This week Sixers Nation lost the great Hal Greer. We take a look back at the player who, for many, was the best guard to ever wear a Sixers uniform.
I had the pleasure of attending game one of the Sixers/Heat series this past Saturday night. It was memorable, of course, as a great game played by a great Sixers team which, if it does not advance to a championship round this year, will do so in the near future. The game was memorable in part because I saw Sonny Hill, Philadelphia’s Mayor of Basketball standing nearby taking in the action. In the late 60’s, the great local basketball authority and icon was the at the microphone with Andy Musser calling Sixers’ games on radio. Musser made a routine lay-up sound far more exciting than it probably was and Sonny Hill offered insights on the game that shaped my appreciation of it for years to come. For me, sounds of the game at hand returned me to fond thoughts of the early days of the franchise’s life in Philadelphia that I’m old enough to remember well. Central to those memories was Hal Greer.
“At guard, from Marshall University, number 15, Hal Grrrrrrrr-eeeeer!” At age 11, I became a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers when my Dad allowed me to tag along for a game at Convention Hall, where I heard the distinctive voice of Dave Zinkoff introduce one of the best three guards of the NBA’s 1960’s – the other two being Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. The Sixers beat the Cincinnati Royals that night, and were in the midst of a 15-year run with Hal Greer on the roster. For my money, he’s the best guard in Philadelphia pro basketball history.
It is fitting that the current and extraordinary Philadelphia 76ers are wearing Greer’s number 15 for this playoff run. The work ethic, professionalism and devotion to the game that the current Sixers exemplify all harken back to the storied career of Hal Greer. The man who wore the now-retired number 15 played all of his 15-year career with the same franchise. That is not unheard of, but it is increasingly rare.
Hal Greer of Huntington, West Virginia, came into the league with the Syracuse Nationals in 1958 and finished his career with the Sixers in 1973. He saw the best and the worst of the franchise’s history. He was an integral part of the 1967 team that finished the regular season with a 68-13 record, took out the Boston Celtics in 5 games, and went on to win the championship in a hard-fought series against the San Francisco Warriors, whose roster featured Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond. In game one against the potent Boston Celtics, whose roster included Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Sam Jones, Greer scored 39 points to lead the Sixers. There were two other games in which Greer led the team in scoring with more than 30. He had three 30-plus scoring games in the championship series against the Warriors. While Wilt Chamberlain and coach Alex Hannum were justifiably credited with spearheading the championship run of 1967, it could not have happened without Hal Greer.
Hal Greer’s numbers by themselves were enough to get him 10 all-star appearances, a place in the Hall of Fame, and recognition as one of the best 50 players in NBA history. In the 1967-68 season, Greer had his best scoring season, averaging 24 points per game. That season should have been a championship season, but was not mostly because of the late-season injury that sidelined Billy Cunningham for the playoffs. In the end, Hal Greer was appreciated for his consistency. He played all aspects of the game well and with Wilt provided the one-two punch that made the Sixers an elite team. In 1968 he was the All-Star MVP. Since his passing, every piece I’ve read about Hal Greer took note of his free throw shooting style, which to some seemed odd. The truth is that the free throw was just another 15-foot jump shot for Greer, and he made 80% of them.
A loyal team player to the end, Hal Greer ended his career with the worst Sixers’ team in franchise history. The 1972-73 Sixers won only nine games, and for most games Greer was relegated to the bench by both Roy Rubin (anyone remember that guy?) and his successor Kevin Loughery. I never understood why Hal Greer was benched so much – he could still play well and contribute. It was a bad time in franchise history – Billy Cunningham had left for a stint in the new ABA, Jack Ramsey had departed as coach, and the team was left in shambles as a result. This was not a “tank” year in the sense that there was a sense of direction with a collection of new players to develop. It was mostly just a floundering collection of middling NBA talent. There seemed no reason to keep Hal Greer on the end of the bench for essentially the season, but that’s what happened. Greer did not complain. According to the author Charley Rosen of the book Perfectly Awful: The Philadelphia 76ers’ Horrendous and Hilarious 1972-1973 Season, Greer said of his relationship with coach Roy Rubin, “We speak but we don’t talk, if you know what I mean. He has a lot of problems and I don’t want to add to them.” Hal Greer went out with class, concerned about his team first, when others may have loudly complained.
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Victorious games at the Wells Fargo Center now conclude with the playing of the team theme song that was created in 1976 for the “team of the year.” There was an earlier theme song during the 60’s era that began, “You’ll love the spirit of the 76ers.” Hal Greer was that spirit. May it hover over the team as it aims for a championship.