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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: George Wilson

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Buffalo was just another stop in the basketball career of George Wilson. He passed through the city in his final season, as he completed his nomadic time in the NBA as someone who couldn’t quite keep up with the league’s best big men. At 6-foot-8, George was a little small to play with the Goliaths of the sport. “I was the player everybody wanted but nobody wanted to keep,” he said later, and he was right.


George Wilson was born on May 9, 1942, in Meridian, Mississippi. His father fought in World War II and then split up with his mother. George and his dad went to California for a while. But at age seven, he took a train to Chicago to be reunited with his mother. The Wilsons landed in “The Terrace,” a large housing building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, and Wilson practiced his basketball skills at the Midwest Boys Club as a child.


Then it was on to high school. John Marshall Metropolitan High School, usually known as Marshall, is located in the East Garfield Park neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. In a basketball sense, life was never better for the school than it was when Wilson was there. It played for the city championships for four straight years with Wilson on the roster. The Commandos won state championships in 1958 and 1960 – two of the three Illinois titles in Marshall’s history. (What happened in 1959? “Got ripped off by a referee,” George said.) Wilson averaged around 25 points per game in his last three seasons in school, and was named All-State in 1958, 1959 and 1960. When the Chicago Sun-Times decided to pick a player of the year for the first time in 1960, Wilson was the pick. In 1960, he was a Parade All-American along with Bill Bradley and Connie Hawkins. In other words, no one has ever had a better high school basketball resume.


Along the way, he picked up the unusual nickname of “Jif.” It seems that this particular brand of peanut butter had a kangaroo on its label, and George’s friends thought he jumped like that particular animal.


Originally, Wilson looked over about 100 scholarship offers and signed a letter of intent to play basketball at the University of Illinois. But George was a big fan of the great Oscar Robertson – a former Cincinnati player - at this point in his life, even if they played different positions, and he liked Bearcats coach Ed Jucker. Besides, Wilson wasn’t sure he liked the idea that he’d be the only African American on the Illinois roster. "I called Illinois and told them, 'Nah, I won't be coming there,'" Wilson said, and it was off to Cincinnati.


Wilson also received some lessons about life that year. "(My stepfather) sat me down," Wilson said. "He said, 'I know you have never experienced this, but you're going to Cincinnati. I just want to let you know that across the river is Kentucky.' He said, 'Kentucky is just like Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, etc.' That was the first time he ever said anything (about Wilson's recruitment)." George never crossed the Ohio River during his college days except to go to the airport in Kentucky.


He arrived in Cincinnati just in time to get a good seat with the other freshmen as the varsity had a year to remember. The Bearcats were 4-3 on Christmas Day, and then ran the table. They finished the season with 18 straight wins, and moved into the NCAA tournament. There they won four more games in a row, including a win over instate rival Ohio State with Jerry Lucas in the final, to take the national title.


As a sophomore, it took 14 games for George to break into the starting lineup. Once he did, the Bearcats were off and running. The Bearcats didn’t need much scoring, so Wilson guarded the team’s best scorer and cleaned the boards. It all worked. Cincinnati was 10-2 after a loss to Bradley on January 10. The team didn’t lose again through the end of the season, including another victory over Ohio State in the championship final. It was the first time in NCAA history that a championship team started four black players. Wilson was fourth on the team in scoring at 9.2 points per game, and he also averaged 8.0 rebounds a game.


As you’d expect, that group was linked together forever – especially in Cincinnati. “We're a family,” Wilson said. “We all called each other when we had kids. We all got married. We all showed up at the weddings, showed up at the funerals. That's what we did for each other."


Even though the Bearcats lost standout Paul Hogue to graduation, everyone expected them to be very good in 1962-63. Everyone was right. They were undefeated for 18 games before losing to Wichita State. Then Cincinnati won its next seven games to reach another final. Wilson had 24 points on eight of nine shooting in the semifinal win over Oregon State. Then the Bearcats’ luck ran out, as Loyola of Chicago hit a shot at the buzzer to win the game and title in overtime, 60-58. Wilson was a force in the middle, averaging 15 points and 11.2 rebounds per game.


Two titles and a runner-up spot was an incredible run of success, and in hindsight Jucker has not received the credit he deserves. "Juck was like a father for everybody," Wilson said. "He always had you first and he always thought about you. He was consistent all the time I knew him. He never switched. And that's all you ask people to do: Just be straight up with me."


After missing the chance to win three straight titles, Cincinnati took a step backwards in 1963-64. The team lost five straight games in late January to push it out of the polls. The Bearcats won their last five to finish 16-9, but there was no postseason action for them this time. Wilson improved in both major statistics to 16.1 points and 12.5 rebounds. He was named All-Missouri Valley Conference for the second straight year.


Wilson’s next step in basketball was a little complicated. The NBA had a rule that allowed a team to claim a player that was within its territory – but could do it only once. The idea was to allow “hometown heroes” to stay home. While the Cincinnati Royals had the eighth pick in the first round, they could jump to second in line if they selected a player such as Wilson. Once the Los Angeles Lakers took Walt Hazzard of UCLA, the Royals picked him. “Imagine becoming a teammate of your hero; I was riding on Cloud 9 … and 10, and 11!” Wilson said about the chance to play with Robertson.


But before Wilson could worry about the pros, he had another basketball assignment. George was a member of the 1964 United States Olympic basketball team – even though he wasn’t originally invited to try out. The appearance meant he missed the first few games of the Royals’ season, as the Olympics were held in Japan in mid-October. Wilson had some good company on that team, including Bill Bradley, Joe Caldwell, Walt Hazzard and Jeff Mullins. The Cincinnati graduate had a key moment in those Games. Team USA was involved in a close game with Yugoslavia, with its perfect Olympic record (37 straight wins since 1936 at the time) hanging in the balance. Wilson hit a couple of huge shots to give his team some breathing room, and they eventually won the game by eight. The Americans came home with a gold medal.


"To this day, I wonder what would have happened had I not made those jump shots," Wilson said years later. "The Olympic experience is the greatest thing ever. There is nothing like it."


With that done, Wilson now could take advantage of the chance to play with Robertson and Lucas, who certainly remembered him from the NCAA Tournament. The Royals also had center Wayne Embry and forward Jack Twyman on the roster, so it was a good team that usually kept falling short of the goal of knocking off the mid-dynasty Boston Celtics. Wilson made his NBA debut on October 31 in a 28-point loss to Boston, and scored 12 points – a season high – in a loss to San Francisco about two weeks later. He finished the season with 39 games under his belt, playing an average of 7.4 minutes per game. Cincinnati finished 48-32, 14 games behind the mighty Celtics. The Royals lost in the first round of the playoffs, with Wilson seeing token action.


It was more of the same in 1965-66. The Royals went 45-35, but lost in the first round of the playoffs to Boston in a five-game series – despite winning two of the first three games. Wilson was up to 47 games played but only an average of 5.9 minutes per appearance. He was a third- string, slightly undersized center on a team that used two centers. George came back for Year Three in 1966, but he didn’t stay long. A .195 field-goal percentage might have something to do with that. He was traded to the Chicago Bulls for another 6-8 player, Len Chappell. The first-year Bulls were playing relatively well for an expansion team, and they eventually won 33 games and made the playoffs. Wilson averaged 10.4 minutes per game – the exact same number as he averaged in Cincinnati – but his scoring average went from 2.4 to 4.6.


Wilson was about to start the “new year, new team” phase of his career. George was taken by Seattle in the 1967 Expansion Draft. The SuperSonics caught a break when rookie Bob Rule turned out to be a good scorer at center. Wilson backed him up and played 16.1 minutes per game. Seattle won 23 games, a personal low for Wilson. Then came another expansion draft in the summer of 1968, and the Phoenix Suns added George to the roster. He finally got a chance to play fairly regularly, as he averaged 31.6 minutes per game. His scoring average was 11.6 points, including what turned out to be a career-high 33 points on November 10 in Detroit. Had he found a home?


Not quite. Phoenix traded him to Philadelphia on January 20, 1969, for Jerry Chambers. There George’s minutes dropped by more than half (14.5), as he backed up Luke Jackson and Darrall Imhoff. The Sixers won 55 games that season but the Celtics – on their way toward their 11th title in 13 seasons, dispatched them in the first round of the playoffs. Wilson was allowed to stay with the 76ers for another full season in 1969-70, but the team was mediocre (42-40) and Wilson’s numbers were no better.


At some point, Wilson probably figured he’d run out of opportunities. Luckily for him, the NBA expanded by three teams in 1970, opening up more jobs. This time the new Buffalo Braves snatched him up in the latest expansion draft. That would be his fourth stint with a first-year team, which probably constituted cruel and unusual punishment. If it’s not a pro basketball record, it should be.


The Braves had a typical collection of players by expansion standards that season. It didn’t take long for some of the positions to become sorted out. Bob Kauffman and Don May did nail down regular jobs up front, and top draft pick John Hummer also played a lot. Wilson had to compete with players like Cornell Warner, Nate Bowman and Bill Hosket for playing time. George took part in 46 games, averaging 15.5 minutes. He missed a few weeks in midseason with a broken bone in his ankle.


He did have a highlight in that season, one that probably reminded him of better days in high school and college. On December 15, 1970, the Braves hosted the Los Angeles Lakers in Memorial Auditorium. The game was tied, 111-111, with only a few seconds left in overtime. Wilson – who played 24 minutes in the game - received the ball and took a shot that some might consider a prayer from 30 feet away. Sometimes prayers are answered; the basket was good and the Braves knocked off the mighty Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West. It was one of Buffalo’s most memorable wins of that opening season.


Wilson couldn’t duplicate that moment the rest of the way. The Braves won 22 games that season. Wilson found himself unemployed on September 24, 1971, when the team cut him, and he wasn’t happy. “No use crying over spilt milk, but I was very angry and bitter then,” he said. “They had something like nine guys in camp with no-cut contracts, then I got cut even though I’d outplayed some of the other guys in camp.”


Wilson might have been able to find work in the ABA at that point, but decided to move on. His career spanned seven years with six teams, and 2,216 points in 410 games. In June of 1973, Wilson sued the Braves for $1.4 million in damages, claiming he was “intentionally and wrongfully discharged from the Buffalo Braves solely because of his race.” While the story appeared in several newspapers at the time, the outcome – a settlement or dismissal, perhaps – was not publicized.


George went back to the Cincinnati area and had a variety of jobs. One of them was to work at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Museum. He also worked with young people, did some motivational speaking, had a restoration business, taught some at-risk students, and worked at the YMCA. Eventually he settled in suburban Fairfield, Ohio and even competed in the Senior Olympics.


If you visited his house in the last several years, you’d see a letter from Jucker hanging in a frame on the wall. "You're the only player I've ever coached that could play every position equally as well," Jucker wrote in the Sept. 8, 1996 letter. "You knew how to win and how to use your outstanding skills to get the job done. I always looked forward to seeing you and your cheerful smile. Sincerely, Ed Jucker."


George was married twice, with three children from his first marriage to Jean. He died in July of last year.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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