Commentary

Cut from H.S. team, Arizin rose in NBA

Updated: August 4, 2009, 5:43 PM ET
By Ken Shouler | Special to ESPN.com

For his shooting -- at times impossible to defend and always magnificent -- he was known as "Pitchin' Paul." But he might just as well have been known as "Wheezing Paul."

Paul Arizin drew curious and sympathetic stares throughout his basketball career for panting and coughing as he sprinted from end to end. Opponents were alarmed at the gurgling sounds and grunts, reasoned it was asthma and wondered how he ever made it up and down the court. Arizin said it was from a persistent sinus condition he'd had since his youth. "It never hurt my endurance," he said.

Parul Arizin
NBA Photo Library/Getty ImagesIn 1950, Paul Arizin shows off the shot that made him famous.

Coughing or not, Arizin's constant weapon was a jump shot, which he relied on to launch a Hall of Fame career punctuated by inclusion on the list of the NBA's top all-time 50 players in 1996. Arizin died in his sleep Tuesday night in his suburban Philadelphia home at age 78.

A 6-foot-4 forward, Arizin used elevation and hang time to get the shot off against taller defenders. "I had a five-inch advantage over Paul," said Red Rocha, a pro center in the '40s and'50s, "but it was never enough when he leaped for that jump shot." Syracuse Nats' Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes remembers pregame strategy sessions designed at stopping Arizin. "Someone would bring up Arizin's jump shot and we'd try to figure out how to stop him. 'Let's stop it,' we'd say, but we knew we couldn't. His jump shot was perfect. There was no stopping it."

A Villanova grad who was College Player of the Year in 1950 when he led all Division I scorers with 25.3 points a game, Arizin logged all 12 of his pro seasons with the Philadelphia Warriors. He led the NBA in scoring in 1952 and '57 and would score 20-plus points a game for nine straight seasons. He was named to 10 All-Star Games.

In 1956 he teamed with three-time scoring champion Neil Johnston and two gifted passers, rookie playmaker Tom Gola and Jack George, to bring the Warriors their first title since the Basketball Association of American (BAA) Warriors of 1947.

Arizin played with Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 when Chamberlain shattered all previous scoring marks with a gargantuan 50.4 average. Arizin was the second option on that team, scoring off jumpers on the break when the Warriors weren't setting up Chamberlain to score inside.

Ramsay: Remembering Arizin
Dr. Jack Ramsay
Paul Arizin was a fierce, fierce competitor. And he had great spring. He was 6-foot-4, but he could jump over people. He could play inside and outside. I remember him getting the ball on the wing, driving, pulling up and shooting jump shots. Although he was much shorter, Arizin had the same basketball skill set as Kevin Garnett. He could really play and he could really score.

He didn't make his high school team but developed into a good player on his own. Villanova coach Al Severance went to see him play one day and was impressed. After watching Arizin play, Severance approached him and asked him if he'd like to go to Villanova. Arizin said, "I already go to Villanova." Severance put Arizin on the team and he became the linchpin for some very good teams there. He always led the Philadelphia area in scoring.

Off the court, Paul Arizin was a very, very nice guy. One of the best.

-- Dr. Jack Ramsay

It was Arizin's last season. Naturally, he averaged more than 20 points per game.

Arizin was born in Philadelphia on April 9, 1928. His father was a Philadelphia railroad worker, but Paul grew up with a love of sports. His love outstripped his achievements, however. He didn't feel confident enough to try out for the LaSalle High School squad until his senior year. Even then he was cut.

Despite his lackluster performance, Arizin persisted, playing pickup games at night in the Catholic Club League in Philadelphia. He entered Villanova University, not as a scholarship player but as a student, paying his tuition just like other students. The basketball games were staged in various halls, where the floors were ideal for dancing but too slippery for basketball.

At a time when the game was predominantly set shots and drives, Arizin was one of the few practitioners of the jump shot. One writer described Arizin's jump shot as being "like a Renoir or Rembrandt -- perfection." But Arizin described his style as coming about by "accident." "I was always a pretty good one-handed shooter," Arizin recalled. "But very often when I tried to shoot on those slippery floors I would slip." The same thing happened when he pushed off one foot for a hook shot.

Then he solved the problem. "I found that by leaving my feet when I shot I could avoid slipping," he said triumphantly. "The more I did it, the better I became, and before you knew it practically all my shots were jump shots."

Low ceilings presented another challenge. No Schayes-type rainbow arcs would do. "I had to throw line drives," Arizin recalled of the adjustment. "I just never changed."

Soon area college coaches, including Villanova's Al Severance, were dropping by to see Arizin play. Severance wasn't aware that Arizin was already a Villanova freshman. Arizin said he would play for him if a scholarship could be provided, since neither he nor his family could afford the private school's expensive tuition.

Arizin got his scholarship and, as a sophomore in 1948, was the Wildcats' leading scorer. In his junior year Villanova made the NCAA Tournament but lost to another bunch of Wildcats -- Adolph Rupp's Kentucky five. Playing against the heralded Alex Groza, Arizin scored 30 points in defeat. He not only led the country in scoring his senior year but also scored 85 points in a game against the Philadelphia Naval Air Materials Center. But the record was ultimately disallowed because it was not against an accredited four-year college.

He remained active in the Villanova community after his playing career.

"Paul Arizin was the most dignified, classy and humble legend I've ever met," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said in a statement. "He is adored and respected by anyone who has touched Villanova basketball. I'll always remember his undying support for our staff and players. He was a remarkable man who has left behind an unparalleled legacy and a beautiful family."

"I found that by leaving my feet when I shot I could avoid slipping. The more I did it, the better I became, and before you knew it practically all my shots were jump shots. "
-- Paul Arizin

The 1950 NBA draft was loaded with talent, including eventual Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Larry Foust. Chuck Cooper, the first African-American player drafted, also came out that year. But the Philadelphia Warriors made Arizin their territorial pick in the first round, with owner and coach Eddie Gottlieb offering him a $9,000 contract ("that was a lot more than what most college graduates were getting in those days," Arizin said). "I believe we have signed the finest college prospect in the country," Gottlieb said. "We're looking for him to be an outstanding pro."

Arizin didn't disappoint. He posted a rookie scoring average of 17.2 points per game and then led the league in the 1951-52 season with a 25.4 average, breaking George Mikan's three-year chokehold on the scoring title. The league shooting average in 1952 was 37 percent, but Arizin led in that category, too, connecting on 45 percent of his attempts. He also walked off with All-Star MVP honors in '52, leading the East to victory with a 26-point effort in Boston.

After winning the scoring title Arizin served two years in the Marines, but he returned to average 21 points per game. In fact, he averaged between 21 and 26 points over his eight remaining NBA seasons.

In 1956 he was All-NBA first team for the second of three times, averaged 24.2 points, and helped the Warriors to a league-best 45-27. Arizin and teammate Neil Johnston were second and third in the league in scoring, trailing only St. Louis' Bob Pettit. The Warriors topped Syracuse, the defending champion, in the Eastern Division finals and had an easier time in the Finals with Fort Wayne, winning in five games. In 10 postseason contests in '56, Arizin led the Warriors with averages of 28.9 points and 8.4 rebounds. For Arizin, it was his greatest career moment. "Only one thing ever came close," he says. "That was being named to the NBA's 25th Anniversary All-Time, All-League [silver anniversary] Team in 1971."

He won another scoring title in 1957 with a 25.6 average, edging Pettit, a perennial All-Star. Twice Arizin finished second in the league in scoring and he finished in the top 10 nine times. Detroit 6-5 forward George Yardley, who won the scoring title in 1958, offered his opinion on Arizin's shooting success: "Paul Arizin and I played the same style, and what made us different from the other guys with jump shots was that they shot on the way up, to help them get behind their shots. Paul and I shot at the peak of our jumps -- almost on the way down -- and that made our shots much harder to block."

Parul Arizin
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesAfter being named one of the NBA's 50 best in 1996, Paul Arizin poses with some of his awards.

Of all the players who began playing between 1945 and 1960, only three -- Chamberlain (30.1), Elgin Baylor (27.4) and Pettit (26.4) -- had higher career averages than Arizin (22.8). In eight postseasons, he averaged 24.2 points per game.

The 1961-62 campaign was Arizin's last. On Dec. 1, he scored 33 points to become only the third player in league history after Cousy and Schayes to log 15,000 points. Chamberlain, Arizin's teammate of three years, picked that same night to score 60 points, the fifth-highest total in league history.

Chamberlain had already taken a wrecking ball to NBA records. He had rewritten the book with new one-year marks in minutes played, field goals, field goals attempted, free throws attempted, rebounds, total points, rebound average and scoring average. In his first three seasons he led the league in a combined 25 categories. In the 1961-62 season alone he had logged scores of 78, 73, 67 (twice), 65 (twice), 63 (twice), 62 (three times), 61 (three times) and 60 (twice). All told, he had scored 60 or more points 15 times entering the next to last month of the season. So by the time Philadelphia prepared for a March 2 game in Hershey, Pa., against New York, his mates and opponents knew anything was possible.

As a crowd of 4,124 people shrieked "Give it to Wilt, Give it to Wilt," Chamberlain streaked toward the century mark. When he hit 100 points fans swarmed the court. After action resumed the Warriors finished off the Knicks 169-147. Arizin, who scored 16, attempted 18 shots, the most on the Warriors after Chamberlain's 63 attempts.

Two nights later, the Warriors played the Knicks again at Madison Square Garden. Arizin won the game with a 10-foot jumper -- on an assist from Chamberlain -- with 30 seconds remaining. New York center Darryl Imhoff, who received an ovation from the crowd of 9,346 fans when he fouled out -- held Chamberlain to 58 points. Arizin scored 25 in the Warriors' 129-128 victory.

"You wouldn't want a better outside shot than our Paul Arizin," Chamberlain said. "But they drop off Paul to hamper me. It adds up to the fact that they would rather take a chance on an outside shot than allow me to work inside."

The strategy worked. Philadelphia logged 49 wins that season but lost to Boston by two points in the seventh game of the Eastern finals. Chamberlain had been "held" to 35 points and 26.6 rebounds per game.

After the 1962 season, Gottlieb took his Warriors to San Francisco. Arizin did not make the trip west, however, electing to retire instead. "I was tired of playing and tired of traveling." He was not interested in coaching. He later explained, "I could've [kept playing], but I was 34 and I wanted to go out while I was still near my peak, before my skills faded. So I stayed home in Philly." The 1,832 points he scored in the 1962 season were the second highest total of his career. He retired as the third leading scorer in league history.

Instead of moving west he joined the Camden Bullets of the Eastern League, where he played from 1963 through 1965. He averaged 25 points with the Bullets and won league MVP honors in 1963. He was 37 when he played his last game in 1965.

He later worked as a marketing representative for IBM. Besides the NBA championship and two scoring titles, his career honors included being elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978.

His final court honor was being voted to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996. He is the fifth member of that 50-member team to pass away, following George Mikan in 2005, Dave DeBusschere in 2003, Wilt Chamberlain in 1999 and Pete Maravich in 1988.

Arizin is survived by his wife Maureen, four sons, a daughter and 14 grandchildren.

Kenneth Shouler was the managing editor and a writer for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Ken Shouler is the editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia." Shouler has also written three baseball books and served as a panelist for the "DHL Presents Major League Baseball Hometown Heroes" project.

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