NBA Season Recaps: 1953-54 Season

By Lorenzo Tanos

And the Lakers/George Mikan domination continued, though we'll get to that in a bit.  With the exit of the undermanned Indianapolis Olympians following the 1952-53 season, the NBA was down to nine teams, as league officials haplessly tried to make the game faster and avoid contests from turning into late-game foul-a-thons.  Even with players given a two-foul-per-quarter limit, with the third foul requiring him to sit out the rest of the period, and said rule waived if unable to prevent late-game fouls, the pro game was still slow, plodding and still very much an afterthought in U.S. professional sports.  Here's how things went in the NBA's last pre-shot clock season.

Eastern Division        
New York Knicks* 44 28 .611
Syracuse Nationals* 42 30 .583 2.0
Boston Celtics* 42 30 .583 2.0
Philadelphia Warriors 29 43 .403 15.0
Baltimore Bullets 16 56 .222 28.0
Western Division        
Minneapolis Lakers* 46 26 .639
Rochester Royals* 44 28 .611 2.0
Fort Wayne Pistons* 40 32 .556 6.0
Milwaukee Hawks 21 51 .292 25.0

NBA Champions – Minneapolis Lakers (def. Syracuse Nationals 4-3 in NBA Finals)
MVP – None
Rookie of the Year – Ray Felix, Baltimore Bullets

LEAGUE LEADERS – Neil  Johnston (Philadelphia, 24.4ppg, 1,759 points), Harry Gallatin (New York, 15.2 rpg, 1,098 reb),  Bob Cousy  (Boston, 7.2apg, 518 assists), Earl Lloyd (303 fouls), Ed Macauley (Boston, 48.6% FG), Bill Sharman (Boston, 84.4% FT).

AN UNLIKELY FRANCHISE CENTER – Though he was unquestionably one of the NBA's finest of the early '50s, Philadelphia Warriors center Neil Johnston had a rather unassuming college career, averaging 9 ppg for the Ohio State Buckeyes in 1947-48 before leaving school to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies.  After failing to make a mark as a minor league pitcher, Johnston tried out for the Warriors for the 1951-52 season, and surprised more than a few in 1952-53 when he emerged as the NBA's scoring leader.  In 1953-54, Johnston remained a considerable force as a scorer and rebounder (24.4 ppg, 21.1 rpg), what with Paul Arizin still serving the U.S. in the Korean War.

FIRST OVERALL PICK FINALLY MAKES GOOD – Up until the 1953 NBA Draft, the first overall picks of the NBA Draft had largely been disappointments – 6'11" Charlie Share, for instance, was 1950's top pick, yet took four years to break out, and even when he did, he was no Neil Johnston or George Mikan.  Gene Melchiorre was picked first in 1951, but never played in the NBA due to his alleged involvement in a point-shaving scandal in college.  1952's Mark Workman was even worse, as the 6'9" forward/center out of West Virginia played just two NBA seasons as a backup.  Fortunately, 1953 top pick Ray Felix made good on his collegiate promise, becoming the first-ever African-American Rookie of the Year for the Baltimore Bullets in 1953-54.  The 6'11" center never had a season as good as his rookie year, but he had a successful enough career in nine NBA seasons, playing for the Knicks and Lakers after the Bullets folded.

HIT THE ROAD, JACK – Speaking of 1953 rookies, 6'6" Columbia forward Jack Molinas got off to a great start, averaging 11.6 ppg for the Fort Wayne Pistons and making the All-Star Game.  Unfortunately, that was just about it for his NBA career, as Molinas received a lifetime ban for betting on games while at college.  Molinas seemingly remained unrepentant, as he was one of the bookies convicted of paying off several collegiate prospects in 1961, including future Hall of Famers Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown, both of whom got banned from college and pro ball until the ABA welcomed them with open arms in 1967.

CENTERS OF ATTENTION – One interesting observation in the 1953-54 NBA season is the fact that four of the five All-NBA First Team members were centers – Harry Gallatin of the Knicks, Neil Johnston of the Warriors, George Mikan of the Lakers and DolphSchayes of the Nationals.  The Celtics' Bob Cousy was the only guard in the First Team, and he deserved to be there, averaging 19.2 ppg and a league-leading 7.2 apg and leading Boston's fast-paced attack that topped the NBA in scoring with 87.7 ppg.

A LOOK AT THE TITLE WINNERS/LEAGUE LEADERS  – Once again, the best team in the regular season emerged as the NBA Champion.  The Minneapolis Lakers made it a then-historic three-peat in 1953-54, going 46-26 in the regular season before finishing 3-0 in the novel Western Round Robin Playoffs to determine the Conference Finals participants.  There, the Lakers defeated the Rochester Royals 2-1, then battled it out in a tough 4-3 NBA Finals against the Syracuse Nationals.  The George Mikan/Vern Mikkelsen/Jim Pollard/Slater Martin nucleus remained intact, but the Lakers became stronger in the middle with the addition of rookie Clyde Lovellette out of Kansas.  A hulking 6'9" center picked at the tail end of the first round of the 1953 Draft, Lovellette averaged 8.2 ppg and 5.8 rpg in just 17.4 mpg as Mikan's backup.

THE CELLAR DWELLERS – The Baltimore Bullets officially disbanded early in the 1954-55 NBA season, but for all intents and purposes, 1953-54 was their swan song.  All in all, a whopping 13 rookies played for the Bullets that year, including eventual Rookie of the Year Ray Felix (17.6 ppg, 13.3 rpg) out of LIU and Washington Huskies scoring machine Bob Houbregs (9.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg).  Considering Houby's underwhelming NBA career  and failure to live up to his college hype, perhaps the Bullets would have been better served by holding on to veteran shooting guard and former BAA scoring champion Max Zaslofsky, who was sent to the Bucks early in the 1953-54 season in exchange for Houbregs.

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