Al Cervi

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Buffalo Bisons Basketball Player

Long before the National Basketball Association located franchises in Los Angelas, New York and Chicago, the NBA and its predecessor, the NBL, grew and flourished in cities such as Fort Wayne, Rochester and Syracuse. While many basic aspects of the game have changed over the decades, hustle and grit are recognizable in any era, and many basketball historians maintain that no player ever displayed those qualities in greater quantity than one of the pioneers of the game – Al “Digger” Cervi.

Cervi captained the baseball and basketball squads at East High School in Buffalo, and was All-City in both sports. His pro debut in hoops came with the Buffalo Bisons in 1937. Cervi joined Lester Harrison’s Rochester Royals, new to the NBL in 1945, and shared the locker room with a cast of notables such as “Red” Holzman, Otto Graham and Chuck Connors. The Royals, paced by captain Cervi, captured the NBL title in 1946. The following season, Cervi led the league in scoring, earned first-team All-NBL honors (the first of three such selections) and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, but the Royals fell short in the NBL finals to George Mikan’s Chicago quintet. The year 1948 brought more of the same – another first-team All-NBL berth for Cervi, another Eastern Division title for the Royals, but another loss to Mikan (and his Minneapolis Lakers) in the finals.

By 1948-49, “Digger” had moved on to the Syracuse Nationals as player-coach. That season, he achieved an unprecedented double – first-team All-NBL and Coach of the Year. In 1949-50, the Nationals joined the new National Basketball Association, and immediately made their presence known.

The Nationals, with Cervi as player-coach, tore up the new league with division titles in 1950 and 1952. Cervi hung up the sneakers in 1953 to give his full attention to coaching and building a championship team. Al capped a run of five Coach of the Year campaigns in 1954-55 as the Nationals, paced by Dolph Schayes, won their first, and only, NBA title, as the team later moved to Philadelphia to become the 76ers.

A contemporary once called the scrappy Cervi the best competitor pro basketball had ever seen, and to many, that statement is still true today. Cervi brought the same passion to coaching as he did to playing, as evidenced by a career record of 366-264 and playoff appearances in every season but one. Cervi’s 266-127 record as a player-coach is even more impressive, and unchallenged in league annals. “Digger” is enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA, and tonight adds enshrinement in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.