Imagine this Scenario: The Boston Celtics finish the first half of a game at Boston Garden and retreat to their locker room at halftime. A few minutes later, out comes Larry Bird, an accordion draped around his neck. Bird walks to midcourt and proceeds to play Lady of Spain and The William Tell Overture on the squeeze-box.
Implausible? Well, sure. Bird can't play the accordion. Besides, the Celtics sell out every night and don't need such hokum. But that was not always the case, and one Tony Lavelli, a three-time All-America at Yale and the Celtics' top draft choice in 1949, could and did play accordion at the half of several Celts games. Lavelli did as much to help the franchise with music as he did with his fine hook shot. "Did Tony Lavelli save the Celtics?" asks Tony Lavelli rhetorically. "People said that he did, and I think there's some truth in that."
Lavelli, 65, lives in Laconia, N.H., a two-hour drive north of his birthplace in the Boston suburb of Somerville. Lavelli was a prodigy on the piano, violin and accordion, and his boyhood heroes were not Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams but Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Ignace Paderewski. "I liked basketball as an avocation," says Lavelli, who starred at Somerville High. "But music was what I always wanted to do."
Lavelli became famous for his playing—his accordion playing—while at Yale. He worked his way through school by entertaining at college parties, New Haven night spots and even, on occasion, New York City theaters; at the old Roxy he once appeared with Donald O'Connor. He became pretty well known for his hoops playing, too. In an era when the Elis took on such national powers as New York University, Illinois and Holy Cross, Lavelli was among the country's top scorers. "Tony had the best hook shot I ever saw," says Bob Cousy, who was starring at Holy Cross while Lavelli was gaining renown as Yale's Rhapsody in Blue. "It was a technically perfect shot and unstoppable, because Tony would step away from the basket and then, with his back to the basket, release the ball in a sweeping motion with his arm fully extended. He could do it from far out with either hand." As a senior Lavelli scored 22.4 points a game and was named the Helms Foundation College Player of the Year.
Upon graduating, Lavelli started playing in Boston—not at the Garden but at the Latin Quarter, a Hub nightclub. He was drawing big crowds, and it took some heavy coaxing to lure him back to the court. Celtics owner Walter Brown offered a $13,000 salary, and NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff offered Lavelli a separate contract that guaranteed him $125 for each of 25 halftime concerts. "Walter Brown and Maurice Podoloff were very persuasive," says Lavelli. "Plus, I realized that basketball could help me in my career in show business."
He was right. As an exotic, this musical hoopster became far better known than other players of equal productivity. He was booked for national television appearances on the Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason and Steve Allen shows. Lavelli quickly became one of the NBA's star attractions. "I gave a halftime concert in every city," he says. "They really liked me in Rochester. Was it tiring after playing? Not really. I had a few minutes to rest when I went into the dressing room. I would put on my sweats, get my accordion and, a few minutes before the second half started, I would play. I loved playing the accordion for the fans."
And Brown's bean counters loved the music Lavelli was making at the box office. Consider the night of Dec. 22, 1949. The Celtics were playing the Minneapolis Lakers, then pro basketball's preeminent team, with pro basketball's first superstar, George Mikan, who was earning an astonishing $17,000 per season. A crowd of 5,206, one of the biggest ever to watch the Celtics, came to the Garden. Coming off the bench late in the first quarter, the 6'4" Lavelli scored 26 points—five more than Mikan—most of them off the hook shot. Boston upset the Lakers 87-69. And at the half Lavelli shone just as brightly. No one was out buying hot dogs when Lavelli was playing the parquet, and the next morning Lavelli drew rave reviews in both the sports and arts sections. Rudolph Elie, the music critic for The Boston Herald, wrote, "The accordion playing of Anthony Lavelli is of the most advanced character.... It has taste, balance, fine rhythmic impulse and a musical expressivity that is exceedingly persuasive."
Lavelli, a reserve forward for much of the 1949-50 campaign, hit his stride late in the season, averaging 17 points in his last 10 games. The Celts finished last in the Eastern Division but drew increasingly more attention in the press as the Boston fan base began to grow.
Then, abruptly, Lavelli left the Celtics, hoping to pursue a movie and music career. Since New York was a good city for such a pursuit, Lavelli landed there. And since New York was home to the Knicks, he continued to dabble in basketball—if only briefly and not very successfully. Playing for Joe Lapchick's five—that was the basketball team, not a musical quintet—he averaged 3.3 points in 30 games. "My heart was no longer in it," says Lavelli. "I have no regrets at all about leaving basketball when I did. Music was always my first love. I loved entertaining people with the accordion and as a comedian and singer."
As a comedian he hooked up with—yes, you guessed it—the Harlem Globetrotters. He was part of that road show's constant opposition from 1950 to '52, then ditched basketball for good and toured nationwide with just his accordion. Well, not just his accordion. For a time, as part of the act, Lavelli would roll out a portable hoop, remove his tux and strip down to his old Celtics uniform. He would proceed to wow the fans with his hook shot. "After a while, I thought it was hokey and took it out of the act," says Lavelli. "I wanted to be thought of as an entertainer, not a former basketball player."
Nowadays Lavelli isn't well remembered as either one. He hasn't had a gig in ages, and he's out of touch with his former Celtics teammates. A lifelong bachelor—"Never had time," he says—Lavelli invests in real estate, plays the stock market and dreams of a comeback in music.
He laments the passing from public favor of two things: the accordion and the hook shot. "I haven't had an engagement in 10 years," he says. "But I'm ready to go back on the circuit anytime." He says of the hook, "It's a great weapon, and I don't know why more coaches don't teach it. I loved to watch Abdul-Jabbar shoot it. To perfect it requires a tremendous amount of dedication. Tony Lavelli worked on it for hours and hours. And when he got it down pat, nobody could stop it—not George Mikan or anybody else.
"A classic hook shot is like a beautiful piece of music. But to make either one work takes constant practice. Tony Lavelli had the dedication to succeed at, and to enjoy, both of them."
Jack Cavanaugh is a free-lance writer living in Wilton, Conn.