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Relocated NBA Teams: The Syracuse Nationals

The Syracuse Nationals were a basketball team that played in the NBA from 1946 to 1963. They are predecessors to the Philadelphia 76ers who play in the NBA to date. The Nationals were based in the town of Syracuse in upstate New York. The franchise was formed in 1946 by Danny Biasone, an Italian immigrant and began playing in the now-defunct NBL the same year. The team played their home games at the State Fair Coliseum from 1946 to 1951 and the Onondaga War Memorial Stadium from 1951 to 1963.

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The Nats were a fairly successful team during their time in Syracuse as they won one NBA title (out of three finals appearances), 3 division championships, and made the playoffs every single year. Nationals’ owner Danny Biasone was instrumental in saving the NBA from collapse by suggesting the shot clock introduction in 1954/55 season. Low scoring games were the norm in the NBA and the league therefore found it hard to attract fans. Danny had calculated that a 24-second shot clock would force teams to shoot more often and upon its introduction, the NBA -and the Nationals-never looked back. Average game scoring in the NBA grew by 14 points and fans turned up in droves, while the Nationals coincidentally won their first and only NBA title that season.

En route to the 1955 NBA Finals, the Nationals returned a 43-29 record to win the Eastern Division before dismissing perennial rivals Boston Celtics by four straight games to make the NBA Finals for athird time in five years. They faced the Fort Wane Pistons in the Title decider with the two teams pushing each other all the way to game 7. An inspirational performance by George King saw the Nats clinch the championship in the dying seconds of the game.

Among the most notable players to play for the Nats was Dolph Schayes who joined them in 1948 after initially appearing to be headed to the NYKnicks. With the team needing a big star to improve its profile, Biasone reportedly offered rookie Schayes 50% more than what the Knicks were offering to acquire his services. As the team entered the NBA, Schayes would be an influential figure in the team, leading them to the NBA finals in the very first season and a further two including the 1955 triumphant season. In 1951, the Syracuse Nationals made history by becoming the first NBA team to sign a black player, in the mold of Earl Jones who was snapped up from the Washington Capitals.

Games at the Nats home stadium were always tense affairs for opposing fans, players and the referee. Coach Al Cervi had inculcated an unrivalled fighting mentality in the team and this had perhaps rubbed off on the fans. Nats games were gritty with the team hasting opponents from the first to the last minute and that’s how they won a lot of their games. Cervi was given the nickname “the digger” due to this aspect of his team. Among the fans, there was the infamous “strangler” who would often physically attack opposing players and even referees.

Why were the Nationals Relocated?

Unlike the NBL, the NBA was ill suited for small town teams. With player remunerations and other costs skyrocketing, each team needed a strong financial base to survive in the league. With the Nats returning respectable results, they were able to outlast all other small town and former NBL teams by 1960. Live TV was still in its infancy at that time and the occasional mention in dailies was all the limelight the Nats received outside Syracuse. The Onondaga War Memorial was constrained for capacity, holding only 6000 people. It was apparent that the city of Syracuse would not be able to provide a new arena and the NBA considered the Nats a good candidate for the West Coast, where the league sought to expand. Minneapolis Lakers owner Bob Short tried to convince Biasone to move his team along with the Lakers to either of San Francisco or Los Angeles, but Biasone, being loyal to Syracuse fans refused despite the promise of a bigger market. In the 1962/63 season, the team was eliminated at the first round of the playoffs by the Cincinnati Royals. The fifth series game loss to the Royals on March 26th 1963 would be Nationals’ last game in Syracuse. Waning fan interest and attendance forced Biasone to sell the team to Ike Richman and Irv Koslofffor $500,000. The new owners relocated the franchise to Philadelphia and renamed it the 76ers following a fan contest. Syracuse, as with other mid-size cities is yet to see a return of NBA action and such a prospect remains highly unlikely.

Syracuse Nationals Notable Players

Dolph Schayes F 1948-1963
Al Cervi G/Coach 1948-1953
Earl Loyd G 1952-1958
Paul Seymour G 1949-1960
Ed Conlin SF/SG 1955-1959
Red Rocha C 1951-1956
Al Bianchi G 1956-1963
Johnny Kerr C/PF 1954-1963
Dick Barnett G 1959-1961
Hal Greer F 1958-1963
Dave Gambee SF 1960-1963
Lee Shaffer F 1961-1963
Noble Jorgensen C 1950-1953
Bill Gabor G 1949-1955

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