An early birthday greeting for Jupiter’s Billy ‘The Bullet,’ the NBA’s oldest retired player

Got a nice letter the other day from my old pal Billy “The Bullet” Gabor, because that’s the kind of guy that Billy is.

Bill Gabor, photographed at his home in Jupiter on January 29, 2014, holding an engraved ice bucket. “When we won (the league title) in 1955, we didn’t get anything from the NBA,” he said. “The stockholders gave us this engraved ice bucket.” (Bruce R. Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

The longtime Jupiter resident, whose 96th birthday is coming in May, has got old-fashioned manners and incredibly sharp memories to share. He’s the oldest living former NBA player, a star with the Syracuse Nationals in the days of George Mikan. I’m rolling out one my columns on him from 2014 because it’s one week until my retirement from the Palm Beach Post and I’m pretty much doing what pleases me most these days.

Give this a spin, for Billy’s sake. I think you’ll be glad.

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(This column originally appeared in the Feb. 13, 2014 edition of the Palm Beach Post)

by Dave George

Post Columnist

History lessons learned
Jupiter’s Bill Gabor, 91, was an All-Star when the NBA was born.

   Only a high-caliber athlete could earn a nickname like “Billy the Bullet.”
“If you see me walk today, there’s no way you’d think that,” Bill Gabor, as in neighbor, says with a laugh.
Still, as steady as the tides, you’ll find Gabor hoofing the 1.5-mile distance from his oceanfront condo to the Juno Beach pier and back, every day but Tuesday, which is when this 91-year-old star of the NBA’s formative years does his volunteer work at the hospital.
This is not a story about slam dunks or preening Hollywood stars in sweet court-side seats or sneakers so flashy that they really should arrive at the arena in their own limousines. All of that goes with today’s NBA, and with an All-Star game to be viewed by millions worldwide Sunday night.
Gabor’s tale is worth telling, though, because he was there when the NBA was born, and he was among the earliest of NBA All-Stars, too, back when college basketball got all the headlines.
“I played in the 1953 All-Star Game in Fort Wayne, Ind.,” Gabor said. “Got a $100 war bond for it that I had to hold for 10 years to get the $100.”
It gets colder. When Gabor was a member of the NBA champion Syracuse Nationals two years later, there was no ring ceremony to commemorate the team’s greatness. Each of the Nats was rewarded with a metal ice bucket, engraved for posterity and presented by the team’s stockholders.
How’s that for a bucket-list achievement? It made sense way back then, just like it did for an NBA team to travel by ship from one game to another, and across a wintry Great Lake at that.
“We started to fly the last couple of years I was in the league,” said Gabor, who retired in 1955, “but one time we started out on the east coast of Lake Michigan and we wouldn’t land in Milwaukee. We didn’t have time to take a train around the bottom of the lake so we took a freighter across and it was very, very rough, with very limited passenger accommodations.
“You couldn’t go outside with the railings all covered with ice. Then they started cooking and a lot of guys got sick and were throwing up and lying in bed. We finally got to Milwaukee a little late and took taxis to the game but we beat them, so the papers in Syracuse ran the headline ‘Syracuse Sailors Beat Milwaukee.'”
Back, though, to the 1953 All-Star Game, which was staged in the newly opened Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.
“Just an old bandbox,” that’s how Gabor remembers it, but on that January night, with a crowd of 10,322 exceeding the capacity and a giant-like 6-foot-10 George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers on display, Fort Wayne was as close to fantastic as it ever will get.
Gabor was such a high scorer that his number was retired at Syracuse University in 2009, yet in that long-ago All-Star game he was a reserve on the East team behind all-timers like Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes. Also watching most of the game from the bench was Baltimore’s Don Barksdale, the first black player on an All-Star roster. Another bit of history: The West’s 79-75 win that night remains the lowest-scoring All-Star game.
Mikan was the game’s MVP, scoring 22 points with 16 rebounds and looking as intimidating as a lumbering man in thick eyeglasses can be.
“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.
“He was like Shaq, unstoppable, though I think they should outlaw the slam dunk. A guy like Shaq, he gets the ball, turns around and knocks the guy on his butt. What kind of a shot is that?”
Gabor, who was 5-11, made sure to get his own shots in, though. Set shots, mostly. The rest of the time he was stealing balls and fouling out a lot. What do you expect from a guy whose other nickname was “The Human Projectile?”
“Boston, they had some rowdy fans,” Gabor said. “We were playing a close game there one day and a fight broke out between some players. The referees broke it up but the fans were throwing debris on the floor and I was picking it up and throwing it back. The ref got hold of my teammate Paul Seymour and said, ‘Get that darn Gabor out. He’s gonna start a riot.’ ”
One day you may see this super senior driving down U.S. 1 in his Chevy Malibu, the one with the license-plate holder that says, “National Basketball Retired Players Association.” After 24 years in Palm Beach County, Gabor, as in neighbor, is truly one of us.
Imagine how shocked today’s soaring NBA All-Stars would be to learn that he is also one of them.

There’s nothing left for LeBron James to do but coach himself

The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t going all that great at the moment.

Ten losses in the last 13 games, and a reportedly angry team meeting the other day that hardly washed out all the toxins. If LeBron James wasn’t a Cav and if Cleveland wasn’t bound for the NBA Finals in spite of it all, this could be some pretty serious stuff.

SAN ANTONIO,TX – JANUARY 23 : LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers acknowledges the crowd after hitting his 30,001st point during game against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center on January 23, 2018. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

As it is, everybody just watches LeBron a little closer to see how he will react. Will he want different players added to his entourage? Is he fed up with head coach Ty Lue, who continues to juggle lineups at this late stage? Is he willing to take some of the blame for Cleveland being no better than No. 3 in the Eastern Conference’s overall standings and just barely ahead of Miami?

“Just get me to the playoffs,” is LeBron’s answer to those questions and just about every other when doubts arise during the regular season.

The man is still a monster at 33, and knows it. Who else would congratulate himself on social media for joining the elite 30,000-point club? Who else would say something scripted and sanctimonious like “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” instead of just announcing his free-agent choice of teams?

So if LeBron really is so brilliant in basketball strategy and mental preparedness and roster analysis and leadership skills, why not just cut to the chase?

Let King James try his hand at being the Cavs’ player-coach. There hasn’t been one of those in the NBA since Dave Cowens of the Boston Celtics 39 seasons ago, but several Hall of Famers have done it.

Bill Russell won two NBA titles as player-coach of the Celtics. The Cincinnati Royals asked Bob Cousy to do it all and the result was a 36-46 season that was tiresome for everyone involved. Richie Guerin and Lenny Wilkens worked more than 300 games each as player-coaches. Bob Pettit tried it for about a week.

LeBron already runs the huddle when he doesn’t like how a play is set up in the final seconds of a big game. He has final say on all kinds of major decisions in Cleveland, whether it’s official or not.

It would be fun to see him stand before the cameras and do more than roll his eyes when asked about what is wrong with the team.

It would be fine to see him rally the troops and not just rise above them.

I think he probably would be pretty good at this. LeBron has been good about everything else in a game he was born to boss around.

He’s a trendsetter at heart, always looking to put more power in the hands of players, at contract time and at crunch time. What better way than to coach his own team, and to make a two-pronged success of it?

It’s the difference between being His Highness and His Oneness, and LeBron is exactly the type who would revel in that distinction.

[Player-coach is the only thing left for LeBron James to do]

[Eagles’ coach Pederson once saved Don Shula’s bacon as backup QB]

[Philly is only conference finalist that Dolphins don’t play in 2018]

 

 

NBA is checking to see if Jupiter’s Billy Gabor is the league’s oldest living former player

 

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.

Bill Gabor, photographed at his home in Jupiter in 2014, holding an engraved ice bucket. “When we won in 1955, we didn’t get anything from the NBA,” he said. “The stockholders gave us this engraved ice bucket.” The engraving reads “Presented to Billy Gabor World Champions Syracuse Nationals 1954-1955 by the Stockholders.” (Bruce R. Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

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.)

 

  1. Billy Gabor, Syracuse Nationals, 95 years old
  2. Whitey Von Nieda, Tri-Cities Blackhawks, also 95 but one month younger
  3. Johnny Macknowski, Syracuse Nationals, 94
  4. John Oldham, Fort Wayne Pistons, 94
  5. Wayne See, Waterloo Hawks, 93
  6. Gene Stump, Waterloo Hawks, 93
  7. 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.

[No matter what Vegas says, not expecting major step back for Dolphins]

[1972 Dolphins were a different breed in an entirely different era]

[Astros and Nats might bring World Series buzz back to WPB next spring]