The passage of time shifts the focus of collective memories. As time has passed, I have come to learn that the baseline for historical memory of most fans of the Philadelphia 76ers seems to be the Julius Erving era and the championship team of 1982-83, arguably the NBA’s best ever. For even younger people, it may be the Allen Iverson era. For me it’s the 1966-67 team that won the title during the all-too-brief Wilt Chamberlain era – another team that can lay claim to being the best ever, and even was voted the best of the first 35 years of the NBA. But before there were the Philadelphia 76ers, there were the Syracuse Nationals.
April 10, 2015 marked the 60th anniversary of the franchise’s first NBA title. In 1955 the Syracuse Nationals won the championship after a grueling seven-game battle with the Ft. Wayne Pistons. It’s time for Philadelphia to remember and celebrate this great team and its stars. They were the Sixers of their time, and broke ground for a tradition that moved to Philadelphia in 1963 along with their best players and coach.
Only eight of twenty-three original franchises survived in the fledgling NBA, which was built by individual entrepreneurs, not giant corporations. The Syracuse Nats was one of those eight and survived. Danny Biasone, their founding owner was inventor and promoter of the 24-second clock, perhaps the development which more than any other assured the survival of the league. The Nats’ championship season was the first during which the clock was employed.
Recently, as reported in the New York Times, the 1955 champion Nats were honored in Syracuse before a hockey game at the Onandaga War Memorial Coliseum. Dolph Schayes, now 86, had been the team’s star, leading in scoring and rebounding. Al Cervi was coach. Although the team’s regular season record was an unspectacular 43-39, it won the championship after beating the arch rival Boston Celtics and surviving a brutal final series against the Pistons, one which included fistfights among players, referees and fans alike (sounds like a Philly team in the making, right?).
The Nats’ 1955 championship team included Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first African-American player, as well as two players – Johnny “Red” Kerr and Dolph Schayes – who would travel with the franchise to Philadelphia and become part of the 76ers for several seasons. In the remaining seasons in Syracuse, future 76ers Al Bianchi, Larry Costello, Hal Greer, Connie Dierking, Dave Gambee, Lee Shaffer, Paul Neumann, Chet Walker, Len Chappell and Ben Warley played for the Nats. Dick Barnett, later a star with the New York Knicks, also played part of his career for the Nats. Costello, Greer, Gambee and Walker would eventually be part of the Sixers’ championship team of 1966-1967 before finishing their playing careers. Alex Hannum, who coached that Sixers’ championship team, had coached the Nationals for their last three seasons in Syracuse.
Dolph Schayes was coach of the Sixers for their first three seasons in Philadelphia, part of that time as player-coach. Schayes was a twelve-time NBA all star and is in the Naismith Hall of Fame. He was voted one of the 50 best NBA players in the league’s first 35 years.
Many have said for years that the Sixers should retire the numbers of both Dolph Schayes and Chet Walker. Perhaps, come November – before 2015 is also history – the Sixers can honor this championship anniversary by doing just that.