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Clyde Lovellette: AMAZING GRACE

The Clyde Lovellette Interview

By:  Michael D. McClellan | Thursday, September 15th, 2005

 

There is something sublimely unique about the athletes of yesterday, the ones who captured the imaginations of young fans long before their sport became the provincial domain of Corporate America.  They played the game, or they ran the race, or they shuffled into the ring without the benefit of a guaranteed contract and without the myriad of endorsement deals that, for the biggest names – Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and Michael Jordan come to mind – generate far more income than the salaries they earn through their chosen field of competition.  There were no agents back then, and no year-round training.  The athletes of yesterday didn't have the benefit of the latest medical innovations, those non-invasive surgical procedures that can, for example, repair a shredded knee and have said athlete performing again within a few short months.  (One can only wonder what Gale Sayers would have accomplished, had the Kansas Comet been treated with the marvels of today's medical technology.)  There were no teams of lawyers, no player unions, and no collective bargaining agreements.  Free agency?  Think again.  The athletes of yesterday simply played the game, or ran the race, or shuffled into the ring for the love of competition, pushing their bodies and minds to the limit without benefit of a twenty-four hour sports channel to beam their exploits – via satellite, no less – to all points on the globe.

This isn’t to say that money wasn't a factor with the athletes of yesterday – there were pros back then, too, and they certainly enjoyed pulling down a salary for doing what they loved.  It's just that the money back then was more in line with that of the average Joe, and that the athletes of yesterday usually worked other jobs once their sporting season had come to an end.  (And back then, the seasons did indeed end – unlike the 'round-the-clock, 'round-the-calendar leagues that seem to permeate today.)  They were more approachable, their egos not overly-inflated by the hordes of sports agents and hangers-on that clamor for the attention of the modern-day athlete.  They were, for the most part, gentlemen.  (Or, as the case may have been,  gentlewomen.)  They didn't have a rap sheet to dwarf the considerable statistics that they put up, they didn't break records with the help of a steroid-laced syringe, and they proved to be far quicker with the pen – autographs didn't cost a mortgage payment back then; they could actually be had for free – than they were with a gun.

Clyde Lovellette is one such man from yesteryear, an athlete largely forgotten by a generation of Internet-connected fans so accustomed to instant updates that cell phones and computers have replaced television as the primary sources of sports-related information.  Were Lovellette playing today, there would be countless web sites devoted to his considerable basketball exploits.  SportsCenter would hype him.  Endorsement deals would roll in.  He would be crowned as his sport's Next Great Thing, a hoop messiah who could play the game with equal parts skill and passion, all-the-while impressing America's youth with unmatched dignity and grace.

To hoop historians and basketball aficionados, Lovellette is hardly a forgotten man.  He continues to tower over his sport in ways that other athletes could only dream.  He is the first player to win an NCAA championship, an Olympic gold medal, and an NBA title – a feat that only five other players in basketball history have duplicated.  (Bill Russell, KC Jones, Jerry Lucas, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.)  He has led the nation in scoring.  He has been a collegiate player of the year, an NBA All-Star, and a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.  He has teamed with some of the greatest names in NBA history, counting George Mikan and Bill Russell among those who have helped him to the championship stage.  He has been coached by legends, men with unmistakable monikers such as "Phog" and "Red", and he has been an integral component of the NBA's first great dynasties.  In short, Clyde Edward Lovellette is basketball royalty of the highest order.

 

Born on September 7th, 1929, Lovellette emerged from the Great Depression largely unscathed.  He grew into a gangly teenager, head-and-shoulders above his classmates at Garfield High School in Terre Haute, Indiana.  He was shy for the most part, withdrawn from his peers because of his height, and so mild-mannered that it would be hard to characterize him as anything other than a 'gentle giant'.  By his junior year Lovellette was 6'8", and his coordination had, at long last, caught up with his enormous frame.  No longer the self-conscious introvert, Lovellette blossomed on the basketball court, earning All-State honors as a junior and a senior, and attracting the attention of more than fifty major colleges in the process.  It was generally assumed that Lovellette would stay close to home, playing collegiate basketball in hoop-crazed Indiana.  But like Larry Bird decades later, Lovellette would commit to Indiana University only to find the environment too large and too intimidating for his taste.  He chose Kansas instead, thanks to the repeated overtures of head coach Forrest "Phog" Allen.  The chemistry between coach and player was immediate:  Allen was the mentor in whom Lovellette had been searching, and he convinced the young center that Kansas lacked only a big man to win a national championship.  He also sold Lovellette on the Olympic Dream, a goal that, up until their initial meeting in Terre Haute, had seemed as attainable as a trip to the moon.

For Lovellette, Kansas turned out to be the absolute best place in the basketball universe.  He fit in almost from the beginning, growing both as a person and as an athlete, in large part because freshmen weren't eligible to participate in varsity sports.  He used the time to emerge even further from his shell, and to further hone his basketball skills in pursuit of Phog's promise of a national championship.  As a sophomore, Lovellette proved to be everything that Allen had predicted; the precocious big man finished the season fourth in the nation in scoring, with a 21.8 points-per-game average, was named All-Big Seven, and garnered the first of three All-America honors.

Lovellette's junior year was equally successful.  His scoring average improved to 22.8 points-per-game, once again placing him in the nation's top five, as he and his Kansas teammates resumed their climb to basketball's championship summit.  He also found opposing defenses keying on him – double-teams, collapsing pockets and rough play became the norm – but he used the tactics to his advantage, developing the deadly outside shot that would later become such an effective weapon in the NBA.

Everything came together for Lovellette and the Kansas Jayhawks during that magical senior season.  Lovellette led the nation in scoring at 28.4 points-per-game, and, true to the prophetic words of his head coach, Lovellette led his team to the 1952 NCAA Championship.  He was also named NCAA Player of the Year by the Helms Foundation.  "It seemed like from the first time we stepped on the court that year against Creighton, good things were going to happen," Lovellette told the Kansas City Star in 1988.  "We had been up and down in two years, but we all still liked each other and got along.  Phog was still a ball of fire then.  It just all came together.  It was a great experience."

Lovellette was a dominating force during the Jayhawks' drive to that 1952 title.  He scored a record 141 during the tournament, averaging 35 points-per-game in the process.  His 44 points in the second round against St. Louis set an NCAA tournament record, and his 33 points against St. John's in the final game paved the way for an easy 80-63 championship victory.

The storybook ride didn't end there.  True to Allen's word, Lovellette was selected to represent the United States in the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.  As an added bonus, Allen was selected to join the coaching staff as an assistant coach, while six of Lovellette's teammates – Charles Hoag, William Hougland, John Keller, Melvin Kelley, Robert Kenney and William Lienhard – were chosen to fill out the roster.

The Americans opened with big wins over Hungary and Czechoslovakia, before struggling to dispose Uruguay, 57-44.  Next up was a grudge match with the Soviet Union; it was a highly aggressive and physical battle that saw six Americans and four Soviet players foul out, while the U.S. crushed the Soviets 86-58 behind 14 points each from Lovellette and Kenney.  Lovellette then scored 25 and 27-points in wins over Chile and Brazil, respectively, and helped propel the U.S. over Argentina 85-76 and earn a trip to the Olympic finals.  Waiting for them were the Soviets, who still had only one loss.  This time it was a winner-take-all gold medal game.  The USSR, learning from its earlier loss, stuck to a strategy of tight defense and a full court stall.  After 10, minutes the U.S. led 4-3.  Just prior to halftime, the U.S. managed a basket and grabbed a 17-15 halftime lead.  The Soviets stayed with their tight defense and actually regained the lead early in the second half.  But the U.S. foiled the Soviet Union's upset attempt by shooting well from the outside.  After pulling ahead by nine, the U.S. began its own stall causing one distraught Soviet player to stage a temporary sit-down strike at midcourt.  The Americans eventually went on to win, 36-25.  Lovellette led the USA offense with nine points, while Kurland added eight points.

"Going to the Olympics and representing the United States [had] to be the biggest thrill of my entire basketball career," Lovellette said in 1979.  "Winning the gold medal was icing on the cake."

 

After a season playing AAU basketball for Phillips Petroleum, Lovellette decided that the timing was right to give the NBA a try.  Wooed by the Milwaukee Hawks, Lovellette instead signed to play with the Minneapolis Lakers, arriving at the end of the George Mikan Dynasty.  Playing behind Mikan as a rookie, Lovellette won an NBA title – the Lakers' fourth in five seasons – and became the first player to win a championship at all three levels.

 

 Lovellette played solidly as a rookie, posting averages of 8.2 points and 5.8 rebounds in 17.4 minutes per game.  The numbers jumped to 10.5 points and 9.7 rebounds during the playoffs.  And while he was primarily used as a backup to Mikan (who, at the age of 29, was suffering from creaky knees and was a season away from retirement), there were times when the two big men were used in tandem.  The dual-post strategy gave opponents fits.  "For six years, [opposing teams] have been running up against George Mikan at the pivot," one Minneapolis reporter wrote.  "Now they've got Mikan one minute, and Lovellette the next-and then maybe both of them together."

 

Had Mikan remained healthy, perhaps the Lakers would have strung together a series of championships to rival Bill Russell's Boston Celtics.  Instead, Mikan retired.  Lovellette stepped into the starting lineup and proved that he was up to the challenge of filling Mikan's shoes.  He finished in the NBA's top 10 in scoring (18.7 ppg), rebounding (11.5 rpg), and field-goal percentage (43.5%).  The Lakers posted a 40-32 record, good enough for a second-place finish behind the Fort Wayne Pistons.  They then fell to Fort Wayne in the playoffs in four games.

After four seasons in Minneapolis, Lovellette was dealt to the Rochester Royals.  The franchise moved to Cincinnati two months later, and Lovellette spent one season toiling in a Royal uniform.  The agile big man averaged a career-high 23.4 points-per-game (fourth in the NBA), and finished fifth in the league in field-goal percentage (44.1%).  Asked to take a pay cut at season's end, Lovellette instead requested a trade and ended up in St. Louis.

Teaming with future hall-of-famers Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan, Lovellette registered two All-Star appearances over the next four seasons.  Still, the Hawks could not get over the hump; Bill Russell and the Celtics were churning out titles on an annual basis, resigning Lovellette – now battling age and injury – to the thought that he might never win another NBA crown.

All of that changed when Red Auerbach picked up Lovellette for the 1962-63 season to provide experienced relief for Russell at center.  (With back trouble taking its toll on Lovellette, the Hawks decided to part ways with the 33-year-old veteran.)  A rejuvenated Lovellette played solid basketball for Auerbach over the next two seasons, winning two championships and securing his place as one of the most prominent players of his generation.

 Lovellette retired after the 1964 NBA Finals and finished his 11-year career with 11,947 points, an average of 17.0 points-per-game.  He exited basketball's grandest stage long before technology could trumpet his accomplishments to millions of people worldwide, and yet to those who know basketball history, he remains one of the game's true icons.  Better yet, Lovellette is far more engaging as a person than he was as a basketball player.  He is kind and courteous, a true throwback to the days before text messages and Internet web casts.  He respects the game that made him a household name, and yet he respects life eternal far more than the temporary glory found in awards and accolades.  He doesn’t begrudge today's athlete for making a ton more money than he ever saw.  He simply warns them that fame and fortune are fleeting possessions, and that the grace of God will stay with them long after the other stuff fades.

Grace, in a word, sums up Clyde Edward Lovellette.  He is simply amazing.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were born on September 7th, 1929 in Petersburg, Indiana, the son of a locomotive engineer.  Your birthday was a little more than a month before the Black Monday stock market crash.  Please take me back to your childhood – what was it like, and in what ways was it shaped by the Great Depression?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
Dad always had a job – as you've just said, he was an engineer who worked on the railroad – which was one thing that our family had to be thankful about as far as the Great Depression was concerned.  We were fortunate in that we had everything that we needed.  He had a good job, and he brought home a good paycheck.  I had two brothers, one of whom also worked on the railroad, and I had two sisters.  And as far as I can remember, we had everything that we ever needed.  There were other families around our neighborhood and in other surrounding areas that weren't as fortunate.  I remember that Mom tried to help as many of them as possible by giving them the things we had in excess – produce, clothing, whatever the case may be.  At that time there were a lot of homeless people – we called the hobos back then – and Mom would always give them a sandwich whenever they came by.  These folks knew that they had a place to come, a place where they could have a cold drink and a sandwich.  Mom never turned any of them down.  But as far as our household, I thought we came through the Depression in pretty good shape.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were a four-year letter winner at Garfield High School, earning All-State honors as a junior and senior and leading your team to the finals of the 1947 state tournament.  Please tell me a little about your high school basketball career.

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
High school basketball back in those days was a lot different that it is today.  You just played the game from year-to-year, and you didn't think too much about going on to play in college.  Your high school years were your glory years – you just played the game and had a lot of fun, and you didn't think about going off somewhere to play college basketball.  As you entered your senior year, you thought about getting a job, usually following in your father's footsteps – in my case, a railroad engineer – or some other occupation that didn't require college.  And you usually stayed close to the area or the town that you grew up in, because all of your friends, family and acquaintances were there.  You just had no reason to go any further.  In my case, I could have gone on to work on the railroad – I could have started as a brakemen, or a fireman, and then moved on up become an engineer like my Dad.  But he never wanted me to work on the railroad, even though that's where my brother ended up working.  I think he saw the athletic potential that I had, and that perhaps there was a chance that I could do something with it.

So, high school basketball was a lot of fun.  It developed a gangly, awkward kid such as myself, turning him into someone who could dance, skip rope, and play a pretty decent game of basketball.  I was also able to win a lot of honors and awards, so several colleges came calling by the time my senior year came around, wanting me to play basketball for them.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Following a stellar high school career in Terra Haute, you accepted a scholarship to play for Kansas University and the legendary Phog Allen.  Please tell me what it was like to play for one of the greatest coaches the game has ever known.

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
You have to remember that there wasn't a lot of television back in '47 and '48.  There wasn't any at all for awhile, and then it was all just regional coverage.  It was all in black-and-white, and on a 9-inch screen.  You got very little news on basketball outside of Indiana.  And with Indiana being the hotbed of basketball, you had coverage from Bloomington, where Branch McCracken was the coach at Indiana University, and you had coverage of Johnny Wooden's team at Indiana State.  Notre Dame had Moose Kraus.  Purdue had Ward "Piggy" Lambert.  Those were the big programs, and the ones who received the most coverage.  So you figured that all the talent coming out of high school would go to one of those four schools, or to another school in Indiana – be it a Division I, II or III school – so that you could be close to home, and so that the family could come and see you play.

I went to Bloomington to visit the IU campus, which is where all three of my high school coaches had graduated from.  Back then you didn't give letters of intent to the college.  You gave a verbal commitment.  Well, I went down to Bloomington after giving a verbal commitment to play for Indiana University.  But after getting down there and visiting the school, I learned quickly that it was a huge campus with a very large student body population.  Honestly, I was a little bit intimidated by it all.  Ultimately I decided that I was going to honor my commitment, except that an assistant coach from Kansas had come into the state to talk to me – this was prior to me meeting Phog, and prior to my visit to Bloomington.  So I knew that Kansas was wanting me.  I just thought that that was a far piece to travel at the time, and I didn't really give it a lot of serious thought.

Kansas didn't give up.  Phog was going to make a speech in St. Louis, and I agreed to meet him there to discuss what his school had to offer.  I chickened out, and sent my brother-in-law to meet with Phog and tell him that I was going to Indiana, and that there was no use in coming to Terra Haute to try and convince me to change my mind.  Phog came anyway; after the speech he came to Indiana instead of going back to Lawrence [Kansas], and I really didn't want to meet with him.  But I finally decided to meet him and that's when we had a long talk, and that's also when he made the one statement that no other coach had ever made – he said that if I came to KU and played the pivot, then the team would be good enough to win a national championship.  All of the other pieces were in place.  He also predicted that we would go to the Olympics together, and that we would win a gold medal in Helsinki, Finland.  That had a huge impact on me.

Being from Indiana, with very little television, you just didn't get much in the way of Olympic coverage.  You didn't hear a lot about basketball and some of the other sports; what you heard about was track, because back then that was the big thing in the Olympics.  That was what you saw on TV, or heard on the radio, or read about in the newspaper.  Jesse Owens was a national sensation – his exploits made you dream about representing your country.  So when Phog talked about the Olympics, that was the thing that made me the most excited.  I changed my mind because of that talk, and I spent three years playing ball at KU – and we did the things that he said that we were going to do:  We won the national championship, and we won the gold medal in Helsinki, Finland.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Your transition from high school to college was nothing short of incredible – you finished your first collegiate basketball season by leading the Big Seven in scoring (21.8 ppg), by being named All-Big Seven, and by being honored as an All-American.  Please tell me about your first season in a Jayhawk uniform - did you expect success and national recognition to come so quickly?
 
CLYDE LOVELLETTE
You have to remember that the first year was my freshman year, and back then freshmen couldn't play varsity sports.  But that first year was really my springboard, because we played against other freshmen at the Big Seven schools, as well as against our own varsity on a nightly basis.  It made us realize that we weren't playing high school competition anymore, and that we were going to be playing against young men who were big, strong and athletic.  We worked very hard during our freshman year, and then we stayed there during the summer and worked on various skills that would help us when we played varsity ball the following fall.  So once we took to the court during our sophomore year, we felt that we were ready to play college basketball.

High school players today are eligible to play four years, but I still believe that they could benefit from the adjustment of sitting out of varsity ball that first year.  There is so much they could do in the way of settling into campus life, such as developing good study habits and learning to live away from home.

 

CELTIC-NATION
As a sophomore you were fourth in the nation in scoring, and you finished fifth as a junior – earning All-Big Seven and All-America honors both years.  What tactics did opposing coaches employ in an effort to slow you down?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
I guess there were a lot of double-teams, and a lot of sagging off.  They also tried to push me out from my normal shooting range – keeping me away from the basket was a big strategy on both ends of the court, actually.  Putting a guy in front of me, and a guy behind me, that was the most common defense that I had to deal with.  But if you've got a good ball club, and they're working with you, and I'm working with them, then it gets to the place where a defense can do that for a little bit – but pretty soon it's going to break down and we're going to run our offense.  They can stymie you for awhile.  But if you've good a good nucleus of players who can shoot from outside and drive to the basket –and good passers – then the cream will come to the top, and that's what we had.  We had a great bunch of guys that just loved to play basketball and loved to win.  If we won, great, and if we lost, then we'd go back to the practice court, figure out what we'd done wrong and correct it for the next game.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Everything came together for you as a senior – you led the nation in scoring, and you led the Jayhawks to the 1952 NCAA Championship.  You were All-Big Seven, All-America, and the Helms Foundation NCAA Player of the Year.  Take me back to that senior season – what memories stand out after all these years, and did you expect to finish your collegiate career in such storybook fashion?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
I think you have to go all the way back to when Phog recruited me to come to Kansas, and when he recruited all of those guys out of Kansas.  We had a plan, even though there were times during the course of our sophomore and junior years when that plan would go awry; we'd lose a game here and there, and we weren't doing as well as Phog was wanting us to, but the important thing was that we kept our focus on improving as a unit.  I can't speak for the other guys on the team – Glenn Hart, Robert Kenney, the Kelley brothers and the rest – but I think we had a mindset that we were going to go out and play hard every game, do the best that we could, and do what Phog wanted us to do.  I think we were convinced that if we did these things we'd have good success in every game, win or lose.  So I think that mindset carried us the entire year.

Fortunately, we had a great nucleus of ball players. We had a range of guys that could play the game, and bring their own unique skills to the team – whether it was passing, rebounding, defense, or scoring.  We started off winning , and kept winning until we hit a snag and lost two games in a row.  Phog was upset.  We worked very hard in practice after that second loss, because he knew – and we knew – that we couldn't lose any more or we weren't going to win the Big Seven and have a chance to win the national championship.  Well, we didn't lose any other games after that.  Every game we played, we played the game hard and we played it to have fun…and we played it to the best of our ability – both individually, and as a team.  And, as it turned out, we won the Big Seven and went on to become national champions.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were unstoppable during the postseason, scoring 141 points on your way to earning tournament MVP honors.  How were you able to dominate the best teams in the nation?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
I don’t know if you can call it providence, but we were determined to fulfill the prophecy that Phog had given to us as freshmen.  We came together, and the team as a whole was unstoppable.  And I think I just came to the point in my career where I understood what was expected of me if we were going to win the national championship.  I knew that I needed to raise the level of my game.  It had to be better than what I'd produced during the regular season, although I had a great regular season my senior year.  It had to be better because one loss in a tournament means that your season is over – and, in the case of the seniors, that meant the end of a college career.

I remember coming out the locker room for those tournament games, buckling down and then taking care of  business on the court.  The other guys on the team had the same attitude.  We might be behind or tied at halftime, but we'd come out with a big spurt at the start of the second half and dominate every team that we played.

 

CELTIC-NATION
While at Kansas, you developed into something of an extrovert, even hosting a radio show at WIBW in Topeka called "Hill Billy Clyde and his Hound Dog Lester."  Please tell me about this part of your life.
 
CLYDE LOVELLETTE
You're right – in high school I was 6'-8" and head-and-shoulders above everybody else.  It got to the point that I became very shy.  I didn't go out very much.  I didn't want to be looked at or stared at.  But by my junior and senior years I had blossomed as an athlete, becoming an All-State basketball player and gaining recognition for what I could do on the court.  I started dating, and I found a good core of friends to bum around with together – I was very careful in that regard, because sometimes I think my popularity as a basketball player made me popular with a lot of the guys and girls at school.  I never let them get to the point to where they were using me.  I kept my distance from the ones who wanted to be associated with me simply so that they could say 'Look who I know'.

When I first got into college it was a completely different atmosphere.  In college they don't know who you are and they don't really care.  They're interested in getting an education.  But once I started playing basketball I found myself in the same situation, with people wanting to latch onto me because I was a high-profile athlete.  They were more interested in who I was, and it made them look good to be seen with someone who was doing well in that regard.  So even though I was more of an extrovert in college, I still chose my friends very carefully.  I wanted people to associate themselves with me because of who I was, and not what I did as an athlete.  And when we went out, we didn't talk about basketball.  We didn't talk about the big game the team had just played, or the big game that was coming up.  We talked about other things – what was going on in the State of Kansas, or what was going on in the world.

It was like that in other parts of the country as well – pretty much wherever we played.  There were always people – hangers-on, I called them – who loved to come around the locker room, get an autograph and hang out with you for a little bit.  And then other people would see them hanging around the athletes, and it would give them a bloated ego.  So we as players just had to be careful about who we associated with.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Following college, the Olympics beckoned.  You, along with six of your Kansas teammates and coach Allen, were selected to represent the United States in Helsinki, Finland.  What was this experience like for you, and where does it rank in terms of your athletic achievements?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
I think the Olympics ranks number one with me, because it was so much bigger than anything else I'd ever accomplished as an athlete.  And I think that that's only natural, because if you win an award for Kansas, playing Kansas basketball, you win it for two groups of people other than yourself – you win it for Kansas University, and you win it for the State of Kansas.  So when I was named All-American, the award meant something to me, Phog, KU and the people in Kansas who I represented.  But when I won a gold medal, it was much higher honor because I was representing the United States in the Olympics.  No longer was I representing a single state.  I was representing millions of Americans with my behavior, my ability, and my performance on the basketball court.  That meant a whole lot to me.  Much more than just representing the state and the university.  There were only five-hundred athletes in the world who were selected to compete in the Olympics.  So that in itself was a great honor.  And to be able to win a gold medal is almost beyond words, because I won it first for the American people, then the State of Kansas, then Kansas University, then Phog, and finally myself.  That's the order in which it mattered to me.  If you watch the Olympics today, most of the athletes are concerned only with themselves – not all of them, of course, but the vast majority.  And with basketball you have pro players on the roster.  When I played it was all amateur athletes, and I think that it meant more because of that.  So you find that most of the athletes today just go to the Games with the USA logo on their back.  They don't place representing their country at the top of their priority list.

 

CELTIC-NATION
After the Olympics, you spent a year playing amateur basketball, winning the National AAU title with Phillips Petroleum (1953).  Please take me back to this period on your life.

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
After graduation, a lot of ballplayers went on to play in the Industrial League, which was comprised of approximately twenty-eight teams located all over the country.  And the teams represented big corporations in various industries such as banking and petroleum.  There were teams sponsored by Phillips, Goodyear, Caterpillar, and so forth.  Players would graduate from college and go to work for these companies – and by work, I mean taking real, nine-to-five jobs that paid a salary and included benefits such as vacation and sick leave – and, in the process, get a jump on a business career.

When I went to interview with Phillips, I learned that eighty percent of the ballplayers were still on the payroll – and this was from the inception of the Industrial League.  So I was impressed by that, and I decided to go to work for Phillips.  I was in chemical sales.  I was behind a desk, which I didn't like much, but every once in awhile I would get out.  But during basketball season I'd get to practice every day, and then I'd get to travel with the team to the games.  Phillips had a private plane for the team, and we traveled first class; in many respects, I think it was much better than when I started playing in the pros.  In the pros we had eight teams, four in the East and four in the West, and the travel and accommodations weren't as good as what we had with Phillips.

I remember making a remark that I was happy to be playing with Phillips in the amateurs, and that I never really considered going pro.  Shortly after that, I read a comment by "Easy" Ed Macauley, which quoted him as saying that the amateurs was the best place for me.  He told the reporter that he didn't think that I could make it in the NBA.  He later said that he didn't make the comment, and that it was written out of context, but I used that as a source of tremendous motivation.  I took that as a challenge.  I played one year with Phillips and then told the company president that I wanted to try the NBA.  He said that he was sorry to see me go, but he understood and wished me luck. The next year I was playing center with the Minneapolis Lakers, behind the great George Mikan.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You signed your first professional contract in 1953, joining –as you have just said – George Mikan and the defending-champion Minneapolis Lakers.  Mikan represented the NBA's first great center, while the Lakers were the league's first true dynasty.  Please tell me a little about Mr. Mikan, and also about the experience of winning the NBA championship as a rookie with Lakers.

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
You don't have enough time for me to tell you about Mikan [laughs].  I didn't follow the pros at that time – I didn't know too many players in the pros, so when I signed the contract to go to Minneapolis and they told me about George Mikan…well, I had to read about George Mikan to find out what everyone was talking about.  He was the biggest guy in the NBA, an All-Star, the leading scorer and rebounder…everything that I read about him seemed larger than life.  And then meeting him at that first practice was an awesome sight, because George was a full inch taller than me and outweighed me by at least twenty-five pounds.  He had square shoulders, and he was very powerful – he was all man.

I was twenty-one at the time, and George was in his thirties – he had already been in the league a number of years, because he retired the year after I got there.  He was a truly dominating player.  I don't mean this in a bad way, but George was also a mean, aggressive ballplayer.  When he got the ball he wanted to put the ball in the hole, and you'd better be out of the way – if not, he'd want to take you, the ball and everything else and try very hard to put it all in the basket [laughs].  I learned from George very early on that if I was going to stay in the league any length of time – and I planned on staying in the pros a number of years, and not getting booted out as a rookie and having nothing to do – then playing the physical part of the game was a must.  George also taught me that if I was going to be squeamish, then I wasn't going to make it in the league.  I learned very quickly that I had to take it, that I had to dish it out, and that I had to be prepared to take it again, because they were going to come right back at me and try to do the very same thing.  So I learned a lot from George that first year.  I played behind him.  I played some when he was injured.  We got in together in a dual post attack.  And we had a great supporting cast – we had Vern Mikkelson on one side, we had Jim Pollard on the other.  We had Slater Martin and Whitey Skoog, and George in the middle.  We had All-Americans sitting on the bench.  It was just a great, great experience to be a part of that, and to win an NBA title that first year.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You finished in the NBA's top 10 in scoring, rebounding, and field-goal percentage in your first season as a starter.  A year later you ranked fourth in the NBA in scoring (22.1 ppg), third in rebounds (14.0 rpg), and sixth in field-goal percentage (434 percent).  Were you surprised at how quickly you became one of the leagues' most dominant players?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
Yeah, because when I first came into the league George was the biggest player in the NBA.  But by my second season they started getting bigger players in the league – there was suddenly a bunch of guys 6'10" and 6'11", so I had to adapt to playing inside and outside.  I had to learn more about team play, because I had to really work the ball to score.  I had to be patient, and trust that I'd get the ball back if I gave it up.  And I worked hard in the offseason to get better.  Coming out of college, I thought that everything was going to be as easy as it was for me at Kansas.  I found out very quickly that that wasn't the case.  Every NBA roster was stocked with guys who had been All-Conference, or All-American. They were the top players at their schools.  They might not have been the leading scorers in the nation, but they were pretty close.  So I had to adjust.  I learned that you just can't put your sneakers out on the court and not be able to fill them.  I had to be ready to play.

 CELTIC-NATION
The Minneapolis Lakers and the Boston Celtics conducted annual preseason barnstorming tours throughout New England, often playing up to 17 games in twenty-one days.  What memories to you have of these exhibitions, and what was your first impression of the Celtics' brash young coach, Arnold "Red" Auerbach?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
When you play that many games on that many nights, and you ride the bus with the other team…well, the first night and the first game is pretty nice.  Everybody got along and everyone sat with one another and talked about a lot of things.  And no one was really interested in whether you won or lost.  But all of that changed after the second or third game that you played.  Tempers got raw.  Sometimes you wouldn't be sitting with a Boston Celtic.  You'd be sitting with a Minneapolis Laker.  Or you'd be sitting on one side of the bus and they'd be sitting on the other.  And sometimes it got kind of hairy [laughs].  But overall, it was a good experience.  You got your training, you got your workout, you got in shape…all of those things…but sometimes it got a little tight with the players you were competing against.  It might be someone you had just finished hitting in a game, or someone you might have outscored, or someone that you fouled hard – and then you had to get on the bus and sit near him…or even right beside him.  Of course they don't do that now, but it was an experience that every ballplayer should go through once.

 

CELTIC-NATION
After the 1957 NBA Playoffs, you were dealt to the Rochester Royals along with Jim Paxson for Ed Fleming, Bob Burrow, Art Spoelstra, and a first-round draft pick (which the Lakers used to select Rod Hundley).  Please tell me about your time spent Cincinnati.

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
Rochester at one time was a great franchise.  When they moved to Cincinnati, I guess [Royals owner] Les Harrison got some tax breaks or something, or maybe a break on the rent.  I'm not really sure why Harrison decided to move, but I thought he was a nice guy, and we had some good talent the year that I was there.  Jack Twyman was there, and Maurice Stokes.  Stokes got sick the year that I got there.  He would have been a superstar in the NBA.  We had George King and myself.  We had some good ballplayers, but I wasn't happy in Cincinnati.  So it was sort of a stop-off place.  I wanted to go straight from Minneapolis to St. Louis, because Ben Kerner had drafted me to come to Milwaukee and I then didn't go there.  I think he'd been a little bit disappointed that I didn't end up with him in the first place, because I would have played in Milwaukee and probably would have been part of the move to St. Louis.

It was contract time, and Harrison met with me and said that he was going to cut salaries.  I said 'No thanks', and asked to be traded.  I had no idea where I was going, but I was happy to end up in St. Louis.  Bob Pettit was there, and Cliff Hagan.  Slater Martin came out of Minneapolis and he was there.  Jack Mcmahon.  Sihugo Green.  So there was a good nucleus of ballplayers, and they had just won the championship the year before.  I thought I could fit right in.  Charlie Share was the center.  I had to beat him out – we split time the first half of my first season in St. Louis, and then he was traded to Minneapolis.

But back to your question – Cincinnati was just a blur.  If I'd have stayed there long enough I would have gotten to play with Oscar Robertson.  Who knows, maybe we would have won a championship.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You've just touched on my next question:  A season later, you were traded to the reigning NBA-champion St. Louis Hawks. Former Celtic "Easy" Ed Macauley was a teammate, as were players such as Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagen.  Please tell me about each of these gentlemen.

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
"Easy" was a very good ballplayer when he played for the Boston Celtics.  I ran into him a lot of times when I was with Minneapolis and Cincinnati.  We had great battles.  Then he went to St. Louis, where he played and became the team's head coach.  But you have to remember that when I got to St. Louis, "Easy" was in the twilight of his career.  He was a fine man. 

The two players that I like to talk about the most are Pettit and Hagan.  When I played with Cliff and Bob, it was like a trio made in heaven.  I don't know what it was.  The three of us just jelled together, we had our own roles to play, and we knew how to move in each other's space on the court.  I could be inside, I could go outside.  I developed the one-handed outside shot – it would be a three-pointer today.  Cliff could move inside.  We could switch the defense – if we had a big guy on me, like Wilt Chamberlain, I could move him out and then Pettit and Hagan could have free reign inside.  For the four years that I played as a starter for St. Louis, we were the top scoring frontline in the NBA.  So we had a really good nucleus until I got hurt.  I tore my Achilles tendon, and that's when Boston picked me up for the final two years.

 

CELTIC-NATION
St. Louis won 49 contests during the 1958-59 season, but the team was shocked in the division finals by Minneapolis and its exciting rookie, Elgin Baylor.  After all of those years in a Laker uniform, what was it like for you to play this series from the other side?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
It was terrible because I would have liked to have won it against the Lakers.  You always get up when you play your old team.  We just didn't get up high enough.  It was disappointing because we felt we could go all the way.  We flubbed up and didn't do what we were supposed to do.

 CELTIC-NATION
The Hawks reached the NBA Finals a year later, falling to the Boston Celtics in an exciting seven game series.  What was it like to compete against Bill Russell arguably to be greatest defensive player – and greatest winner – in NBA history?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
I've always said that if I were going to start an NBA franchise, I'd want to have a Bill Russell.  Then I would fill in around him.  I played against Russell for many years when I was with Minneapolis and St. Louis.  He was by far the most difficult player I'd ever played against, because he was so quick.  Defensively, he was the best player in NBA history.  Offensively, he wasn’t the most overpowering.  He could score, but his main prowess was rebounding, kicking the ball out, and running the court.  To me, Russell is the greatest ever.  They talk about Chamberlain, and they talk about Russell, and I really believe that Russell had the heart to be a champion.  Not to disparage Chamberlain, but he just didn't have the same kind of heart.  You could see the spurt every once in awhile.  He would have that determination and killer instinct, but he just didn't have it consistently.  He could always score, but guys could score on him as well.  The Celtics were the Celtics, but they became champions when they got Russell.

If Auerbach and the Celtics hadn't traded for the rights to Russell, then Russell would have been a Hawk.  And I'm sure that he would have done the same for that franchise.  But Auerbach traded "Easy" and Hagan to Kerner for the right to draft Russell.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You scored your 10,000th NBA point one year later, during a game at Madison Square Garden.  Hawks coach Paul Seymour presented you with a trophy to commemorate the event, and then followed with a good-natured ribbing.  He said:  "Here is a well-earned memento for you, Clyde, a fitting souvenir to mark the 25,000 points you've accounted for," Seymour said. Then he added, "That's right, 25,000 points-10,000 that you scored and the 15,000 that you gave to your opponents."  What did this milestone mean to you and, more importantly, did you ever get even with coach Seymour for his comment?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
No, I didn't get even with Paul – even though I probably should have [laughs].  He was a good coach for us.  Every once in awhile I'd have a tendency not to get back fully on a defensive play, and he would fine me $25 for not getting back.  As far as the 10,000 points are concerned, it was definitely a milestone and an honor.  But I didn't give up 15,000 points [laughs].

 

CELTIC-NATION
The Hawks outlasted a Laker club lead by Elgin Baylor and Jerry West to earn a rematch with the Celtics.  The Celtics, however, were beginning to look like a dynasty themselves.  Just how good were the Celtics in this series?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
St. Louis felt like a family ball club, and Boston was the same way.  They were a group of individuals that didn't want to get beat, and they had the nucleus to back it up.  People talk about the coaching ability of Red Auerbach, but I think Red Auerbach was a great psychologist because he kept the egos on that team to where he could manage them, and to where the players could play to the best of their ability.  To me, the Celtics weren't a group of individuals.  They were a collection of individual stars that could play together for a common goal – winning championships.  You had All-Stars in five areas – Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, and either of the Jones Boys [Sam or KC].  So when the team took the court you could have five All-Stars playing at the same time; and yet, when they played together they weren't playing as five individual All-Stars.  They worked together as a unit, and nobody on that team cared about getting the most points, or the most assists, or whatever the case may have been.  If a Sam Jones stepped up and had a big night, the other four players were happy to do the other things to help the team win.  There wasn't a jealous bone on the floor.  They were truly a family, a group of guys that really enjoyed one another.

When I joined the team, I had to be invited into the family.  I wasn't brought in immediately.  They had to find out what kind of individual that I was, and how I could get along with the other players on the team – or couldn't get along, if that happened to be the case.  They knew that I'd been an All-Star prior to coming to Boston, but that really didn't matter to them.  They were looking for how well I fit into the family framework that was in place.  They didn't want anybody in there that was going to stir the pot, so to speak.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Your back caused you to miss half of the next season.  Then, when it looked as if you'd reached the NBA Finals for the last time, Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics came calling.  What made Auerbach such a great coach, and how did he compare to Phog Allen at Kansas?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
Like Red, Phog was a great psychologist.  He had a great assistant coach in Dick Harp, who helped take care of the X's and O's.  But Phog kept us all in line.  If you got out of line, or got to thinking that you were bigger than you really were, then Phog would bring you back down.  Red was the same way.  Now as far as X's and O's, I think Red had a group of guys who wanted to play and wanted to win, and he gave them the tools as far as plays, to accomplish that feat.  And then he let the guys go out and play.  Red let Cousy and Bill go out and play ball – he knew what they could do.  He just got his point across in practices, pointing out mechanics and technique, and come game time he trusted that his players would execute on both ends of the court.  And then he kept them together psychologically.  I think that Phog was the same way – in many respects they were very similar in their approach to the game…of course, Phog didn't smoke cigars – but Red sure did [laughs].

 

 CELTIC-NATION
You began your NBA career by winning a championship as a backup to the great George Mikan, and finished it by winning two as a backup to the incomparable Bill Russell.  What was it like to play with Russell, and what was it like to win those titles in Boston?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
Well, it was definitely better playing with him than against him [laughs].  Once you got to know him, Bill was a great guy.  Just to sit on the bench and watch him play, it didn’t seem as though he ever got older.  It seemed like he could go on and on forever, even though age catches up with everybody.  But there were nights when he'd play the whole game – forty-eight minutes – and you could only sit back and marvel and how he could do that after playing in the league for ten-plus years.  Of course, it was my job to be his backup, so there were nights when I didn't step foot on the floor.

Every once in awhile I'd get to go in and play.  I remember one time, Bill got poked in the eye and had to come out.  I went in against Walt Bellamy and had one heck of a night.  I scored over twenty points that night.  So every once in a while I could still have spurts [laughs].  But I was there in the twilight of my career, enjoying playing when I did, and enjoying watching guys like John Havlicek play ball.  He was rookie during my first year with the team.  He was really something special.  And, as you've mentioned, I was able to win a couple of championships before I retired from basketball.  It was really special to be a part of the Boston Celtics.

 

CELTIC-NATION
On May 3, 1988 you received basketball's highest honor – enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.  Please take me back to that special day.

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
Anytime you get honored by your peers, it has to be considered a great honor.  You have to be voted in – I think there are eighteen people on the panel who have to endorse you, so it's very special to be selected.  You look at the players in there – guys like George Mikan, and even guys farther back than that…guys like Bob Kurland, who I'd heard about but had never seen play – and you realize how great a thrill it is to be selected.  It's something that I'll cherish for the rest of my life.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were the first player to play on an NCAA, Olympic and NBA championship team – a feat that has been duplicated only three times since.  What does this mean to you?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
Either I was awfully lucky, or the teams that I played on – and I give credit to my teammates for this distinction – were awfully talented.  Because without the other players you can't win.  The kids that I played with at Kansas and in the pros, and in the Olympics…they were the reason that I won at those levels.  I just wish that I could have won the state championship in 1947, because then I would have had a title at all levels.  We came ten points shy [laughs].

 

CELTIC-NATION
Final Question:  You’ve achieved great success in your life.  You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA.  If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?

CLYDE LOVELLETTE
In 1980, I was fifty years old.  I'd played a lot of ball, and I'd won a lot of awards, and I was generally looked upon as a great success in the world of athletics.  But it seemed as if I were still searching – I wasn't complete, I wasn't fulfilled, and I was still searching for something.  That year I gave my life to Christ, and my life from that time forth has been the best years of my life.  I don't get noticed as much for basketball.  I'm still known, but I don't search out the spotlight.  I enjoy being a child of Christ, and I enjoy my relationship with Him a lot more than anything I ever accomplished on the basketball court.  That might be hard to understand, but even when I was young and playing and in control, I knew that something was missing.  I knew that I was going to find Him and the He could fill the emptiness that was in my heart.

Athletes today need to realize that all the money that they make, all the accolades that they receive…those things will fade.  Their popularity will fade.  My advice is to look for something permanent, and for something that is going to be eternal.  Jesus Christ is the answer.

 

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