JUPITER, Fla. — Only a high-caliber athlete could earn a nickname like “Billy the Bullet.”
“If you see me walk today, there’s no way you’d think that,” Bill Gabor, as in neighbor, says with a laugh.
Still, as steady as the tides, you’ll find Gabor hoofing the 1.5-mile distance from his oceanfront condo to the Jupiter pier and back, every day but Tuesday, which is when this 91-year-old star of the NBA’s formative years does his volunteer work at the hospital.
This is not a story about slam dunks or preening Hollywood stars in sweet court-side seats or sneakers so flashy that they really should arrive at the arena in their own limousines. All of that goes with today’s NBA, and with an All-Star game to be viewed by millions worldwide Sunday night.
Gabor’s tale is worth telling, though, because he was there when the NBA was born, and he was among the earliest of NBA All-Stars, too, back when college basketball got all the headlines.
“I played in the 1953 All-Star Game in Fort Wayne, Ind.,” Gabor said. “Got a $100 war bond for it that I had to hold for 10 years to get the $100.”
It gets colder. When Gabor was a member of the NBA champion Syracuse Nationals two years later, there was no ring ceremony to commemorate the team’s greatness. Each of the Nationals was rewarded with a metal ice bucket, engraved for posterity and presented by the team’s stockholders.
How’s that for a bucket-list achievement? It made sense way back then, just like it did for an NBA team to travel by ship from one game to another, and across a wintry Great Lake at that.
“We started to fly the last couple of years I was in the league,” said Gabor, who retired in 1955, “but one time we started out on the east coast of Lake Michigan and we wouldn’t land in Milwaukee. We didn’t have time to take a train around the bottom of the lake so we took a freighter across and it was very, very rough, with very limited passenger accommodations.
“You couldn’t go outside with the railings all covered with ice. Then they started cooking and a lot of guys got sick and were throwing up and lying in bed. We finally got to Milwaukee a little late and took taxis to the game but we beat them, so the papers in Syracuse ran the headline ‘Syracuse Sailors Beat Milwaukee.’ “
Back, though, to the 1953 All-Star Game, which was staged in the newly opened Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.
“Just an old bandbox,” that’s how Gabor remembers it, but on that January night, with a crowd of 10,322 exceeding the capacity and a giant like 6-foot-10 George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers on display, Fort Wayne was as close to fantastic as it ever will get.
Gabor was such a high scorer that his number was retired at Syracuse University in 2009, yet in that long-ago All-Star game he was a reserve on the East team behind all-timers like Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes. Also watching most of the game from the bench was Baltimore’s Don Barksdale, the first black player on an All-Star roster. Another bit of history: The West’s 79-75 victory that night remains the lowest-scoring All-Star game.
Mikan was the game’s MVP, scoring 22 points with 16 rebounds and looking as intimidating as a lumbering man in thick eyeglasses can be.
“Mikan was very slow and he couldn’t jump like they do today,” said Gabor, “but he was so strong he would just turn around and shoot a hook shot and nobody could do anything about it.
“He was like Shaq, unstoppable, though I think they should outlaw the slam dunk. A guy like Shaq, he gets the ball, turns around and knocks the guy on his butt. What kind of a shot is that?”
Gabor, who was 5-11, made sure to get his own shots in, though. Set shots, mostly. The rest of the time he was stealing balls and fouling out a lot. What do you expect from a guy whose other nickname was “The Human Projectile?”
“Boston, they had some rowdy fans,” Gabor said. “We were playing a close game there one day and a fight broke out between some players. The referees broke it up, but the fans were throwing debris on the floor and I was picking it up and throwing it back. The ref got hold of my teammate Paul Seymour and said, ‘Get that darn Gabor out. He’s gonna start a riot.’ “
One day you may see this super senior driving down U.S. 1 in his Chevy Malibu, the one with the license-plate holder that says, “National Basketball Retired Players Association.” After 24 years in Palm Beach County, Gabor, as in neighbor, is truly one of us.
Imagine how shocked today’s soaring NBA All-Stars would be to learn that he is also one of them.
The NBA All-Star Game will be televised at 8 p.m. ES on Sunday on TNT.