The NBA Finals have given us countless unforgettable moments, not the least of which came Thursday night when the Celtics put up a historically dominant fourth quarter to stun the Warriors. Giannis’s 50-point closeout. The chase-down block. Ray Allen from the corner. The flu game. Magic’s baby skyhook. Willis Reed on one leg. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find some tales that are equally remarkable but have been forgotten by time. Here are four of those story lines, beginning with, well, the beginning.
1947: The forgotten, tragic superstar
In the Warriors’ long line of gunners, no one—not Purvis Short, not Steph Curry, not even World B. Free—has been as unapologetic as Joe Fulks. Seventy-five years ago Fulks was the hero of the first NBA Finals, which the Philadelphia Warriors won in five games over the Chicago Stags. Actually the league was called the BAA at the time, and the games were most commonly referred to as the “world series” by the very few journalists who took note. The much bigger battle between Philly and Chicago in the spring of 1947 was who would get to host the following year’s Republican National Convention. Philadelphia won that battle on April 21. The Warriors closed out the Stags 4–1 the next night.
Fulks, who was the leading scorer in the series and had 34 in the clincher, was a man of few words. “I just like to shoot,” he explained. A few years later he elaborated: “I found out you got paid for scoring and to stay in the ballgame, not to play defense.” He was an early adopter of the jump shot, which sportswriters called a “corkscrew.” But he had an entire arsenal of moves—one-handed, two-handed, stationary, jumping. “To this day,” former Warriors coach and owner Eddie Gottlieb said in 1968, “I will still say that Joe Fulks had the greatest assortment of shots of any player.”
Gottlieb had to pay to get Fulks. He’d set a $50,000 limit on the payroll for his first BAA season, and Fulks, who had just come out of the Marines after a career at Murray State, wanted $8,000. “That damn hillbilly wouldn’t budge a nickel,” said Gottlieb, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972. “Joe talked about as much as this table. I’m saying 49 words out of 50, but he’s saying no. And I’ve never even seen the guy play!”
He’d prove to be worth the money. Earlier in the playoffs Fulks had broken the all-time record for points in a season, set three decades earlier in the old Central Pro League. Before tip-off Fulks was feted by the Philadelphia crowd and presented with the keys to a new car by the team. The man whose record he broke, Eddie Krummer, was on hand. Krummer was at the time working as a revenue agent—ironic given Fulks’s life story, one that would end three decades later with the Hall of Famer gunned down in a trailer park.
Fulks grew up in the heart of moonshine country, a town called Birmingham, Ky. It doesn’t exist any longer. When Fulks was a high schooler, the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the Tennessee River, creating Lake Kentucky and leaving Birmingham under water. (The gym where Joe dazzled the locals was briefly visible in 1961, when the level of Lake Kentucky dropped enough that the roof of the building poked through the surface.) Fulks transferred, somewhat controversially, to Kuttawa High for his senior season before heading to Murray State. (Years later Kuttawa was buried by another dam project.)
Along the way, though, Fulks developed a drinking problem. He wasn’t accustomed to the big city life, and when he was in the small city, booze was literally a way of life. One teammate said that Gottlieb would check on Fulks before the game, so Joe would hide a case of beer in a closet and sneak a few before tip-off.
Fulks retired and moved back to Kentucky, eventually getting himself clean. But when the NBA announced its 10-man 25th-anniversary team in 1971, Fulks was on it. He went to San Diego for the ceremony and got to talking—and drinking—with his old friends.
Five years later he was working as athletic director at Kentucky State Prison in Eddyville. After a shift he went to visit a woman he had been casually seeing at Becketts Trailer Court. Her 22-year-old son, Greg Bannister, was there. He and Fulks had a bumpy relationship, and on the night of March 20 they tried to smooth it out with vodka. After hours of drinking they began arguing over a pistol. Bannister went to his car and came back with a shotgun. He’d later claim the shotgun went off accidentally; however it happened Fulks was dead on the floor. His former Kuttawa High teammate, Carrots McQuigg, was driving the ambulance that responded to the call.
Bannister, who had a blood-alcohol level of 0.20 when he was booked a few hours later, was found guilty of reckless homicide. Fulks, the hero of the first Finals, was laid to rest in an unassuming grave with no fanfare—two years before his posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame.
1950: The first buzzer beater
By 1950 the Lakers were regulars in the Finals. They had won the title in ’48 and ’49, but if there was one thing their championships lacked it was some good, old-fashioned buzzer-beating drama. They finally provided that in Game 1 of the 1950 Finals against the Syracuse Nationals.
As was often the case, center George Mikan was dominating. The 6’10” matchup nightmare had 37 of the Lakers’ 62 points with three minutes left in the opener, but the Nationals held a three-point lead.
Then a pair of Mikan’s sidekicks—a duo who to that point had combined to take one shot—stole the show. Rookie Bob “Tiger” Harrison came up with a steal and went coast-to-coast for a layup to cut the Nats’ lead to one. A Syracuse free throw made it 66–64 with just over a minute left when a crew-cut rookie Lakers guard sank a 20-footer to tie the score. It was his only shot of the game, and he’d be out of the league within two years—but that didn’t mean he’d leave the Twin Cities sports scene. His name was Bud Grant, and he’d go on to coach the Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances.
With the score tied, Syracuse held the ball for the last shot, but player-coach Al Cervi pulled the trigger too early. His attempt was blocked by Mikan, who got the ball to Harrison. Dribbling up the left side, he stopped just across half court and tossed up a one-handed push shot from 40 feet that passed through the net just after the final gun sounded.
Harrison almost didn’t make it to the court at the State Fair Coliseum in Syracuse. As he was dressing before the game, he couldn’t find his jersey. He was a rookie, and as such often found himself on the receiving end of practical jokes from his teammates. One of his teammates suggested that the hosts might have an extra jersey he could borrow, but Harrison shot that down: “I’m not playing in any Syracuse jersey,” he proclaimed. Convinced his shirt was gone, he started putting on his street clothes to go back to the hotel when Mikan told him to check his bag one more time. At the bottom, he found the jersey.
The Lakers won the series in six, with Mikan putting up 40 in the deciding game, an affair that featured 77 fouls—or one every 37 seconds. No one said the game was pretty back then.