MBB FEATURE: Villanova loses one of its greatest legends

Kyle Scudilla

Paul Arizin, a Villanova and Philadelphia basketball legend known for his unlikely NBA stardom and pioneering jump shot, died last month. Arizin was 78 years old.

Being elected to the National Basketball Hall of Fame and named to the National Basketball Association 50th Anniversary All-Time Team are undoubtedly amazing achievements in any player’s career, but they are even more impressive for a man like Paul Arizin, who took an improbable path to attain the sport’s highest accolades.

Arizin was born in South Philadelphia in 1928. He attended La Salle High School, which at the time, shared a campus with La Salle College. Arizin tried out for his high school basketball team but was cut during his senior year after receiving little playing time in only a handful of games. Not willing to give up playing the sport he loved, Arizin joined any team he could play for, including intramural and church teams in Philadelphia. There were points when the determined young man played for six or seven teams at once, often playing for two leagues in a single night.

“I just did it because I loved to play,” Arizin told The Christian Science Monitor years later in an interview.

Arizin’s experience playing in smaller, lower-quality gymnasiums that often doubled as dance floors paid off in a way that would change his career and the face of basketball forever. While playing on slippery and substandard surfaces, Arizin began utilizing a jump shot to prevent the loss of footing that would sometimes occur while attempting the much more common “set shot” technique. His shot was also unique for its low trajectory, which he had to use to avoid hitting the low ceilings featured in many of the gyms in which he played. Arizin maintained his low-flying jump shot throughout his playing career.

Arizin enrolled at Villanova in the fall of 1946, where he majored in chemistry. After his first year at Villanova while he continued to play for small, local teams, he finally caught his big break. Wildcats Coach Al Severance saw one of Arizin’s games and, impressed with what he saw, offered the sophomore a scholarship to join the basketball team.

He did not see much playing time at the very beginning of the season but eventually cracked the lineup as the team’s center and never looked back, leading the team in scoring that season.

Arizin’s career really took off when, as a junior, he averaged 22.0 points per game in a season highlighted by an 85-point, single-game performance. Led by “Pitchin’ Paul,” as he eventually was known, the Wildcats soared to a 22-3 record and earned a berth in the 1949 NCAA tournament, in which Villanova lost to the eventual-champion, Kentucky. Arizin came back with an even stronger season in his senior year, in which he averaged 25.3 points per game, falling just five points short of the national single-season scoring record. Villanova finished the season 25-4, and its superstar was selected as an All-American and later as The Sporting News College Player of the Year.

Arizin finished his career at Villanova with an average of 20.1 points per game in his three years with the team. The school retired his No. 11 uniform, and he graduated from the University with honors.

In the 1950 NBA draft the Philadelphia Warriors took the Villanova star as a territorial pick. The previously-slumping Warriors made a quick turn-around with Arizin in the fold, winning the NBA’s Eastern Division in his rookie season. Arizin was an All-Star in his first year and followed the feat by making the All-Star team every season he played in the league.

It only took Arizin until his second season to lead the NBA in scoring, averaging 25.4 points per game to go along with 11.3 rebounds per game. Despite his 6-foot-4 frame, he was able to out-rebound and shoot over the game’s most fearsome big men.

It was just two years into his playing career when Arizin, 24 years old at the time, was drafted by the United States Marine Corps to serve for two years in the Korean War. Without Arizin, the Warriors went back to floundering among the league’s worst teams.

“Pitchin’ Paul” made his return to the Warriors in 1954. In his first season back, he finished second in the league in scoring. Despite the return of their perennial All-Star, the Warriors failed to make the playoffs.

It was in the ’55-’56 season, when Arizin played on a roster that included future Hall of Famers Neil Johnston and Tom Gola, that the Philadelphia Warriors reached the top of the heap. The Warriors finished the regular season as the top team in the NBA with a 45-27 record. The Warriors edged past their rivals, the Syracuse Nationals, in the division finals, followed by a convincing four-games-to-one series victory over the Fort Wayne Pistons in the NBA finals.

Arizin won his second scoring title in the ’56-’57 season, averaging 25.6 points per game to go along with 7.9 rebounds per game. Two years later, the Warriors star became the fastest player in NBA history to reach the 10,000-point mark in his career. The Warriors continued to be one of the better teams in the league, led by Arizin and future NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain, but Philadelphia was unable to get past Boston during some of the Celtics’ most successful seasons in franchise history. In 1961, Arizin became only the third NBA player behind Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes to score 15,000 points in his career. In 1962, the Warriors franchise left Philadelphia to settle in its new home in San Francisco. Arizin stayed at home in Philadelphia, ending his NBA career at the age of 34. Unable to give up the game he loved completely, he continued playing basketball for three more seasons for the Camden Bullets in the Eastern Basketball League.

Arizin made his mark on the NBA with outstanding career numbers. In 713 games, Arizin averaged 22.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He also made 49 appearances in the postseason, in which he averaged 24.2 points per game.

After his playing days were over, Arizin was awarded with basketball’s most esteemed honors. In 1970, he was named to the NBA Silver Anniversary Team. Arizin, along with former Warriors teammate Joe Fulks, was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977. Arizin was also honored in the grand ceremony in 1996 that named the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.

“People ask me to describe how I feel, and I think the easiest way is to put the question back to you,” said Arizin, looking back on his NBA career in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “How do you think being enshrined here with all these illustrious names feels to a guy who back in high school was only playing intramural ball?”

The phrase “gone, but not forgotten” is often heard following the passing of those who left behind substantial legacies, but how could it not ring true for basketball fans when talking about Arizin? When watching today’s college and professional players using the ubiquitous shooting technique now commonly known as a jumper, think back to a slippery gym floor and a kid who, despite being told he was never good enough, became one of basketball’s all-time legendary figures.

Paul Arizin’s career highlights

NCAAVillanova Wildcats

3 seasons1,648 points20.1 points per gameNational scoring titleAll-American selectionCollege Player of the Year

NBAPhiladelphia Warriors

10 seasons16,266 points6,129 rebounds10 All-Star SelectionsAll-Star Game MVPNBA Champion