Sports Legend Revealed: Did the Knicks participate in a special lottery where they nearly drafted Bob Cousy?
Fans of the NBA are quite familiar with the story of the first NBA draft lottery, which was also one of the greatest days in New York Knicks history. On Mother's Day, 1985 (May 12th), the commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, pulled out an envelope that had the New York Knicks' name in it that signified that the Knicks had won the #1 pick in the 1985 NBA Draft (a pick that everyone knew would be Patrick Ewing).
But over thirty years earlier, did you know that there was a different lottery, of sorts, that also involved the New York Knicks? A lottery that the Knicks where the Knicks also had the first pick? A lottery where the Knicks had a 2 in 3 chance of getting a Hall of Famer? A lottery that the Knicks managed to pick out the sole non-Hall of Famer in the bunch and yet came away from the day thrilled with their pick?
Well, if not, let me tell you about the 1950 Chicago Stags Dispersal Draft Lottery and how Bob Cousy was nearly a New York Knick.
The Chicago Stags were one of the founding teams of the Basketball Association of America in 1946, and they actually played in the very first BAA Finals, losing to the Philadelphia Warriors in 1947. Although they continued to put together an above-average squad in each of the next three seasons (making the playoffs every year) their attendance figures were really quite low. So low that they folded after just one season in the NBA, 1949-50. The team did not decide to quit until AFTER the 1950 NBA Draft, and in fact, they actually picked up a player from a different NBA team that had went under a few months earlier, the Anderson Packers (Anderson, Indiana, in case you didn't know what state Anderson is in), who had held a league-wide dispersal draft of their players. The Stags picked up guard Frankie Brian, who was Second Team All-NBA in the 1949-50 season (like the Stags, the Packers were not a bad team, they just didn't draw enough fans - heck, they were coming off of appearing in the NBA Finals!).
You might think it odd of a team to participate in a dispersal draft when they, too, were considering going under, but the Stags owners had a plan. They went to the other NBA owners and held secret auctions for their players. If they were going to go under, they were at least going to make a few last bucks in the process. Ned Irish, President of the New York Knicks, was very active in trying to pick up as many of the good Stags players as he could, with four-time First Team All-NBA guard/forward Max Zaslofsky his main target. Not only was Zaslofsky a star, but he was actually from New York! Averaging over 20 points a game during this time in NBA history was extremely difficult (usually just two guys did it each season) and Zazlofsky had already done it in back-to-back seasons, 1946-47 and 1947-48. The only knock that there was on Zaslofsky was that he was a bit of a "let me get mine first" guy, but still, he was an extremely skilled scorer.
The Philadelphia Warriors were also in on the Zaslofsky bidding. Meanwhile, the last place Boston Celtics and their owner Walter Brown and General Manager Red Auerbach were complaining to NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff that the players should be put into a dispersal draft and, since the Celtics had the worst record in the league, that they should be allowed first pick (and, naturally, Zaslofsky). Podoloff decided to step in and take control of the situation. He decided to determine values for each of the Stags players, and the other teams would pay the cost to help pay off the debt that the Stags owed the league. Podoloff doled out the players to teams that he felt were best benefited by the player in question. That was fine for the lower rung players, but for the really good players, the other teams insisted on different treatment. First off. Tri-Cities Blackhawks owner Ben Kerner argued to Podoloff that the aforementioned Frankie Brian (the guy the Stags got in the Packers dispersal draft) should get to come to the Blackhawks because Kerner and Brian were close friends (weird argument, but whatever works) and the Blackhawks could use the player (seeing as how Brian was the second-leading scorer in the NBA in 1949-50, that is not much of a surprise). Podoloff agreed, but only if the Blackhawks would trade the rights to the player they picked in the 1950 NBA Draft, which was the 3rd pick in the draft (4th overall because the Warriors had used their territorial pick on future Hall of Famer Paul Arizin). The Blackhawks gladly agreed, especially since they were having trouble signing the pick, a three-time All-American guard named Bob Cousy.
Bob Cousy was a star at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, particularly known for his flashy style of play. When he declared himself for the 1950 NBA Draft, there was heavy pressure for the Boston Celtics to take the local kid with the number one overall pick. But the Celtics, who were always looking for size back then, took center Charlie Share instead. After the local press began their outrage, Red Auerbach made the famous quote, "We need a big man. Little men are a dime a dozen. I'm supposed to win, not go after local yokels." Cousy was devastated (especially since he was trying to establish a driving school in Worchester, which would be pretty difficult to manage from the Mid-West). Cousy actually went to visit Celtics owner Walter Brown to ask if there was some way that Brown could acquire Cousy. Brown told him no. So Cousy was stuck with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. Cousy didn't even know where the Tri-Cities were (they're the Quad-Cities now - four towns right next to each other on the border of Iowa and Illinois). So he requested a fairly outrageous sum of $10,000 if were to move out there. Blackhawks' owner Ben Kerner countered with $6,000. Cousy refused to report. So when Kerner was given the option of trading Cousy for Brian, he leaped at the opportunity.
So Podoloff now decided that since all three teams wanted Zaslofsky, he would hold a lottery between the three teams. They now had three backcourt players and three teams looking for backcourt players. So he wrote the three names on three pieces of paper, folded them and put them into a hat of Danny Biasone, the owner of the Syracuse Nationals.
The three players were now Zaslofsky, Cousy and Stags point guard "Handy" Andy Phillip, a member of the second team All-NBA team and the league's leader in assists per game (a feat he would duplicate in 1950-51 and 1951-52). Phillip would go on to play in the first five NBA All-Star Games and be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1961. Phillip and Zaslofsky were the clear highlights of the three-man draft.
Ned Irish of the New York Knicks picked first and he was thrilled to pick out Zaslofsky's name. The Celtics picked second (despite many stories to the contrary that they went last) and picked out Cousy's name. Walter Brown was highly irritated. He felt he had just been screwed out of Zaslofsky, and now he didn't even have the best consolation prize!! Eddie Gottlieb of the Warriors picked last, getting Phillip. Zaslofsky lasted just two years as a Knick before being traded along with Jim Luisi and Roy Belliveau in 1953 for Jim Baechtold, who had been the second pick in the 1952 Draft. None of the four players had much of a career in the NBA, although Zaslofsky did make one All Star Game as a Knick in 1952.
Phillip, as I mentioned, went on to a Hall of Fame career and Cousy...well...thirteen All Star Games, ten first team All-NBAs, two second team All-NBAs, one NBA MVP, two Finals MVPs and six NBA Championships later, Cousy was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971.
If the Knicks of the 1950s and early 1960s didn't have bad luck, they would have no luck at all.
Thanks to John Taylor's The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball for a lot of great information! This week's legend is adapted from one of my series of pieces on the "unsung" history of the New York Knicks that I do regularly over at Knickerblogger.net. Go check out the archive of past installments here, including the most recent story about how Knick President Ned Irish actually got a team thrown out of the NBA in part because they showed up late for a game at Madison Square Garden in a pair of station wagons the team used to transport the players for road games!
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Photo: Bob Cousy in 1953. Credit: Associated Press.