Although he is mostly forgotten or completely unknown to today’s fans outside his native Indiana, rugged former Celtic and Laker Hall of Famer Clyde Lovellette was one of the first great scoring centers in major college and pro basketball history.
The 6-9 hook-shooting Hoosier won championships at virtually all levels, often as the key player. Despite being plagued with asthma, he became a three-time All-American, an NCAA champion, Olympic gold medalist and a three-time NBA champion.
Known for his accurate hook shot, he was one of the very first high-scoring big men and helped change the game in the 1950s with his soft outside shooting touch and strong post play.
Before George Mikan, Clyde and three-time NBA scoring champion Neil Johnston roamed the hardwood lanes, big men were stereotyped as clumsy goons.
Tall centers were used primarily as high-post pivot passers, rebounders and screeners – and until the late 1930s, to win the center jump tip, which was held after every basket before the rule was finally changed to an exchange of possession via the in-bounds pass.
Yet Lovellette’s ability to score from the perimeter with a one-hander or set shot, as well as a deadly hook shot inside, helped change that biased notion and pave the way for dominating inside centers to come.
The towering, 245-pound Lovellette possessed a grace, athleticism and skill set that belied his burly appearance and the prevailing notion about big men back then.
Yet the man nicknamed “Jellybelly” was also well-known and disliked around the NBA for his physical, aggressive style of play.
”My strengths were that I could shoot, I was strong, I was not going to be intimidated and I was so mean,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in a 1987 article.
”I caused a lot of controversy as far as roughness goes…I took my lumps and I gave them,” he admitted.
Near the very end of the last season in his standout career, his occasionally belligerent style was put to perhaps the ultimate test in game two of the 1964 Finals on Monday, April 20 between the Celtics and Warriors at Boston Garden.
According to San Francisco Warrior guard Al Attles, later the coach of the 1975 Rick Barry-led champion Golden State squad and well-known for his own rough level of play as a highly physical guard, Lovellette elbowed Warrior center Wilt Chamberlain in the mouth. Attles said the errant elbow later caused an infection as well as several damaged lower teeth.
The normally genial Chamberlain, who never fouled out of an NBA game in 14 seasons, responded by knocking Clyde out cold with one powerful right-handed punch.
A black and white Associated Press wire photo from the incident depicts relatively diminutive referee Norm Drucker trying in vain to get between the two squared-off giants, while 6-10 Warrior backup center Wayne Hightower also tried to intercede, to no avail.
In the photo an angry Wilt advances toward number 34 Lovellete, who had his left arm up in self-defense as Chamberlain screams at him before throwing his haymaker.
The caption under the AP photo noted simply that Wilt “won the fight with a one-punch knockout.” But Boston won the game 124-101 to take a 2-0 series lead, despite 32 points and 25 rebounds by the Big Dipper.
Lovellette, incidentally, scored eight points in 11 minutes during the win.
Afterward, Wilt claimed he slugged the reserve Celtic center “because everyone hated Clyde Lovellette” due to his bruising style of play. And he also added that the “punch was not hard but he went down. When he went down, it scared me.” (from ozy.com article “The NBA’s Original Giant”).
Perhaps Wilt was right about Lovellette’s reputation, because teammate Bill Russell failed to intercede on Clyde’s behalf and Chamberlain – who had followed Clyde as an All-American center at Kansas – was not even ejected from the championship series contest for the knockout punch.
After he retired, Chamberlain recalled that Lovellette was the only man he ever slugged in an NBA game, despite years of being hacked and hammered by opponents.
Legendary official Earl Strom also worked that game as an alternate, and recalled the incident in his entertaining 1990 autobiography “Calling the Shots.”
Strom recalled that Lovellette substituted in for Russell to finish out the final moments of the blowout win, and began banging an already-embarrassed Wilt around, raising Chamberlain’s ire.
The Big Dipper told Lovellette that since the outcome was decided “we’re embarrassed enough, so knock it off.” But Strom reported that Clyde kept on bumping Wilt, who gave the center one final ultimatum.
”Look, the next time you are going to pay, buddy,” he warned Lovellette.
When Clyde subsequently hit Wilt with an ill-advised elbow, Chamberlain simply put the ball down and unloaded a punch that Earl swore “didn’t travel six inches…Clyde went down in sections.”
Enraged Celtic coach Red Auerbach charged the floor and insisted the officials throw Wilt out. Strom and Auerbach were long-time antagonists so Earl simply replied, “Come on Red, we’ve got 20 seconds left. Get Lovellette picked up and get somebody in here so we can get this thing over with.”
Auerbach refused to comply, saying he would not put another player in until they ejected Wilt. Upon hearing this, Chamberlain threatened the irate Boston coach. “If you don’t shut up and get out of here, I am going to put you down there with him,” he warned.
The 5-8 Auerbach, never one to back down, shot back at the 7-1 Wilt. “Why don’t ya pick on someone your own size?” he snarled. At that point Hall of Famer Mendy Rudolph, the other referee for the game and Strom’s frequent playoff partner, put his two cents in to end the argument.
”You got any other seven-footers who want to volunteer, Red?” Rudolph quipped.
Strom reported that during the melee, Russell was seated on the bench away from the mayhem with a towel around his neck after pulling down 24 rebounds and doling out nine assists. Russell chose to sit back and enjoy the scene and the last seconds of a Finals win, while unleashing his loud, trademark cackle.
In an interesting deja vu twist 23 years later, Celtic center Robert Parish was also not ejected from a heated playoff game after slugging Detroit Piston All-Star center Bill Laimbeer and busting his nose with two quick punches.
One too many elbows by Big Bill under the boards incensed the normally stoic Chief and ignited his right-left combo to the head of the Piston center. The punches sent Laimbeer to the parquet floor in the epic fifth game of the 1987 Eastern Finals, aka the game where “Bird stole the ball” at the end to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Parish was not even called for a foul for his punches, something WTBS TV analyst Doug Collins noted as “not right.” Unlike Wilt thou, Parish was then suspended for game six by NBA commissioner David Stern, but Boston prevailed in game seven.
One might call Lovellette an early, better and more inside-oriented version of Laimbeer. Although he did not shoot from as far out as the outside-bombing Laimbeer, Clyde canned over 82 percent of his foul shots from 1958-62, a very high clip for a center at that time, or even now, for that matter.
Clyde won the first of three NBA titles as a key rookie backup to Hall of Famer Mikan with the Minneapolis Lakers in 1954, averaging 8.2 points and 5.7 boards a game in just 17.4 minutes per contest.
When he became a starter the next year after his mentor Mikan retired as the league’s all-time scorer, Clyde’s numbers shot up to 18.7 points and 11.7 rebounds a game. He averaged over 22 points and 13 boards per outing over the next three seasons, but was traded twice.
The first time, the Lakers dealt him along with Jim Paxson – father of former Portland All-Star guard Jim Paxson, Jr., who ended his career with three seasons in Boston from 1988-90 – to the Cincinnati Royals.
After starring up front with all-time great Bob Pettit for the St. Louis Hawks and playing against Boston in two losing Finals efforts in 1959 and 1961, the big man was sold to the Celtics in June of 1962.
The move was made to shore up the Boston bench and give the over-taxed Russ some needed rest with a veteran big man backup. With some good years still left, Clyde thus finished his career as an underused but effective reserve center for Boston, winning two more rings in his final two seasons.
He averaged 6.6 points and just under three rebounds a game for Boston in just nine minutes a night as Russell’s seldom-used backup.
The Celtics repeated as champs over his former Laker team in the 1963 championship series in six games during Bob Cousy’s swansong.
Then in 1964, Boston won its seventh title in eight years 4-1 in the aforementioned physical Finals over the San Francisco Warriors and their twin tower tandem of the 7-1 Chamberlain and 6-11 rookie Nate Thurmond.
Lovellette averaged 5.3 points and 2.3 rebounds a game in the 1964 Finals, netting eight points in each of the first two contests, both Boston wins at home.
After being knocked cold by Wilt in game two, he only played in one more contest in the series – recording zero points and two rebounds in just six minutes – then retired as a champion a few months shy of his 35th birthday.
Lovellette is the first – and still only man ever – to win an NCAA scoring crown AND an NCAA title in the same season, with Kansas in 1951-52. Not even Russell, Chamberlain nor UCLA center greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton accomplished that rare feat.
Clyde averaged 28.4 points and 12.4 rebounds per game that championship season. He tallied a whopping 35.2 ppg over four games in the NCAA tourney to help Phog Allen and a reserve guard named Dean Smith win the first Jayhawk national crown over St. John’s.
The big man powered his way to 33 points and 17 rebounds in the finals to lead Kansas to an 80-63 rout of the then-nicknamed Redmen. In the quarterfinal round, he poured in an efficient 44 points (16-24 FGs, 12-14 FTs) to lead the Jayhawks to a 74-55 win over rival St. Louis.
Lovellette was named a two-time first team All-American, the 1952 National Player of the Year and was also third team All-American as a sophomore.
Clyde was called “the Great White Whale” at Kansas for his prodigious size, pale skin and fair hair. The legendary Phog Allen recruited Lovellette away from Indiana University, where he had originally enrolled, by supposedly (and disingenuously) telling the asthmatic that the climate and higher elevations around Lawrence, Kansas would help with his affliction.
Indiana would gain a measure of revenge by beating the Lovellette-less Jawhawks 69-68 in the 1953 NCAA title game at Kansas City, with an all-Hooiser-native roster.
After leading Kansas to their first NCAA crown, Clyde wanted to play for America in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics so badly that he turned down a huge (for then) $80,000 NBA contract offer to play for the amateur Phillips 66ers for a year while training for the U.S. national team.
In the late summer of 1952, big Clyde led Team USA to a perfect 8-0 record at the Finland Olympics, scoring a team-high 13.9 ppg as America finished first in the 23-team competition.
Seven-footer Bob Kurland, another pioneering center standout of basketball who led Oklahoma A&M to consecutive national championships in the mid-1940s, helped Lovellette by scoring 9.9 ppg for Team USA.
Kurland never turned pro despite several entreaties from the NBA, preferring instead to play amateur ball for the 66ers and work for Phillips petroleum. He won two Olympic gold medals in 1948 and 1952.
Had Kurland gone to the NBA, he likely would have forged a great rivalry with contemporary Mikan. A shot-blocking defensive stalwart in the days before goaltending, he may well have played the Russell “defensive” role vs. the more offensive-oriented Mikan (Chamberlain) in a precursor to the league’s most storied big man rivalry.
In the 1952 gold medal game at Helsinki, Lovellette led all scorers with nine points in a low-scoring 36-25 win over the Soviet Union, who utilized a delay game in trying to upset the unbeaten Americans.
In a pool play preliminary game vs. the USSR, Clyde had scored 14 points and Kurland netted 15 in an 86-58 American win, prompting the championship tilt stall tactics. Lovellette also poured in 25 points in a 103-55 victory over Chile.
He followed that up with a team-high 11-point effort in their closest game, a 57-53 pool play win over Brazil. Clyde then tallied a tournament-high 27 points in an 85-76 semifinal win over Argentina that ran the American record to 7-0 before the gold medal rematch vs. the Soviets.
The USSR ended up 6-2 at the Olympics, with both losses to the USA.
Unlike Kurland, Lovellette turned professional after the Olympics and enjoyed a stellar career. As a pro, he was named second team All-NBA in his third season of 1955-56 with the Lakers after he averaged 21.5 points and 14 rebounds per outing.
He was a four-time All-Star and scored 21 points in his final All-Star Game in 1961.
He won three NBA titles, the NCAA title and Olympic gold, the first man to win all three lofty crowns. Only seven men have turned the trick all-time, including long-time Celtic and University of San Francisco teammates Russell and K.C. Jones.
Clyde almost won titles at an unprecedented four levels, but his Terre Haute Garfield High School team lost in the 1947 Indiana state championship game to Shelbyville. The winners were led by Bill Garrett, who then went on to break the Big 10 basketball color line at Indiana University.
Lovellette’s highest-scoring NBA season came in 1957-58, his lone year with the Royals, as he scored at a 23.4 ppg clip. His best rebounding season came in 1955-56 for the Lakers, when he yanked down those 14 caroms per game.
Over 11 seasons he averaged 17 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in just 27 minutes per outing, totals that jump up to 22.5 and 12.6 per 36 minutes. His career high single-game point total in the NBA was 39 points, achieved twince in 1960 while a Hawk.
After he retired the versatile Lovellette returned to Indiana and had several careers as a county sheriff, sportscaster, farmer, teacher, car salesman and faith-based program leader for at-risk kids.
He was inducted to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982, and finally made it into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988.
The same night he was voted into the national hoops Hall of Fame, he lost by 12 votes in a bid to win a spot on the Republican ticket for the Wabash City Council in Indiana.
Lovellette passed away after a full life March 16, 2016 at age 86 due to cancer. And he is still the only man to win an NBA title for the two most storied franchises in league annals, the rival Celtics and Lakers.
The 24-player all-time Celtics/Lakers team, with key career averages for each team, years played for each franchise and major honors in chronological order:
Clyde Lovellette (1953-57 Minneapolis 17.2 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 1 title, 2-time All-Star; 1962-64 Boston 6.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2 titles)
Mel Counts (1964-66 Bos 6.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 81.3 FT%, 2 titles; 1966-70/72-74 LA 9.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg)
Hank Finkel (1966-67 LA 1.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg; 1969-75 Bos 4.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1 title)
Frank Brickowski (1986-87 LA 3.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg; 1996-97 Bos 4.8 ppg, 2 rpg)
Travis Knight (1997-98 Bos 6.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg; 1996-97/98-2000 LA 3.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg)
Chris Mihm (2003-04 Bos 6.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg; 2004-09 LA 8.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
Shaquille O’Neal (1996-2004 LA 27 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 57.5 FG%, 53.3 FT%, 7-time All-Star, 1 MVP, 3 Finals MVP, 14-time All-NBA, 3 titles; 2011 Bos 9.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 66.7 FG%)
Don Nelson (1963-65 LA 4.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg; 1965-76 Bos 11.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1974-75 FG% champion, 5 titles)
Jim “Bad News” Barnes (1966-68 LA 6.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg; 1968-70 Bos 5.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1 title)
Kermit Washington (1973-77 LA 6.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg; 1978 Bos 11.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 52.1 FG%)
Bob McAdoo (1979 Bos 20.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg; 1981-85 LA 12.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2 titles)
Rick Fox (1991-97 Bos 10.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.8 apg; 1998-04 LA 8.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3 titles)
Derek Strong (1994-95 Bos 6.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg; 1995-96 LA 3.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Brandon Bass (2011-15 Bos 10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 82.9 FT%; 2015-16 LA 7.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg)
Don Chaney (1968-75/78-80 Bos 8.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 5-time all-defense, 2 titles; 1976-77 LA 5.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg)
Charlie Scott (1975-78 Bos 17.5 ppg, 4.4 apg, 1 title; 1978 LA 11.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg)
Earl Tatum (1976-77 LA 10.6 ppg, 2 apg; 1978 Bos 6.7 ppg)
Ernie DiGregorio (1977 LA 3.9 ppg, 2.8 apg; 1978 Bos 3.9 ppg, 2.4 apg, 92.3 FT%)
Brian Shaw (1988-89/90-92 Bos 11.1 ppg, 6.5 apg; 1999-2003 LA 4 ppg, 2.6 apg, 3 titles; LA assistant coach 2004-11/16-present)
Shammond Williams (2002-03 Bos 7.2 ppg, 2.5 apg; 2006-07 LA 3.1 ppg)
Gary Payton (2003-04 LA 14.6 ppg, 5.5 apg; 2004-05 Bos 11.3 ppg, 6.1 apg)
Chucky Atkins (2004 Bos 12 ppg, 5.3 rpg; 2004-05 LA 13.6 ppg, 4.4 apg)
Rajon Rondo (2006-14 Bos 11 ppg, 8.5 apg, 4-time All-Star, 1 title; 2018-present LA 8.5 ppg, 6.5 apg)
Isaiah Thomas (2012-17 Bos 24.7 ppg, 6 apg, 88.9 FT%, 2-time All-Star, 1-time All-NBA; 2018 LA 15.6 ppg, 5 apg)
Joe Mullaney (1949-50 Bos player 0.8 ppg, 1.4 apg; LA head coach 1969-71 94-70, 16-14 playoffs)
Bill Sharman (1951-61 Bos player 18.1 ppg, 3 apg, 88.3 FT%, 7 FT% titles, 7-time All-NBA, 8-time All-Star, 4 titles; LA head coach 1971-76 246-164, 22-15 playoffs, 1 title, 1971-72 NBA Coach of the Year)
K.C. Jones (1958-67 Bos player 7.4 ppg, 4.3 apg, 8 titles; assistant coach LA 1971-72 under Sharman 69-13, NBA champs; Bos head coach 1983-88 308-102, 65-37 playoffs, 2 titles)
To contact the author, you can email Cort Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.