Obituaries

Willie Naulls, 84, Celtics champion and part of historic lineup

Mr. Naulls was guarded by Philadelphia 76ers player Lucious Jackson during a game in Boston on Jan. 16, 1966.
Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff/File
Mr. Naulls was guarded by Philadelphia 76ers player Lucious Jackson during a game in Boston on Jan. 16, 1966.

On Dec. 26, 1964, in St. Louis, Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach put Willie Naulls into the starting lineup for the injured Tom Heinsohn prior to a game against the Hawks.

It was the first time in National Basketball Association history that five African-American players took the floor as a starting unit: Mr. Naulls, Bill Russell, Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, and K.C. Jones.

The historic occasion so moved Mr. Naulls that after his retirement two years later, he commissioned a portrait called “The Starting Five” to capture one of his most treasured memories.

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A 6-feet-6-inches-tall forward and four-time NBA All-Star with the New York Knicks, he played his final professional seasons with the Celtics and helped them win three consecutive NBA championships.

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An ordained minister who brought a message of hope to inner city youths in the Los Angeles area, Mr. Naulls died in his Laguna Niguel, Calif., home on Nov. 22 of respiratory complications of Churg-Strauss syndrome. He was 84.

After that game in St. Louis, Mr. Naulls remained a starter and averaged 15 points per game during a 16-game winning streak.

“He was a calm player who didn’t get excited and try to do things out of his skill set,” Sanders recalled. “Willie was always in the right spot to take advantage of his great shooting range, and he was also a superb rebounder.”

Mr. Naulls averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game over his 10 NBA seasons — including averaging 20 or more points for three Knicks seasons.

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But the Knicks were not a playoff team then. Mr. Naulls was on the verge of retiring at age 28 when he received a call from Russell, whom he first played against as a University of California, Los Angeles, All-American, when Russell was the center for two-time NCAA champion University of San Francisco.

“I was pretty well disgusted with basketball. I had played all those years and always been with a losing team,” Mr. Naulls told the Globe in 1963. “I was overweight — and basketball hardly was on my mind.”

Russell asked Mr. Naulls, as a personal favor, to play for the Celtics. “I’m glad I did. I had a lot to prove to myself,” Mr. Naulls said in 1963. He added that upon coming to Boston: “It certainly is different feeling you are going to win.”

Although Mr. Naulls was grateful for the opportunity, his time with the Celtics was hard work at first. He collapsed at his first practice and eventually shed the pounds that enabled him to keep pace with the team’s fast-break style of play.

That showed on April 25, 1965, at Boston Garden when the Celtics blew out the Los Angeles Lakers, 129-96, to win their eighth NBA title. The highlight was a 20-0 run to start the fourth quarter.

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Mr. Naulls scored eight of those points, grabbed two rebounds, and had one steal.

The moment was captured on the vintage record album “Havlicek Stole the Ball,” narrated by radio announcer Johnny Most, who noted that Mr. Naulls “has been sensational . . . this is hard to believe.”

At the time he announced his retirement, Mr. Naulls called that 20-point onslaught “the frosting on the pudding, the greatest feeling of all.”

Born in Dallas, William Dean Naulls was a son of Daily Naulls and the former Bettie Artis. The family moved to the Watts section of Los Angeles during World War II, and his father worked at a shipyard in the port of San Pedro. His mother, who inspired Mr. Naulls to embrace the Christian faith, was a domestic worker.

Mr. Naulls was named All-Los Angeles Player of the Year in baseball his junior season and basketball his senior year at San Pedro High School. He was awarded a basketball scholarship to UCLA, where he became an All-American.

He was later an assistant to coach John Wooden, a mentor to young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a longtime benefactor to the university.

Originally drafted by the St. Louis Hawks, Mr. Naulls was traded to the Knicks in December 1956. While in New York, he was the first African-American to be named captain of a major professional integrated team, according to the Knicks.

In an interview with Knicks Hardwood Classics, Mr. Naulls recalled “meeting my idol, Jackie Robinson, the former UCLA Bruin who came to one of our games.”

He hugged Robinson and told him how much he loved, respected, and appreciated him. It was, Mr. Naulls said, “the highlight of my time with the Knicks.”

After retiring as a player, he returned to finish his undergraduate degree at UCLA, where he met his future wife, Dr. Anne Van de Water, a physician.

“It was the beginning of an amazing 52-year friendship,” she said.

“What made Willie unique among former professional athletes was his determination to work with youth to help them develop their spirits, souls, minds, and bodies, a pursuit which spanned five decades,” she added. “He was always working to make life better for everyone around him, and he certainly made my life better.”

Successful in business, Mr. Naulls put his resources into endeavors that included youth summer camps through the Soulville Foundation, at which former teammates Sam Jones and K.C. Jones were instructors.

At his own expense, he also established Willie Naulls Ministries and the Church of Common Ground, which included six gymnasiums, in Hawthorne, Calif., where his wife and children worked.

In a personal memoir, Mr. Naulls noted that “the insecurities that I felt growing up in a disadvantaged community I have never forgotten. These memories have directly influenced my life’s commitment to serve young people of all ethnic backgrounds.”

Mr. Naulls, who later ran his ministries out of his home, wrote that he was also inspired by a voice that said: “Get out of business. Better prepare yourself to minister My Word. Tell people what great things I have done in your life.”

A 1994 graduate and commencement speaker at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Mr. Naulls wrote eight biographical and inspirational books. In one, he praised Russell in a poem entitled “Big Bad Bill Russell” that said in part:

“He always gave his all, a full forty-eight minutes in his call —to play/each game — he wouldn’t have it any other way!”

The tribute ended with the words, in capital letters, “I LOVE YOU MAN!”

A celebration of life is being planned for Mr. Naulls, who in addition to his wife leaves his sons, Shannon of Charlotte, N.C., and Jonah of Houston; his daughters, Lisa of Mission Viejo, Calif., and Malaika Naulls Morrison of Los Angeles; and six grandchildren.

Jonah said his father “gave sage advice to young athletes, gave back to the communities that he was raised in and to those who were less fortunate, and never compromised his values. He was strict but fair, wise and thoughtful, a giant but kind. He was my hero.”

In 2002, Mr. Naulls published a short poem, “Oath of Promise,” which revealed his belief in the potential of every child:

No greater deed can one bestow

Than pledge one’s life that a child might grow

Fulfilling God’s plan of Who is He

Within His promise for each child to be.

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.