Pro basketball pioneer enjoys later years

Mikan, Pettit, Celtics dynasty, Wilt, and early expansion

Pro basketball pioneer enjoys later years

Postby rlee » Mon Sep 10, 2007 2:42 pm

Pro basketball pioneer enjoys later years
By Marcus Thompson II
Contra Costa Times

WALNUT CREEK -- John Ezersky was smiling. Earnestly, heartily smiling.
He sat at his dining room table, framed memories of his days playing for the Boston Celtics on the wall behind him, telling story after story -- about New York City, about D-Day, about cab driving -- as if he didn't have a care in the world.

It's the first time in a while he's felt so free.

"I've got a million funny stories," Ezersky, 85, said.

Ezersky's journey into old age and his cozy Walnut Creek abode where he plans to spend his last days has been a heck of a ride.

It included growing up during the Depression in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, where he honed skills that would make him a two-sport prep star. It included storming the beaches of Normandy; being on the ground floor of pro basketball, making a name for himself in the NBA's parent leagues; and a half-century of driving cabs. It also included two marriages and crippling financial problems.

But, most important, it's going to conclude with validation and comfort. Ezersky, his memories in tow, can enjoy his sunset years after the NBA earlier this year granted him much-needed retirement money.

"I'm not going to be around much longer," he said through a grin. "I'm 85, going on 86. I've just about had it. So I'm good now."

Ezersky was a pro basketball pioneer. He was by no means George Mikan or Dolph Schayes, the stars of his era, but he was there for pro basketball's toddler years, and he was prettygood, too.

He was a baseball and basketball star at Power Memorial High School in New York City, where Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, later starred. Ezersky was best at hoops, but baseball was his first love.

Ezersky played on the same fields future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg graced as a child and was close friends with Buddy Kerr, who spent nine years with the New York Giants. Yankees star Lou Gehrig lived around the corner from Ezersky.

"I stole (Gehrig's) picture off the high school wall," he recalled. "They offered a reward for returning the picture, but I can't find the darn thing."

As a high school senior, Ezersky was accused of accepting money and ruled ineligible for college ball. Instead of getting a scholarship to Holy Cross or St. John's, noted basketball schools at that time, Ezersky tried to go pro in baseball.

He and Kerr tried out for the Detroit Tigers in 1941. Ezersky was sent to the minor leagues but never made it out of spring training in Roanoke, Va. He went back to New York, where he started driving cabs. Soon after, he was drafted into the military.

Ezersky was part of the invasion of Normandy. On D-Day, he drove a truck on Omaha Beach alongside the tanks, carrying several 5-gallon cans of fuel. When the United States penetrated Germany, he switched to tank duty as an assistant driver, manning the machine gun and flame thrower.

In 1946, he returned to New York and went back to work as a taxi driver. His basketball career ultimately resumed, too.

He signed with the New York Gothams of the American Basketball League (ABL). He appeared in just two games as a rookie, totaling eight points. The next season, he switched to the National Basketball League (NBL).

But his stint with the Tri-City Blackhawks, who played at the Wharton Field House in Moline, Ill., lasted all of two months.

"I was very much in love with a little Jewish girl at the time," he recalled, as his wife, Elaine, looked on from the couch. "I was having a big heartthrob, and I wasn't producing for them. They decided, 'We know what his problem is. Maybe if we got him back East, that would solve it.' And it did."

The Providence Steamrollers of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) acquired Ezersky during the 1947-48 season, and he averaged 10.1 points in 25 games. The next two seasons, Ezersky split time between the Baltimore Bullets and the Boston Celtics.

The BAA and NBL merged to form the NBA in August 1949, so Ezersky played for the Celtics during their last season in the BAA and their first season in the NBA, averaging 8.6 points in 34 games.

He never got a call to come back to either the Celtics or the Bullets, so Ezersky rejoined the ABL, where he spent the next three seasons playing for the Hartford (Conn.) Hurricanes, Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Barons and Scranton (Pa.) Miners.

After the 1951-52 season, Ezersky -- he has the seventh-highest scoring average (14.6 points per game) in ABL history -- was out of basketball and became a cab driver full time. He drove in New York City for 27 more years before he and his wife moved west. He fell in love with the East Bay after visiting his sister, who lived in San Ramon.

But it was rough financially for the couple. Even as he passed retirement age, Ezersky had to keep working.

The NBA and the players association established a pension plan in 1965 for players who had played in the league for at least three years. Beginning at age 62, players were to receive $200 a month for every year they played in the league. But those who played before '65 -- about 40 players -- were excluded from the plan.

In 1988, the plan welcomed pre-1965 pioneers, but only those who had played at least five years in the BAA and NBA. Ezersky, then 66, still didn't qualify. He had three years in the two leagues.

Fellow pre-1965 pioneers Bill Tosheff and Kevin O'Shea continued to fight for those without a pension plan. In 1998, at a congressional hearing on "Pension Fairness for NBA Pioneers," Ezersky was one of the former players who testified.

He came home from Washington and returned to cab driving. Every day for the next two years, he awoke at 4:30 a.m. to commute to San Francisco, where he worked a 12-hour shift.

"My nephews made me stop. I was 78 years old. I was dragging," he said. "I looked like all hell. So they said, 'Uncle John, we're going to look at a couple of condos we want you to move into.' They took us around to a couple of them. We saw this one. We liked it. It's just the two of us, so it's perfect. The location is great. Got the bus stop right in front of the house, the hospital right down the road, so when I collapse, they can take me right over."

He and Elaine lived off $1,200 a month in fixed income. And credit cards.

They used plastic to buy necessities and pay bills their checks didn't cover. They were able to pay only the minimum balances, so each month they went deeper and deeper in the hole.

In February, during NBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, commissioner David Stern and players association director Billy Hunter announced an amendment to the pre-1965 pension plan. Players with three years' service became eligible.

The 40 or so players (and widowed spouses) received back pay dating to 2005 -- a lump sum of more than $20,000. Players with three years' experience, such as Ezersky, were awarded $10,800 per year, or $900 per month.

Of his $900, Ezersky sets aside $300 a month in the survivor's benefits program, which goes to Elaine after he dies.

"Believe me when I tell you I was so grateful," he said, adding that the league could have given more. "This thing is just in time. It leaves me with money for her in a savings account. So when I pass away, she can go back East with something, plus the Social Security. ... Now I can relax. I'm no longer going into debt. I'll have nothing left over. But at least I'll have enough for a nice cremation, plus I can get her back with something."

That's why he's smiling.



AGE: 85

OCCUPATION: Retired NBA pioneer

RESIDENCE: Walnut Creek

PLAYING CAREER: Was a 6-foot-3-inch, 175-pound guard for the Boston Celtics during the NBA's pioneer years. Also played in the American Basketball League. Played with and against such NBA legends as George Mikan, Dolph Schayes, Sonny Hertzberg and Red Holzman. Finished with the seventh-highest scoring average in ABL history.

FAMILY: Elaine, wife of 26 years

MEMORABLE: World War II veteran who participated in the Normandy invasion. Was at the forefront of a 19-year fight with the NBA to get overlooked pioneers included in league's pension plan.

QUOTABLE: "I could score. No question about it. If you got me off the bench, I could get you 18, 20."
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Re: Pro basketball pioneer enjoys later years

Postby MCT » Thu Sep 27, 2007 6:52 pm

Like a lot of players from the immediate postwar era, Ezersky “dribbled through an alphabet soup of pro leagues” during his career, some of which are recognized as major leagues today, some not. Putting together BAA and NBA stats from, ABL stats from the APBR web site, and stats from Ezersky’s brief NBL stint obtained from a 1989 edition of the “NBA Basketball Encyclopedia”, I show his career chronology as follows:

1945-46 New York Gothams (ABL) 2 g, 4.0 ppg
Based on the information in the article, I’m guessing that Ezersky joined the team late in the season. The full ABL schedule was 34 games.

1946-47 Brooklyn Gothams (ABL) 34 g, 11.6 ppg
Appeared in every ABL game the team played, led team in scoring.

1947-48 Brooklyn Gothams (ABL) 9 g, 16.6 ppg; Tri-Cities Blackhawks (NBL) 5 g, 4.6 ppg; Providence Steamrollers (BAA) 25 g, 10.1 ppg
Played for three teams in three different pro leagues.

1948-49 Providence Steamrollers - Boston Celtics - Baltimore Bullets (BAA) 56 g, 6.5 ppg
11 BAA games for Providence, 18 for Boston, 27 for Baltimore. The full BAA schedule was 60 games. Averaged 10.3 ppg during his stint with Boston.

1949-50 Baltimore Bullets – Boston Celtics (NBA) 54 g, 7.6 ppg; Hartford Hurricanes (ABL) 6 g, 15.7 ppg
38 NBA games for Baltimore, 16 for Boston. The full NBA schedule was 68 games. Based on his appearance in the ABL, Ezersky apparently was not in the NBA all season, but it is unclear exactly where his stint with Hartford fits into the chronology (e.g., in between Baltimore and Boston, or towards the end of season after Boston?).

1950-51 Wilkes-Barre Barons (ABL) 39 g, 18.4 ppg
Appeared in every ABL game the team played, led team in scoring.

1951-52 Wilkes-Barre Barons – Scranton Miners (ABL) 30 g, 12.8 ppg
7 games for Wilkes-Barre, 23 for Scranton. The full ABL schedule was about 35-40 games, with teams playing varying numbers of games (Scranton played 35, Wilkes-Barre 39).

The article’s description of his various moves from team to team and league to league is basically correct, although it sometimes glosses over certain details, so much so that there are a few statements in the article that are a bit confusing, which is what initially prompted me to look all this information up. A couple of other notes on Ezersky:

--Several reference sources list Ezersky’s college as the University of Rhode Island (or, as it was known prior to 1951, Rhode Island State College). The article suggests that Ezersky did not attend college, however, and he does not appear on an all-time list of lettermen in URI’s men’s basketball Media Guide. John Grasso’s biographical database on the APBR web site also shows his college as “none”. It is unclear if Ezersky attended URI at some point (perhaps subsequent to his pro career) but did not play basketball there, or if the references to URI are just plain wrong.

--In a related matter, some reference sources show Ezersky being picked by the Boston Celtics in the 1947 BAA draft, listing his college as “Rhode Island” or “Rhode Island State”. This may be the ultimate source for the claims that he attended URI. Unless the draft eligibility rules were very different in the early years of the BAA, it is not clear to me why Ezersky would have eligible for the ‘47 draft. He clearly wasn’t playing college basketball during the 1946-47 season, and more than four years had elapsed since he had graduated from high school (the article doesn’t specify his year of graduation, but based on his age and the story of his tryout with the Detroit Tigers, it looks like he had graduated by 1941 at the latest). FWIW, the Celtics Media Guide does not list Ezersky as a 1947 draftee, although its list for that year’s draft does not appear to be complete (only three players are listed).

In February, during NBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, commissioner David Stern and players association director Billy Hunter announced an amendment to the pre-1965 pension plan. Players with three years' service became eligible.

Out of the three seasons that Ezersky played in the BAA/NBA, he appears to have spent the entire season in the league in only one of them; I assume then that a partial season counts. It's a good thing for Ezersky that his stay in Tri-Cities didn't work out, and he ended up in Providence for the latter part of the '47-'48 season. Or can players who appeared in the BAA/NBA apply NBL service towards their three years' service?
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Postby MCT » Thu Sep 27, 2007 7:03 pm

In the Maurice King thread, I had mentioned that I searched for any mention of King in a Boston Globe database that goes back to December 1979. Just on the off- hance that anything would pop up, I searched for John Ezersky as well, since he had also played for the Celtics.

To my surprise, I actually found an article that mentioned *both* King and Ezersky, a 1981 feature on Celtics uniform numbers (this was the only article in the database that mentioned Ezersky, and one of only two that mentioned King -- I discussed the other one in the Maurice King thread). I thought that some folks here might find this interesting:

George Sullivan Special to The Globe.
Copyright Boston Globe Newspaper Aug 2, 1981

OK, trivia buffs, try this Celtics' numbers game.

Of the the 188 players to have worn Celtic Green during the club's 35- season history, which jersey number has been used by most players?

You're right if you said No. 11. It's been worn by a dozen Celtics beginning with original Celt pivotman Chuck (Rifleman) Connors in 1946-47. Runnersup in number popularity are Nos. 12 and 17, each claimed by nine players, and Nos. 4, 7 and 21, by eight players apiece.

Which number has been used longest by one player? Yes, of course, the No. 17 worn 16 seasons by John Havlicek.

That's easier than the question on the other side of that coin: Which number was worn the shortest time? Make that plural because there are two via a pair of onetime Celtics with one-game Boston careers: Maurice King, who put on No. 19 once in 1959-60, Bob Eliason who for one game in 1946-47 was the first to wear the No. 14 later immortalized by Bob Cousy.

And here's a soft one and a hard one: Name the lowest and highest numbers ever worn by a Celtic. Easy is the No. 00 introduced by Robert Parish last season. Not so easy is the No. 54 worn by Zaid Abdul Aziz (Don Smith) during his two Celtic games in 1977-78.

Surely you remember who had No. 6 before Bill Russell, No. 16 before Tom (Satch) Sanders and No. 17 before John Havlicek. Take three giant steps if you recall Tom Kelly wearing No. 6 in 1948-49, Andy Phillip No. 17 in 1957-58 and John Richter No. 16 in 1959-60.

All right, now which of the Celtics' 13 retired numbers was never worn in a game? Yes, you're right: the No. 1 that's draped from the Garden rafters for team founder Walter Brown.

And everyone knows that No. 25 hangs from the Garden ceiling in tribute to K.C. Jones, but what was his orginal number with the Celtics? Go to the head of the class if you recalled the No. 27 he wore briefly.

Now identify the one number worn by two Celtics whose jerseys have been retired. OK, you knew that one, too: the No. 18 belonging to both Jim Loscutoff and Dave Cowens.

So if you're so smart, which number will the Celtics retire next season?

Yes, it's Jo Jo White's No. 10, although the exact date hasn't yet been set for the ceremony.-

No Celtic has ever worn Nos. 1 or 2, nor has any used Nos. 3, 4, 5, 8 or 9 in at least a decade - some not for three decades. Why not?

"For some reason the NBA had a rule for many years prohibiting playersfrom wearing single digits," Auerbach says, "although it wasn't always followed closely around the league."

With 13 Celtic numbers already retired, and a 14th soon to follow, the supply is dwindling and there may be a return to single digits by future Celts.-

Is No. 13 unlucky?

Mike (Red) Wallace was the first Celtic to wear it, in 1946 - and became the first Celt traded (to Toronto for Chuck Hoefer after only 24 games in a Boston uniform).

No Celtic has worn No. 13 in nearly 30 years - since Bob (Gabby) Harris in 1953-54.

There's no club rule against that number, according to Auerbach. "Nobody has asked for it," he shrugs.

Tiny Archibald came close to using it - in fact, he did on his first day of practice as a Celtic in 1978. Because No. 1, which he'd worn previously as a pro, was unavailable, Archibald opted for No. 7. Told that number belonged to Ernie DiGregorio, Tiny's next choice was No. 13. But when DiGregorio decided not to report and retired, Archibald turned in 13 for 7.- A number of Celtics have worn numbers other than their own for a game or three.

Don Nelson once used No. 30 on a West Coast trip when he misplaced his jersey 19.

When Dave Cowens' No. 18 was left back in Boston he literally took the No. 34 off Jim Ard's back for a game in Hartford - leaving Ard shirtless under his warmups.

And when Steve Kuberski's jersey couldn't be found one night in Buffalo, he and Bailey Howell swapped Howell's No. 18 back and forth. As they spelled each other at the same forward position, the outcoming player gave the shirt off his back to his replacement reminiscent of a schoolboy jayvee game.

Another Celtic who'd forgotten his jersey wore a makeshift No. 36 t Hartford one night in the mid-'70s. Trainer Frank Challant commandeered the extra jersey Paul Silas always carried (he wore two a game, switching at halftime) and utilized a piece of tape to convert the 5 in Silas' 35 to a 6.

Togo Palazzi's costume was more bizarre one day at Syracuse. The rookie forgot to pack his "road" green shorts for a 1955 playoff game so borrowed a pair from the home-team Nationals - and played decked out in kelly-green jersey and flaming orange shorts, resembling an animated (take your pick) Italian or Irish flag.

Another Holy Cross alumnus had uniform trouble during a Celtic game at Providence.

Tom Heinsohn's jersey was misplaced, and there are two versions of how the problem was solved. Some observers recall that Heinsohn wore a jersey from the defunct Providence Steamrollers found in an old trunk at Rhode Island Auditorium. Heinsohn recalls that he wore a Celtic jersey turned inside out.

That's what a Los Angeles Laker sported during a Garden game in the late '60s when he arrived sans uniform top. Jerry Chambers borrowed a Celtic road jersey to go with his Laker pants - a jarring green-and-purple combination not easily forgotten.-

Eleven Celtics have worn two numbers. The switch usually has been madebecause (1) the number the player wanted was taken when he joined the team, and he grabbed it when it became available, or (2) the player surrendered his number to a newcomer who coveted it.

The latter is the reason Cedric Maxwell changed to No. 31 in 1979- 80 after wearing No. 30 two seasons. That's the number M.L. Carr wanted when he joined the Celtics - not only having worn No. 30 with the Detroit Pistons, but having jewelry and other mementos inscribed with it.

"We negotiated a little," the happy Carr explained after prying Jersey 30from Maxwell.

Steve Kuberski and Don Chaney join Maxwell as the most recent Celtics to use different numbers. Each wore different numerals during two tours as Celtics. Can you recall those numbers? You're right if you remembered that Chaney had 12 and 42, Kuberski 11 and 33.

The other Celts to use two numbers: Tony Lavelli (4 & 11), Clyde Lovellette (4 & 34), John Thompson (5 & 18), Lou Tsioropoulos (20 & 29), Bob Harris (13 & 18), John Ezersky (10 & 16), Jack (Dutch) Garfinkel (15 & 21) and Gerard Kelly (14 & 24).

Kelly and Garfinkel - veterans of the late-'40s - have the distinction of each wearing two numbers that would be retired in appreciation of later Celtics. Kelly donned No. 14 while Bob Cousy was still at Holy Cross and No. 24 a decade before New Englanders had heard of Sam Jones. And Tom Heinsohn was in elementary school when Garfinkel slipped into No. 15, and Bill Sharman starring at USC when Dutch wore No. 21.- Had enough?

If not, read on and probe the numbers listed on each side of this page. How many do you recall?

The sidebar referred to in the last sentence was not included in the online database.
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Postby John Grasso » Thu Sep 27, 2007 9:33 pm

Neil Isaacs "Vintage NBA" is a collection of interviews with players from
the early years of the league - great book, well worth acquiring - interesting interview with Bill Tosheff in it among others.

The John Ezersky interview begins "In the encyclopedias, on the programs, in the press guides, I'd be listed as coming from St. John's or
Notre Dame or Rhode Island, but the fact is I never went to college.
Everybody knew it.... The way it happened was this. I lost my eligibility while I was still in high school at Power Memorial, in '39 or '40."

He then goes on to tell of playing in a tournament on a team called the Americans with a few other players from Power and one from Fordham. For some reason he was referred to as "Dirkey" by the announcer and his name in the box score the following day was listed as Dirkey. The school
thought that he was playing under an assumed name because he was paid to play for the Americans (although he claims he wasn't).
And they made him ineligible for amateur competition.
John Grasso
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