Half Dollar Bill Melchionni, 1971

[This is a brief article about guard Bill Melchionni, then tearing it up for the ABA New York Nets. Later, Melchionni would serve as the team’s general manager, as highlighted in our previous post about Super John Williamson. Melchionni was also known back then as “Half Dollar Bill,” a tongue-in-cheek play on the Knicks’ higher-profile Dollar Bill Bradley. I pulled this article from the Nets 1970-71 Yearbook. At the keyboard is the maestro Peter Vecsey, then with the New York Daily News.]


To be an acknowledged guard in pro basketball, you must possess a soft shooting touch from inside the key and around the circle, a basic ruggedness to absorb the constant pounding from driving the middle, and a quick first step and fast hands in order to survive while playing defense. But more than anything, you must come to every game prepared to play for keeps, and that’s what separates Bill Melchionni from the average ballplayer.

Nets’ owner Roy Boe claims that if you could find five Melchionni’s (at different heights, of course), he would win more than his share of championships. A grandiose compliment like that will no doubt be referred to, by at least one party, when a new contract is discussed.

“He’s a park rat,” says coach and general manager Lou Carnesecca. “In New York, we call his type a sewer rat. They’re my favorite type of player. Always in shape. It doesn’t matter what season it is, you’ll always be able to find them on the court. Always out there clawing. They’ll find 10 different ways to beat you—and at both ends of the court.”

Quotes are not necessary where his teammates are concerned, because they cast votes. Prior to this season’s first regular game, they elected the 6-foot-1, 170-pound, hard-nosed backcourtman team captain.

Opposing guards, who have felt the pressure of Billy’s defensive tenacity and have tried unsuccessfully to stop his long-range shooting and hard drives, just shake their heads and mutter obscenities.

What it all adds up to is one tough 25-year-old of Italian heritage, who learned his game in the schoolyards, matured under the expert tutelage of Villanova coach Harry Kraft, and is now considered to be one of the finest guards in the ABA.

There is nothing fancy about Melchionni’s game. He leaves showtime ballhandling to those who must resort to it in order to build up their game, and Billy’s game is as pure as Dionne Warwick’s vocal range.

When there is a press to beat, his teammates just clear out and let Billy bring the ball upcourt. You’ll see no around-the-back dribbling, no turnovers, no steals, just a constant change of hands as he protects the ball with his body. When the ball is past midcourt, it is Melchionni who calls out the plays and directs the offense.

In his first season with the Nets last year, Billy rated second in the ABA in assists to Larry Brown. And he holds the club game record of 12, which he set this year against Carolina, breaking his own mark of 11.

His shooting, though, is what made Melchionni a legend in college. His reputation was that he could hit his missiles from a range where most guards would need forward observers. The rest of Melchionni’s game was overshadowed by his scoring ability and by the fact that Villanova always played a zone, so it was strictly a team effort on defense.

Currently, Melchionni is among the top 10 in scoring, averaging close to 21 per game. Carnesecca, who saw his share of Melchionni in college while coaching at St. John’s, remembers “that the little son of a gun always seemed to beat us. When I heard that he was available after sitting out his year’s option with the Phoenix Suns, I went right after him.”

Billy had signed with the Philadelphia 76ers after graduation and played two years in the Quaker City, where his job was mainly to give up fouls and collect splinters. When Phoenix picked him up in the expansion draft, Melchionni said thanks, but no thanks.

“I didn’t report because my family ties are in Philly, and the Suns didn’t offer enough to compensate me for the inconvenience,” said Melchionni. “New York actually was the only other place I wanted to play.”

Right about the time that the Nets offered Melchionni a contract, the 76ers decided to buy back negotiating rights from Phoenix for a second-round draft choice. “I wasn’t about to sit behind Hal Greer, Wally Jones, and Archie Clark again. And besides, I had given my word to Lou about coming to the Nets.”

The Nets, when counting its blessings, number Hal Greer, Wally Jones, Archie Clark, and a young man who kept his word.

[As an added bonus, here is a clip in which Melchionni’s compares the NBA and ABA, then a hot topic of pro basketball discussion. Melchionni’s thoughts were published on February 21, 1971 in the New York Daily News. This time, reporter John Vergara is at the keyboard, and I’ve copied most, though not all, of the article.]

“You give the New York Nets a center like Lew Alcindor or Willis Reed, and we could hold our own with any team in basketball today.” The speaker is Bill Melchionni, who was taking a breather during a workout with his Net teammates at the Island Garden in West Hempstead, Long Island. 

As far as Melchionni is concerned, the NBA-ABA situation is comparable to the early days of football’s NFL-AFL controversy. The NFL had more quality players, but the AFL has many stars under contract who could have played regularly on most NFL teams. After all, weren’t the college stars available to either league in the draft? Did a player become a better pro because he signed with the Minnesota Vikings rather than the Kansas City Chiefs?

“When the Jets beat the Colts in the Super Bowl and then the Chiefs beat the Vikings the following year, it proved that the best teams in the AFL were as good or better than the best teams in the NFL,” Melchionni continued.

“That’s how I feel about the ABA right now. I’m sure that a team like Indiana, the best in our league, could beat any of the NBA clubs fairly regularly, with the exception of Milwaukee and the Knicks. And they could give those teams a rough night, too.”

Melchionni made a further comparison with a valid point. In the recent NBA All-Star game, a good percentage of the participants were players who won’t be around in a few years or who certainly won’t be as effective as they are today. These include stars like Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Lennie Wilkens, Gus Johnson, Jerry Lucas, Johnny Green, and a few others.

Another point Bill made was that the young players in the ABA are picking up priceless game experience, while young players in the older league spend much more time on the bench. “It’s true on the Knicks and on most of the NBA clubs. Fellows like Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, and Cazzie Russell get most of the playing time. The rookies and subs warm the bench. 

“On our club, players who might be benchwarmers with established teams are getting a chance to play, and there’s no substitute for game experience in enabling a player to realize his potential.”

Melchionni feels that an ABA All-Star team with Zelmo Beaty at center; Roger Brown and Rick Barry at forwards; and Don Freeman and Charlie Scott at guards would be a match for any NBA All-Star contingent. 

“They have more good players than we do, but our best are as good as their best,” is the way Bill sums it up.

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