Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA, in the Words of the Men
Who Played, Coached, and Built Pro Basketball, Terry Pluto (1992)
Players, coaches, and officials from the 1950s reminisce
about playing in Syracuse.
Syracuse star Dolph Schayes: Syracuse had a wonderful small-town feel to it. When you played for the Nats, the whole town embraced you, like Green Bay does with the Packers or Portland with the Blazers. We thought of ourselves as the underdog, the little guy taking on the big city. Our arena had only 6,400 seats and the fans were right on top of you.
Referee Norm Drucker: You'd go to Syracuse and the fans knew you were there ... You'd be having bacon and eggs in the hotel coffee shop and some guy would stop by and say, "You're Drucker, right? You screwed us last time, don't do it again." Then you'd step on the court and look at the Syracuse bench and there was Danny Biasone. Young officials would point to him and say, "Who's that guy?" I'd say, "He owns the team." Then I could see a lump in the official's throat. He was thinking, "I better not mess up or this guy will be on the phone to my boss."
Referee Sid Borgia: People tell me that [Danny] was good because he didn't say much on the bench. In that building, he didn't have to. Officials deserved combat pay for working in Syracuse. Those fans were so crazy and they never believed their team did anything wrong.
Syracuse C Johnny Kerr: Another reason that Danny didn't have to say anything was that [coach] Al Cervi could work the crowd. When a call went against us, he'd turn his back to the court, face the fans, raise his hands to the heavens as if to say, "Why is God punishing us with these officials?" Then the crowd would take over and shower the court with popcorn boxes and orange juice cartons.
Referee Earl Strom: Their public address announcer was the worst. I'd work a Syracuse-Philly game. I'm from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, which is not a suburb of Philadelphia. But in Syracuse, they'd introduce me as "Earl Strom from Philadelphia." Right away, the crowd is on my butt. ... Syracuse would commit their sixth foul of the period and the guy would say, "For Syracuse, that's six team fouls. Philadelphia has only one." Again, the house would come down on you. ...
Referee John Vanak: Syracuse knew that it was tough to call fouls on them at home. They had guys like Al Bianchi, who just loved to flatten people. Al would knock a player on his ass and almost dare you to call a foul on him and take the heat from the crowd. Back then, there were no flagrant fouls. A guy could drive the lane, Al could hammer him, they would have to call an ambulance and it would still be only two shots.
Syracuse G Al Bianchi: Against the good teams, our games were wars. Boston ... boy, we always had great fights with them.
Vanak: There was a game where Jim Loscutoff grabbed Dolph Schayes by the throat with about two minutes left. They both fell down, and the next thing I knew fans were spilling out of the stands. We had a riot on our hands and it took a good half hour before we got the floor cleared and finished the game.
Celtics G Frank Ramsey: The Syracuse fans were out of control. They'd throw cups full of Coke, programs, even batteries at you. That place was a hockey arena with sideboards. On the night of the big fight between Dolph and Loscutoff, the fans knocked over those hockey boards to get on the court and some of the fans were hurt when they ended up under the boards. It was like a stampede.
Bianchi: There was a night when the Syracuse fans tried to storm the Boston dressing room. The players slammed the doors on a few hands, breaking their fingers. Another time, the Celtics were walking off the court after a game with a police escort. A fan dumped a beer on a Boston player.
The Celtic said to the cop: "Did you see that?"
The cop said, "Yeah, and you deserved it."
Vanak: The same kind of thing happened to Joe Gushue. He was leaving the court and a fan whacked him over the head with a rolled-up newspaper.
Joe told the cop: "Did you see that?"
The cop said, "The way you called the game, no one saw anything."
Boston C Gene Conley: Oh, their fans ... you'd stand at the foul line and they'd throw candy bars at you. The guys on the bench got bombarded the most.
Ramsey: There was a night the stuff being thrown at us was so bad that the officials told all of our subs to leave the bench and stay in the dressing room - for our own safety. The coach was out there alone. When Red Auerbach wanted to make a substitution, he had to stop the game. He'd send the player who was coming out into the dressing roo with the message of who Red wanted as a replacement.
Conley: Poor Frank Ramsey. To get off the court, you had to walk through a tunnel that went through the stands. The fans were all over us and one of them grabbed Frank around the neck and was strangling him. I punched the guy or Frank would have choked.
Drucker: They had a fan called the Strangler. He was about 5-foot-6, maybe 220 pounds with a tremendous chest and arms. He'd run up and down the sidelines during the game and stand next to a player, screaming, "You SOB, you stink."
Strom: If I had to guess, it probably was the Strangler who grabbed Ramsey. That fan got his name when he picked up [official] Charley Eckman at halftime and had poor Charley hanging by the neck. Gene Conley hated that guy. One night, we were walking off the court and Gene saw the Strangler. Gene said, "When we get near that guy, duck." We got close. The Strangler reached down from the stands to grab me, I ducked and Conley drilled the guy, knocking his lights out with one punch.
Drucker: The Strangler loved to run up to the Celtics' huddle and yell things. One night, I saw him there. Then I saw the huddle open, he disappeared inside and the huddle closed around him. When he came out, his mouth was bleeding. The Celtics worked him over.
Borgia: Some of my scariest moments were in Syracuse. There was a game where Syracuse was down by three points with 15 seconds left. Dolph Schayes drove the lane, dipped his shoulder, ran smack into Sweetwater Clifton, and in the same motion, he threw in a shot. All the fans thought the basket was good and Schayes would be going to the foul line for a three-point play. John Nucatola was working the game with me, and he called a charge - no basket, New York ball.
Al Cervi was coaching Syracuse and he went nuts. The guy called five straight time-outs to bitch at us and let the fans throw things. Al McGuire was with the Knicks and he came up to me, put an arm around my shoulder and said, "Way to go, Sid."All that did was incite the fans even more.
When the game ended, we couldn't get into the officials' dressing room. The fans had blocked the door and were waiting for us. We went into the Knicks' dressing room. We had a friend on the police force and after a couple of hours he got us out of the arena and back to our hotel. But before we could get more than a step into the lobby, the hotel manager said, "You can't stay here tonight. People are looking for you guys and I won't be responsible if something happens."
The manager sent someone to our rooms to gather up our stuff and we caught the 1 A.M. train out of town.