Former LaSalle player John Grauer on Philly Basketball in the 1950s

cjelli (flickr)
cjelli (flickr)

Philadelphia has been the stomping grounds of some of basketball’s greatest players. Wilt Chamberlain, Guy Rodgers, Rasheed Wallace, Larry Foust, Tom Gola, and Paul Arizin just to name a few notables. This week I was fortunate to get in touch with one of these Philly basketball players, John Grauer.

Grauer left a remarkable comment on my article encouraging Larry Foust’s induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Grauer played alongside men like Foust, Arizin and Gola back in the late 1940s and 1950s and graduated from LaSalle in 1954.

The following are his insights on playing basketball back in the 1950s and how the game has evolved, which I’ve only edited for formatting here on this site.

On knowing Fort Wayne Pistons star and LaSalle legend, Larry Foust:

 I was Larry’s sub at LaSalle in 1949-50, his senior year. We made the NIT, beat Arizona and lost to Duquesne, who was led by Chuck Cooper. On the way back to the hotel, Larry was very despondent and I said to him, “Larry you will be playing well after everyone else will be long gone and forgotten.” Larry died young [56 years old in 1986] and I went from Philly to Pittsburgh for the funeral and met his family of giants, including a 7-foot son who was a fisherman in Newport, Rhode Island.

On the game’s evolution:

Rules have changed or the interpretation thereof, I guess, to accommodate the great athletes — particularly the black guys that can jump thru the roof. In the NBA [today,] it is football in short pants — without the pads — I don’t know how there are not more serious injuries. Basketball was a game of finesse in my era — except under the boards. Now it is very physical all over the court as well as brainy.

Of course, other rules have changed too…

the block in the lane which was a charge, palming the ball–could not have your hand on the bottom half of the ball; moving the pivot foot, walking with the ball, moving pick; i.e., the picker had to remain rigid or else–cost me a broken nose in high school as I did not move when I should have for safety’s sake!!

Grauer beats out Hall of Famer Paul Arizin for the high school team:

Paul Arizin (all time NBA team) as a senior at La Salle HS did not make the team. I did [as a sophomore]. Also, Nick Maguire, later captain of Villanova did not either–another soph did–we won everything in sight anyway. The city championship was held before the largest crowd ever at  a sporting event in Pennsylvania. Nick and [Arizin] were lifelong friends from South Philly. Our center later went to Villanova and was [Arizin]’s sub!!! Just like Larry Foust and Charlie Share of Bowling Green as I told you.

Philadelphia being fertile ground for talent in the 1940s and 1950s:
Another irony in my time–my high school ( La Salle college HS in Philly) was a basketball powerhouse and we and other Catholic and public schools furnished most of the players in the “Big Five” (wasn’t called that then). That too has changed—see Villanova. Those school haven’t had many Philly players in the last several decades. Arizin’s great team of 1947-50 was all Philly staffed. I can still name them.

Penn was always an exception, but Ernie Beck, an All American from Philadelphia West Catholic, starred there in the 50’s.
Today, the NCAA tournament is hailed as the premier college basketball tournament. However, for many years, the NIT tournament was the tournament college kids preferred to play in:
The local Philly newspapers resurrected LaSalle from the basketball dead recently and had several stories about the ’54 NCAA team and one in particular concerning the desire of the team to go to the NIT (Madison Square Garden for the whole tournament–real fun and glamour!!) as opposed to the NCAA held in different arenas where your fans could not attend.
Note that the great LaSalle squad mentioned by Grauer that won a college title in 1954 won the NCAA title, not the NIT. What gives?
Little do they know that this was conscious choice of the AD and the coach–who had the choice as [Tom] Gola was the star attraction in the field.  4-time All-American and still holds the college record for total rebounds, 2200. The reason they chose the NCAA was Niagara who had two of the soon to be black jumping jacks that were to permeate the court (Louisville under Denny Crum being a prime example). So when Niagara chose the NIT, LaSalle chose the NCAA–simple as that. Less than 10 people know that story. It’s true–from the co-captain, a life long friend.
For what it’s worth that Niagara team made it to the NIT semifinals that year. Meanwhile, Grauer had joined the Marines and was now married:

After [LaSalle] loss to Niagara mid season 53-54, the coach asked me to return to the team. I could rebound. My wife was pregnant and told him to see the AD and get me money and I would get in shape. Nothing ever happened and I lost the chance twice to be a member of a national championship team: ’52 NIT champs ( was in the Marines) and ’54.

Gola’s ’55 team lost in the finals to San Francisco with Bill Russell and KC Jones, who guarded Gola in the final and shut him down pretty good as I recall.
Finally, Grauer may never have played in the NBA, but he did play against the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors:
the ’50 LaSalle team scrimmaged the Philadelphia Warriors – held our own, but I think the Warriors wanted a look at Larry Foust to see how he would do in the NBA.
I’d like to express my sincere appreciation for Mr. Grauer sharing some of his memories playing alongside and against players who I’ve only been able to admire via stat sheets, still photographs, and published books. His first-hand accounts have given wonderful insight and better understanding of how basketball was 60 years ago.
Plus, I really enjoyed how he explained Hall of Famer Tom Gola usurping his spot on the LaSalle squad:
I went into the USMC after my sophomore year. Returned to play and Tom Gola was the center. Result? End of my career.
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