JOURNEYMAN: Seventy Years Along the Sidelines of Pro-Hoop History
1. A worker or sports player who is reliable but not outstanding.
About My Book
Many years in the making, almost epic in scope, and as thorough a one-stop examination of the rise – and, some might say, erosion – of big-time professional basketball ever written … that would be JOURNEYMAN: Seventy Years Along the Sidelines of Pro-Hoop History, a bio-history which relates the personal story of Al Bianchi as it unfolds amid the busy backdrop of America’s fastest-growing major-league sport.
For many decades the province of swashbuckling, all-conquering barnstormers such as the legendary Original Celtics and Renaissance Big Five, professional basketball began “growing up” with the formation of the New York Knickerbockers and Boston Celtics in the mid-1940s.
JOURNEYMAN will renew acquaintance with Benny Borgmann, Honey Russell, Nat Holman, Joe Lapchick, Fat Jenkins, Pop Gates, Bobby McDermott and George Mikan — just a handful of the pre-NBA pro stars upon whose backs the “cage” game was hefted into the modern era.
The reader may be surprised to learn of the pivotal roles played by such legendary performers as ice-skating queen Sonja Henie and singing cowboy Gene Autry in the creation of what became today’s spectacular array of billion-dollar NBA franchises.
Into this frame, circa 1948, steps a skinny, 16-year-old sharpshooter from Queens, Long Island. Young Al Bianchi had recently been outfitted with a shining set of dental braces. They served to straighten his teeth while his deadeye shots paced his team into the New York City public school league semis at Madison Square Garden – even as the infamous point-shaving scandals were about to begin unfolding in that famous shrine.
Al Bianchi was there then, with a front-row seat, just as he has remained, courtside, through seven subsequent decades as college All-American, durable pro player, and one of the game’s more enduring coaches and sharp-eyed scouts. Never-before revealed circumstances will help the reader understand why Bianchi also may well be the most underrated general manager in New York Knick history.
From his comfortable retirement in Arizona – an offshoot of 25 years of faithful service to the Phoenix Suns – Bianchi remains a dedicated fan and consultant. His popular blog continues to ask the tough questions about the controversial “analytics,” the game’s seeming disregard for a time-honored set of rules, and the sometimes disturbing trends by which today’s basketball moguls are transforming the sport.
Although his own career was punctuated with highly publicized quarrels with referees, Bianchi yearns for the awareness of the game owned by those onetime adversaries. Of course, Bianchi knows it’s the most difficult game to officiate – literally, every play is a foul – but the refs from basketball’s golden era knew every player’s idiosyncrasies, the fragile rhythms of the game and the way it ought to be called.
But … who REALLY was, and is, Al Bianchi?
Some say if you grab a dictionary and look for “basketball lifer” you’ll see his picture. He certainly fits the description.
First, as a high-scoring forward who led his Bowling Green team to the NIT, then as a U.S. Olympic team candidate alongside fellow All-Americans such as Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Willie Naulls, Bianchi found his way into the rough-and-tumble world of the mid-1950s National Basketball Association as a multi-purpose reserve guard with the perennially contending Syracuse Nationals.
In those days, there were fewer than a hundred players at the top level. Through pluck and persistence, Al Bianchi remained one of them through a tumultuous, ten-year tenure as Syracuse – last of the “little” cities of pro basketball history – moved on to become the Philadelphia 76ers. For all that colorful era, he was nose-to-nose with the legendary Russell, Bob Cousy, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and the most startling of all professional athletes, past or present, Wilt Chamberlain.
Bianchi played alongside the extraordinary Dolph Schayes, first man to score 15,000 points in the league, and absorbed the game’s intricacies while serving such master coaches as Al Cervi, Paul Seymour and Alex Hannum.
When “Havlicek stole the ball!” Al Bianchi was just a few feet away, occupying his customary seat next to the coach. When 76er co-owner Ike Richman fatally collapsed during a game, he fell into Al’s arms.
After serving as one of the NBA’s first expansion-team head coaches, Bianchi began the final seven seasons of the legendary American Basketball Association as coach of its most star-studded franchise, serving as initial pro mentor for such legends as Julius (Doctor J) Erving and George (The Iceman) Gervin.
As the rival leagues approached merger, Bianchi began a satisfying, dozen-year stint as trusted assistant to Phoenix coach John MacLeod. Their long association sped off to a exciting beginning with a late-season playoff run in 1976, culminating in the amazing, triple-overtime Game 5 of the championship finale at hoary Boston Garden.
In some respects, Bianchi’s story is entwined with a 35-year quest to escape a veritable jinx at the hands of the Celtics. Jerry West wrote an entire autobiography about the torment prompted by losing six NBA finals to Boston. Bianchi’s Syracuse/Philadelphia squads weren’t far behind – they were knocked out five times by the Celtic dynasty.
But, finally, during his penultimate season as GM, Bianchi’s late 1980s’ New York Knicks shocked Boston, a team populated by Larry Bird and a lineup of four future Hall of Famers.
A little-known fact: those remain the only Celtics ever to win 50 or more games in a season and exit in the first round.
Although Bianchi ultimately was the odd-man-out of a public-relations “cobra pit” in New York City, his legacy was having launched an unprecedented, 14-year playoff run by the Knicks – one highlighted by the head-long play of his two premier acquisitions, Charles Oakley and John Starks.
JOURNEYMAN, in short, is designed to talk about things which don’t much get talked about anymore around “The League” (as they now call it) – 1) physicality with a purpose; 2) colorful referees who were “part of the show;” 3) palming the basketball with nearly every dribble; 4) running with the ball while not dribbling it, 5) and the news that there existed elite professional basketball players before Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
Bound for publication in summer, this big book of basketball as seen through the eyes of one of its more remarkable personages should occupy a special place in the pantheon of pro-hoops history chronicles. Watch for it.