Thursday, January 28, 2016

Bobby Wanzer, 1921-2016

A New York/New Jersey basketball legend has left us, and you may have never heard of him.

Robert Francis Wanzer was born on June 4, 1921 in Brooklyn, and grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan -- "when it was poor," according to his son Bob. Despite growing to only 6 feet even, he got a basketball scholarship to Seton Hall University in South Range, New Jersey. In 1942-43, he helped the Pirates to a 16-2 record. Then he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, made the Armed Forces All-Star basketball team, and served during the occupation of Guam.

He returned to Seton Hall after The War, and in 1946-47, under former Hall star Bob Davies, and alongside former Seton Hall Prep star Frank "Pep" Saul, the Pirates went 24-3. From 1939-40 to 1947-48 -- with the program suspended for 3 seasons due to The War -- Seton Hall's "Wonder Five" won 113 games and lost just 14, for a winning percentage of .890.

Bobby Wanzer, nicknamed "Hooks" for his hook shot, was drafted by the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League in 1947. They had been founded 2 years earlier by Lester Harrison, who owned and coached them, and got them to the NBL title in only their 1st season, 1945-46. Bob Davies had played for that team, while also coaching The Hall (you could do that without running yourself ragged in those days), and recommended Wanzer and Saul.

Davies and Wanzer formed the NBL's best backcourt. In 1949, Harrison was among the men who brokered the merger between the 1937-founded NBL and the 1946-founded Basketball Association of America to form the National Basketball Association. (The NBA officially traces its lineage to the founding of the BAA in 1946, making this year its 70th Anniversary.) The Royals maintained their excellence, and won the title in 1951, the only team to become NBA Champions between 1949 and 1954, other than the Minneapolis Lakers. They beat the Knicks in a 7-game Finals.

Hail the 1951 NBA Champion Rochester Royals: Number 3, guard Frank Saul; Number 7, forward Paul Noel; Number 9, guard Bobby Wanzer; Number 10, forward Jack Coleman; Number 11, guard Bob Davies; Number 12, forward Arnie Johnson; Number 14, center Arnie Risen; Number 16, guard William "Red" Holzman; Number 19, forward Bill Calhoun; Number 20, center Joe McNamee; and team founder, owner and head coach Les Harrison.

Davies and Holzman had previously won the NBL title with the 1946 Royals; since there was no BAA/NBA yet, this made them, them, technically, 2-time "World Champions." Saul would be traded to the Minneapolis Lakers, and make it 4 straight NBA titles with 2 different teams: 1951, '52, '53 and '54. Risen would win a title with the 1957 Boston Celtics, Coleman with the 1958 St. Louis Hawks. Holzman, of course, would coach the Knicks to the title in 1970 and 1973.

The Royals were unusual in that their players didn't wear single-digit uniform numbers. So Wanzer actually wore "09," Saul "03" and Noel "07."
Wanzer played his entire career with the Royals, retiring after the 1957 season. That was the team's last season in the Flour City. The NBA was growing to the point where the mid-size cities where so many pro basketball teams had started were no longer big enough.

The 1957 season was also the last for the NBA in Fort Wayne, Indiana, as the Pistons (whose name did make sense there, as it was a major auto-parts-building center) moved to Detroit. In 1949, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, based in the Moline, Illinois/Davenport, Iowa region (now better known as the Quad Cities), moved to become the Milwaukee Hawks, then the St. Louis Hawks in 1955, and the Atlanta Hawks in 1968.

The Oshkosh All-Stars, NBL Champions in 1941 and '42, knew the game was up, and declined to join the NBA in 1949. Another Wisconsin team, the Sheboygan Redskins, 1943 NBL Champions, joined the NBA in 1949, but left a year later. The year after that, the Iowa-based Waterloo Hawks bit the dust. The Royals' geographic rivals, the Syracuse Nationals, hung on until 1963, when they moved to become the Philadelphia 76ers.

Wanzer was a 5-time All-Star. In 1951-52, he became the 1st NBA player to shoot over 90 percent from the free throw line in a season. He was the Royals' player-coach their last 2 seasons in Rochester, then served as their 1st head coach as the Cincinnati Royals in 1957-58. The team became the Kansas City Kings in 1972 (having to change their name because Kansas City already had the baseball Royals), and the Sacramento Kings in 1985. The Kings still hang the Royals' 1951 NBA Championship banner, 55 years and 3 cities later.

In 1962, Wanzer was hired as the 1st head basketball coach at St. John Fisher College in the Rochester suburb of Pittsford. He coached there for 24 season,and also served as athletic director.

He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987. His Royals teammate Holzman would also be elected, for his coaching of the Knicks. Wanzer was also elected to the U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame, which is located at Hall of Fame inductees will be enshrined in the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Virginia. Other inductees include baseball legend Ted Williams, 2-time Olympic decathlon champion Bob Mathias, former Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton Sr. and golf legend Lee Trevino.

Seton Hall has retired Number 8 for Wanzer, Number 3 for Saul, and Number 11 for Davies. They've also retired 5 for 1950s player Walter Dukes, 12 for 1950s player Richie Regan, 24 for 1990s player Terry Dehere, 34 for 1970s player Glenn Mosley, and 44 for 1960s player Nick Werkman. These numbers are posted on a single banner at the Prudential Center in Newark, but, aside from Dehere, most fans my age and younger don't know any of them, with the possible exception of Davies, whose 11 has been retired by the Sacramento Kings.
Bobby Wanzer remained in Pittsford, and married a local woman named Nina. They had 3 children: Mary, Beth and Bob. He died at his home in Pittsford on January 23, 2016. He was 94 years old.

With his death, Saul and Calhoun are the only living players from the '51 Royals.

"I owe basketball a lot," he liked to say, "because I never had to get a real job."

Leo Roth, who covered the Royals and is still writing for Rochester's paper, The Democrat & Chronicle, wrote this week: "Bobby Wanzer — player, coach, teacher, husband, father, grandfather, friend — had just given us a 94-year clinic on how to live."

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