You may notice a distinct lack of African-American players on the All-1950s team. The NBA was integrated as of 1950, with the entrance of Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd and Nat Clifton. Only one (Clifton) ever made an All-Star team, and while the league had black players it didn't yet have great black players. Bill Russell would usher in that era in 1957, followed by Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson.
Maurice Stokes was the NBA's first great black player, but he played just three seasons before a devastating head injury left him afflicted with post-traumatic encephalopathy, paralyzed and tragically dead by 1970. Stokes or Russell were the best candidates to be the sole African-Americans on the All-1950s team, but I don't think their limited action in the decade beats out other candidates, unfortunately. It's worth recognizing that the early NBA was dominated by tall white men despite being integrated. It took a number of years for NBA executives and coaches to recognize the talent, ability and dedication of black players, and that delayed the rise of the league.
Integration itself wasn't enough. Hank DeZonie, one of the five black players in 1950, quit the Tri-City Blackhawks after five games due to overwhelming racism he experienced in Iowa where the team was based. Black players also didn't get the same opportunities as white players with all teams -- when the Celtics' Walter Brown drafted Chuck Cooper in 1950, another team owner reportedly said "Walter, don't you know he's a colored boy?" and other owners expressed disappointment. It took Stokes' masterful entrance, Russell's quick domination and Baylor's explosion onto the scene to fully turn the tide toward an NBA meritocracy. Even then, the early black superstars had to be twice as good to get similar opportunities.
This is the legacy of the 1950s NBA. It was dominated largely by tall, white men, and as such bears little resemblance to what the league would become. Center was clearly the most important position in the sport in the '50s, despite the overwhelming brilliance of Dolph Schayes (the decade's best player in my estimation) or Bob Cousy. Titles were won mainly by the teams that had a George Mikan, a Bob Pettit or a Neil Johnston. With the league now run by fast guards, it seems like a different sport entirely.
Without further adieu, here's our All-1950s team.
Mikan is considered the NBA's first real superstar, and he has the hardware to prove it. He essentially defined the center position for the NBA's first generation, putting up gaudy scoring, rebounding and shot blocking numbers. He won four championships in the first five years of the decade, was a perennial scoring champ and was the reason for a number of rules we take for granted (including goaltending).
For my money, Schayes is actually the best player of the 1950s. It helps that he spent the entire decade in the league, of course, whereas Mikan retired midway through it. Schayes also represented in many ways the NBA of the future. He was a devastating outside shooter with size and a fearless spirit going to the rim. That combination is the basis of the greatest scorers throughout NBA history and an outside-inside pairing that opposing coaches have nightmares about. While true centers in large part dominated the early days of pro basketball, Schayes was the singular best of the '50s.
Pettit was the league's first ever MVP in '56, and he added a second trophy in '59. He's worthy of being a first-team All-'50s player despite not entering the league until 1954. He made every All-Star team he was eligible for in the '50s and was a persistent presence on the first-team All-NBA. He has two scoring titles and was a four-time All-Star MVP and a one-time champ.
A legend in Boston, Cousy was the NBA's first great point guard and a prototype for the flashy ball handlers who dominate the league today. Cousy is well-known for his passing acumen -- he had eight straight seasons as the assist champ -- but he was also a fierce scorer. The best part of Cousy's story is that the Celtics didn't actually want him: Red Auerbach passed him over in the draft, and Cousy ended up in Boston only after the C's lost a draw to decide who'd get players departing a defunct team. Cousy proved he belonged early on, and once Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn arrived a few years later, it was all over for the rest of the NBA for a decade.
Nearly all of Sharman's pro career was played with Boston in the 1950s, as he teamed with Cousy to form the NBA's first great backcourt. Sharman was an excellent shooter, breaking the 40 percent field goal barrier, which was actually rare back then. (Ricky Rubio was born 60 years too late.) He made four All-NBA first teams and two All-NBA second teams in the '50s. He once shot 12 times in a single quarter in the All-Star Game. Swag is out of control.
This was the state of pro basketball in the early '50s: Johnston was 6'8, yet only decided to enter the NBA after starting his third season of minor league baseball 3-9 as a starting pitcher. He went on to become a six-time NBA All-Star, a champ in '56 and one of Philadelphia's most decorated athletes ever.
This is how different amateur basketball was 70 years ago: Arizin didn't make the cut as a high school senior and got discovered by Villanova's coaching staff playing rec ball while a freshman at Villanova. He went on to become a Hall of Fame forward, a two-time scoring champ and one of the six best players of the 1950s by any measure despite spending two seasons in Korea with the Marines. (Pettit just edged Arizin on the first team; I've been debating this a bit too much.) Arizin was a hell of an interesting character and one of the building blocks of the early NBA.
Yardbird was a scorer first and foremost -- he was the first player to score 2,000 points in a season. He did his best work as a Piston, with a string of All-Star berths and a scoring title to his name. That said, the drop-off from Arizin to Yardley is pretty steep as these things go.
Bob Davies & Bobby Wanzer
It's fitting that these two are together on our second team All-1950s, as they starred together with the Rochester Royals at the birth of the NBA. Davies was 30 by the time the NBA was established, but he still got in four All-Star berths, a title and four first team All-NBA nods. Wanzer was the league's first great 6-footer, a five-time All-Star and frequent presence on the All-NBA second team.
Ed Macauley: Easy Ed was another greater early-NBA center. That said, the most important basketball thing he did in the '50s was get traded to St. Louis for Bill Russell.
Harry Gallatin: Hey, a Knick! A good Knick! Gallatin is the dude the really really old Knicks fans will bring up while bemoaning the current state of the team. (The merely old fans will bring up Bill Bradley.)
Vern Mikkelsen: Mikkelsen was one of Mikan's partners in Minneapolis, and a guy who helped carry the team after Mikan's retirement. Four titles, six All-Star berths and four All-NBA second team nods, all in the '50s.
Slater Martin: Martin was another of Mikan's teammates, one known as a fierce defender. He also played with Bob Pettit in St. Louis later in the decade. Five titles, seven All-Star bids and five All-NBA second team nods.
Andy Phillip: He led the NBA in assists twice, made five straight All-Star Games to open the decade, won a title with Boston in '57 and most importantly fought at Iwo Jima. This early pro athletes had to deal with stuff we couldn't imagine. Speaking of which ...
A WORD ABOUT BILL RUSSELL
I thought about including him on the third team as a center or fudging his position and squeezing him in. But he played just three of the seasons in this decade and Macauley was genuinely very good. So Russell gets bumped. He might show up on the All-1960s team, though ...
OTHER HONORABLE MENTIONS
Jack Twyman (very close to beating out Mikkelsen), Maurice Stokes (three amazing seasons), Frank Ramsey (major beneficiary of Russell), Joe Fulks (his best work actually came in the '40s!, like the time he dropped 63 points on the Indianapolis Jets), Tom Heinsohn (see Russell), Jim Pollard (they claim he could dunk from the free throw line).