Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Player of the Week: Ernie Vandeweghe

Here at Waiting For Groza, we plan to take a close look at the career of one player from the past every week. Today, we take the wayback machine to the early 1950s when an NBA player could be named Dr. Ernest Maurice Vandeweghe Jr. (For the 15 people on the internet that might notice, this post (and concept) is an expanded and rewritten version of something that I posted on the TH boards a while back)

Ernie "Doc" Vandeweghe was a medical student in the early 1950s who moonlighted as the Knicks' 6th man. Often he would get out of his classes at Columbia, rush to the Knicks game, often arriving after the game had started, before Joe Lapchick (the Knicks coach for Vandeweghe's whole career) would put him in the game. As a 6th man, Vandeweghe often finished games as a key part of the Knicks team that went to (and lost) three straight NBA Finals in the early 1950s. The Knicks lacked a superstar, but with Vandeweghe, Harry Gallatin, Dick McGuire, Nat Clifton, Vince Boryla, Connie Simmons, Max Zaslofsky, and Carl Braun (in '53) they were the deepest team in the league. When they reached the Finals, the Knicks were very competitive, but lost to teams with conventional 'stars'-Bob Davies' Rochester Royals in '51 and George Mikan's Lakers in '52 and '53. To make the losses even more painful, the Knicks lost the 1951 and 1952 Finals in 7 games, making them one of two teams to lose back to back 7 game Finals (the 69-70 Lakers are the other).

Ironically, Doc Vandeweghe was constantly limited by injuries, including a knee injury that effectively ended his career in 1954 when he was only 25, but when he was on the court, he was developing into an excellent player. His 1953 career high of 12 points per game on a .435 FG% along with 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 29 minutes does not seem to be all that impressive, but in a league where the average player shot 37% from the field, and teams averaged under 83 points a game, his numbers were good enough for 10th in the league in PER (obviously a simplified version of the current formula, as many of the stats used to calculate it weren't tracked in the 1950s). Vandeweghe also had a good defensive reputation, and was one of the best small forward/shooting guards in a league that was dominated by big men. How much did big men dominate in the early 1950s? I know PER is an imperfect measure, but in 1953, Vandeweghe's best season, 7 of the top 8 (and 14 of the top 20) players in PER were either centers or power forwards, Bob Cousy being the only exception (Bill Sharman, Bob Davies, Carl Braun, and Bobby Wanzer were the others who made it in the top 20). In 1952, only Cousy and small forward Paul Arizin (who spent 1953 and 1954 in the military) cracked the top 9.

Although he was a good basketball player, Vandeweghe is best known for his life off the court. After he retired, the Canadian-born doctor became a physician for the US Air Force. While he was stationed in Germany, his wife (and former Miss America Colleen Hutchins) gave birth to future NBA star Kiki Vandeweghe. However, Kiki was far from the only standout athlete the Vandeweghe clan produced. Kiki's sister Tauna was an Olympian swimmer, while younger brother Burk won a medal in beach volleyball in the 1994 Goodwill Games. The only member of the Vandeweghe family not to be a world class athlete is Ernie's daughter Heatherly, who became a doctor. The Vandeweghe sports dynasty has not stopped as two generations, either. Ernie's granddaughter CoCo (the family insists on interesting names, apparently) won the junior US Open in tennis in 2008. After leaving the military, Dr. Vandeweghe has served as an advisor to different medical, sports, and banking organizations, participated in President Gerald Ford's Olympic Sports Commission, and is still giving speeches and working at the age of eighty one.

Today's Ernie Vandeweghe...A lesser Manu Ginobili...If Mike Miller played defense...If Stephen Jackson was more selective.

More Ernie Vandeweghe fun...A reprint of a classic NY Times article from 1956 about Dr. Vandeweghe...The third part of a 1953 documentary on the Minneapolis Lakers that has some Vandeweghe highlights...An SI piece on the Vandeweghe family from 1969 (featuring a 10 year old Kiki)...Also, I'd be remiss not to mention this biography of Joe Lapchick.

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