Eldest statesman: Ephrata’s Von Nieda now the NBA’s oldest alum

By on June 12, 2019
Arlene and Whitey Von Nieda relax in their home Monday afternoon. Photo by Art Petrosemolo

Arlene and Whitey Von Nieda relax in their home Monday afternoon. Photo by Art Petrosemolo

Last week Ephrata native Stan “Whitey” Von Nieda, 97, became the oldest living alum of the National Basketball Association. With the passing of then eldest Billy Gabor, also 97, who died after a brief battle with pneumonia, Von Nieda took over the mantel as the oldest former player of the league.

It’s a mixed blessing Von Nieda smiles telling me that it means he is getting older but also very proud to have been an NBA pioneer and happy to have fond memories of all his basketball accomplishments.

Von Nieda says both his college and pro basketball careers were shortened by what he describes as “life interruptions” but believes, it all worked out in the end and is happy today in retirement, with wife Arlene, at the Masonic Village in Elizabethtown.

A star athlete at Ephrata High School, Von Nieda played two seasons at Penn State University in the early 1940s and spent several years in the pro basketball leagues — Lancaster Red Roses and the Tri-City (IL) Blackhawks — that preceded the 1949 founding of the National Basketball Association. For the NBA, Von Nieda played for the Baltimore Bullets in the inaugural season.

What probably should have been a long, successful pro career was cut short by “life interruptions,” that interfered with his college career too, Von Nieda says.

Ephrata native Whitey Von Nieda in his Tri-Cities Blackhawks uniform. Photo courtesy of NBA Legends

Ephrata native Whitey Von Nieda in his Tri-Cities Blackhawks uniform. Photo courtesy of NBA Legends

Known to everyone as Whitey, he and wife, are greeted warmly by friends at the Masonic Village where I visited with him to talk about the game he loves and follows faithfully even today.

Von Nieda is a student of the sport. He describes basketball, “as a different game in the mid-20th century.” He smiles when he remembers there were no three-pointers, dunking wasn’t allowed, and the shot clock was years away.

“The game had become methodical for fans,” Von Nieda thinks. The NBA didn’t introduce the 24-second clock — which ultimately revolutionized the game — until 1955. The NBA thought the three-pointer, was gimmicky, Von Nieda remembers, and didn’t adopt it until 1979.

Von Nieda’s Penn State career coincided with World War II. He enlisted in the Army Reserve with the hope of being able to finish his education and college basketball career before going overseas to serve on active duty. Unfortunately, the reserves were activated shortly after he enlisted and he spent three years overseas as a paratrooper taking part in the invasion of Europe before returning to Penn State in 1946.

Von Nieda played on service teams while in the Army and actually led all players (collegiate and military) in scoring for one year during the mid-40s. He met Adolph Rupp while serving in Germany and the legendary Kentucky coach invited him to play for the Wildcats after he was discharged but it just didn’t make sense, Von Nieda recalls. Married and with three children at the time (Whitey and his late wife Dorothy had six children), he signed on with the Lancaster Red Roses of the Eastern Basketball League for a season at $100 per game while still going to college. He led the Eastern League in scoring with 26 points per game his first year.

Von Nieda then moved to the National Basketball League (NBL) a forerunner of the NBA, for two seasons with the Tri-Cities (Illinois) Blackhawks who lured him away from Lancaster County with a $2,000 signing bonus. That, in it itself, is a story for another time. Von Nieda made the NBL all-rookie team and scored in double figures for the Blackhawks before being traded to the Baltimore Bullets for the first season of the newly formed 11-team NBA in 1949.

Von Nieda played in 59 games for Baltimore, averaging 5.3 points per game as a guard for one full season before life found a way to interrupt again.

With a family to support, and very modest NBA salaries, Von Nieda returned to Ephrata and played again for the Lancaster Red Roses while coaching the men’s team at Elizabethtown College. His playing career came to an end after four seasons as the Red Roses player-coach in the mid-1950s. In his pro career, Von Nieda had played in nearly 200 games averaging close to double digits in scoring.

In his NBA season, Von Nieda made about $10,000 for the Bullets while today, the average NBA player’s salary is $6.4 million and superstars LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry all command salaries in excess of $30 million a year. Times indeed have changed.

To help you remember the era without having to Google it, Harry Truman was president and the average family income was a little more than $3,000. Bread cost 13 cents a loaf, gasoline was 27 cents a gallon and a stamp cost three cents.

Von Nieda remembers many of the early NBA stars including George Mikan who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA titles. Von Nieda played against Mikan while a member of the Nighthawks (now the Atlantic Hawks) and the Bullets.

“He was the NBA’s early superstar and a tough competitor,” Von Nieda recalls, in an interview with Ephrata Review Editor Andy Fasnacht at the time of Mikan’s passing in 2005.

Von Nieda remembers a conversation between former New York Knicks’ star Patrick Ewing and Mikan at an NBA alumni event years ago when Ewing asked Mikan about his salary.

“He was making $21,000,” Von Nieda recalls, “which compared to Ewing’s salary was just a drop in the bucket.” Von Nieda says Ewing said laughing to Mikan, “No one would play for that that kind of money, George.”

In my recent interview with Von Nieda, he reminisced about the early days of professional basketball. He recalls playing with the NBA’s first African American player Pop Gates who, in 1946, played in the NBL seven months before Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Gates played with Von Nieda with the Blackhawks.

And without today’s jump shot, popularized by basketball innovator Hank Lusietti while at Stanford in the late 1930s, Von Nieda describes the two-handed set shot that players could launch (for two points) from anywhere in the forecourt “as the shot of choice.”

When asked about NBA travel that first year, Von Nieda says it was pretty much all train. But he recalls a game the Bullets played mid-winter in Fort Wayne (IN) where it had snowed pretty heavily and they had to be in Syracuse for a game the following night, a distance of 538 miles.

“There were no trains or buses running,” he recalls, “and the coach put 10 of us, including our seven-foot center Don Otten, in two cabs for the trip.” With modern highways, it would be a nine road hour trip today but in 1949, it took overnight and the better part of the day and the team, fueled on candy bars from gas stations, arrived just before game time in Syracuse. “We played in our sweaty, cold uniforms from the previous night,” Von Nieda recalls, “and it took the first half just to get loose.

Von Nieda marvels with all sports historians how television revolutionized everything in the pro leagues especially salaries in the NBA. “It increased the fan base by millions,” says Von Nieda, “and made stars out of the best players and consequently made them the highest paid in any sport.”

After basketball, Von Nieda enjoyed a long career in sales and even worked as a bartender part-time until he was 85. His weekly “Bar Exam Quiz” that is published in the LNP weekly newspapers comes from trivia he picked up in his bartending career.

With the NBA success, Von Nieda is thankful the League has not forgotten its former players providing them medical insurance and pensions back to the early pioneers who played in the NBA’s very first formal games.

Still a fan, “We watch every game that uses a stick or a ball,” says wife Arlene, Von Nieda is rooting for the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals series against the defending champion Warriors but, according to Arlene, only after the 76ers lost in the playoffs.

 

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