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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hal Greer: Productive, Consistent and Durable

This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Hoop.

Star Guard on a Team for the Ages

Hal Greer made the All-NBA Second Team seven straight years but never was selected to the All-NBA First Team. That’s what happens when you play during the same era as Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, but Greer--a 10-time All-Star who was honored as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players--accomplished something that neither Robertson nor West did: being the leading playoff scorer on a team that defeated Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics in the playoffs and went on to win an NBA championship.

Russell’s Celtics won eight straight titles and 11 in 13 seasons, but many observers still maintain that the greatest single season team in NBA history is the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers beat Boston 4-1 in the Eastern Division finals and then defeated the Rick Barry-Nate Thurmond San Francisco Warriors in the NBA Finals. Greer produced 27.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 5.3 apg in the playoffs, while his teammate Wilt Chamberlain posted these mind-boggling numbers: 21.7 ppg, 29.1 rpg and 9.0 apg. Hall of Famer and Top 50 selection Billy Cunningham, the sixth man on the 1967 championship team, says, “Hal Greer was such a smart player. In his mind he had a book about every player he played against and what he had to do to make sure that he got free to get shots. He was probably as fine a screener as a guard as anybody. The thing about it was he knew that if he set a good screen then he would be open because he would force a switch and he would end up being matched up with a bigger, slower player that he knew he could easily beat to get whatever shot he wanted.”

Remember the old shoe commercial with playground legend Lamar Mundane? The voiceover said that Mundane would shoot as soon as he crossed midcourt and the fans would yell, “Layup!” That would be a good way to describe Hal Greer’s top of the key jump shot; Sixers coach Alex Hannum said that Greer made that shot at a 70% clip and gave Greer the green light to launch from that range whenever he was open. Greer’s jump shot was so fluid and so deadly that he shot his free throws that way, connecting on better than 80% of his career attempts. Cunningham offers high praise for Greer’s jump shot: “It was as good as anybody’s who ever played the game. I think the beauty of Hal Greer’s game is that he knew where he was most effective and he never shot the ball from an area where he was not completely confident and comfortable. He never went outside of 18-20 feet maximum, but he was deadly and he had the ability to get to that spot.”

The Winding Road from West Virginia to Syracuse to Philadelphia

Greer was born in Huntington, West Virginia on June 26, 1936 and when he signed with Marshall he became the first black athlete to play for a major college in that state. In 1955-56, his first varsity season, Greer shot a blistering 60.1% from the field, averaging 15.5 ppg and 6.7 ppg as Marshall won the Mid-American Conference title, earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Greer improved his numbers in the next two seasons (18.9 ppg and 13.8 rpg in 1956-57 and 23.6 ppg and 11.7 rpg in 1957-58) but Marshall finished second in the MAC to Miami (Oh.) both years, which meant no trips to the NCAA Tournament since at that time only the conference champion could earn an NCAA bid. The 6-2, 175 pound Greer played guard, forward and even center, battling on the boards with behemoths like 6-8, 240 pound Miami center (and future NBA All-Star) Wayne Embry.

The Syracuse Nationals selected Greer in the second round of the 1958 NBA draft. Initially, established stars Dolph Schayes, Red Kerr and George Yardley shouldered most of the offensive load. By 1961-62 Greer was clearly Syracuse’s top player. He averaged a team-high 22.8 ppg, finishing 13th in the league (1619 points; leaders were ranked by totals—not averages—until 1969-70) in one of the toughest individual scoring races ever; Chamberlain set the all-time single season record with 50.4 ppg (4029 points) and five other players averaged over 30 ppg. Greer’s .819 free throw shooting placed him ninth in the NBA.

Greer made the All-NBA Second team for the first time in 1962-63, placing ninth in scoring (1562 points; 19.5 ppg) and fifth in free throw shooting (.834). In 1963-64 the Nationals moved to Philadelphia and were renamed the 76ers. Schayes served as player-coach, but only played in 24 games. Greer ranked seventh in scoring (1865 points; 23.3 ppg), third in free throw shooting (.829) and seventh in assists (374; 4.7 apg). Despite his consistently excellent play, Greer’s team lost in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season.

The Nationals replaced Philadelphia’s original NBA team, the Warriors, which had moved to San Francisco the year before, taking Chamberlain with them. Bringing Chamberlain back to Philadelphia via a midseason trade in 1964-65 transformed the 76ers into a title contender. Chamberlain and rookie power forward Luke Jackson provided the interior strength that the team had been missing. Greer again ranked among the league leaders in scoring, assists and free throw percentage.

The 76ers battled the Celtics in a memorable seven game Eastern Division finals. The Celtics were clinging to a 110-109 lead with just seconds left when Russell’s inbounds pass hit one of the wires holding up the backboard, a turnover that gave the 76ers one last chance. Greer tried to inbound the ball to smooth shooting forward Chet Walker, but John Havlicek’s steal preserved the Celtics’ win—a play immortalized by Celtics’ announcer Johnny Most’s raspy exclamation, “Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over!”

Philadelphia had the NBA’s best record in 1965-66, 55-25. Greer ranked sixth in scoring (1819 points; 22.7 ppg), tenth in free throw percentage (.804) and tenth in assists (384; 4.8 apg). The much anticipated Eastern Division finals rematch with Boston proved to be a very anti-climactic 4-1 Celtics victory. Schayes won Coach of the Year honors, but the disappointing playoff run cost him his job. The 76ers hired Hannum, Chamberlain’s coach with the Warriors, with one goal in mind—beat the hated Celtics.

The 1966-67 Sixers finished with a 68-13 record, the best in NBA history at that time (a mark since broken by the Chamberlain-West 1971-72 Lakers and the Jordan-Pippen Bulls in 1995-96 and 1996-97). Greer averaged 22.1 ppg (ranking sixth in the NBA with 1765 points), 5.3 rpg and 3.8 apg. The 76ers rolled to the championship, winning 11 of 15 postseason games. Cunningham recalls, “We had a team whose only goal was to win a championship, especially considering how close the team came in 1965. It was a very focused team and a very unselfish team—and that’s the way Hal Greer played. Hal Greer never forced things or did things that would not be beneficial to the team.”

In 1967-68 the 76ers had the best record in the league for the third straight year, 62-20. Greer won the 1968 All-Star Game MVP after scoring 19 points in one quarter, a record that stood until Glen Rice had a 20 point quarter in the 1997 All-Star Game. Greer posted the highest regular season scoring average of his career (24.1 ppg), just trailing Chamberlain (24.3 ppg) for the team lead. Cunningham broke his wrist in the first round playoff series versus New York, but the 76ers beat the Knicks and took a 3-1 lead over the Celtics in the Eastern Division finals. The Celtics rallied to win three straight, eliminated the Sixers 100-96 in Philadelphia in game seven and went on to win the championship.

From the Sublime to the 1972-73 76ers

Hannum resigned after the 1968 season and coached the Oakland Oaks to the 1968-69 ABA championship. General Manager Jack Ramsay took over as coach. Chamberlain and Sixers management feuded during the summer of 1968 until the team traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson replaced Chamberlain at center but suffered the first of a series of injuries that derailed his career. In 1968-69, Cunningham took over the role of leading scorer, Greer averaged 23.1 ppg, making the All-NBA Second Team for final time, and the Sixers managed to post the second best record in the league, 55-27. Any thoughts of the 76ers being legitimate title contenders evaporated after Boston trounced Philadelphia 4-1 in the Eastern Division semifinals. Russell concluded his NBA career with a Finals victory over Chamberlain’s Lakers.

The 76ers slipped in the standings the next two years but still qualified for the playoffs. Greer made his last All-Star appearance in 1970 and by 1971-72 the Sixers slumped to 30-52. Then Cunningham jumped to the ABA before the 1972-73 season and Philadelphia collapsed, posting the worst record in NBA history, 9-73. That turned out to be Greer’s last season and, while it was hardly a fitting conclusion to his fine career, just the fact that he was still in the league was remarkable: at the time of Greer’s retirement he had played more games than anyone in NBA history (1122) and he ranked behind only Chamberlain, Robertson, West and Elgin Baylor on the regular season career scoring list. Greer’s 21,586 points are still the 76ers’ franchise record. Greer never made the All-NBA First Team, but he firmly established himself as one of the greatest guards in NBA history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM

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At Tuesday, June 23, 2009 6:10:00 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

This is one of the reasons I enjoy this site. I've only been following the league for about 9 years, so articles like this one about former stars who don't get that much attention nowadays are always welcome.

Keep up the good work!

 

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