Master of the Fast Break


by Bijan C. Bayne

In the 1960s, Oscar Robertson called him the best ballhandler in the NBA. During the same decade, both Jerry West, and KC Jones echoed that sentiment.

Guy Rodgers was also referred to in some circles as “The Second Cousy,” and during the early 1960s, TIME Magazine ran a feature about him entitled Little Big Man. Recognition by his most accomplished peers, and the acclaim of national media, did not escape Philadelphian Guy Rodgers in life. Unfortunately, enshrinement in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame did.

Rodgers died 13 years ago last week, on February 19, 2001. As a player, Rodgers averaged 35 points a game in high school, which led the Harlem Globetrotters, then still one of the most talented teams in the world, to offer him a contract upon graduation. It was no wonder. The left-handed Rodgers, who was listed at 6-0, 185 pounds during his playing days, enrolled at Temple University. There, he teamed with 5-10 sharpshooter Hal “King” Lear, to lead the Owls of the late 1950s to both an NIT championship and the 1958 NCAA Final Four. The night Lear scored 48 in an NCAA Tournament game, his buddy Rodgers had 20 dimes. In ’58, Rodgers’ First-Team All-American “teammates” included Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor.

Rodgers’ professional career was well worthy of induction into Springfield alongside other innovative guards such as Bob Cousy and “Pistol” Pete Maravich. He not only led the NBA in assists 1962-63 and 1966-67, but was second in the category to Robertson six other seasons. In addition, Rodgers’ 28 assists in a game on March 14, 1963 tied Cousy’s League-record mark that was not broken for decades.

More importantly, Rodgers’ style of play and playmaking helped usher the game into the modern era. Unlike most professional guards of his era, Rodgers was a spectacular passer off the dribble, especially with one hand. His lightning speed in the transition game made him a dangerous penetrator. He possessed uncanny vision, and without his aid, Wilt Chamberlain would have not scored 100 points in a game, nor averaged 50 in a season. Rodgers’ teammates over the years also included Rick Barry, Nate Thurmond, Robertson and toward the end of his career, rookie Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Rodgers’ deftness at getting these players the basketball in the areas from which they preferred to score, and in stride, made their efforts easier. His ability to draw the defense before the dish, set him years ahead of his time. There were no official statistics kept for turnovers in the NBA of the 1960s, but Rodgers’ peers insist he rarely misplayed the ball. In his day, he was considered impossible to steal the ball from.

There are a few reasons for the delay and oversight in Rodgers’ Hall of Fame induction. Some basketball historians were quick to point out that Rodgers was never named First- or Second-Team All-NBA, a distinction reserved during his career for Robertson, West, Boston’s Sam Jones and the 76ers’ Hal Greer. Those players all averaged more than 20 points per game, and in most cases, more than 25. Rodgers had a different role. In a period when many NBA guards performed interchangeably, with whomever was closer to the basketball during a possession change, bringing the ball up court, Guy Rodgers was a savvy quarterback.

That said, Rodgers could score the ball. Detractors often allude to his lifetime shooting percentage of less than 40 percent. Rodgers averaged 18 points per game in both 1965-66 for the San Fransisco Warriors and 1966-67 for the then-expansion Chicago Bulls. He led one of the only first-year teams in NBA history, to make the Playoffs. And his 18 ppg average for the inaugural 1967 Bulls, was accompanied by an average of 11.2 assists a game, for a team not exactly brimming over with talented scorers.

Early in the 1965-66 season, while still playing for the San Francisco Warriors, the team needed Rodgers to supply more scoring punch while a couple players were injured. He was sixth in the NBA in scoring by mid-December, at nearly 25 points per game, including a 47-point game, a 37-point game, and an eight-game stretch where he averaged 36 a night on 30 shots a game and a .473 shooting percentage. Rodgers was 30 years old at the time. Often the smallest player in the pro game, he was also a strong rebounder, averaging more than 6 a game in both his rookie season, 1958-59, and his third, 1960-61. For three other seasons, Rodgers grabbed at least 5 boards a game. His quick hands also made him a gifted defender.

As admirable as those stats were, one cannot quantify or fully appreciate Guy Rodgers’ game by confining him to his numbers. To witness him triggering a fast break, looping a blind pass to a wing at the most opportune instant, was a thing of beauty. His creativity helped spawn the careers of guards such as his homeboy Earl Monroe. A health food nut, team leader, and one of the most popular players of his time, on and off the court, the man Philly’s Bill Cosby called “Cootie Brown,” was one of a kind.

Rodgers’ enshrinement in the Hall of Fame may be credited to the Veterans Committee that was created a few years ago to help honor unsung and overlooked players and contributors from the past. No fans or journalists 45 years of age and under saw Rodgers while he was an active star, and his name doesn’t often surface outside the City of Brotherly Love. Oscar knew. West knew. Wilt knew. “Cos” knows. Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood finally includes the Naismith Hall of Fame, a fitting honor for one of the greatest playmakers who ever lived.

Frequent SLAMonline contributor. Bijan C. Bayne is the author of the new book Elgin Baylor: The First Superstar, which will be reviewed in the April hard copy edition of SLAM.