Willie Naulls: What Else Does He Have to Do? 1962

[Coming out of high school in 1950s Los Angeles, Willie Naulls was known as “Willie the Whale.”  He had an ample 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame and a huge reputation in Southern California for his exploits on the basketball court. Naulls signed with UCLA but never made the epic, game-changing splash that many expected. His problem was Coach John Wooden. The two didn’t get along at first. But his college career wasn’t a washout either. He left Westwood as a second-team All American and UCLA’s top all-time scorer and rebounder.  

Naulls went in the second round of the 1956 NBA draft to St. Louis. He seized his opportunity to carve out a solid 10-year NBA career, passing from St. Louis to New York, San Francisco, and Boston, where he retired in 1966. As Naulls explained, “After 10 years, the fun has essentially gone out of the game for me.” But at age 31, he walked away with many tall tales to tell. Among them was the day that he and his Knick teammates had finished practicing at a local high school, per usual. Everyone was on their way out of the gym when he heard someone say, “Hello, Mr. Naulls, I want to introduce myself . . .” Naulls glanced in the direction of the voice, then he looked up, up, up. It was the teenaged Lew Alcindor, already seven-feet tall. A friendship began, and Naulls helped to recruit Alcindor to UCLA. He also proved highly influential in keeping him there for four years. 

After basketball, Naulls chased several business opportunities and eventually founded Willie Naulls Ministries. In his role as Pastor Naulls, he published eight books about God and faith, including his autobiography, which isn’t easy find. In 2018, after a battle with the rare Churg-Strauss syndrome, Pastor Naulls passed away at age 84. His was truly a life well-lived.

Today, there’s not a whole lot out there about his fine basketball career. So, I was happy to stumble on this article from the great Lou Sahadi in the magazine Complete Sports Basketball, 1961-62. Thought I’d share it with anyone who remembers or might be interested in the kid they once called Willie the Whale.]

In a steamy dressing room underneath the rotunda of Madison Square Garden one day last March, members of the New York Knickerbockers were flitting around at a leisurely pace. The mood reflected by the players signified the end of a long season. And yet, the starry-eyed rookies still had the bounce they brought with them to training camp months before. They were the first to shower and change into street clothes. 

While most of the other players in the National Basketball Association were packing their gear for the upcoming playoffs, the Knicks were left to bid farewell to one another until next season. The veterans on the squad had been through it before. A handshake, some encouraging words, and a goodbye until the next campaign. Their pace was much slower than the others. One of the veterans, Willie Naulls, was in a corner of the dimly-lit cubicle. He sat reclining on his elbows with a towel draped around his midsection. He had a big year, and his teammates congratulated him on such before departing from the humid room. 

Although innately quiet, Naulls nevertheless commanded respect for his skills with a basketball, not only from his teammates, but from around the league as well. He sat with his thoughts reflecting on the game against Detroit, the final regular-season contest for both squads, which had concluded some 10 minutes before on the floor upstairs. Only when addressed did he turn his head to acknowledge a teammate or a friend’s greeting. By this time, only a few players remained dutifully going about the task of securing their equipment until next year. 

“It would have been a nice game to win,” said Naulls. “At least it wouldn’t have seemed like such a long season.”

The campaign Naulls was referring to was the worst in Knick history. Virtually mired in last place all season, New York only showed 21 victories for its season’s work. Their losses numbered 58, which is the highest on record for any NBA club. The Philadelphia team of 1952-53 previously was shackled with the most losses, 57, but it came during a shorter season as attributed by its 12 wins.  That year, the Knicks finished on top of its division. They did so the following season, bu haven’t since. Last year, they reached their lowest point. 

They could have salvaged some token of success if they had beaten Detroit on the last day of the season. The Pistons and Cincinnati had reached the final game of the schedule deadlocked for the third-and-final playoff berth in the Western Division. But the Knickerbockers couldn’t even play the role of spoilers. They provided Detroit with the triumph it needed to assure the existing deadlock, which was ultimately broken, as Cincinnati lost at Los Angeles hours later. 

Individually for Naulls, however, last season was the greatest he produced in the five years he has earned a living as a professional basketball player. He gave evidence during the early segment of the season that he was headed for a banner campaign. But his individual prowess wasn’t enough to satisfy the 6-foot-6 graduate of UCLA. Time and again throughout the course of the season when he was complimented for his stellar play, he would remark: “What good is it, we’re not winning any games.”

In most of those games, Naulls excelled as he never did before. He executed his skills quietly, but with electrifying results. Time and again, he brought the Madison Square Garden crowds to their feet with his velvety one-handed jump shots. The buffs around the famous Eighth Avenue arena called it “the touch.” 

Naulls brought the touch with him to New York from St. Louis in 1956. Desperately in need of backcourt strength, the Hawks traded Naulls, then a rookie, for the veteran guard Slater Martin. As it turned out, it was an excellent exchange for both clubs. In the ensuing years, Martin sparked the Hawks to three consecutive divisional titles before his retirement last year. Naulls has filled a hole at forward for the Knicks, and he still has plenty of basketball left. 

The past season, the 27-year-old Naulls was an explosive offensive weapon. He scored points at a record-setting pace, finishing with 1,846, the highest total ever produced by a player wearing the livery of the New York Knickerbockers. His average of 23.4, which ranked him seventh in the NBA, also was the highest in Knick annals. 

But Naulls effectiveness wasn’t limited to scoring alone. He was a determined rebounder, topping the Knicks in that department for the fourth-consecutive year. The number of stray shots he pulled down, 1,055, besides being a career high, was the second highest in New York history. Only Harry Gallatin with 1,098 in 1953-54 ranks ahead of Naulls. 

Despite all this, Naulls wasn’t selected on the first team of the Eastern Division all stars. Boston’s rugged Tom Heinsohn was the coaches’ pick for one spot; while Dolph Schayes, a veteran of many campaigns, received the other. Naulls was given a second-team berth, and it hurt him inside. He wondered what else he had to do? 

And yet, the knock on Naulls is that he’s not aggressive enough. A majority of the basketball cognoscenti is of the opinion Naulls dogs it most of the time he is in a game. Like most of the pros, Naulls paces himself throughout the course of a contest. He’ll admit doing such, as would any other player. The arduous grind of an NBA season dictates such a course of action. No one in the league can go 48 minutes at top speed. 

Naulls must judiciously conserve his strength. As players go, Naulls is not strong. He has a tendency to tire, and he knows it more than anyone else. One time during a game last season in the Garden, Naulls was off to another high-scoring night. Toward the end of the first period, he hit on five consecutive one handers, mostly from outside, which had the Knick partisans wildly cheering. Before he could make another basket, coach Carl Braun removed Naulls from the contest. This naturally evoked a loud chorus of boos from the crowd. It lasted for half a minute. However, unknowingly to the fans, Naulls himself had asked Braun to relieve him for a breather. 

Still, others claim Naulls is a ball hog. They argue that once the ball goes in to Naulls, it doesn’t come back out. This is unfair as Naulls, or any other player for that matter, wouldn’t deliberately ignore an open teammate underneath the basket. If the shot is there, Naulls will take it. He is conceivably the best shooter on the squad. He is expected to produce 20 or more points a game. He earns his keep as a big scorer. Forwards in the NBA are the big pointmakers. With the exception of Philadelphia’s Wilt Chamberlain and Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, the leading scorers last year on the remaining six teams were forwards. 

Naulls executes the skills of his body in a smooth fashion. Maybe the ridiculous ease in lofting his one handers towards its target creates the impression that he is loafing more than others. He performs his trade with a skill unmatched by others in his profession. His fluid movements in getting off a shot makes his labor look easy. 

Then, too, not being a vociferous individual, Naulls may appear to some to be just standing around while arms and legs are in flight toward the basket. He doesn’t make it a practice to get embroiled in arguments or fights as a result of the body contact some fans relish seeing. He has a placid nature and is not one to vent his anger on anyone. When he is angry, it is at himself. This, too, he fights inside. He’ll walk off the floor looking downward with his hands on his hips and take his place on the bench without any outward flare of temper, not even as much as slamming a towel to the ground. 

This same nature prevents Naulls from imploring any excessive body contact underneath the boards. Because of this, the buffs maintain Naulls is afraid to mix it up. Although he doesn’t flagrantly make use of body jostling, Naulls knows how to implore any hipping movements. You couldn’t lead a team four years running in rebounds without knowing your way in and out of the traffic jams under the backboards. 

Naulls’ secret is that he quickly and smoothly makes use of body contact to corral or rebound. His sense of timing, not only in jumping but also in breaking toward the backboard, is his greatest asset. This provides the rebounds for Naulls, while most others resort to the brute-force strength in their massive frames to accomplish what Naulls does so gracefully.

Naulls carries this quiet nature off the floor. Even on roadtrips, he bypasses the card games his teammates use as a diversion to peruse a newspaper or book. He’s almost shy, speaking only when spoken to and then in a soft tone. He dresses conservatively in Ivy League fashion and his boyish grin makes him look younger than his 27 years. He has handsome features, and his bright eyes enable him to observe people and situations in this studious manner. He is known in basketball circles as a class guy. 

For the disbelievers who contend that Naulls doesn’t go all out, he answered back by playing in every Knick game last season. There were times he performed with a weak knee. Toward the campaign’s end, he almost experienced a case of fatigue. He continued playing, nourishing his body with a number of different colored pills when he just as easily could have strengthened himself by abstaining from play for a few games. Others in his profession resorted to rest as a cure for feeling fatigued. 

Naulls has grown to shrug off the doubters. It used to bother him. He played the game his way last year, and you can’t dispel his success. It was his greatest year as a pro. And, he did it all in his own quiet manner. That is his way. 

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