Born: February 23, 1939
Position: Small Forward
Syracuse Nationals (1961-’63)
Philadelphia 76ers (1963-’64)
Few things are as peculiar as someone with an immense talent or acumen voluntarily, willingly setting aside that skill for other endeavors. It’s what made Michael Jordan’s first retirement such a shocking development. Now, Lee Shaffer should not be considered on the same basketball plane as titans like Michael Jordan, but he definitely was an incredibly skilled player who after a mere three years decided to forego the NBA. Even Michael Jordan at least put in nine seasons of work before quitting… but even he returned… and retired again… and returned again. When Shaffer quit, he was gone for good.
Lee Shaffer was a bit of a basketball prodigy and early bloomer. As a 15-year old high school senior Shaffer, led his Pittsburgh-area team in scoring with 25 points per game. Shaffer thereafter attended the University of North Carolina. His time as a Tar Heel was met with much acclaim. Typical for Shaffer were performances like this one in 1959 where he knocked down 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against Notre Dame. Just two weeks later the forward emphatically dismissed rival North Carolina State:
Nerveless Lee Shaffer dunked in a layup in the last 22 seconds of an overtime to give third-rated North Carolina a 72-68 victory over top-ranked North Carolina State in an [ACC] showdown here Wednesday night.
Shaffer, a 6-7 blond from Pittsburgh, took a perfect pass under the boards from sophomore [and future ABA all-star and NBA Coach of the Year] Doug Moe and laid in the winning basket.
The small forward played his way onto the All-America 2nd Team and was named ACC Player of the Year in 1960.
The NBA draft that year saw Oscar Robertson and Jerry West taken 1st and 2nd overall, respectively, and with the 5th pick, Shaffer was snatched by the Syracuse Nationals. Shaffer wouldn’t make his NBA debut until the following season (1961-62). He spent the 1960-61 season playing in the National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL).
Finally joining the Nationals in the fall of 1961, Shaffer was an instant hit. Despite playing just 28 minutes a game, he was the Nats’ second leading scorer (17 PPG) behind only Hal Greer (23 PPG). Shaffer’s dynamic, whirling dervish style was needed for an aging Syracuse team. Its core of Dolph Schayes (33-years-old), Red Kerr (29), Larry Costello (30) and Al Bianchi (29) had seen better days.
Indeed, iron man Schayes had his consecutive games played streak of 706 regular season games broken when his cheek bone was fractured. Playing for the first time without Schayes since February of 1952, the Nationals were felled by the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Elgin Baylor’s 48 points. At least Shaffer paced Syracuse with 23 points in the loss.
The Nats finished with just a 41-39 record, but still advanced to the playoffs where they faced the Philadelphia Warriors of Wilt Chamberlain and Paul Arizin. Losing the 1st two games of the series, in which Shaffer scored a total of 19 points, the Nationals were on the brink of elimination in this best-of-5 showdown. Then in Game 3, the rookie from UNC ignited like TNT.
Shaffer proved unstoppable for the Warriors’ defense in that game. Wilt led all scorers with 40, but Shaffer’s 30 points finally gave Syracuse an offensive weapon to dislodge Philly’s grip on the series. But the grip was loosened only in the waning moments. Down by six points (100-94), Bianchi scored a hoop and foul shot, followed by a Shaffer one-hander that cut the lead to just one. With just over a minute left, Shaffer calmly clanked two free throws, but redemption soon followed as he drilled a jumper from the corner off an ensuing in-bounds pass to hand Syracuse the 101-100 victory.
In Game 4, the Nationals handled the Warriors with relative ease (106 – 99) as Shaffer scored 15 points in the midst of five other Nats players hitting for double figures. Looking to complete the comeback in the decisive Game 5, Syracuse would find itself demolished by Wilt Chamberlain. The Big Dipper dropped 56 points to crush the Nationals 121 – 104. Shaffer again proved to be the only source of threatening offense for Syracuse as he scored 30 points. Although eliminated, the series had been somewhat of a success for the Nationals, considering they played all but five minutes of it without the services of the injured Hal Greer. Shaffer and the Nats could hope for better returns the next season…
And sure enough the returns were fairly good: a 48-win season. The Nats returned the gang from the previous season and added Chet Walker via the draft. Nationals coach Alex Hannum had the offense humming on all cylinders as ten, yes, 10, players averaged between 8 PPG and 20 PPG. Greer again was the team leader in scoring with 19.5 PPG with Shaffer second with 18.6. The former Tar Heel was rewarded for his continually improving play with his first, and only, All-Star appearance. He scored 12 points in his 19 minutes of action that game.
Finishing 2nd in the East, Syracuse was slated for a date with the Cincinnati Royals. The winner would face off against the mighty Boston Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals. The Royals and Nationals gave each other all they could handle in a hotly contested series.
In Game 1, Greer led the Nats with 32 points and the home squad defeated Cincy 123 – 120. In Game 2 played in Ohio, the Royals struck back with a 133 – 115 win behind Oscar Robertson’s 41 points. In a repeat of the previous season, Shaffer was fairly quiet in the first two games: just 25 total points scored. However, Shaffer would ignite in the final three games to keep Syracuse’s hopes alive, just like he had done the previous year.
Back in upstate New York, Shaffer (34 points) and Greer (30 points) salvaged a tough contest in favor of Syracuse, 121 – 117. For Game 4, Shaffer again led the Nationals in scoring with 32 points, but the Royals held firm and took the contest 125 to 118 setting up another deciding Game 5. Lee Shaffer provided the greatest game of his career as he scored a spectacular 45 points. The outburst would ultimately be for naught as the Royals thwarted the Nats in overtime, 131 – 127.
That heart-breaking loss would be the final NBA game played by the Syracuse Nationals. That offseason they relocated to Philadelphia and became the 76ers. (The old Philadelphia Warriors had moved to San Francisco the previous offseason.)
Shaffer was no worse for the move starting out better than ever in that 1963-64 season, routinely scoring in the high teens and twenties. But not even 20 games into the season, Shaffer broke his leg and would end up missing half the season. His scoring average fell to just 13 points and his FG% an abysmal .370 as he struggled to regain his form. Philadelphia still managed a playoff appearance in his absence and rehab. Again facing the Royals that postseason, Shaffer would appear in just 3 of the 5 games and played 40 minutes total. His previous playoff heroics were nowhere to be found and the club lost again in a fifth and deciding game.
In a startling move, Shaffer thereafter left the NBA.
He refused to report to the Sixers for the 1964-65 season. Even after Shaffer was part of a blockbuster deal in January 1965 to San Francisco (the Sixers received Wilt Chamberlain from the Warriors), Shaffer still didn’t report. Warriors’ owner Franklin Mueli offered him $40,000 a season, but still, Shaffer refused.
In a 1986 interview, Shaffer insisted he “wasn’t close” to his peak as a player, still he was gone and never coming back to the NBA. At just 24-years old, he left the league for a better-paying job with a transportation company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Eventually, he’d work his way up to president and COO and sounded pleased with his decision despite depriving basketball junkies everywhere with more spectacular performances. But really, you can’t fault him in the end for doing what made him happy.
Regular Season: 196 Games
Playoffs: 13 Games