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Saluting our Soldiers: CHD remembers Hall of Famer/Naval veteran Bob Davies

As we remember the men and women who served us proudly this past Veterans Day, CHD reflects on the life of Hall of Famer Bob Davies.  Davies was an All-American at Seton Hall who won 43 games in a row and was recognized as one of the top college players of the early 20th century.  After spending some time in the Navy during WWII, he won his 1st 18 games as coach at his alma mater before leading the BAA in assists as a rookie and winning an NBA title two years later.  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970 and was named to the NBA’s 25th anniversary team the following year.  Bob passed away in 1990 but Jon Teitel got to talk to basketball historian Barry Martin about his legendary career.  CHD salutes all the veterans who have defended our life and liberty around the world.

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Davies was known as the “Harrisburg Houdini”, who gave him the nickname, and how did he like it? The earliest reference I have seen to the “Harrisburg Houdini” was by New York Herald Tribune reporter Everett B. Morris, who compared Davies’s unveiling of his behind-the-back dribble in the NIT (six years before Bob Cousy) to the famous magician: “you can take the whole Hollywood lexicon of superlatives and still be at a loss for words to describe the utterly fantastic operations of the Harrisburg Houdini.” I do not know whether Bob ever commented directly on the nickname. His brother Dick believes that Bob was proud that the nickname reflected favorably on their hometown of Harrisburg. Bob was a very colorful performer but not a show-off. High school opponents compared him to Jack Armstrong, “the All-American Boy” who was the star of the long-running juvenile radio series. After Bob entered Seton Hall his fellow students nicknamed him “Abby” because he reminded them of the popular Al Capp cartoon character “L’il Abner”. A major national weekly magazine with a circulation of more than 2 million (“Liberty”) later published an article about Bob entitled “Basketball’s L’il Abner”.

He signed a professional baseball contract with the Red Sox, but Seton Hall coach Honey Russell persuaded him to focus on basketball after seeing him practice once: which sport was he better at, and how close did he come to becoming a pro baseball player? Bob was definitely better at basketball than baseball. He was a slick fielding short stop at Seton Hall with a .321 career average. He spent two summers as a light-hitting second base for the Burlington (VT) Cardinals and led the semi-pro Northern League in hitting triples and turning double plays. When he was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Station he watched the baseball team (which included several major leaguers) and concluded that he would have to spend several seasons in the minors before he could hit major league pitching.

He was part of the “Wonder 5” that had 43 consecutive victories from 1939-1941 (including a perfect 19-0 in 1940), which was a national record at the time.  What did it mean to him to go undefeated, and were they considered the best team in the country? Although they were the nation’s only major undefeated team the Wonder 5 were not ranked number one in the 1939-40 season, probably because they played a comparatively weak schedule. The Premo Power Poll rated Indiana first and Seton Hall 12th. As far as I know athletes in Davies’ time were not asked about going undefeated. Bob took every loss hard after the 43-game winning streak finally came to an end.

What are your memories of the 1941 NIT (Seton Hall lost to eventual champion Long Island, but he unveiled the behind-the-back dribble for the 1st time)? Bob’s NIT performance against Rhode Island created a media sensation. Nobody in the record crowd at MSG except for a few Seton Hall aficionados had ever seen a dribbler shift the ball behind his back and drive around his defender for a basket. A New York Times reporter wrote, “Halley’s Comet has a rival today”: Halley’s Comet appears about once every 75 years. Tim Cohane labeled Bob “basketball’s young Barnum.” New York Daily Mirror columnist Dan Parker wrote that the time had come for future Hall of Famer Hank Luisetti “to step down from his throne and hand over his scepter to Bob Davies, the new Bey [governor] of Basketball.”

He was an All-American in 1941 and 1942: what did it mean to him to win such outstanding honors? Bob was modest about individual honors. He liked the “fuss” being made over him but emphasized that basketball was a team game and gave credit to Coach Russell and his teammates for much of his success.

He joined the US Navy during WWII: why did he decide to enlist, and what impact did his military service have on him on the court? Bob was very proud of his military service. He was one of a very few 1946 NBL/1947 BAA players who had been in combat: most players just spent their war years playing for armed services base teams. He joined the Navy because his country’s existence was at stake and like many other young men he felt a duty to help defend his country, so he gave up his senior year of baseball. During the 1942-43 basketball season Bob was the star player for the Great Lakes Naval Station (Chicago, IL) Bluejackets team that Seymour Smith, Jack Rimer, and Dick Triptow rate as the best US Armed Services basketball team of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (in “A Tribute to Armed Forces Basketball”). Bob was also selected as the MVP of both the third Annual College All-Star Basketball Game in Chicago and the first five College All-Star Game. Davies lost two basketball seasons due to military service while serving in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. He was third officer on a sub chaser-mine sweeper that (while under heavy German fire) was the second ship into the harbor during the invasion of southern France. He was also commander of a sub chaser operating from Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea.

In 1946 he helped lead the Rochester Royals to the NBL title and was named NBL MVP in 1947 despite missing 12 games.  How was he able to come in and be so successful so quickly? Bob had just been discharged from the Navy and was rusty when he joined Rochester early in the season. It took a while for his teammates to adjust to his fast-paced style. He introduced many passes to the world of pro basketball: the no-look, hesitation, backward, behind-the-neck, and other passes. Reporters called him the “Kangaroo Kid.” He did NOT use the behind-the-back-dribble in pro games because he and owner/coach Les Harrison agreed that it would not work more than once against an opposing team and would be frowned upon as showboating. Bob’s game jelled late in the season and he was definitely a force in the playoffs leading to the championship.

He became coach at Seton Hall while playing with the Royals and won his first 18 games en route to 24-3 record with the “5 Midgets” (which remains one of the best first-year winning percentages in division one history).  What made him such a great coach, and how on earth did he pull off the double-duty? Even more impressive was the fact that he roomed on the road with African-American teammate Dolly King: this was before Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Royals accommodated “America’s #1 Sports Commuter” by holding their preseason camp at Seton Hall. Bob taught PE classes and conducted basketball practice until 4PM, then caught a train or DC-3 airplane to Rochester (which was 350 miles from South Orange, NJ) and other NBL cities much farther away such as Chicago or Detroit. Bob’s “Mighty Midgets” (whose average height was 6’2”) included three Russell-coached Seton Hall players who were armed services veterans and future NBA players: Hall of Famer Bobby Wanzer, Pep Saul (who played on three NBA championship teams), and Whitey Macknowski. During Davies’ absence from the Royals Wanzer coached Seton Hall to five victories. Davies’ 24-3 record is the 9th-best D-1 first-year coaching mark. When you take those 18 straight wins and add on the 1942-43 team’s 10-game season-ending win streak, it is the second-best streak in school history. Without Davies in the lineup the Royals winning percentage was .387 and with him it was .844: they had the NBL’s best regular-season record. Bob and Al Cervi each scored 14.4 PPG and were named to the NBL All-Star 1st-team.

In 1949 he led the BAA with 321 assists as a rookie.  What was his secret to being a great PG? His third season as a pro was the first season that they kept assist stats. When he was growing up in Harrisburg Bob was deeply influenced by watching African-American players. He always thought that the best way to play basketball was to get the ball down the court as fast as possible and capitalize on a two-on-one situation by passing to a teammate for a basket. After personal high-scoring games Bob often commented that he thought his assists total was too low.

In Game 7 of the 1951 NBA Finals he made two free throws in the final minute to clinch a four-point win for Rochester over the Knicks to win the title (the only time a team has gone down 3-0 before coming back to tie the series at 3-3).  How was he able to play his best when it mattered the most? Bob was shooting with his left little finger (which had been fractured) and ring finger taped together. As a deeply religious man, Bob said in response to a reporter’s question, “I always believe the game takes care of itself. You know the fourth phrase of the Lord’s Prayer (Thy will be done): well, that’s good enough for me.” Neither of his free throws even hit the rim!

He as one of six Hall of Famers named to the All-Star team each year from 1951-1954 (Andy Phillip, Bob Cousy, Ed Macauley, George Mikan, Harry Gallatin).  Was he considered to be one of the best players in the league? Bob was near the end of his career and the oldest of this group, but still definitely one of the best NBA players. Knicks coach Joe Lapchick said Mikan, Joe Fulks, and Bob were the most important players during the early years of the NBA. Compared to today’s players Davies would rate just behind Lebron James and Kobe Bryant in popularity.

In 1955 against the Celtics he became the first player to ever have 20 assists in a game.  Did people realize at the time how prolific a player he was, and did he think anyone would ever break his record? Bob set the record in his last season when he was just a spot player. There was not any discussion about whether the record would be broken. Cousy had 18 assists in a game the previous season and Andy Phillip had 19 just a couple of months before Davies dished out 20. In 1982 basketball historian Glenn Dickey said that a comparable modern total would be 33-35 assists! There was no national publicity about Davies’ accomplishment: Sports Illustrated did not mention it and the New York Times only printed the box score (which did not include assists).

Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee used Bob as the inspiration for the lead character in his Chip Hilton series of sports books: how did Coach Bee get to know Bob, and why did Bob agree to serve as a role model? Bee’s Long Island Blackbirds badgered Bob unmercifully and beat the Wonder 5 badly both times that they played. This sounds unbelievable now but in that era trash talk was frowned upon. Bob did not respond in kind and shook hands with the LIU players after both games. Some of the New York press strongly criticized the LIU players for bad language/poor sportsmanship. Bee wrote Bob and asked him if the stories were true, and Bob replied that if there had been bad language he did not hear it. When Bee decided to write a sports hero role model series similar to the Frank Merriwell books, he decided to use Bob as the prototype for his central character Chip Hilton but did not ask his permission. Bee described his visualization of Chip to the publisher’s artist and the picture of Chip on the book’s dust jacket is the spitting image of Bob. About 10 years after the first Chip Hilton book was published Bee told Davies that he had modeled Chip on him.

His younger brother Dick played for the gold medal-winning US basketball team at 1964 Olympics.  How proud was Bob of his brother’s success, and did Dick credit at least some of his success to genetics? Bob and Dick are the only brothers who have combined to win an NBA championship and an Olympic gold medal. Bob attended the US team try-outs and was very proud of Dick’s accomplishment. Dick attributes about 70% of his success to genetics. The brothers were approximately the same height and weight (6’1”, 175 pounds) and had small hands. Dick was faster and could jump higher: Dick could dunk and Bob could not. Dick gives credit to two coaches: his brother Bob and Red Auerbach (under whom he played four summers for the Kutsher’s Resort summer league team in the Catskills).

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970 and was one of 10 players named to the NBA’s 25th Anniversary Team in 1971.  When people look back on his career, how do you think he should be remembered the most? Bob should be remembered as one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. He invented both the behind-the-back-dribble and the transition game. He was the second player ever to receive extensive individual national publicity.  Hank Luisetti was first, then Bob, and then George Mikan and Bob Cousy. In 1955 Sport Magazine named Bob as one of 10 members of the All-Time All-American Basketball Team. In 1985 Auerbach named seven players who had left an indelible mark on basketball: “Bobby Davies was the creator of the behind-the-back-dribble which Bob Cousy then popularized.” More importantly, Bob should be remembered as a true role model. The Chip Hilton books have been reissued in paperback and revised to reflect 21st century society realities: hopefully Bob’s s story will keep alive the concept of the All-American Boy!

JonTeitel