NEW ORLEANS – Willie Naulls, a three-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics as well as a member of the first all-Black starting five in NBA history, passed away on Thanksgiving morning.
He was 84 years old.
Naulls, who spent the bulk of his 10-year NBA career with the New York Knicks, is remembered fondly by his former Celtics teammate, Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn.
“Willie was a terrific player,” Heinsohn told NBC Sports Boston in a phone interview. “Really, a competitive guy.”
Heinsohn and Naulls will forever be linked together because it was Naulls who replaced a then-injured Heinsohn in Boston’s starting lineup to form what became the first all-Black starting five. In their first game, they defeated the St. Louis Hawks 97-84 on Dec. 26, 1964 in what became the first of 14 straight wins with the new starting five (Boston had won its two previous games prior to inserting Naulls into the starting five). That helped set the tone for the franchise’s 7th straight NBA title, and 8th overall.
In addition to Naulls, the starting five for that game included Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Bill Russell – all Naismith Memorial Hall of Famers in addition to being the only black players on the Celtics roster at that time.
While there was certainly a heightened sense of social consciousness throughout the country at that time, Red Auerbach was a coach consumed by winning and because of that, didn’t initially recognize the historical significance of putting Naulls in with the first unit.
“First of all, I had no idea that I started five black players until a writer pointed it out to me a few weeks later,” Auerbach said at the time. “It didn’t make a difference to me what color any of my players were. I was putting the five best players out on the court so that we could win.”
Being part of the first all-Black starting five was just part of the history-making narrative surrounding Naulls.
He spent his first seven seasons with the New York Knicks and served as a team captain for the last three. Naulls was the first Black captain in New York Knicks history and one of the first for any major professional sports team.
During his career, the 6-foot-6 Naulls, known for his one-handed outside shot, was a four-time All-Star (1958; 1960-1962) who was a career 15.8 points per game scorer who left New York as one of the franchise’s all-time leader scorers.
Sensing he could be of some help to the Boston Celtics in their quest to win yet another championship, Auerbach convinced Naulls to join forces with the Celtics.
“He was one of the famous guys Red (Auerbach) enticed to come out of retirement,” Heinsohn said.
Upon retirement, the former UCLA star went into real estate and commercial development in addition to activating several community-based initiatives designed to aid youth.
That would serve as a precursor to his true calling as a pastor.
“The main factors contributing to my success have been, first, the wisdom of my parents in seeing that I received a disciplined Christian upbringing and the best education available and, second, my good fortune in having achieved a high and rare degree of success in athletics,” Naulls said in a curriculum vita obtained by NBC Sports Boston. “As an adult, I can reflect back and realize how blessed I am to have escaped the perpetuation of mediocrity foisted upon most African-American people. Even though I have had the opportunity of meeting and associating with the “elite” of our society, I have always understood that my successes were a deviation from the norm, and I have never stopped agonizing over the plight of poor, underprivileged people who have not experienced the benefits of a mother’s unselfish sacrifice and vision to equip her children.
Naulls added, “The insecurities that I felt growing up in a disadvantaged community I have never
forgotten. These memories have directly influenced my life’s commitment to serve young people of all ethnic backgrounds who would commit themselves to the pursuit of Truth and excellence. I was taught very early the value of a positive attitude about working toward becoming the best that I could be. Young people are our most valuable resource, and my life’s goal is to bring together prepared and committed teachers who will share their specific knowledge and wisdom with youth who commit themselves to preparing to become positive and productive members of our society.”
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