Editor’s Note: This was originally written May 6, 2012, shortly after Levane’s passing.
Andrew “Fuzzy” Levane passed away last Sunday. Obviously, I’m a bit slow on putting something together acknowledging his contribution to professional basketball, but the Internet has ably taken care of that.
A personable and gregarious figure, Levane was head coach of the Knicks during the 1958-59 season, leading them to a 40-32 record, a second-place finish in the N.B.A.’s Eastern Division and a playoff appearance, though he resigned under pressure early in the 1959 season after the team lost 19 of its first 27 games.
His biggest contribution to the franchise was probably his hiring of a scout, a longtime friend named Red Holzman, who would later coach the Knicks to their only league championships, in 1970 and 1973.
As you’ll see reading through the rest of that article, Holzman and Levane were practically inseparable. One would salvage the other’s career only to return the favor a couple of years later. The native New Yorkers most famously led the Knicks to their 1970 and 1973 titles, but for children of the 1990s like myself the most lasting Levane impact was his discovery of Anthony Mason.
But as I’ve mentioned, the Times did an excellent job summarizing Levane’s life and career, as did our friends over at Knicker Blogger.
All I can add is that Levane’s passing leaves us with one fewer voice to recall the sights, sounds and action of the early days of professional basketball. He got his start playing for the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League in shortly after his Coast Guard duty in World War II ended. The NBL, around since the mid-1930s, was the premier professional league and would later merge with the Basketball Association of America (BAA) to form the NBA.
Established in 1944, the Royals were the brainchild of Lester Harrison, a local Jewish businessman. Seeking to attract interest in the Royals amongst the local Jewish population, Harrison had signed Levane assuming he was Jewish because of his last name. Much to Harrison’s surprise, the 6’2″ forward was actually Italian. Nonetheless, Levane tipped Harrison off on a possible Jewish guard to fill the role mistakenly given to himself. That guard of course would be Red Holzman.
Despite the initial, comical mix-up, Levane adored his time with the Royals and pro ball in general:
We were millionaires! I was making five grand a year! Before that I didn’t know that you could get paid for what we were doing. I got married in 1945 and bought a house in Rochester and we stayed there until 1949.
The times were grand in Rochester as Levane played on a team stacked from top to bottom with Hall of Fame and All-NBL talent: Bob Davies, Bobby Wanzer, Holzman, Arnie Risen, and Al Cervi chief amongst them. A different game usually brought a different leading scorer for the plucky club that played their games in an arena the size of a pillbox. They took home the NBL crown in 1946 and lost in the NBL Finals in 1947 and 1948.
Perhaps it was Levane’s experience with this egalitarian Royals team that later influenced how the early 1970s Knicks, so famous for their effortless passing and camaraderie, came about. What is certain is that Fuzzy Levane was one of the true ambassadors of the game and it’s a shame, as inevitable as it is, that he’s now gone.