Remembering Willie Naulls, a bastion of history

The name Willie Naulls adorns the fringes of quite a bit of basketball history.

In December of 1954, his (and John Wooden’s) pre-dynasty UCLA Bruins gave a dude named Russell his final taste of defeat while “donning” USF gear.

One infamous night in March of 1962 while playing for the New York Knicks, he netted an overlooked 31 points, which was exactly 69 points shy of that game’s leading scorer. Reverend-to-be Naulls was even kind enough to offer a ride home – a not insignificant jaunt from Chocolate Town to Harlem – to the author of the night’s (and the sport’s) most prodigious performance (a dude named Chamberlain).

And then there was the even more significant – to everyone not named Arnold “Red” Auerbach, that is – evening in December of ’64 when the Texas-born, Cali-bred Naulls joined that Russell guy, Satch Sanders and a couple of dem Jones boys for the opening tip of the defending champions’ encounter with the St. Louis Hawks. Ironically this is the very team that had made Willie its first real selection, No. 10 overall, in 1956 before quickly trading him to the Knicks – the same Hawks and the same draft when they’d traded away their first selection … dude named Russell again.

By the way, that entirely African-American quintet would remain NBA champions through Naulls’s 1966 retirement at the age of 31. Co-incidentally, Willie Naulls’s appointment as captain during his stint with the Knicks was likewise racially unprecedented.

When Naulls decided to retire after winning his third Celtic championship, the Boston brain-trust lured the soon-to-be-venerable Wayne Embry out of retirement to replace the intangibles being lost.

It would be inaccurate, though, to pass off Willie as a mere package of intangibles and prescient historical timing – he was a four-time All-Star and career double-double man.

Post-career, Naulls returned to California and dabbled in a few business ventures before finding his true calling, establishing Willie Naulls Ministries in Hawthorne, California 25 years ago.

Willie Naulls passed away at the age of 84 on Thanksgiving Day following a long battle with a persistent lung condition.

Check out TB’s WTHHT on a very underappreciated contributor to the Celtic legacy.