We’ve written before about Jupiter’s Billy Gabor, the former pro basketball player who was around for the NBA’s inaugural season.
Well, Billy the Bullet, feisty point guard of the old Syracuse Nationals, continues to earn a headline every now and then.
According to the best research I can muster, and with backing from the Peach Basket Society, a blog that tries valiantly to stay up with such things, it appears that Gabor just might be the NBA’s oldest living player.
Billy is 95 and still volunteers once a week at the Jupiter Medical Center. He no longer pushes wheelchairs around with patients half his age but stays busy with clerical chores there.
The daily, 3-mile walks from his beachfront apartment to the Jupiter Pier ended a few years ago, too. Too hot. Too far.
Still, his memories of his playing days remain sharp and there’s never been one of his stories that didn’t check out. I thought of him the other day when news of John Kundla’s passing stirred up a few nostalgic newspaper accounts. Kundla had been the oldest living former NBA coach at 101 and he was one of several Naismith Hall of Fame members from the great Minneapolis Lakers teams of the 1950’s.
Gabor remembers all of those guys well because he played against them.
George Mikan, the 6-foot-10 pioneer who averaged 27.4 points per game in the NBA’s opening season of 1949-50.
Jim Pollard, the “Kangaroo Kid.” Vern Mikkelsen, the power forward who led the league in fouling out for three straight seasons. Slater Martin, the hard-driving guard from Texas.
What we’re talking about is the NBA’s first super team, because those Lakers won four of the league’s first five championships, including the 1950 Finals against Gabor’s Syracuse team.
“Mikan was very slow and he couldn’t jump like they do today,” said Gabor, “but he was so strong he would just turn around and shoot a hook shot and nobody could do anything about it.”
Mikan averaged 32.2 points per game in that championship series against the Nationals, including 40 in the Game 6 clincher, which drew a crowd of 9,812 to the old Minneapolis Auditorium. That hook shot of his, Gabor remembers, was just as effective with either hand.
Gabor averaged 7.8 points in that series. He came to the NBA as a 27-year-old rookie, his career delayed by serving as a World War II bombardier. Syracuse’s best player at the time was Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes.
A couple more fun tidbits from those Lakers teams. Bud Grant, the Minnesota Vikings coach, played a couple of seasons of pro basketball there in his youth. Also, Pollard later was the coach of the Miami Floridians of the old ABA.
Here is the breakdown, as far as I can determine, of the oldest living former NBA players. It’s easy to be wrong on something like this, and a little morbid in the searching, but there’s a good chance Billy leads the list. (Another man, Nick Shaback, played for the Cleveland Rams of the Basketball Association of America, a forerunner and later a merger partner with the NBA. Tough to say whether that qualifies in this particular discussion, but he will be 99 in September.)
- Billy Gabor, Syracuse Nationals, 95 years old
- Whitey Von Nieda, Tri-Cities Blackhawks, also 95 but one month younger
- Johnny Macknowski, Syracuse Nationals, 94
- John Oldham, Fort Wayne Pistons, 94
- Wayne See, Waterloo Hawks, 93
- Gene Stump, Waterloo Hawks, 93
- Jim Riffey, Fort Wayne Pistons, 93
The NBA communications department told me they are trying to verify this list but it’s not the sort of thing that becomes a high priority. I’ll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, way down the list, here’s an honorable mention for a guy whose local tie is always an honor to mention. Bob Cousy, for years a regular at Bear Lakes County Club in West Palm Beach, will be 89 on Aug. 9.