Thanksgiving. Thoughts of cranberries, mash potatoes, gravy, and, of course, turkey. But today, we’re looking back to Thanksgiving 1949 and have a different type of fowl in mind.
Though not every year, the NBA has played on Thanksgiving since 1949 and, wouldn’t you know, that game was played right here at the New York State Fairgrounds in front of 6,822 fans. The game featured rookie Dolph Schayes and the Syracuse Nationals, who played all of their home games a the Fairgrounds from 1949 to 1952. The Nationals took on the defending National Basketball League (NBL) Champions Anderson Packers (Indiana). The Packers were the last team to win an NBL before the league merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The game is often referenced for it’s crazy finish, which included five overtimes, taking three hours and 48 minutes to complete, and a final score of Nationals 125, Packers 123. According to the Syracuse Herald Journal from the following day, the Packers protested the loss “asserting Syracuse had illegally substituted Leroy Choliet for George Ratkovicz.” The officials, Lyle “Spike” Garnisch and Barney Hearn stated they were filing a report to head quarters immediately, leading to the Herald’s headline “Nats Await Ruling on Protested 125-123 Court Victory,” which was ultimately upheld.
At the time of the substitution, the Packers were ahead 76-74 with 28 seconds remaining in regulation. Ray Corley was at the free throw line and sunk both of his shots, tying the game and eventually sending the match to overtime.
In the five overtimes, both teams used all available players and even several players who had committed six personal fouls, adding to the game being remembered as one of the most foul plagued in history with a total of 122. Neither team led by more than three points during the first four periods of overtime, but the Nationals managed to go up by four in the fifth overtime leading them to victory over the Packers.
The Nations continued their stellar season, ending with a 51-13 record on their way to the first ever NBA finals. The Nationals beat the Philadelphia Warriors in two games and their big-city-brethren the New York Knickerbockers in a three game series and faced the Minneapolis Lakers for the NBA Championship. The Nations fell behind 0-1 in the series, their second loss at home during the 1949-1950 season, but went on to lose the series in six games.
The 1950s were great for the Nationals with a number of playoff appearances and, in 1955, a National Championship. They would continue play in Syracuse until the 1962-1963 season until owner Danny Basione sold to team to Philadelphia investors Irv Kosloff and Ike Richman. Fittingly, the Nationals were able to keep the franchise alive and extend its life through the 1963 playoffs. In the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, needing a win to advance to the Eastern Finals, the Nationals would lose two straight games, dropping the decisive fifth game at home in overtime 131-127 to the Cincinnati Royals on March 26th, 1963 ending the franchise’s run in Syracuse.