Since 1956 only one light has burned in the Eastern Division of the National Basketball Association. It glowed constantly for the proud Celtics of Boston, and their would-be pursuers were left to stumble around in the shadows. But on Thanksgiving night last week the often beleaguered Syracuse Nationals beat Boston for the second time in six days, jumped into first place and laid claim to being the brightest surprise the NBA has had in the East in years.
The victory over Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and their Boston buddies brought throaty growls from the rabid fans of Syracuse. Mike Dempsey, a 70-year-old sign painter who is generally considered to be the city's No. 1 sports follower, immediately dropped his brushes into a turpentine can and traveled to New York to see the Nats play the Knickerbockers. It had been some time, after all, since his team had given him such a glorious excuse to travel. The Syracuse Herald-Journal, meanwhile, ran a headline which read NATS ARE BACK ON TOP RUNG, even though the Nats had been on that rung for only 11 days in the last 1,679.
In recent years the Syracuse rung on the National Basketball Association ladder has seemed to be made of Silly Putty, and only Owner Danny Biasone's stubborn interest has kept an NBA team in that city. Biasone, 53 and 5 feet 6 inches tall, is seven inches shorter than any of his players, but looking up to them is both his occupation and his joy. He sits on the Syracuse bench assisting Coach Alex Hannum and "assisting" the referees, a dubious tactic since he is also a member of the NBA's Board of Governors, which hires officials. But nobody seriously minds Danny having his fun. After a game he rushes to the dressing room, clapping his hands and endlessly applauding everyone as if the team had never won before and might never again.
Biasone has always felt this way about Syracuse basketball, and a good thing, too, or the franchise would long since have been moved to some lusher-looking preserve. As it is, an NBA season never starts without a rumor that the team is about to be shifted to Baltimore or Cleveland or Baden Baden. Yet every year the Nationals stay right where they are. ("Listen," said St. Louis Hawk Owner Ben Kerner recently, "that franchise is likely to be there after all of us are gone.")
"Syracuse," complains Biasone, "is always being rapped. People accuse me of running a shoestring operation, paying off my players with clamshells. Our payroll equals the best in the league. I love my ball club. I been sending my teams on chartered flights for 15 years because I want my players to sleep in their own beds whenever possible. I got into basketball 17 years ago right in Syracuse, and I intend to stay. I came to this country on Christmas Day 1919 and landed at Ellis Island. I was 11, and my father took me to Syracuse. I started to caddie on a golf course, and all I wanted was to be the best caddie. When I got older I formed a semipro football team. The war left me short of players, so I formed a semipro basketball team. That year I booked a game with the Rochester Royals. They canceled. Then I booked 'em again. They canceled again. I said, 'What league is this team in? I want to play this guy Lester Harrison [owner of the Royals] at basketball.' People told me he was in the National League, so I got into the National League. I am staying in it."
Stay he has, in spite of the fact that there is only one smaller locale (Green Bay) in the whole scope of major league sports. The city is heartily behind him, or at least its government is. Mayor William Walsh and his wife seldom miss a Nat game. "I arrange my schedule," says Walsh, "around the Nats' schedule. Most of the city hall department heads do likewise. I wouldn't want to count the number of times we've settled a city problem at a game." But now the Nats seem to have come up with a team that is good enough to keep city officials concentrating on basketball.
The thing that has propelled the Nats into first place is team play built around five men instead of the usual team play built around one man. Not one of the Syracuse players ranks among the league's top 20 scorers, but the team has Hal Greer and Larry Costello, a pair that is certainly the fastest backcourt in the league and maybe the best. Center John Kerr—an unknown to most and not much regarded by those who did know him—has become an excellent teamwork type of center. Rookies Chet Walker and Len Chappell have joined Dave Gambee and Lee Shaffer as cornermen, to give the Nats not only speed and scoring power but great depth. It is just this kind of bench strength that Boston has won with for years.
Finally, there is Dolph Schayes. He is brittle now at 34, and he doesn't play as much as he once did. But it must be remembered that he was the fellow who held the ladder when Dr. Naismith tacked up the peach basket and that he has lugged the Syracuse franchise around in his gym bag for 14 seasons.
Schayes has already come off the bench to win one game for the Nats this year and helped to win others. When he scores, his right arm still goes up in exultation with the fist clenched, calling for one more charge up still another, higher hill. Yet he is not the only hero. In winning 12 games in the last four weeks this diffuse Syracuse talent has produced a different one in almost every game, and this, too, is endearing them to their fans.
The Nats' game with the Celtics, played on the neutral Convention Hall court in Philadelphia, was by far their most important of the young season. Their first defeat of Boston (113-105) could have been a freak. This was the test. Utilizing a three-lane fast break and scrambling off both backboards, Syracuse ran off to a 30-18 lead and threw a fantastic 75-point first half at Boston, something that has happened to this strong defensive team only three times before in the last three seasons. Even Boston Center Bill Russell's attempts to chivy the young Nationals into mistakes were futile. "You like to push a lot, don't you, son?" he said to Lee Shaffer. But, pushing or not, Shaffer led the Syracuse offense with 32 points. The first half actually ended the game, though Boston fought back within six points before it officially ended, 130-120.
The Celtics moved disconsolately away, silent, stung and second in their division, while Syracuse ran to its dressing room whooping, hollering and trying not to step on little Danny Biasone. Once there. Dolph Schayes's huge presence seemed to take command. Somebody asked him what he thought. He instantly raised his right arm in the salute he has made famous on the court, and shouted, "Victory is what I think!"
The Celtics are still a superb team and still overwhelming favorites to win the Eastern Division. But don't tell the Syracuse Nationals—they think they can reach high enough to turn out that Boston light.