. "I'd worked too hard for the championship," said Seymour later, "to let him or anyone else lose it on me. If the Pistons were going to steal that ball back they were going to have to chisel it away from me." By now pandemonium reigned as the Syracuse fans poured onto the floor and hoisted Cervi and King on their shoulders and paraded them triumphantly. It was the kind of Easter Parade Syracuse's championship fans will never forget.

Basketball's Greatest Games, 1969 Prentice Hall, Pages 167-176 ISBN 0-13-0723-6-1 SYRACUSE'S EASTER PARADE, Arnie Burdick