Thanksgiving. Thoughts of cranberries, mashed potatoes, gravy, and, of course, turkey. But today, we’re looking back to November 24th, 1949 – Thanksgiving Day – and have a different type of fowl in mind.
Though not every year, the NBA has held games on Thanksgiving since 1949, the inaugural season of the National Basketball Association. During that season, Syracuse was home to one of five games that were played on Thanksgiving. The game was held at New York State Fairgrounds, where the Nationals played all of their home games from 1949 to 1952, in front of 6,822 fans. The game featured the Nationals with rookie Dolph Schayes taking 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, and a final score of Nationals 125, Packers 123. It was reported that, “at least six, and possibly more, all-time NBA records were established in the zany contest…” including the 248 total points scored and the three hours and 48 minutes it took to complete the contest. 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, which added to the story line that the game was 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 Nationals continued to have a 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. In the finals, they 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.
During that final season, the Nationals, in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, needed a win to advance to the Eastern Finals. However, they would go on to lose two straight games and dropped 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.