Al Cervi: Old Pro from Syracuse, 1952

[When the NBA got underway in the early 1950s, Al Cervi, the veteran player-coach of the Syracuse Nats, was the league’s equivalent of a pro wrestling villain. He swaggered into opposing arenas wearing a uniform and a scowl, while fans booed and hissed his every move. Then, once play started, Cervi became “a towel-waving jumping jack,” threatening anyone and everyone who got in the way of his Nats’ winning. 

“I’ll beat youse guys by a hundert some day,” Cervi once announced to a roomful of reporters in Minneapolis, referring to George Mikan and the Lakers.

“He alibis every time he loses in Syracuse,” Cervi once publicly called out Boston’s Red Auerbach. “It’s about time he stopped making excuses.”

Recalled Syracuse star Dolph Schayes: “We were a rough-and-tumble, Bowery Boys team. That goes back to Al, who was a tough guy who would do anything—and I mean anything—to win.”

“[Al] always told me, ‘Don’t use your hands when you fight somebody, use your feet,”‘ said Paul Seymour, Syracuse’s defensive stopper.

In 1959, the 42-year-old Cervi wrapped his tumultuous, mostly winning NBA coaching career for a higher-paying position with a Rochester trucking company. The following season, the Los Angeles Lakers almost coaxed Cervi out of retirement to coach the franchise’s young superstars Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. But his wife wouldn’t uproot the family.

Cervi claimed in later years that the NBA’s Golden Era ended in 1960. As he explained, that’s when the league transitioned from a tight focus on defense to an unhealthy obsession with one-on-one offense. Of the league’s 1980s slogan—”the NBA is fantastic”—the then-74-year-old Cervi waved his hands, “I’ve never seen such garbage! And people are buying it! They palm the ball all the time! The three-second rule—they haven’t called it since 1804! All this dunking, I don’t see what the hell it has to do with basketball! Dunking is useful, sure. It’s useful for players who can’t shoot!”

On the claim that the players of the 1980s could run rings around those like him who founded the NBA, Cervi countered, “They say the old guys couldn’t play today! They are liars, and I am very angry about that! The old players would be bigger stars today than they were yesterday! My 1955 team, I’d take that team and go into pro ball tomorrow. We had everything—good balance, good shooters, decent height.”

On Michael Jordan: “My God, I’ve seen Jordan, the best shooter on the floor, free half the time. No one covers him! They don’t double-team him! They don’t switch properly! He’s out there, free! Free! I can’t believe it!”

In this article from the early 1950s, Jack Newcombe, a writer with SPORT Magazine, captures Cervi at his finest. The piece is really well done and definitely worth the read. Newcombe went on to write for Life Magazine, then became executive editor of the Book of the Month Club. In February 1990, at the age of 66, Newcombe died from striking his head during a fall in his New York apartment. Cervi, who has been properly enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, passed away in 2009. He was a feisty, but beloved, 92 years old.]

Al Cervi, the high-voltage player-coach of the Syracuse Nationals in the National Basketball Association, has the lean and harried look of a man who has spent the best part of his life winning and losing basketball games. Fortunately for Al, he has won a lot more than he has lost. Because after 25 years as an amateur and professional in the sport, he still suffers the grinding agony of a condemned man every time his team so much as slips a point behind. 

Al’s despair is most visible and audible when he is coaching from the sidelines, but it can show up when he’s coaching on the run, too. A losing performance by the Nats inevitably drives him off the bench and into the game where he can glare and shout at the officials at point-blank range. Likewise, a winning performance is apt to bring him into action in the final minutes. Cervi feels things are more secure with him on the floor. They usually are. 

A fiery competitor who plays with the zip and determination of a schoolboy half his age (35), Cervi’s passion for victory and his sound knowledge of the game make him an ideal player-coach. His Syracuse teams, which have won 123 games and lost 70 in the last three complete seasons, hustle more than any other club in the league. In 1950, the Nats hustled to the finals of the NBA playoffs before losing to the championship Minneapolis Lakers. Without the help of big-name college stars (except ex-NYU ace Dolph Schayes), the Nats have become a solid draw, one of the few solvent clubs in the league. In Syracuse, they attribute the enthusiasm for pro basketball to the work of the team’s fireball coach. 

Cervi carries the nickname of “Digger” around western New York State, where he has been playing pro basketball since 1937. Although “Digger” is more commonly worn by wire-haired fox terriers, the name fits Cervi well. No one digs any harder than Al to get the ball up the court and through the hoop or to stop an opponent from doing the same. Sometimes the rules and/or the officials get in his way, but Al considers them necessary evils nowadays. He can remember a time when he played with a minimum of interference from both. In those days, it was customary to leave the floor at the end of the game with parts of opponents or their uniforms clutched in your hands. He and Nat Hickey, an Original Celtic who was then in his mid-thirties, once stripped off each other’s shirt during some violent hand-to-hand combat on the floor. 

Cervi’s attitude toward total victory gets him into occasional difficulty with the opposition. A running feud between the Nats and the New York Knickerbockers, which dates back to 1948, is fanned periodically by the charge from Madison Square Garden that Cervi is playing foul again. The Nats claim the Knicks have been piqued ever since Dolph Schayes was wooed away from the big city to Syracuse. 

But the irritation goes deeper than that. The New York club, which had a succession of unhappy experiences in smoke-clouded State Fair Coliseum where Syracuse played its games until this year, became outspokenly annoyed with its upstate rivals during the 1950 Eastern Division playoffs. In the first game of that series, a Syracuse crowd of 9,674 (all of whom were smoking big black cigars, according to one Knickerbocker report) whooped and hollered as the Nats won, 91-83, in overtime. Twelve players fouled out of the game (one of them was Cervi) and the Knicks had to shoot at a basket that developed a mysterious case of the shakes in the second half. Cervi was quoted as explaining the phenomenon as a result of the exhaust from a big electric fan, but New York coach Joe Lapchick and most of his players were convinced that fans of a different species were involved. 

The second game in New York was more brutal than many of the prizefights showing around town that winter. The Knicks stumbled off the court with an 80-76 win, but they had the bedraggled look of the vanquished. Carl Braun was helped to the sidelines with a leaking wound and Dick McGuire was barely able to stand upright. 

Ned Irish, the Knicks’ proprietor, accused Cervi of “atrocious tactics.” More specifically, he charged that Al was using substitutes as commandos, softening up the enemy by wrecking its star performers. The Syracuse club sent Joe Lapchick a bunch of sour grapes and awaited the deciding game on its home floor. The baskets stood rigid and unmoving all night, but that didn’t help the Knicks much. A record local crowd of 10,270 hooted and booed the big-city boys as they went down to defeat, 91-80. Player-coach Cervi contributed 14 points and a lot of noise. 

Al Cervi slices to the hoop.

In something of an anti-climax, the Nats tackled the Lakers in the final round, winning twice before bowing to superior height and shooting power. The last game, played at Minneapolis on the 23rd of April, 1950, saw three separate brawls break out. Cervi wasn’t around to go down with his ship; he was ordered out of sight by the referee for protesting a foul too loudly. 

Al’s hypersensitive reactions to basketball officials have been characterized by some of his rivals as nothing but cheap vaudeville. A friendly foe (and most of Cervi’s basketball enemies are friends and admirers off the court) recently described him as the Barrymore of the NBA, a guy who can make a one-act play out of sending in a substitute. Cervi admits to occasional flights of melodrama when he’s coaching from the bench. He never was one to sit quietly and dope out strategy. What his critics fail to understand is that the majority of Al’s performances are spontaneous expressions of his emotions. When the referee whistles down a pretty scoring play by Syracuse, Cervi reacts like an old fire horse to the clang of the station bell. He just can’t help it. 

Not all of Al’s reactions are angry ones. In the 1948-49 National Basketball League season, when Syracuse finally clinched its first victory over arch-rival Rochester, Cervi, who had been a player with the Royals the winter before, was so elated that he went into an original Irish jig on the floor. The Syracuse crowd of 9,000 shared his unrestrained joy. 

Seated on the bench, dressed in a red warmup shirt, shorts, white shoes, and a brace on his right knee, Al is a rare study in pantomime. The quick sweep of the action that takes the ball from one end of the court to the other is enough to evoke Cervi’s entire theatrical repertoire. Part of it goes like this: From a tense pose at the edge of his seat, where he either wrings his hands nervously or massages his bald spot with quick, short little strokes, he throws himself into an exaggerated slump, his arms flopped disgustedly over the backs of the seats on either side, his face covered with a look of bitter scorn. A Syracuse basket brings a lightning-like change. He sits bolt upright, waving his fist int the air in victory gesture.  

One of the Syracuse Nats’ front-office executives—there are four vice-presidents, a treasurer, a secretary, a general manager, an executive vice-president, and a president—told me it was this bubbling spirit with which Cervi coached and played every game that was the key to the club’s success. “It’s not easy to get a pro team ‘up’ 66 nights a season, but Cervi seems to do it,” he said. 

He had his boys “up” one night early this winter when I watched them play Fort Wayne in the first game of a double header at Madison Square Garden. It was just another game on the long NBA schedule, played before a small, indifferent audience on a neutral court. The Nats, who pride themselves on their tough defense, held a 36-33 lead at halftime. In the Syracuse locker room, the players dropped on the benches which lined the four walls. Some of them lit cigarettes and leaned back, taking long drags; others mopped their faces with towels given them by their equipment man. Cervi prowled the center of the room, waiting impatiently to talk. When he did, he unrolled a non-stop series of miscellaneous comments and instructions.  

“Now keep it spread like I told you . . . The minute you bunch up . . .” He dropped his arms in a gesture of futility. “We can run with these guys, I told you that . . . We gotta control those taps. Be sure of ‘em! . . . Now, c’mon,” he implored them, “keep it open within set-shot range.”

The manager looked around and said quietly, “Anyone need shoelaces?” No one answered, and Cervi, who had been checking the scorebook, turned to the Nats’ leading scorer, Dolph Schayes. “Dolph, you get off in those corners. They got to come to you.” Cervi paused, then raised his voice, “I told you before how much we got to win this game.” He clapped his hands and snapped, “Awright, let’s go!” The players jumped up, most of them yelling and clapping, and clamored out the door.  

It was a scene you might expect to find in the Winona High locker room at halftime., but the pros are supposed to be too old for this stuff. The Syracuse Nats get it from Cervi night after night, and who can say it doesn’t do them good? In the second half against Fort Wayne, they ran and controlled the taps and didn’t bunch up and Schayes popped them in from the corners. The final score was 80-62. 

Cervi later coached in Philadelphia, where he hated losing more than the fans.

Cervi makes no claim that he creates spirit in his players; he tries to make sure it is there in the first place. His job is to keep the flame alive. The Nats have been successful in getting boys who want to play the Cervi way. That may be one reason why there are relatively few big-name stars on the team. 

Whenever possible Al scouts a prospective player himself. “First, I look for spirit and hustle,” Cervi explains. “The player must be good on defense. There are too many good shooters in the game. A sound defense always has a chance; your offense may go wrong every so often, but your defense remains constant.”

A prospect gets a thorough test before Cervi signs him. Al tries to scrimmage against the player, checking his defensive reactions and aggressiveness in particular. He gave George King, the former Morris-Harvey record scorer, the works in Toledo one hot August afternoon. King passed the exam and became a member of the team. Wally Osterkorn of Illinois also got Cervi’s personal  attention.

The old college try, which Cervi demands of his players, is something he acquired without ever going near a college. Al is a direct graduate of the basketball sandlots, a fairly rare case in a game dominated by fellows who have at least been exposed to university life. Al’s basketball education, however, is more thorough than that of any other active pro.

It started back in Buffalo, New York, where he was born, February 12, 1917, to parents who had emigrated from a village near Rome, Italy. He was the youngest of six children, three brothers and three sisters. “I guess you would have to say it started in the sixth grade at Public School 71. Al Moore, who played baseball in the majors, was coach and he encouraged me. I was team captain. What a little runt I was!” (Cervi now stands 5-foot-11 ½ and weighs 182. His weight hasn’t varied more than five pounds in the last 10 years.)

Cervi played on the team at East High in Buffalo and, at the same time, picked up some rugged experience and a few dollars in semi-pro games. A game was usually worth $7 to $10, plus expenses. His book-learning became irregular and, in 1937, he dropped out of school and became a basketball pro in earnest. “Now, of course, I wish I had finished and had gone to college,” he says. 

Al was learning his profession in the late Thirties in gyms, auditoriums, dance halls, and armories throughout western New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Allie Heerd, a member of the old Buffalo Germans, persuaded him to become a legitimate pro and play for the Bisons, a local independent team. From the Bisons, he went to the Rochester Ebers and Rochester Seagrams, sponsored by a distillery. He played in some fast company. Johnny Moir and Paul Novak of Notre Dame and Gus (Swede) Broberg of Dartmouth were among his associates. 

By playing often, he could average $125 a week [today, nealry $2,500], an attractive pre-war wage. Pro basketball was still on a rustic, barnstorming basis then, and Cervi played under all sorts of conditions. At. St. Stanislaus Hall in Rochester, where he frequently played, it was necessary to run right up on the stage after driving under the basket. “That’s where I first learned to act,” Al said with a grin. Among his favorite floors was one in Oil City, Pennsylvania, with a red-glowing coal stove in the middle of the court. “It had a little railing around it so you wouldn’t get scorched,” Al pointed out. 

“I guess the game has lost much of its intimacy for the fans,” he said. “We give them better basketball in better halls, but maybe there isn’t as much excitement.”

By excitement, Al means this sort of slam-bang contact that went on among the pros in those early days. It was rough, but interesting. After some games, Al’s shins were so bruised he couldn’t drive his car away. The scars from those early pro wars are frequently wrapped in bandages now. Cervi uses enough gauze and adhesive tape to keep Johnson & Johnson in business all by himself. Once, when he took the floor with his familiar knee brace, plus a hip pad, tape on his thigh, a band-aid around his finger, and an elbow protector, Art Deutsch, the club’s general manager, solicitously inquired about the elbow injury, one he had not been aware of before. “Oh, that,” Al said. “I put the pad on in case I get hurt.”

Cervi’s basketball career was temporarily halted by his induction into the service at Fort Niagara in May, 1941. He spent four and a half years in uniform and had as enjoyable a time as any draftee in the Army. He was placed in Special Services, where a large part of his duties consisted of playing second base for the camp team. Fellow players included Matt Batts, Bob Hooper, Steve Peek, and Joe Gallagher. With Foster Field, Texas, Cervi doubled and scored against Clint Hartung when the Hondo Hurricane was building his fabulous baseball reputation in the service. Al’s ballplaying was of sufficient note to earn him a tryout with the Buffalo Bisons. But, although he was a regular Eddie Stanky at getting on base, his arm apparently was good only for dribbling a basketball. 

His Army pals were impressed by Cervi’s wide versatility in sports. He won the badminton championship at Foster Field and went to the finals of the Houston handball tourney in the doubles competition. He turned out to be an excellent swimmer and acted as a Red Cross instructor after the war. 

Cervi married Ruth Marion Smith, who lived a few blocks away from him in Buffalo, his first year in the Army. Staff-Sergeant Jake Mooty, the ex-Cincinnati and Chicago Cubs pitcher, gave him a pass so he and Ruth could get married and have a two-day honeymoon. The Cervis now live in a home in Syracuse with their three children—Allen, six; Kathleen, three, and Marcia Marie, born last December. 

There was no question of how Al would support his family when he was discharged from the service. It was just a matter of where. Lester Harrison, president of the Rochester Royals, had once told him, “Son, I prefer you play for, rather than against, me.” Harrison got his wish in the fall of 1945 when Cervi reported to the Royals, then in the National Basketball League. Al got into 28 games, enough to earn him a selection on the league’s second all-star team. The next year, his 14.4 scoring average was the best in the league. By 1947-48, when he was picked on the NBL’s first all-star team with George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Moe Todorovich, and Red Holzman, the fans in Sheboygan, Oshkosh, Hammond, and other towns around the circuit were convinced that Cervi was as fine a pro, inch for inch, as you could find in basketball. 

Al’s switch from star player at Rochester to player-coach at Syracuse in 1948 was exceeded only by the jump of Leo Durocher from the Dodgers to the Giants that same summer as the most astonishing change of uniforms in sports. Over a period of years, Cervi, always a member of an invading quintet, had acquired in Syracuse the nickname of “Little Poison.” But the Nationals were $63,000 short of breaking even, and they felt that something shocking had to be done. Cervi, they hoped, would stir up some excitement—and win a few games. 

Al was enthused with the idea of being a player-coach. He didn’t consider the Nats a lost cause. The first big step toward building a winner was taken when Dolph Schayes was signed. With help from the big NYU sharpshooter, Cervi steered his club to a second-place finish behind Anderson. Al played 57 games and was named to the NBL all-star team and picked as Coach of the Year. It was quite a season for the veteran player and rookie coach. 

The war between the NBL and the Basketball Association of America ended in 1949 with a cumbersome merger between the two leagues. Syracuse, its schedule loaded with the old NBL clubs, was the class of the new group. The Nats lost only 13 times in 64 games. They answered the critics who had said they could whip only the weak sisters by compiling a 16-4 record against the old BAA teams and by knocking off the New York Knicks in a three-game playoff. 

Cervi’s playing record in the major pro leagues, which shows five all-star first- or second-team mentions since 1946, and his remarkable success as a leader of the Syracuse Nats are, of course, unparalleled in the game. There are players in the league with more impressive records and coaches who have won more titles, but no one has done as well as both. 

At 35, Al should be ready to call it quits as a player. He is down to an average of 10 or 12 minutes of action a game now. But Cervi would hardly know what to do if he couldn’t run around and take sets and layups with the boys before the game, and he is quite sure he might go crazy if he had to sit on the bench all night, coaching only by remote control. It’s something he would just as soon not think about for a while. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: