A local legend turns 90 Whitey’s journey to the NBA
By: ANDY FASNACHT Review Editor firstname.lastname@example.org, Staff Writer
(The following is the second part of a story on former Ephrata resident and star basketball player Stanley "Whitey" Von Nieda turning 90 recently) After a stellar basketball career at Ephrata High School, Penn State University, in the armed forces as well as the Lancaster Red Roses, Stanley "Whitey" Von Nieda’s career was about to go to even greater levels.
Coming off being the top scorer in the Eastern League in 1946-47 with the Lancaster Red Roses, averaging what was then a whopping 22.7 points per game, Whitey was really starting to get noticed by larger teams and cities.
"That’s how I got sucked into that," Whitey said with a smile. And that leads into the famous story of the night when the big change in his career occurred.
Whitey explains that he had just completed a playoff game in Wilkes-Barre and was about to catch a bus back to Penn State for class the next day. Leo Ferris, then the owner of the Tri-City Blackhawks, found the star guard and wanted to express his interest in him.
"No, I’m very happy where I am now," Whitey recalls telling the owner, explaining how well he was being treated with Lancaster. In fact, he said that all sources of income together, he was sure he would be pulling in $12,000 a year. Whitey said the Tri-City owner persisted and said he would match it. He also told Whitey he would no longer have to be a big fish in a little pond.
"But I still said I really wasn’t interested and I wasn’t," Whitey said, looking back on that important night. Then he said the owner reached into his pocket.
"He put $2,000 on the table (and) said this would be a bonus for signing," Whitey recalled. "I left the money on the table and said I had to get a bus."
But Whitey said Ferris beat him to the exit.
"He said ‘excuse me’ and left the room. I’m looking at my watch and I have 10 minutes to get to the bus station. He doesn’t come back," Whitey said. "So there is the $2,000 laying on the table. So I figured if I left it lay there, he could say I took it. So I decided I’d take it and then send it back to him.
"I took it and went back to Penn State with $2,000," Whitey continued. "I went into the fraternity house and we had a helluva party. So I didn’t have enough money to send back to him so I signed the contract."
And the rest, they say, is history.
At that time, the National Basketball Association had not yet arrived. The National Basketball Association of America, however, was formed and was competing in the next few years with the National Basketball League. It wasn’t until 1949 that the two leagues merged forming what we now know as the NBA.
But Whitey officially left the Eastern League for Tri-City of the NBL for the 1947-48 season and was handed $200 a month for lodging. But he saved money by living in a rooming house near the gym that cost him just $50 a month.
The most famous player in the league at that time was NBA Hall of Famer George Mikan, a rare 7-footer in those days with tremendous skills. Jim Pollard, also a Hall of Famer, was another star in the league.
On the court, Whitey’s career began with a bang. he started right off the bat, had a good season averaging 12 points a game and was named to the all-rookie team.
As just a 6-foot-1, slender guard from Lancaster County, Whitey was asked what it was about his game that made him thrive and a wanted commodity.
"I was a little bit of a showboat," he said with a grin. "I had the hook shot and I was all arms and legs running and I was pretty quick."
He agreed the best part of his game was probably his quickness but felt he could also shoot and handle the ball well. Whitey also said he was sure that he was coming from a smaller town than most of the others, who he felt were more "time tested."
Remarkably he also once, as a guard, was eighth in the league in rebounding, something he attributes to hustle and good positioning.
"You get sneaky position underneath," he said.
Though they did not call them "point guards" back then, Whitey did bring the ball up the court and was looked to for scoring as well. He also pointed out the differences in the game back then.
"There was no zone and that was strictly enforced," he said. "We did a lot of the two-man game– I think we relied more heavily on finesse than people do today. They have to shoot every 24 seconds…you don’t have time to set up. Sometimes we would have a double pick and two backdoors before someone was open. But that takes more than 23 seconds."
But was the game better than pre-shot clock?
"I am sure that is one of the reasons they changed it," Whitey said. "People like action. People don’t like to see a 1-0 baseball game…they would rather see 15-14 with a lot of action and home runs. Same as a 0-0 football game."
Whitey said he probably would not have benefited from a three-point line in his day as more of his points were from 15-to-20 feet and driving to the hoop.
More of a Steve Nash-type player?
"A little bit," he said when asked to compare. "He is a better outside shooter than I was. Of course we didn’t use that shot much. We took shots that were part of our game. If that is what we needed, I would have tried to develop it."
Then Whitey, as if he played earlier in the week, gives a physical demonstration of what he means.
"If I would be out there at 15-to-20 feet away…and the guy would fade back eight feet behind me…(insert swish sound)," Whitey illustrated with his hands in the air. "But if he came out on me, I’d rather drive to the hoop."
And looking in his eyes, you certainly don’t doubt that for a second.
Whitey said he also admired the games of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, as well as one of his contemporaries, Dolph Schayes — who he said he had a reunion with at a recent all-star game luncheon.
"We were looking for someone we played against," Whitey said. "There were like 400 guys there and like five who played before 1950."
Whitey played a second season for Tri-City in 1948-49 and started a third when the team became one of the first franchises of the NBA. The Blackhawks, according to sportsencyclopedia.com, started their 1949-50 season at 1-6 and head coach Roger Potter was subsequently replaced by a man who would become a future coaching legend, Red Auerbach. Whitey said that situation did not fare well for him.
A regular starter, Whitey suffered a serious eye injury during a game in Wisconsin.
"I go to make a lay-up and a guy comes to block it," he recalled. "I took the ball away to shoot it (in another direction) and he came down and stuck his finger in my eye up to the third knuckle and knocked me out."
To make a long story short, even though Whitey said he recovered from the injury, and actually helped bring the team back from a 16-point deficit in one game and seven points in another, he couldn’t get back in the starting line-up or get much playing time and eventually requested a trade.
So in mid-season of 1949-50, Whitey was traded to the Baltimore Bullets, where he started right away and did so every game.
"I fit in very well there," Whitey recalled. "I liked playing there. We had a team that used each other and played with some smarts."
The Bullets however finished 25-43 under head coach Buddy Jeannette in that season, while Whitey pumped in 204 points, averaging 6.2 a game, and 3.2 assists according to basketball-reference.com. But that was it for Whitey — just one season in Baltimore.
"I had a chance to be a player-coach at Lancaster and coach at Elizabethtown College at the same time," Whitey said. "At the time there was no future in the NBA. There was no pension…there was nothing…not really big money."
Whitey said he did find out after his first year however, he was the fifth highest paid player in the league with the $12,000 salary and the $2,000 bonus; Mikan was tops, he said at $21,500. For comparison purposes, according to totalprosports.com, the top salary in the game today is Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, who earns a whopping $25.2 million; at number five is Gilbert Arenas of the Orlando Magic, who earns $19.2 million.
Whitey said he has no regrets or thoughts about the millions he could have had if he played today.
"Not so much," he said, "the guys that played then — we played for the fun of it and we really set the table for these guys today. And we played under conditions these guys would never stand for. There was no union back then, we didn’t have agents and really didn’t have anything going for us. We played in cold gyms and there was cold water in the showers — but were glad to play. We’d play anywhere, anytime."
Whitey does receive a small pension from the NBA but pays his own hospitalization through a medicare plan.
He went on to play four or five more years for the Roses –winning seasons he said, but no championships. He also coached at E-town for two years.
"They wanted to get a permanent full-time head coach," Whitey said. "But we had the first two winning seasons E-town ever had in basketball.
As for his personal life, Whitey married Dorothy Barteck, who he met while playing in the Eastern League. Eventually they bought a house in Mt. Joy, while he was coaching in E-town. He bought his house in Ephrata in 1953 (one of the oldest in the borough, just off of Maple Street). His first child, son Tim, was born while he was playing with Tri-City while his second son Kurt followed. The two daughters were next, Chris and Heidi, then John and Matt arrived for a total of six children. Matt now resides in Whitey’s former Ephrata home. Whitey also had 12 grandchildren. His first wife Dorothy passed away in 1999 and he has been married to Arlene since 2001. As stated in the first article, they reside at Masonic Homes in Elizabethtown.
"She’s great," Whitey says of Arlene, "I’ve had two great wives."
Following basketball, Whitey then sold advertising for the Yellow Pages, which he did for more than 30 years. All that time and another 26 years on top, he also worked part-time as a bartender for many area restaurants and pubs including Log Cabin, Haydn Zugs, Thomas Paynes and the one where folks may have known him best, Stoudts Black Angus, right here in Adamstown. He only stopped working there a few years ago after nearly 40 years.
"I enjoyed it and had some great conversations," Whitey said, also confirming that it was at Stoudts Black Angus where his famous local newspaper column "The Bar Exam" originated.
Whitey said he never made a big deal out of telling people he played in the NBA.
"I don’t say look at me," he said, but acknowledges he was in a group with few members.
"I am very proud of the fact that I was able to do it," he said.
Whitey said a few years ago — and you have to think it holds true today — that he is probably the oldest surviving member of the NBA.
Looking back on what he accomplished, one has to stop a second and wonder just how the small-town boy did it.
"I would practice unbelievably hard," Whitey recalled. "I would practice by myself in most instances."
He did coach a bit later in life for the Lancaster Lightning (which later became the Roses again) in the Continental League.
As for playing, he competed a bit here and there up until 1965 but his last "official" time on the court was in 1975 during an alumni game.
A few years ago, likely because he looks the part, he was asked if he could still lace ‘em up and get out there.
"I don’t have that much of a desire to do it anymore," Whitey said, stating that it is the reaction time that goes first. "I see things to do but by the time I would get around to doing it, it was too late."
But when he stands on the court, even now, does his mind still think he can get that ball in the hoop?
"Oh yeah, that never goes away."
And then the trademark grin is flashed…something else you have to believe won’t either. More WHITEY, page B-2