Thursday, October 15, 2015

Harry Gallatin, 1927-2015

When you think of New York Knicks legends, you might think of Patrick Ewing or Bernard King. If you're my age or older, you might think of Willis Reed, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere or Earl "the Pearl" Monroe. If you're older than that, you might think of Dick "the Knick" McGuire or Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton.

You should also think of Harry Gallatin.

Harry Junior Gallatin -- Harry was his actual birth name, not Henry or Harold -- was born on April 26, 1927 in the St. Louis suburb of Roxana, Illinois, and grew up there. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He enrolled at Northeast Missouri State Teacher's College, now known as Truman State. The first day he was there, he met a woman named Beverly Hull. They married about a year later, and stayed together for the rest of his life. They had 3 sons, and lived to see 8 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.

"Competition has always been my cup of tea," he once said. He was competitive enough to get his bachelor's degree in just 2 years, and to get a master's degree from the University of Iowa while still playing basketball (and nowhere near Iowa, at that).

The Knicks made him their top draft choice in 1948. In 1951, he was selected for the 1st NBA All-Star Game, and the Knicks made the NBA Finals for the 1st time. They made it again in 1952 and 1953.

But, despite having Hall-of-Famers Gallatin, McGuire and Clifton, and All-Stars Carl Braun (originator of the "Swish!" yell for a nothing-but-net shot), Vince Boryla and Max Zaslofsky, and being coached by Hall-of-Famer Joe Lapchick, the Knicks lost in the Finals all 3 times: To the Rochester Royals (including future Knick coach Red Holzman, now the Sacramento Kings) in '51, and to the Minneapolis Lakers (who moved to Los Angeles in '60) in '52 and '53.

Still, this Knick team should not be dismissed simply because they failed at the last, 3 times. In the wake of the college basketball point-shaving scandal of the early Fifties, and with television becoming a factor, including in sports, these early Knicks were the 1st basketball team (college or pro) to truly be embraced by TV viewers, before Red Auerbach could get his Boston Celtics started on their dynasty. And Gallatin was a big reason why.

One of many men named Harry to be nicknamed "Harry the Horse," he was small for a center, 6-foot-6. Yet on March 15, 1953, the last day of the regular season, he grabbed 33 rebounds, a Knick record that still stands, 62 years later, although tied by Reed. He also scored 30 points. However, much as the Philadelphia Warriors did when Wilt Chamberlain set the league record of 55 against the Boston Celtics, the Knicks lost this game, and it wasn't even close: 81-69.

Gallatin was selected for the 1st 7 NBA All-Star Games, 1951 to 1957. The Knicks traded him to the Detroit Pistons in 1958, and he played one more season with them before retiring. He still holds the Knicks' club record for consecutive games played, with 610. He also played professional baseball, reaching Class B ball in 1949 and '50, before he decided to concentrate on what was clearly his better sport.

Right after retiring, he was named head coach at Southern Illinois University. However, he did not stick around long enough to coach Walt Frazier there, as in 1962 he was named head coach of the NBA's St. Louis Hawks, and got them to the Eastern Division Finals in just his 1st season, winning NBA Coach of the Year honors.

In those days, the Knicks were terrible, and they went through head coaches like disposable razors, including former Knick players Boryla, Braun, McGuire and Andrew "Fuzzy" Levane. They hired Gallatin midway through the 1964-65 season, and let him go midway through 1965-66. He returned to Southern Illinois University, to their Edwardsville campus, which, unlike its main campus in Carbondale, which particpates in NCAA Division I, is in Division II. He served SIU-Edwardsville as basketball coach, golf coach and athletic director. He won 19 NCAA Division II Championships coaching their golf team, and in 2013 their new golf training facility was named for him.

He was inducted into the Basketball, Illinois High School Basketball, SIU Salukis and Missouri Sports Halls of Fame. Earlier this year, he was honored at a Knicks Legends Night, and added to the Madison Square Garden Walk of Fame.
At the Knicks Legends Night earlier this year.

Harry Gallatin died on October 7, due to complications from surgery. He was 88 years old. He may not be remembered by Knick fans under the age of 65 -- some in their late 50s might remember him as a failed coach -- but he should be remembered as one of the groundbreaking players of the NBA.

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