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Braves New World: John Gianelli

(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.)

John Gianelli has the odd distinction as someone who is remembered for replacing one of the greatest players for not one, but two NBA franchises. As he found out, Willis Reed and Bob McAdoo were tough acts to follow. Gianelli wasn’t a bad ballplayer, but he certainly was in the wrong place at the wrong time in those moments.

John Arec Gianelli was born on June 10, 1950, in Stockton, California. That city is located in the Central Valley of California, so it’s something of a regional hub in an area known for agriculture. John’s father was Jonperry Gianelli (1926 - 2009). He lived in Stockton for his entire life, and eventually was the owner of “Farmer’s Implement Exchange.” In fact, he worked with farmers for more than 50 years before retiring. John’s mother was named Shirley. Young John stayed in that area throughout his childhood, and went on to attend Edison High School in the southern part of Stockton. Buffalo sports fans know all about one famous graduate of that school; J.D. Hill was a wide receiver for the Bills during part of the 1970s.

A center who is approaching 7 feet in height has been a valuable commodity for high school basketball teams for decades, and the Edison team of 1967-68 was no exception. Edison earned the title of “Stockton’s Greatest High School Basketball Team” that year. It went 19-1 that season under coach John Nichols, and won its second straight Central California Conference championship. Gianelli was a big reason why. He hadn’t played much high school ball before he was a senior, but his skills eventually caught up with his body. He was named the high school player of the year in the region by the Stockton Record. The Stockton Athletic Hall of Fame put the entire team into its ranks, and John eventually went in as an individual as well.

When John was ready to graduate from high school in 1968, about 10 colleges were chasing him to play basketball for them. Considering his height and his team’s success, that’s probably lower than you’d expect. But Gianelli saw no reason to leave town to pursue higher education. He was off to the University of the Pacific, located right in Stockton. There he was welcomed by basketball coach Dick Edwards, who was in the midst of a nice run of success. He had arrived at Pacific in 1963, and had nine straight winning seasons (168-72 overall) in his time there.

Gianelli averaged 20.7 points and 21.0 rebounds for the freshman team in 1968-69, while the varsity went 17-9. Then the West Coast Athletic Conference team picked up its play a level the following season. Pacific went 21-6, and John became a big part of the team almost instantly. The 6-foot-10 center averaged 18.5 points and 13.1 rebounds per game in 1969-70. Pacific and Santa Clara tied for the conference title, and the Tigers lost the playoff game on a neutral court to miss a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Pacific left nothing to chance a year later. The Tigers won their final 11 regular-season games to take the WCAC title (12-2) and a date in March Madness. Pacific lost its opening NCAA game, 84-81, to Long Beach State, so it finished 22-6. Gianelli must have been unstoppable on the boards, as he averaged 18.2 rebounds per game to go with 21.4 points. No wonder he earned conference player of the year honors. The Tigers’ season ranks as one of the great years in school history.

Pacific moved to the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference for Gianelli’s senior season in 1971-72. The Tigers were still good – 17-9 overall, 8-4 in the conference. But Long Beach State, led by Ed Ratleff, was better. The 49ers were ranked in the top 10 in the country throughout the season. John had another outstanding season, with averages of 21.5 points and 17.9 rebounds (second in the country) per game – even though he admitted later that he was looking ahead to the pros and had lost interest in school. ″We wanted to compete, and we had a lot of pride, but without John we would have been a very average team,” former teammate Bob Thomason said years later. ″He was as unselfish a player as I’ve ever played with. He just had a major impact on winning.″ John’s uniform number was retired in 1973.

Edwards figured he had taken the Tigers as far as they could go, and left to coach the University of California (Berkeley). “Dick was very intense, very into basketball,” Gianelli said. ″There were times that you absolutely hated the guy, but after four years, you said it was a great experience.″

Gianelli looked forward to the NBA Draft of 1972, thinking that he might become a first-round draft choice. John didn’t reach that distinction, but was taken in the second round (20th overall) by the Houston Rockets. By the way, five players taken before Gianelli only played one season in the NBA. The Pittsburgh Condors of the American Basketball Association had taken Gianelli in the second round as well, but as the summer went on, the Condors folded. His ABA rights were assigned to the Dallas Chaparrals in a dispersal draft.

By September, Gianelli still hadn’t reached a contract agreement with the Rockets. Houston must have felt the ABA looking over its shoulder, as the team opted to sell John’s rights to the New York Knicks for an undisclosed amount of cash on September 19. And what a great time it was to be a Knick. This was in the greatest era in team history, as New York had won a championship in 1970. The Knicks had stars at every position: Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe. New York also had Jerry Lucas and Phil Jackson coming off the bench. Lucas later described this team as “the most intelligent team that ever played basketball.”

But first John had to arrive in New York, a place that can be intimidating. Gianelli was late showing up for his physical with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden before training camp, and business manager Jim Wergeles sent staffer Carl Martin to look for him in the midtown pedestrian traffic. Martin was told to look for a 6-10 guy with curly blond hair. Sure enough, someone of that description soon arrived outside the Garden. “John Gianelli?” Martin said to him. “How’d you know who I was?” Gianelli answered. Later in the season, Gianelli and fellow rookie teammate Henry Bibby needed 20 minutes to build up the nerve to get to the Garden by crossing Seventh Avenue in midday.

If a rookie wanted to sit and learn from the best, the Knicks were a great landing place. Gianelli played 52 games that season, averaging 3.5 points in 9.9 minutes per game. On the road he had a famous roommate in Frazier. While John was anxious to explore new cities, Walt was more concerned with catching up on his sleep. As for the height and the hair, well, Sports Illustrated described him once as looking like the “world’s tallest mushroom.”

Gianelli had a good seat for the Knicks’ second-ever championship. New York defeated Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles to reach the pinnacle of pro basketball. ″A pretty incredible situation,” Gianelli said later. ″At the time, you don’t know how lucky you are.″

It was a great combination of players, but it couldn’t stay together much longer. Reed, the heart of those Knicks in that era, only played 19 games in 1973-74 due to injuries. Gianelli was asked to fill some of those missing minutes at center. He averaged 20.3 minutes per game, averaging 7.3 points. New York won a playoff round, but fell in five games to the eventual champion, Boston.

Reed and DeBusschere were both gone from the roster in 1974-75, and Gianelli became the regular at center. He played 80 games, averaging 35 minutes and 10.3 points. The Knicks still had Frazier and Monroe, but the rest of the team didn’t meet that standard. New York finished 40-42. The Knicks tried to complete a huge trade in the summer of 1975, with one rumor having New York willing to trade Gianelli, Frazier and a million dollars to the Milwaukee Bucks for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Bucks took an offer from the Lakers instead, and the Knicks had to be satisfied with acquiring Spencer Haywood. He was good for 20 points per game. Gianelli played all 82 games (9.3 scoring average) as New York fell another step to 38-44.

Now the story starts to be more turbulent. In the fall of 1976, the Portland Trail Blazers had the rights to center Moses Malone – but really couldn’t afford him. Blazers coach Jack Ramsay called Knicks coach Red Holzman and asked if New York had an interest in Malone. Holzman asked, “Is he as good as John Gianelli?” Ramsay said yes, but Holzman answered, “With due respect, I don’t think so.” Basketball history in New York would have looked much different with Malone, a future Hall of Famer, in town.

Later that year in Buffalo, the Braves were having problems getting Bob McAdoo signed to a new contract. The former North Carolina star was a former league Most Valuable Player at this point. In that period of time, the Knicks always seemed to be ready to open their checkbook if that’s what it might take to add a talented player. When negotiations between the Braves and McAdoo broke down, the Knicks stepped in. On December 9, New York acquired McAdoo and Tom McMillen from Buffalo for John Gianelli and cash – an estimated $3 million. In other words, the Knicks essentially bought one of the league’s best players. You can imagine what sort of effect that the deal had on the Braves and their fans. That was the situation when Gianelli arrived to play for his new team.

Gianelli gave it his best, playing 57 games. He mostly split playing time at center with George Johnson. The team had a 10-15 record upon his arrival. He made his Braves’ debut on December 11 in Indiana, scoring four points in a 109-101 loss. Including that game, Buffalo was 20-37 the rest of the way. Gianelli became something of a scapegoat for the trade of McAdoo. “I’m a little disturbed that people get on a fellow like Gianelli,” Buffalo coach Joe Mullaney said. “John’s a good basketball player. He can shoot, he works hard and he’s intelligent. And when he goes into the game, the fans get on him.”

The dreary season ended with a one-sided (120-99) loss to Chicago in Memorial Auditorium. The Associated Press reported that Buffalo played so badly that Gianelli received applause simply by grabbing an offensive rebound.

Gianelli came close to moving out of Buffalo at the time of the NBA draft that summer. The idea was for Buffalo to trade him with a first-round draft pick to Cleveland for guard Jim Cleamons. However, Cleamons was a free agent at that point, and the NBA ruled that the Cavs could not trade him under those circumstances.

About three months later, Gianelli was dealt to Milwaukee for a first-round draft choice. That must have felt like a “get out of jail free” card for him. The Bucks had taken center Kent Benson first overall in the draft, but the Indiana graduate wasn’t ready to make a big impact in the NBA. Gianelli played in all 82 games for the Bucks, finishing with averages of 8.5 points in 28.4 minutes. Milwaukee had a promising young roster (John had more NBA experience than any of his teammates) that finished 44-38, and it even won a playoff mini-series before exiting the postseason. Gianelli didn’t miss a game in all of 1978-79 either, although his minutes and points averages did drop just a little. The Bucks regressed to 38-44.

The offseason of 1979 was an active one for Gianelli. He was traded with a first-round pick to the New Jersey Nets for center Harvey Catchings on May 31. Five months later, John was traded with Bernard King and Jim Boylan to Utah for center Rich Kelley. The Jazz had a little talent, but didn’t really have a starting center. Utah looked at Gianelli for six weeks, and then waived him on November 28. John’s time in the NBA had ended after 541 games and 4,210 points over seven seasons.

That could have been it for Gianelli’s basketball life, but he decided to play in Italy. That move lasted three seasons. The relationship started slowly, as his emotion-less style didn’t go over well with Italian fans, who called him “Pisolo” – which translates to “Sleepy.” It all worked out well, as John averaged 16 points and 12 rebounds per game there. Gianelli won a European championship in his second year. He is in the Olimpia Milano Hall of Fame. “Sharon (his wife) and I thought it was a great experience in Italy,” Gianelli said later.

It was back to the Stockton area for John, Sharon and their five children. They wound up settling in Strawberry, California, where he worked in the family farm machinery business. The population of Strawberry in 2010 was counted to be 68 by the census. But considering that it is quite close to Yosemite National Park, living there has some major benefits. “We bought the place in Strawberry while we were still playing basketball, and we’d spend the summer in California,” Gianelli said later. ″We just loved it here.”

Basketball will always be a part of Gianelli’s life. For example, he usually turned up when his Pacific team staged reunions. John also stayed close to ex-Knicks teammate Phil Jackson, who became one of the great coaches in NBA history after retiring from playing the game. Still, friends say Gianelli is hardly living in the past – and that he never changed his winning personality.

“What you have to remember about John is that even after he played pro ball and went on to make some money, he was always the same guy,” college teammate Bill Stricker said. ″He’s always been the same caring, loving, loyal guy.″

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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