Mr. Consistency: An Hommage

Photograph Source: Wv funnyman – CC BY-SA 4.0

The small state of West Virginia has played an important role in the history of the NBA.  During the 1950-1951 season Earl Lloyd, who played and starred at West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University), became the first African American player to play in the league.    A few years later a native West Virginian, born in the state in the 1930s, became a star first at a WV high school and later at an in-state public university, before joining the NBA.  He became a perennial all-star over the course of his long, record-setting career and as a player was MVP in an NBA All-Star game and starred on a team that won an NBA title.  He capped off his career by being selected to the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary teams, and being elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.  I’m speaking here, of course, of, ahem, Hal Greer.

Many readers probably thought I was referring above to another West Virginia hoops star from the same era, Jerry West, whose recent death has been widely and deservedly chronicled.  West and  Oscar Robertson were arguably the two greatest guards to play in the NBA prior to the 1980s, But Hal Greer– less heralded during his playing days and less well remembered today—wasn’t far behind.

Greer, born in Huntington in 1936, starred at segregated [Frederick] Douglass Junior and Senior High School in that city before earning a basketball scholarship in 1954 to attend Marshall College (now Marshall University), also located in Huntington.  At Marshall, he blazed a trail for other African American athletes in West Virginia, as the first African American to receive an athletic scholarship at a major, predominantly white school in the state. Both Greer and his family were well known in Huntington, and his crossing of the color line at Marshall was marked initially rather more by disquiet than overt hostility.  Soon, however, his athletic prowess further muted any lingering racial unease about his presence on the team.  Indeed, Greer later looked back at his four years at Marshall as the happiest period of his life.

The 6-2 Greer –he played forward at Marshall, but guard in the pros–starred during his three varsity seasons with the Thundering Herd, averaging over 19 points and almost 11 rebounds per game, while shooting .545 from the field over the course of his collegiate career.  He made first team All Mid-America Conference in both 1957 and 1958, and was named an All-American during the latter season when he averaged 23.6 points per game.  After that season, he was the thirteenth pick in the 1958 NBA draft, selected by the Syracuse Nationals.

Greer spent his entire fifteen-year career in the NBA with the team that drafted him—the first five years as a member of the Syracuse Nationals and the last ten as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, after the franchise changed hands in 1963 and the new owners moved the team and changed its name.   Over the course of his long NBA career Greer averaged over 19 points per game during the regular season, along with five boards and four assists, while averaging over 45 percent from the floor and over 80 percent from the line.  In 92 career playoff games, his scoring average rose to 20.4.    He generally played what we now label shooting guard, playing alongside good, complementary point guards such as Larry Costello and Wali Jones.   Greer had a game that would translate well today: He could drive, had a deadly mid-range jumper, and played tenacious defense.  [If you don’t believe, me, see or].

Greer had a serious, even stoical presence on the court, and a steady, quietly effective—and at times unstoppable—offensive game.  His greatest star turn arguably came during the 1966-1967 season when the Sixers won the NBA crown, beating the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Division finals (thereby spoiling the Celtics’ bid for a ninth straight title) and the San Francisco Warriors in the NBA finals.  Greer averaged over 22 points per game during the regular season that year and led the team with an average of almost 28 points per game during the playoffs, while playing alongside prolific scorers such as Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham, and Chet Walker.  Greer had other moments in the sun, of course—he played in ten NBA All-Star games and was MVP of the 1968 game—and is still the Sixers’ all-time leading scorer (not Julius Erving or Charles Barkley or Allen Iverson).  And when he retired in 1973, he had played in more games than any other player in the history of the NBA.

Greer is often considered “Number 3” among the guards of his era, behind Robertson and West—no disrespect in that–with which ranking I would agree.  I would rank him ahead of other great guards in his cohort such as Sam Jones and Lenny Wilkens, ahead of great guards from the 1950s such as Bob Cousy, and ahead of the great guards of the cohort after him, players such as Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier.  Playing in Syracuse during the first five years of his career didn’t get Greer much pub, and playing with many other stars on the great Philly teams of the 1965-1968 era may have crowded Greer out.  While he is still well-known today in West Virginia—he is revered in Huntington, where a major road is named after him—among Sixers’ fans, and among basketball afficionados, he is far less celebrated than he should be.  Indeed, some geezers remember him as much for his unusual free throw style—he shot jumpers from the line—as for the quiet beauty of his overall game.   There is no reason, though, that “Zeke from Cabin Creek”—Jerry West—should be the only basketball player from West Virginia to come to mind when we are thinking about the 1960s and the NBA.  Besides– and beside– him there was Hal Greer, who died in April 2018 with much less fanfare than did West on June 12th.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and the Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.