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A salute to late Knicks legend Willie Naulls

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He broke down not only defenders, but racial barriers too.

The world has lost a real life hero with the passing of Willie Naulls, a former All-Star forward for the New York Knickerbockers who played in the NBA during a racially tense decade but managed to break down barriers by becoming the first black athlete to be named team captain in any of the major American sports.

Naulls died on November 22nd at 84-years-old after succumbing to respiratory failure as a result of Churg-Strauss syndrome, which restricts blood flow to vital organs and tissues, according to the New York Times. The late Knicks legend leaves this earth with an impactful legacy, and though the occasion is sad, it gives us a chance to look back at Naulls’ impressive life and career.

His Path To The Knicks

Naulls was born in Dallas, Texas in 1934, but before long his family moved to San Pedro, California in order to seek a more diverse and welcoming community. He loved Major League Baseball as a child and in high school was originally on track to play baseball, but the 6’6”, 225-pound athlete wound up turning to basketball and becoming an All-American at UCLA under legendary coach John Wooden.

Naulls was a second round draft pick of the St. Louis Hawks in 1956, selected in a draft class that included Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor and Tommy Heinsohn. Naulls was not necessarily a fan of the team that took him, seeing as they were stationed in the still-segregated Southern U.S., according to an interview he gave to NBA.com in December 2015.

“My parents took us out of the South to experience the freedom of competition and of choice of the integrating West Coast,” Naulls said in the interview. “To go to St. Louis and its segregated hotels, restaurants, cabs, living districts and attitude was a cultural shock. As a 21-year-old man, I had rarely experienced that since I was eight years old.”

Lucky for Naulls, his stay in St. Louis did not last long; on December 10th, 1956, only 19 games into his rookie season, Naulls was traded to the Knicks.

Naulls’ Career As A ‘Bocker

Naulls quickly carved out a significant role for himself with the Knicks, averaging 18.1 points and 11.8 rebounds in his first full season with the team and earning a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. He was one of only three black players selected as All-Stars that season, the others being Russell and Maurice Stokes.

During the roughly seven seasons he was with the Knicks, Naulls made four All-Star teams, and his overall Knicks stats stand at 19.3 points and 10.7 rebounds a game. He averaged more than 20 points a game three times for the Knicks, including during the 1961-62 season when he put up 25 points and 11.6 rebounds per contest.

The Knicks made the playoffs only once during Naulls’ tenure, in 1959, when the team’s 40-32 record was good for second place in the East. The Knicks lost in the division semifinals that year to the Syracuse Nationals, two games to none.

In the early 1960s, Naulls was named Knicks’ captain, becoming the first African-American athlete to earn the title for any team in any of the major American sports.

On March 2, 1962, Naulls posted 31 points and 7 rebounds in a 169-147 loss to the Philadelphia Warriors. Naulls’ strong showing represented the seventh straight game he had scored 30 or more points, setting a franchise record that wouldn’t be broken for almost five decades (Amar’e Stoudemire scored 30 or more in nine consecutive games in 2010). Naulls’ record-setting night against the Warriors was overshadowed by Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 100 points and grabbed 25 boards.

Today, Naulls sits at 13th on the Knicks all-time scoring list, one spot behind John Starks and just ahead of Gerald Wilkins. His 8,318 points as a Knick are more than than the likes of Bernard King, Latrell Sprewell and Stephon Marbury, among others big names. His 5,015 rebounds is good for 5th on the Knicks all-time rebounds list, behind only Patrick Ewing, Willis Reed, Charles Oakley and Harry Gallatin.

His Post-Knicks Career as a Champion

In December 1962, Naulls was traded to the San Francisco Warriors, and in September 1963 he was traded again, this time to a Boston Celtics team that was in the middle of an absolutely dominant stretch of basketball that included 11 championships between 1957 and 1969.

Naulls notched three titles as a member of the Celtics, in 1964, 1965 and 1966. He retired from the NBA in 1966.

In 1964, Naulls was part of the NBA’s first all-black starting lineup with the Celtics, in a game that was ironically played against his former team, the St. Louis Hawks

For his career, Naulls averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. His career field goal percentage was 40.6 percent, and he shot free throws at a clip of 81.2 percent.

Life After The NBA

Naulls focused on business once his NBA career was over, and his original pursuits included owning an auto dealership in Los Angeles and investing in “enterprises that he felt could provide jobs in black communities,” according to the New York Times.

In 1993, he formed Willie Naulls Ministries, a non-profit venture that aims to “equip believers to testify the Truth of how to live victoriously in God’s Kingdom here on earth by teaching Biblically based principles for personal growth of spirit, soul, and body,” according to its website.

Naulls is survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, and six grandchildren, along with a legion of Knicks fans who appreciate his contributions to both the team and the world of sports at large. Rest in peace, Willie!