I'm a pretty independent guy," says Gene Conley. And he is. "I'm pretty confident of my ability," says Gene Conley. He is that, too.
"I'm sure I can play basketball in the big league, just as I'm sure I can pitch for the Milwaukee Braves," says Gene Conley. Don't bet he can't.
Conley, a relaxed, cheerful young man of 28 to whom nearly all sports come naturally, is currently demonstrating his independence, confidence and ability by playing for the best team in professional basketball—the Boston Celtics. He is a good basketball player, who will get to be much better as he adjusts to the style of the Celtics and learns how to handle his opposite numbers around the league. But he is taking risks which would certainly frighten off many another athlete.
Immediately after the recent World Series, when Milwaukee General Manager John Quinn could hardly have been in the pleasantest frame of mind, Conley went to Quinn and asked to play basketball in the off season. Quinn pointed out the clause in the standard baseball major league contract which forbids such extracurricular activity, and said no. So Conley packed, left his wife and three children in the new house he's built in a Milwaukee suburb, and took off for Boston to try out for the Celtics. It is worth noting that he didn't bring along just a toothbrush and a change of shirts, even though he hadn't played basketball for five years and was trying to make the limited roster of a team like the Celtics. He stuffed two large bags with enough clothes for a long season. He was sure he would stick, and in a few preseason exhibition games he proved to Celtic Coach Red Auerbach that he was adhesive.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee brass threatened to take the matter to National League President Warren Giles and hinted at fines and other disciplinary measures. Conley knew this would happen; it took courage to face such inevitable publicity when there was a good chance that the Celtics would find his basketball talents inadequate and he'd be obliged to go back to Milwaukee with his tail between his legs. After he had won a place on the Celtics squad and had signed a contract, the Milwaukee management wired him reluctant consent to play, apparently bowing as gracefully as possible to the inevitable.
"I'm not trying to start anything for other baseball players to follow," says Conley. "After all, how many of them are 6 feet 8? I played basketball and baseball in college without any trouble. [He led his Washington State teams to regional championships.] I played pro basketball in 1953 and then went on to my best season as a pitcher. [He was 23-9 with Toledo in the American Association.] Maybe the same thing will happen this time. I don't want to sit around home all winter brooding about what happened to me last season. [Though he struck out 52 in 72 innings, his record was 0-6.] Don't believe what you hear about my arm being sore. It's not. And I'm definitely not quitting baseball. I'll say this—after running with the pros in this league all winter, I'll be weeks ahead of everyone else on conditioning when I report for spring training. Meanwhile, I think I can help the Celtics, and they must think so, too."
Says Coach Red Auerbach: "Conley made this team legitimately. We don't need him as a gate attraction; we've got the most attractive team in basketball without him. I just wish we'd had him regularly since '53. He'd be great now."
In the few games Conley has played for the Celtics thus far he has shown exactly how and why they can use him. His natural-athlete's timing, far more than mere height, makes him a strong rebounder. He will complement Bill Russell in this department, especially since all rival teams make it their business to try to force or lure Russell away from the boards. With Ben Swain, he will allow Auerbach to rest Russell occasionally. He has a good hook shot, that most potent of all scoring weapons, which Russell has yet to develop. After five years of disuse it is presently erratic, but seems bound to become a welcome addition to the Celtics' armament. Most important of all, Conley has an instinctive aggressiveness.
It is mistakenly assumed that playing with the slick, speedy Celtics constitutes the toughest reintroduction to pro basketball that Conley (or anyone else) could attempt. In reality, this is Conley's luckiest break. On some other clubs, less rich in player depth, he might well be thrown into games on a sink-or-swim basis. He might improve and he might not. But the Celtics are glutted with talent, and Auerbach can bring Conley along carefully, giving him time to learn the moves of rival big men without fear of repeated failures and using him at the precise times when his improving skills fit specific game requirements.
Without question, he will help the Celtics to another Eastern title.