Derek Gentile: Lenox hoopsters of the '50s as good as pros — really

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PITTSFIELD >> I spent an enjoyable afternoon on Sunday speaking at the Lenox Library as part of its Distinguished Lecture Series. (My suspicion is that the library had to stretch a bit to fit me under the "distinguished" umbrella, but so be it.)

My topic was the great local semipro basketball team of the 1950s, the Lenox Merchants. This was a team of college and pro players who, at least for three years, regularly defeated NBA teams. I enjoyed seeing the families of some of the former players there, including the Mahoneys and the Martins.

The interesting thing to me is that I later got several emails from people who were there who had a hard time believing my story. I have spoken to several high school classes and people in assisted living facilities and they, too, had a hard time believing it.

In part, of course, it's because people in 2015 don't understand that the NBA in 1955 was a different animal. The players were mostly white, the style of play was slower and less sophisticated. And coaching was more roll-the-ball-out and see what happens. Preparation was almost nil.

But these were still the best basketball players in the world, and I admit, while Merchants promoter-coach William "Butch" Gregory wasn't the greatest strategist in the world, I give him a lot of credit for even trying to line up games with NBA team.

And it paid off; in 1955, Lenox beat that year's NBA champion, Syracuse. Not once, but twice. The late Roger O'Gara, who covered these games religiously for The Eagle, cracked that the Merchants would have easily made the playoffs in those years.

By my count, a total of 21 future Hall of Fame players and coaches appeared in the tiny Lenox High School gym in those years. So yes, I think they should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. If anyone has any ideas about how to do that, I'm all ears.

Close call

I'll finish with a story. The Celtics, who barnstormed all over New England in those days, didn't go by bus or by train; they drove in five or six individual cars.

One day in 1954, Celtics Bob Cousy and Chuck Cooper got lost in Berkshire County going to Bennington, Vt.

They got directions, and headed north. But they were late, so The Cooz hit the gas pedal. He zoomed through Park Street in Adams as a tidy 55 miles per hour.

An officer stopped their car. He recognized the Houdini of the Hardwood and told Cousy that he had the power to toss them both in jail until court the next day.

The Celtics were in the midst of a span of 16 exhibition games in 17 days. Cooz shrugged.

"Fine," he said. "We'll finally get a night off."

The cop let him go with a warning.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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