[In his 2006 biography of Hall-of-Famer Joe Lapchick (buy it, you’ll like it!), basketball player-turned-writer Gus Alfieri couldn’t help himself. He traveled back in the time to relive his own childhood asphalt memories in Rockaway Beach, Queens. It is basketball writing at its best. Take a look:
Sunday was the day. And 108th Street Park in Rockaway Beach, Queens, was the place where New York’s finest three-on-three summer playground basketball was played below the rim but above the eyebrows. The netless rim, with its faded battleship-gray, tinny backboard attached to a pole, attracted some of the game’s biggest stars. Its black asphalt half-court was nothing special, measuring 50 by 35 and bordered by weathered white paint, and a four-foot screen fence by the swings and monkey bars. All the games were played on the first basket past the entrance with any orange-looking rubber ball that happened to be around.
It was the 1950s, with kids dreaming of the chance to go against some of Joe Lapchick’s Knicks. They fantasized about playing in Madison Square Garden and swishing a game-winning shot like Vince Boryla did with his two-hand bomb or snaking up a soft, teetering Carl Braun fall-away jump shot. These dreams filled a tiny beach park with kids lined up to show their stuff.
Joe Lapchick’s love and dedication to basketball were contagious. Carl Braun was a Knick who caught it, going wherever there was competition. On any Sunday, NBA pros, polished collegians, and hungry high school kids like me butted heads in three-on-three play for bragging rights.
During my St. Francis Prep days in the early 1950s, I hitched rides to the beach with other hoop dreamers. To play, I called “next,” and waited like in a bakery. When my number came up, I played. On different Sundays, most of Lapchick’s Knicks showed up, from Braun to Dick and Al McGuire, Connie Simmons, Ray Lumpp, and Ernie Vandeweghe. The park would occasionally find NBA greats like Dolph Schayes, Tommy Heinsohn, and LIU All-America Sherman White. These were the marquee names, the ones we saw on WPIX or heard announcer Marty Glickman rave about on the radio.
During the summer season, college and high school hotshots tried “holding court” against “the names.” It was the wannabes way of force-feeding fame by outdrawing the gunfighters. It was different then. Pros played with little fear of injury or bruised reputations. There was no need to pay to see them. Anyone could reach out to touch Boston Celtic Bob Cousy or the Knicks’ Ernie Vandeweghe. They weren’t deities worrying about big agent deals or jumping teams; just guys having summer fun. And they were my heroes.
In this article, from Sport Review’s 1953 Basketball edition, we check in on one of Alfieri’s childhood heroes: Carl Braun. He’s about to return to the New York Knicks after serving Uncle Sam, and expectations are high that Braun will put Lapchick’s Knicks over the hump to win an NBA title. The Knicks would come close, losing for a third-straight season to the Minneapolis Lakers in the finals. But Braun would quickly find his old form, leading the team-oriented Knicks in scoring at 14 points per game, though shooting just 32 percent from the field. Braun would do much better at the free-throw line, netting 82.5 percent of his tries with one of the all-time, weirdest NBA foul shots. Lapchick even mentions Braun’s odd-duck free-throw style toward the end of this article. If you want to see it, watch this Youtube video of Braun in all his Hall-of-Fame greatness at 35 seconds.]
Joe Lapchick could be goaded into picking his New York Knickerbockers to win the National Basketball Association championship. The tallest of the Original Celtics could supply the reason in two words—Carl Braun.
The popular Knick coach saw his team carry the powerful Minneapolis Lakers to the seventh and final game of the championship playoffs last spring. It was the best team he ever had. “Funny thing,” Lapchick was saying as he put his team through its early paces at Bear Mountain, N.Y., “we’ve had our best teams the last two years with Braun in the Army. But I sure am glad to see him back. Can you imagine the team we would have had last season? Besides missing Braun, Vince Boryla missed every playoff game due to a bad knee.”
Lapchick says Braun is the most colorful player the Knicks ever had. “Of all the basketball players in the game, I doubt if any of them has the number of shots that Braun has,” says Lapchick. “He is very good on the jump shot, can pivot, tosses well from a set position, and can shoot with one hand.”
Lapchick could go on for hours talking about Braun, the 25-year-old Manhasset, N.Y., athlete who was picked up from Colgate University after he turned professional when he signed with the New York Yankee chain as a pitcher for a $4,000 bonus in 1947.
When the pro circuit, then the Basketball Association of America, passed a rule permitting clubs to sign college players, Ned Irish, Madison Square Garden basketball director and executive vice-president, asked, “What are we waiting for?”
“It was Ned’s greatest contribution to the Knickerbockers,” says Lapchick. “He had remembered Braun from Adelphi Academy and from Colgate, where he played one year. I had remembered him from the game he played for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy team against my old St. John’s club. He was a big, skinny kid but had lots of drive.
“Braun is what I call the ‘perennial freshman’ of pro ball because of his great desire to play the game. He can run, jump well for rebounds, and is a fine ball handler. He can always be depended on to make the right play and, if there’s anything more for him to learn about the game, he’ll learn it.“
During the past two seasons, Braun has been stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C. He took his basic there and, due to a shortage of draftees, he was assigned to cadre duty, which entails instructing new troops during their basic. He recently finished his tour of duty as a corporal and as athletic and recreation non-commissioned officer up his outfit.
Unlike most athletes called for service, Braun returned to pro basketball just as trim as he was during the three years he led the Knickerbockers in scoring. The 6-feet-6 veteran still is 185 pounds.
He played “quite a bit of basketball during the last two years.” His Fort Bragg team won the post championship two years, and he led his outfit to victory in the Third Army Tournament. He was voted Most Valuable Player, averaging 30 points on 151 markers in five games. He sank 36 of 38 foul tries. Last winter, on his weekends he traveled to Washington to play with the American League team there. All he did was average better than 20 points per game.
As to a baseball comeback next spring, Braun says:
“I am uncertain as to ever trying my luck at baseball again. I have no plans and will have to wait a while before deciding.”
He last pitched in 1950 when he was the star hurler for the Riverhead, N.Y., semi-pro team. He’s on the Yankees’ voluntarily retired list and, if he attempted a pitching comeback, he might have to return to the minors, probably Binghamton, N.Y., to qualify for a higher classification.
He was signed for the Yankee chain by Paul Krichell, the scout who gave Lou Gehrig, Phil Rizzuto, Marius Russo, Tommy Holmes, Buddy Hassett, and Red Rolfe, among other stars, to organized baseball.
Braun’s No. 1 basketball thrill took place in a 1947 game in Providence. He threw 47 points through the netting to break the league record of 41 set by Joe Fulks of the Philadelphia Warriors. “It gave me a thrill,” says Braun, “because I was only 20 and a freshman among the pros at the time.” Fulks later broke Braun’s record with points to spare. In 1948, Fulks got 63 points in a game against Indianapolis.
Braun first attracted the attention of baseball and basketball men at a Adelphi Academy in Garden City N.Y. He tallied 396 points in 17 games for a 23-point average. In his first year at Colgate, he set a freshman record with 296 points in 16 games.
During his first season with the Knicks, Braun averaged 14.2 points a game, getting 671 markers. During the second year in pro ball, he finished ninth in NBA scoring, averaging 14.2 points a game on 810 tallies.
For the 1949-50 campaign, his last before entering the Army, the 25-year-old athlete ranked seventh in the league with 1,031 points for a 15.4 average.
Lapchick is so fond of Braun that when his star returned to court action, his old No. 4 uniform numeral was waiting for him. “Nobody else on our club wears this number,” said Lapchick. “It’s yours for as long as you play with us.”
Lapchick, a lovable light-hearted guy off the court but a chain-smoking worrier on the bench, always is serious when it comes to talking about Braun, that is, except when he describes Braun working the ball through the hoop on foul shots.
“He has the most-unique foul shot in the game,” says Lapchick. “He stands on one foot—his left—like a ballet dancer. He goes up on his toes and releases the ball with one hand—his right. He’s got that shot down pat and sometimes I wish my entire team looked like that at the foul line.”
Braun, who married a year ago, lists his hobby as golf. Coach Lapchick is a good golfer, but his hobby is winning basketball games—and watching Braun score all those points.
Braun has a fine record in the pro playoffs. In three games in 1948, he scored 30 points and two assists. In 1949, he averaged 19.3 points for six playoff games, getting 116 tallies and making 19 assists. In the 1950 playoffs, he swished through 85 points for five games and a 17-point average. Again, he figured on 19 assists.
He should fit in well among the Knicks’ tall men including Sweetwater Clifton, Connie Simmons, and Ernie Vanderweghe, plus such speed demons as Ray Lumpp and Dick and Al McGuire.