This is the latest in a series of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
As we get set for Game 4 of the Knicks/Heat series tomorrow afternoon with the Knicks down three games to zero, I thought you folks might enjoy the tale of the first NBA team (of just three teams to ever do it) to come back from down three games to zero to force a Game 7, the 1950-51 Knicks, the first Knicks team to ever make it to the NBA Finals.
The Knicks were in their fifth year in existence in 1950-51, their second in the NBA (the Knicks began in the BAA, which merged with the NBL to form the NBA in 1949. The BAA is considered the official beginning of the NBA, so the Knicks are considered founding members of the NBA). They had a good season in 1949-50 but took a step back in the 1950-51 season as they lost their leading scorer, shooting guard/small forward Carl Braun to military service (Braun retired as the Knicks’ all-time leading scorer, although he has been passed over the years by first Willis Reed, then Walt Frazier and finally Patrick Ewing). Even back then the Knicks did not have good luck with players being available for the playoffs.
The Knicks were led by second-year point guard Dick Maguire and third-year big man Harry Gallatin (both Maguire and Gallatin, as well as Braun, are Hall of Famers). Still, after finishing second the year before they fell to third in the Eastern Division with a (I kid you not) 36-30 record. The top four teams in the Eastern Division made the playoffs (same with the top four teams in the Western Division). The Knicks upset the #2 seeded Boston Celtics in the first round (which were best of three back then). The #4 seed Syracuse Nationals upset the #1 seeded Philadelphia Warriors and the Knicks knocked off the Nationals in the final game of a best of five Divison Finals.
Meanwhile, in the Western Division, the Rochester Royals (I love the days when a team in New York is in the “Western Division” of a league. In the early days of the NBA, it was very much an East Coast league) were serious also-rans in the West because of the Minneapolis Lakers and their dominant center George Mikan. Mikan led the Lakers to four titles in five years from 1948-49 to 1953-54. This season, though, Mikan was dealing with a severe leg injury so the Royals and their strong big men (led by Arnie Risen) finally led the Royals to the NBA Finals.
After dispatching the most dominant team in the League, the Royals were quite confident against the Knicks. And when they won the first three games (including a 27-point victory in Game 1 at home and a 15-point victory in Game 2), things looked like they were going according to plan.
Beginning in Game 4, though, the Knicks began turning the tables. Gallatin has 22 points and 14 rebounds as the Knicks finally got on the board. Following a three-point victory in Game 5, the Knicks returned to New York to tie the series in Game 6 with a 7 point victory. Royals shooting guard Bobby Wanzer recalled, “We were a little bit leery about the last game. We weren’t down. We figured we still had the best team, but it was no cakewalk. We blew a couple of games. We should have won another game in there, but we didn’t, and we were concerned.”
The Royals stormed to a big lead in the final game (held in Rochester) but the Knicks came back from 14 down in the fourth quarter to briefly take the lead. Then, with 44 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the score tied 75-75, the Rochester point guard, Bob Davies, was fouled. He made both free throws. Back in those days, if you made the second free throw in the last three minutes of the game then there was a jump ball. The Royals won the jump ball. Also back in those days, there was no shot clock, so the Royals just held the ball before scoring once more with 3 seconds left, taking the game 79-75 and the series 4 games to 3.
The game was the first championship by the Royals (and, even after the Royals eventually moved to Sacramento and became the Kings, this is still the only title won by the franchise). One of their key reserves was a man named William Holzman. Yep, that’s right, future Hall of Fame coach for the Knicks, Red Holzman.
This began a three-year stretch where the Knicks made it to the NBA Finals every year (they would lose the next two Finals to the aforementioned Lakers – with a healthy George Mikan).
Since the 1951 NBA Finals, only the 1994 Denver Nuggets (in the second round) and the 2003 Portland Trailblazers (in the first round) have come back from 3-0 deficits to take the series to a Game 7. Eventually, some team will make the comeback all the way from 3-0 down to win. Maybe that can happen in this series!
As the lottery guy says, hey, you never know!
If you enjoyed this story, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Urban Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every week at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!