Basketball's Last Set Shooter, and Coach of Milwaukee's 1971 Title Team - Larry Costello Deserves A Place In The Hall
By Peter Vecsey
You know those signs at the polling places that read ‘No Electioneering Beyond This Point’?
We’re not beyond this point, so I’m electioneering.
That the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame finds itself odious with omissions and commissions is hardly news. To be fair (for the first and last time in this epistle), any such sports shrine is not immune.
This exclusion is beyond egregious, however.
That’s where I come in.
As a member in shameless Springfield standing, it’s my civic duty to create a crescendo in the clarion call for Costello…
…as in Larry Ronald Costello.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ hoisting of Larry O’Brien’s trophy for the first time in a half-century provides the textbook stumping grounds.
(Hold the ‘caught-ya’ texts; I know the hardware wasn’t named for Larry in 1971 since he didn’t get top billing of the NBA until the summer of ‘75)
Back to the other Larry, who is best remembered as the coach of those marauding 1970-71 Bucks.
Contrary to what many must erroneously think, Costello was not a one-trick pony. Not to say the Hall isn’t swarming with those. But that’ll have to wait for another column. I did not come to bury others today in this space, rather to praise Lawrence Roland Costello.
I’m committed not to do a number on why so-and-so is in the hallowed Hall while the Costello clan has been awaiting a call for decades.
There’s no ‘tale of the tape’ comparison needed to reopen and bolster Costello’s cold case.
Enlisting the help of John W. Tailby’s self-published (2010) biography/position paper (specifically with regard to testimonials), here are some of the humble highlights.
Long before finding his way to the NBA, the 6-foot-1 Costello—a native of Minoa, New York —was a star at Niagara.
At the place best known for the falls, the spray starch and Calvin Murphy, Costello left as the school’s all-time leading scorer.
Playing in the Western New York Little 3 Conference (Niagara, Canisius, pre-Bob Lanier St. Bonaventure), Costello’s Purple Eagles went 46-12 his junior (18.2 ppg) and senior (15.3) seasons.
Assists were not a compiled stat back then, but suffice to say he shared the wealth with Ed Fleming, Charlie Hoxie, Hubie Brown and Frank Layden.
Niagara went to a pair of National Invitation Tournaments, back when the N-I-T was N-O-T second banana to the N-C-A-A, after which he toured the country with a college All Star team in a dozen game series (7-5) against the talent-loaded Harlem Globetrotters.
Costello arrived in the NBA in 1954, a spare-parts rookie (second round/12th overall selection) with the Philadelphia Warriors and among the last of the set-shot masters. After spending a year with the 4077th in Korea he returned, becoming both a workhorse and a star.
After another season in Philly, Costello was sold for the princely sum of five grand to the hometown Syracuse Nationals, which allowed him to move back into his childhood bedroom.
That very same amount, 5G, had bought Dan Biasone--the creator of the 24-second clock—the franchise in 1946.
Proving you can go home again, Costello began a string of eight consecutive seasons of double-figure scoring while perennially among the league leaders in assists and free-throw percentage. He twice led the league in the latter category.
…and his defense?
“People ask me who gave me the most trouble. It wasn’t Oscar Robertson or Jerry West. Larry had that animal determination.” - Bob Cousy.
Costello returned to Philly when the Nats were sold and relocated there for the 1963-64 season. However, a tendon injury forced him to retire the next season.
What to do? Coach a from-scratch high-school team at his alma mater (reconfigured East Syracuse-Minoa) to an Onondaga (NY) county championship, just failing in sectionals for the state title.
Prior to the ’66-‘67 season, Costello’s former Syracuse coach, Alex Hannum, now running the 76ers, implored him to come to Philly.
At 35, Costello ran a pristine point for the juggernaut title team, spearheaded by Wilt Chamberlain. Dippy had more help that season—Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson, Billy Cunningham, Wali Jones, Matt Guokas and Billy Melchionni—than any other until he hooked up with Lakers’ Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston
The 76ers were 38-4 when Costello again ruptured an Achilles tendon. They finished 68-13, beating Cincinnati, Boston and San Francisco for the championship.
How tough was Costello? He returned to play, albeit sparingly, seven games before the regular season ended and saw some daylight in the playoffs.
While Costello did return for 28 games (17.6 minutes) with sporadic contributions in ‘67-’68, his days in short pants were over.
It was off to Milwaukee and the birth of the Bucks, where Costello was hired as player-coach, but never donned a uniform. Suggesting that the team’s increased win totals (27 to 56 to 66) were strictly due to a fortuitous flip of the coin (for Lew Alcindor) and the acquisition of one of the game’s greatest guards (Oscar Robertson) would for shit-sure shortchange the influence of the coach.
By all accounts and descriptions, Costello was a scrupulous tactician, as well as an innovative practice and preparation freak. It took the Bucks another nine presidents to (theoretically) get invited to the White House.
Costello’s .589 regular season winning percentage (430-300) was tied for 14th-best all-time with Erik Spoelstra and Mike Budenholzer (before Tuesday’s beatdown of Brooklyn) for coaches with at least five seasons worth of workload.
His .617 post-season percentage (37-23; Milwaukee lost the ’74 Finals to Boston in seven) is 10th all-time.
After his NBA career ended, the Costello caravan briefly saw him coach The Chicago Bulls the Milwaukee Does of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (first US women’s pro league) for one season as well as Utica College.
The Utica job was part challenge, part favor, requested by his former high-school coach (Dr. Tom Sheldon) to shepherd to program from Division III to Division I.
Costello was at Utica for seven seasons—six as a D1 independent—and save for a 4-22 first season at the adult table, his teams always won in double figures. His departure after the ‘86-‘87 season coincided with the school’s stepping back to Division III.
So, in a Hall that embraces all basketball contribution, here was a man who coached men in the pros, women in the pros, high schoolers and collegians.
Costello died in December of 2001 at the age of 70.
It shouldn’t have come to ‘better late than never,’ but it has.
The gatekeepers owe it to Larry Costello and his family to make sure I don’t have to write this again.
The reviews are/were in…
“He’s a man totally dedicated to basketball. He simply wants to get the job done.” - Lew Alcindor (1971)
“I’m not quite sure what sort of player or man you are looking for to grace the Hall, but he will always make my team.” - Wilt Chamberlain
“Larry was a tenacious opponent, both offensively and defensively. He gave ground to no man defensively.” - Tom Gola
“Having played with and against him, I can assure you he was an outstanding player. He also provided the important intangible of being the complete team player.” - Paul Arizin
“Being associated with Larry taught me the meaning of hard work and team effort. I knew he could score more than most of his teammates, but Larry played to win.” - Billy Cunningham
“Larry was a marvelous backcourt player both at Niagara and later as a professional with Philadelphia and Syracuse. I think it was a great tribute that he was coaxed out of retirement in 1966 at the age of 35 and became floor general of the team many consider the greatest of all-time, the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers. Later on, I fully began to appreciate Larry’s talents as a coach. He always had his teams well-prepared and ready for anything.” - Red Holzman
“ …add my name to the growing list of supporters for the induction of Larry Costello to the Basketball Hall of Fame. I have coached against many members already elected and I say Larry had one of the great minds of the game. I consider what he did to enhance (Lew Alcindor’s) game one of the great tactical moves of several generations of coaches. He found more ways to get him the ball than I wanted to coach against.” - Tom Heinsohn
“It was a thrill to play the guard position with him as we were teammates with the Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia 76ers. Larry was the quickest and fastest player I have seen.” - Hal Greer
“…and Larry’s playing and coaching careers were exemplary. He excelled as few have as a leader, teacher and proponent of the game.” - Julius Erving
“Definitely a player of (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s) ability has a lot to do with winning, but I think Larry Costello was more responsible with winning in those days than Kareem. You win because of a good system. It was Larry Costello’s system that had the Bucks winning.” - Lucious Allen
“I think the induction of Larry Costello into the Hall of Fame is long overdue. He has been a credit to basketball in every sense of the word.”- Rick Barry
“If ever a player epitomized the ideal basketball player as far as morality, work ethic and coachability, it was Larry Costello.” - Alex Hannum
“I (had) known Larry since we were seniors in college and feel he would be an excellent addition to the Hall of Fame. He not only had an outstanding career as a player for 12 years, but won the NBA title in 1971.” - Bob Pettit
…and last, but certainly not least…
“The purpose of this letter is to recommend Larry Costello for the National Basketball Hall of Fame. I have known Larry for over 20 years and have only regard for his knowledge and abilities. He is a gentleman and would be a proud addition to the Hall of Fame.” - Jerry Colangelo (March 21, 1991)
Colangelo was the owner of the Phoenix Suns at the time. Since 2009, he has been Chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
I am unavailable for comment regarding the above two graphs.
Here’s the Reader’s Digest recap of Costello’s credentials…
—collegiate star (check).
—six-time N-B-A All-Star (check).
—NBA title-winning player (check).
—NBA title-winning coach (check).
—Naismith Hall of Famer (check back with me when the oversight committee finally takes care of that).
On January 16, 1985, Utica College lost to Marquette, 55-53, in overtime. The game was played at the MECCA, where Costello coached the Bucks.
Utica was in its fourth year of Division One while Marquette was eight years detached from winning the 1977 national title.
It was the lone time 6-8 Utica senior DJ Carstensen remembers “coach going around the locker room after a loss, shaking everyone’s hand, recognizing the effort that was given.”
DJ is Costello’s most zealous HOF activist and staunchest advocate for Costello as a coach and superior human being. A referee for the last 16 NCAA tournament, DJ was a three-time team captain.
Larry is on his lips whenever the whistle isn’t between them.
In the Milwaukee Journal the next day, Costello was asked about the talent gap between Utica College and more established Division I programs.
“We’ll never accept it. We’ll never do that,” he declared. “You’ve always got a chance in this game. You don’t step on the court otherwise. You can’t play that way. I’m proud of my kids because they fought.”
He was the ultimate competitor,” DJ lauded, “and it didn’t matter where he was coaching at, or who he was coaching.”