Al Cervi, a tenacious backcourt player in the early years
of professional basketball and later a Hall of Fame coach who led the Syracuse
Nationals to the 1955 N.B.A.
championship, died Monday in Rochester. He was 92 and lived in Brighton, N.Y.
He died in a hospice, The Associated Press reported.
Cervi (pronounced SUR-vee) was a 5-foot-11 guard and one of the strongest of
the 1940s and ’50s. His Hall of Fame biography calls him “an intense competitor
with superior defensive skills, an explosive one-on-one offensive player.”
He started playing pro basketball in 1937 with the Buffalo Bisons of the new
National Basketball League after dropping out of high school in his junior
year. He never went to college. As a pro, he initially earned $15 a game and
acquired the nickname Digger for his gritty, dogged approach to the game.
After five years in the Army Air Forces, including service in World War II,
he joined the Rochester Royals, a new N.B.L. team, in 1946. His teammates
included the future Hall of Famers Bob Davies and Red Holzman, who went on to
coach the Knicks; Otto
Graham, a future Hall of Fame quarterback; and Chuck Connors, who became a
television star as the title character on “The Rifleman.”
The Royals won the league championship in Cervi’s first season; in his
second, he was the league’s leading scorer and most valuable player. In his
third season — he was by then a player-coach — he was an all-star and the coach
of the year.
He moved to the Syracuse Nationals as player-coach in 1948, a year before
the N.B.L. and the Basketball Association of America merged to become the
National Basketball Association. He was player-coach until 1953 and full-time
coach until he was fired during the 1956-57 season, after the Nationals got off
to a slow start. He coached the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1958-59 season.
As a player in that low-scoring era, Cervi averaged 7.9 points a game. His
coaching record was 366-264, and his Nationals won the 1955 N.B.A. title by
defeating the Fort Wayne Pistons in the
Cervi was inducted as a coach into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of
Fame, in Springfield, Mass., in 1985. Recalling his coaching years, The
Syracuse Post-Standard wrote in 1997, “The Nationals shot poorly but succeeded
because they played Cervi-style basketball: nasty, with an emphasis on
Cervi knew what he wanted on offense, too. “Al didn’t like plays,” Dolph
Schayes, one of his Hall of Fame players, told The New York Times in an
interview in 2007. “We played a lot of freelance ball, Eastern style, good,
aggressive, fundamental, high post, lot of movement.”
Alfred Nicholas Cervi was born Feb. 12, 1917, in Buffalo and grew up playing
sandlot basketball and semipro ball in high school before the Bisons invited
him to play for them. He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Ruth; a son,
Allen; his daughters Kathleen Cervi and Marcia Mundrick, and four grandchildren.
Cervi always admired Holzman, particularly because Holzman stressed defense
when he coached the Knicks to titles in 1970 and 1973. To Cervi, the modern
game had put too much emphasis on offense and not enough on defensive skills.
“I don’t know what they’re talking about today when they talk defense,” he
said in an interview quoted in “Who’s Who of Sports Champions” (Houghton
Mifflin, 1995). “Your hand has to be in your man’s face. You don’t let him get
the ball. The first thing in good defense is to keep the ball from your man.”