Three games in three days? Vets call that easy
If NBA teams are concerned this season about playing back-to-back-to-back, try back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
If you’ve lost count, that would be eight of them. Believe it or not, the Philadelphia 76ers once played eight games in eight nights.
It happened to close the 1963-64 regular season. In what might be regarded as the most rugged trip in pro sports history, the 76ers started their odyssey March 11 at St. Louis, then played in consecutive nights at Cincinnati, against Detroit in Scranton, Pa., against Baltimore in Yardley, Pa., at the Los Angeles Lakers, at San Francisco and at the Lakers a second time before finishing up March 18 again in San Francisco.
“That is crazy,” said forward Chet Walker, one of seven 76ers who played in all eight games. “I remember getting hurt in that last game. Maybe it was fatigue, but actually it was a groin pull.”
So, pardon members of the 1963-64 76ers if they’re rolling their eyes when they hear about players hardly enthralled this season about logging three games in three nights. It’s a scheduling move that only has been done by the NBA in recent history during lockout-affected seasons. It was used in 1998-99 and this season, with 66 games being sardined into four months.
The Miami Heat have their only set this season of three in a row when they play Sunday at Atlanta, Monday at Milwaukee and Tuesday at Indiana. Guards Dwyane Wade and Mike Miller have been among those on the team not exactly looking forward to it.
“I’m sure it’s going to be tough,” Wade said. “Two in a row is tough. No doubt three in row is going to be tough.”
Tough? That’s a Sunday stroll through the botanic gardens compared to what some players went through in the first two decades of the NBA, which began play in 1946.
“Three in a row was nothing,” said Hall of Fame forward Dolph Schayes, who played in the NBA from 1949-64. “That was a piece of cake.”
During his career, Schayes’ teams 28 times played at least four games in four days. That includes three five-gamers, a six-gamer in 1956-57 and a seven-gamer in 1960-61.
“I don’t think they really know what hardship is,” Schayes said about any of today’s players who might be complaining. “Today, they don’t have to get up for an early flight or an early train ride. You don’t know how many times we would get up at 5 in the morning after we had a game the night before …. They don’t have a leg to stand on. They’re kind of babies compared to the conditions we played in.”
Schayes coached the 76ers in 1963-64, having begun the season as a player-coach before deciding to hang up his jersey at midseason. So, Schayes was not one of the super seven who went the distance as a player during the eight games in eight days.
Besides Walker, the other iron men were guard Al Bianchi, center Connie Dierking, guard Hal Greer, guard Paul Neumann, center Johnny Kerr and forward Ben Warley, the latter two being deceased. An Elias Sports Bureau representative couldn’t say if that’s the NBA record for a team playing the most games in consecutive days and that it would take too long to look up.
Memories of the actual trip are sketchy from Bianchi, Dierking, Walker and Schayes. But Walker dubbed the trip “excessive” even for those times, and Schayes called it a “tremendous trip” that the 76ers played in Yardley, a Philadelphia suburb, one day and in Los Angeles the next.
At least the 76ers got to fly on a jet to the West Coast. Schayes, who played with Syracuse until the team moved to Philadelphia in 1963, remembers the Nationals taking propeller-driven DC-3s, trains and buses regularly out of Syracuse. He remembers once when they had a Friday night game in Boston against New York during the 1957-58 season and had to be back in Syracuse the next day for a 2:00 p.m. nationally televised game against St. Louis.
“There was a tremendous storm and the plane was canceled and we had to take a bus,” Schayes recalled. “A truck jackknifed on the road and there was a big pileup of cars and we had to wait hours and hours on the road in western Massachusetts.”
Bianchi, who also was on that trip, remembers guys crawling into the luggage racks above seats just to try to stretch out. The Nationals finally got to the arena at 1 p.m., an hour before tipoff. And all Schayes did was score 33 points in Syracuse’s narrow 103-102 loss.
But that was just the second of three games in three days. Schayes scored 28 points when he played his sixth game in six nights in 1956-57 and had 33 when he played his seventh out of seven in 1960-61. Neither of those stretches featured a game in the same city two days in a row.
“I was playing 40 minutes a game, and you’d be tired before games,” said Schayes, who played in 706 consecutive games from 1962-71, fourth on the NBA’s all-time list. “But once you warmed up, everything thing would be fine.”
Maybe it helped Schayes that he wasn’t a stickler for cleaning his uniform during those crazy trips.
“We would wash our uniforms in the bathroom and just hang them up after games,” Schayes said. “But I sweated a lot, and I wasn’t very good at washing my uniform. So, maybe the stink in my uniform helped me. Opponents didn’t want to get close to me because I smelled terrible. I was pretty ripe.”
Bianchi was Schayes’ teammate from 1956-64. He remembers Syracuse trips to play in Fort Wayne, Ind., when the team would change trains in Waterloo, Ind., and all the players would jump off because the train wouldn’t come to a complete stop.
Bianchi suffered a broken hand and missed the Nationals’ run of seven games in seven days, but he did join Schayes in not missing a game during the six-in-six days stretch.
“What I remember about those long trips is that if you didn’t wash or rinse out your top, it got real hard and your nipples really suffered,” Bianchi said. “So, what we used to do — and I remember Wilt (Chamberlain, Bianchi’s Philadelphia teammate during the 1964-65 and 1965-66 seasons) also doing it — is we would put Band-Aids over our nipples.”
Obviously, today’s players have their uniforms cleaned for them. They travel in team planes that leave directly after games. They stay at the finest hotels, with their luggage waiting in the rooms for their arrival.
When Dierking played from 1958-60 and 1963-71, he remembers teams regularly arriving after all-night or early-morning trips only to find their hotel rooms weren’t ready. So, guys would walk the streets or nod off in the lobby until they got their keys.
But that wasn’t what led Dierking to retire from the NBA for three years in the early 1960s in order to work in the bowling business in Cincinnati. He could no longer take the plane rides out of Syracuse.
“I had a terrible phobia of flying,” Dierking said. “In Syracuse, we flew in these DC-3s and they would never get above the clouds, and Syracuse had the worst weather anywhere. I had had enough. But then when they moved to Philadelphia, I came back because then they were traveling by jets.”
Dierking managed to survive the eight games in eight days in his first season back. So, what does he think of any players making a big deal this season about three games in three nights?
“They don’t have any ground to stand on,” said Dierking, whose 76ers went 3-5 on their epic trip to finish 34-46 and make the playoffs. “When we played, we did it all the time. I don’t begrudge all the money they’re making, but they have nothing to complain about.”
Maybe complain isn’t the right word, but Houston forward Chase Budinger did wonder earlier this season after a back-to-back-to-back, “How many of those you could really last through in the regular season.”
Well, the 1963-64 76ers lasted through 10 of them, and that was before they closed the regular season with the eight in eight nights.