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When I look back on the old days of basketball, the time before expansion and $100,000 contracts and big, bright arenas, I always think first of Syracuse. I was there longer than anywhere else, as both a player and coach. It was one of the smallest towns in the league, the fans were friends, the players were always congenial. We all had a deep, abiding interest in the game and in each other. I remember Johnny Kerr and his wife would throw a big Christmas party every year, and there wasn't a player who didn't want to come. We were all happy with management, because that was Danny Biasone, who was one of the greatest sportsmen and innovators in the game.
But while Syracuse was special, it was not unique. In the early days of the NBA we were all very close. It could be rough—I mean, it was really a great deal rougher then—but you would go out after the game and drink beer with the same guy you had battered all night. Charlie Share at St. Louis gave me worse beatings in practice than I got in games. We called Charlie "Lovable." He took enormous pleasure in setting tough blind screens. But he had a lot of company in that sort of thing.
Travel was more communal, too, in cars or trains. Believe me, you can get pretty close to each other when you're driving over icy roads, four or five of you crammed in together, your legs draped all over each other. At Oshkosh, Wis. the only trips we took by train all year were to the big faraway cities, Denver and Syracuse. The worst trip we had was to Waterloo, Iowa for a Sunday afternoon game after playing Saturday night in Oshkosh. We seemed to run into a blizzard every time we made the trip. We would drive through the snow till 3 or 4 in the morning, stop somewhere for a few hours and then go on. Often, the schedule was so tight that we had to dress in the car. Believe me, that was gamy.
At home in Oshkosh we played in the gym of the South Park Junior High, capacity 2,200. When we had our preseason training camp, we had to be in the gym at 6 sharp in the morning so we could get in a couple of hours and be off the floor by the time the kids came to school at 8. It was even harder on the rookies, because everyone tested you right away, first your own teammates in camp, then your opponents in the exhibitions. My teammates worked me over pretty good, especially a former league scoring champion named LeRoy (Cowboy) Edwards. LeRoy had been around a long time and knew all the tricks. He also knew that Lonnie Darling, our coach—and the business manager and the publicity man and so on—had a thing about making the first basket in a game. Although he could hardly get off the ground, LeRoy jumped center and he never failed to get the tap that set up the first basket—as long as Lonnie slipped him a five in the locker room before the game.
I do not want to leave the impression that rookies today get the red-carpet treatment. I know of two cases, one quite recent, where potentially excellent players were busted psychologically because they could not take the rough treatment dealt out to rookies. I know that if my players won't test a rookie, I, as the coach, will. I want to find out what they can take. Two years ago Matt Guokas came in as the 76ers' first choice. He was all suntanned, his feet soft from lying on the South Jersey shore all summer, and I about ran him into the ground the first two days. But he took it. I don't know who Matt could beat in a fight, as skinny as he is, but I found out quickly that he wouldn't back off from anyone.
Of all the rookies I ever saw break in, Rick Barry was the most special. It was something to remember, that first day as a Warrior, when he scrimmaged against Tom Meschery, whom we called "The Mad Manchurian." After a while they were just going one-on-one, at and over each other and ignoring everyone else. I was refereeing and I let a Barry basket go on a dubious play, but then I whistled a charging foul on Meschery when he came through Barry like the Normandy invasion. Meschery went into a rage. It was so bad I had to rearrange things so they were no longer guarding each other. But as soon as Tom got the ball again, Barry left his new man, picked Meschery up and stole the ball as he blocked the shot. Meschery was so enraged I had to call off the whole practice.
Half an hour later, calmed down and getting dressed, Tom couldn't contain his enthusiasm. "Hey, Alex," he said, "that Barry's going to be a great one." The pride for the new kid was all over his face. That was the way it used to be when you made it as a rookie. You were accepted—and, more than that, you were looked after.
Maybe the toughest guy I ever saw in the game was Al Cervi, the little player-coach of mine at Syracuse. Cervi came off the streets of Buffalo and never went to college. He was controversial and did not have the respect of all his players, but he was called "The Digger" and that's what he was. I saw Al back down only once. It was my first year in Syracuse, when a tough rookie guard named Leroy Chollet, in from Buffalo like Cervi, joined the team. Cervi did not use Chollet much, and Chollet did not agree with this appraisal of his talents. In fact, he did not agree with much of anything Al did.
Near the end of the season we clinched the division title on the road. Before the next game Cervi and Chollet got into one of their regular arguments. Among other things, Leroy told Al he would make a better coach. "All right," Cervi said. "Tonight's game, you're the coach."
Cervi would always end every pre-game speech by announcing the lineup. "All right," he'd say, "we'll start Peterson at center, Ratkovicz and Schayes, Gabor...." Then a pause, as if he was really mulling his fifth choice over, followed by: "annnd Cervi." He would snap his own name off quickly, then lead us onto the floor.