The Syracuse Syndrome and the Strangler

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The Syracuse Syndrome and the Strangler

Post by rickdavisakaspike on Sat Jan 29, 2011 10:09 pm



Syracuse is a city situated in northwest New York near Onondaga Lake. The area is blessed with abundant salt springs and is also a rich source of limestone. For 5,000 years it was settled by members of the Iroquois Nation until the late 1700s, when the Anglo-Saxons came along, killed them all and stole their land. Much of the city that grew up there afterwards was built on what one of the founders described as a "dark, gloomy, and almost impenetrable swamp that was a favorite resort for wolves, bears, wildcats, mud-turtles, and swamp rattlesnakes."

The Syracuse Nationals were founded in 1946 as part of the National Basketball League by an Italian immigrant entrepreneur named Danny Biasone. In 1949 the franchise joined the NBA and in 1963 moved to Philadelphia and became known as the 76ers. Before moving, however, in 1955, small town Syracuse improbably achieved a place atop the basketball world by winning the NBA championship.

Back in the 1950s, Syracuse was home to roughly 250,000 hardy souls. There was no global warming in those days and the weather was reputed to be rather arctic. Joe Gushue, one of the intrepid referees who officiated games there claimed, “It would start snowing in Syracuse in October, and you wouldn’t see the pavement again until May.”

There were no other professional teams in Syracuse in the 1950s, and, starting their very first year in the NBA the Nats became perennial winners, so the fans not so unsurprisingly were, emotionally speaking, heavily invested in their team’s success. According to Norm Drucker, one of the better referees, “You’d go to Syracuse and the fans knew you were there – and I’m speaking as an official. 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.””

It didn’t help the Syracusans sense of self-empowerment that their city was looked down upon by the inhabitants of the major metropolis at the mouth of the Hudson. Ned Irish, owner of the New York Knickerbockers, once was quoted as saying, “Do you know how bad it is to see the Knicks versus Syracuse on the marquee at Madison Square Garden?”

Aware of how the big cities thought of them, the Syracusans huddled together for mutual support and warmth under a 6,400 seat bigtop outside the city in the fairgrounds. Some seats were so close to the court that the fans could scream in players’ ears as they inbounded the ball or stick out their legs and trip them as they ran past. Sid Borgia, one of the most honest and fearless of referees, stressed out to the max when he had to work Syracuse, called the fans “crazy”, and often needed a police escort to get out of the arena and back to his hotel.

Dolph Schayes, the 6’ 8” forward with the all-around game, grew up in New York City but embraced his upstate home. “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.”

Schayes continued: “If somebody had done a study, and it probably would have been a good doctoral thesis on a Phys. Ed. Level, they would have found something I’d call the Syracuse Syndrome. It was something like a small-town inferiority complex. It was us against the big-city guys and we were gonna show them. Even in politics, upstaters don’t particularly like folks from New York City and everything the city stands for. Upstate politics are Republican, while New York City is all Democrats. That feeling of the small town of David versus the Goliath of Boston and New York pervaded. There was great pride in Syracuse about their town playing against the big league. It was amazing, tiny Syracuse playing against those major cities.”

Al Bianchi noted: “The best thing we had going for us was the weather. Visiting teams would get off the plane and be up to their asses in snow. The temperature would be 10 below. They’d walk into our building and our fans would get all over them. We beat many teams before the opening tip.”

Dolph Schayes agreed: “The weather was a factor. Syracuse winters are cold. Our fans were rabid and we had a very good team and a very physical team. At times, our homecourt advantage was overwhelming.”

No matter how tough Syracuse was, there was always at least one other team that was just as competitive and combative as them. As Al Bianchi remembered, “Against the good teams, our games were wars. Boston . . . boy, we always had great fights with them.”

Boston and Syracuse engaged in two of the most notable brawls of that era, both taking place in the playoffs, in 1953 and 1961. The Nats were tough, led by surly player coach Al Cervi, the broad-shouldered Schayes, the mobile big man Johnny Kerr, Paul Seymour, Earl Lloyd, Red Rocha, George King, and Al Bianchi. The Celtics matched them with Bill Sharman, one of the best fighters in the game, Bob Brannum, Jim Loscutoff, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Russell, and other friends.

Two Celtic players who had special relationships with Syracuse fans were Frank Ramsey and Gene Conley. Conley observed, “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 noted, ”The Syracuse fans were out of control. They’d throw cups full of coke, programs, even batteries at you.”

Because of fan intimidation of the referees, players got away with a lot of what Bill Russell used to call “free fouls”. There was pushing, shoving, and elbowing to the utmost degree. Led by pugnacious coach Red Auerbach, the Celtics, whose game was calculated to intimidate opponents, would not back down. So there were too many fights to count. At the very least, the Nats gave their fans every penny of their money’s worth. Basketballing and brawling, what could be better on a blustery Syracuse night?

For whatever reason, there was quite a bit of strangling going on back then. There was the night Jim Loscutoff, with a couple of minutes left in a tight game, grabbed Dolph Schayes by the throat and tried to restrict his breathing ability. Both players ended up on the floor. Teammates jumped onto the pile and fans scrambled out of the stands. There were hockey boards still set up in the arena and fans got injured under those boards when other fans stampeded over them. It took the police and game officials more than a half-hour to clear the floor and restore order.

It may have been that game or any number of others when Al Bianchi recalled: “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.”

Syracuse had an infamous fan nicknamed the Strangler. Norm Drucker gave a description of him: “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!”

When opposing teams left the court headed for the dressing room, they had to pass down a tunnel that ran through the stands. The fans were in close proximity. After one game, as the Celtics entered the tunnel, the Strangler reached over the stands, grabbed Frank Ramsey by the neck and started dangling him in the air. Gene Conley alertly punched the guy in the face, saving Ramsey.

That wasn’t the end of the story. One of the things the Strangler enjoyed doing was to run up to the Celtics huddle on the sideline and yell distracting things. After he tried to strangle Ramsey, the next time the Celtics huddled and the Strangler approached, the huddle opened for a second and the Strangler disappeared inside. When he came back out he was bleeding in a couple of places and had a bunch of new bruises.

The Strangler had the last word, though. As he staggered past the Syracuse huddle, sporting a black eye and a bloody lip, he said, “Ah, those Boston guys don’t even know how to punch.”




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Re: The Syracuse Syndrome and the Strangler

Post by sam on Sat Jan 29, 2011 11:34 pm

And, during that best two-of-three 1953 playoff series, the Celtics and Nats played what I'd have to call one of the two most exciting game in my personal pro basketball history. Although it was in Boston, I didn't see it (wish I had). I listened to it over the radio. I've never seen any tape of it, and it's hard to believe there is any except possibly someone's home movie.

I believe it was Johnny Most's first year as the Celtics broadcaster. Four overtimes. 50 points for the Cooz, including 30 of 32 at the line. At the end of each of the first three overtimes, the Nats led and the Celts came back to tie it—once once involving 5 points from Cousy in the last 15 seconds, with no three-pointer back in those days. (The tying basket was his long jumper with no time left—a shot he had developed with endless hours of winter practice in the Holy Cross gym. That shot has been estimated at 18 to 50 feet, depending on who's telling the story and how much he has had to drink. I feel pretty sure it was from just slightly in back of the top of the key, which was a very long jumper in those days from someone not noted as a jump-shooter.

Schayes and Brannum got thrown out in the first quarter for fighting (word was that Red sort of engineered that confrontation). From the point on, player-coach Al Cervi tried to goad Cousy into a fight; and the Cooz ignored him, as Johnny just went bananas.

I believe it may still stand as the game when the most players went out via personal fouls. Both teams would have wound up with only three or four guys on the floor except for the rule requiring five players for each team. After they leveled off at five guys apiece, whenever another player would foul "out," he'd stay in the game but the other team would shoot a technical.

Thank god I was only 16 because an older constitution would definitely have succumbed to ulcers at the very least.

That game would have to compete with the "balloon game" as the most exciting I've ever encountered—the difference being that I experienced the "balloon game" in person.

Part of what the 1953 game had going for it was the primitive conditions of the time, which made the messier fans feel right at home...Johnny making radio listeners feel like "insiders." I always felt that the only thing that differentiated the court from my driveway was the lack of snow. Wires and ropes holding stuff up...the backboards reverberating like crazy when whacked by a player—or even by some shots...the ball caroming crazily off the hoop, which was tightly and inflexibly screwed directly into the backboard...smoke (mostly from cigars) hanging like cumulus clouds...players beating on one another while the refs gave it the "no harm, no foul" treatment...no 24-second rule, so freezing the ball would have been an option except for all the whacking going on...home fans challenging visiting fans to fights...almost an entirely a male audience, with virtually all of the adults wearing hats—sort of an Al Capone motif...Red smacking the ever-present rolled-up program against his hip and berating the refs almost non-stop...certainly the loudest crowd noise I'll ever hear (with the acoustics lending a hand).

I never saw a game at Syracuse in-person, but I assume it was the same—perhaps worse. I was always glad to hear that the Celtics had arrived home safely from Syracuse.

All-in-all, it was absolutely terrible! And, oh, what I wouldn't give to experience just one of those days again!

Sam

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Re: The Syracuse Syndrome and the Strangler

Post by LACELTFAN on Sun Jan 30, 2011 12:21 am

That game 5 in 76, triple overtime and the balloon game were the two that for me the most memorable. But the 53 game sounds like one of those.

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Re: The Syracuse Syndrome and the Strangler

Post by sam on Sun Jan 30, 2011 1:45 am

LACelt,

I think part of the cachet of those pre-Russell years for me was the fact that everything was new and exciting. So much of what happened was unexpected because watching a basketball game was akin to on-the-job training. The metamorphosis of a sport was unfolding before our eyes.

Sam

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