Carl Braun

Swish!

Curtis M. Harris

At a towering 6’5″, Carl Braun was one of the first great pro guards to be of such immense height. He was certainly the first such giant for the New York Knickerbockers way back in the 1940s. As the years went by Braun played either guard spot and served as primary scorer and distributor. His offensive bread-and-butter was a quirky over-the-head set-shot that helped him lead the Knicks in scoring year after year.

Whenever pleased with his shooting performance, Braun would say “swish.”

Yeah, that’s where that basketball lexicon comes from.

Thank you, Carl Braun.


ROOKIE SENSATION

At only 19 years old, Braun was drafted by the BAA’s New York Knicks in 1947 and was barely 20 when the 1947-48 season kicked off. Although the new pro league was just in its second season, its roster was full of veterans—of the pro hoops and military variety.

Braun was by far the youngest man on the roster that opening night: 20 years and 49 days. Here are the ages of the other “rookies” on the Knicks roster…

  • Paul Noel—23 years, 88 days

  • Wat Misaka—23 years, 327 days

  • Ray Kuka—25 years, 269 days

  • Dick Holub—26 years, 15 days

Braun acclimated himself nicely in that first game. 14 points in an 80-65 New York win over the Washington Capitols. A few days later on November 18, Braun got the best of the hapless Providence Steamrollers with 22 points in an 87-69 win.

Then in just his 10th professional game, Braun erupted for 47 points against Providence as his New York Knicks devastated the opponent 114 to 85. Braun’s outburst was a new BAA record for points in a single game. Along the way he also set marks for field goals made in a game (18) and points scored in one half (31).

That type of scoring was a bit too much to expect from Braun or most players at any point in their career. Indeed the 47 points would stand as his career high, although he came close to breaking it in the 1956 season with a 44-point outburst versus the St. Louis Hawks. Braun was certainly magnificent that game with 14-22 FGs and 16-16 FTs.

But that’s jumping too far ahead.

Braun clearly finished the 1948 season as New York’s best player and the team finished 26-22. However, they were ousted in the playoffs by the eventual BAA champion Baltimore Bullets.

Fortunately for Braun, help began steadily arriving as this good Knicks team ascended to greatness. In 1948-49, rookie forward Harry Gallatin joined the team. And in 1949-50 the Knicks began their time in the NBA by snatching Connie Simmons from Baltimore while drafting rookies Vince Boryla, Ernie Vandeweghe, and Dick MGuire.

The team racked up a 40-28 record behind a well-balanced attack. Braun led the club in scoring (15.4 PPG) and was second in assists (3.7 APG) during the regular season. In the playoffs he again led the way in points (17.0 per game) and was again second in assists (3.8 per game). However, they were defeated by the Syracuse Nationals—who held the NBA’s best regular season record that year—in the Eastern Division Finals.

For the 1950-51 season, New York continued accruing power by signing Sweetwater Clifton to bolster the front court and swiping Max Zaslofsky in a dispersal of the defunct Chicago Stags roster.

A roster of Braun, McGuire, Gallatin, Clifton, Zaslofsky, Boryla, Vandeweghe and Simmons was ludicrously stacked. Coupled with the indomitable George Mikan suffering a broken leg bone in the 1951 playoffs and this proved to be New York’s best shot at a title.

One small problem, though. They wound up not having Braun…


DRAFT OF A DIFFERENT SORT

Yep, Braun’s pro career was rudely interrupted by two years of military service that cost him the 1950-51 and 1951-52 seasons. Without Carl, the Knicks lost in the NBA Finals. Both seasons. In seven games. Both seasons. In 1951 Rochester did the honors, while in 1952 Minneapolis did New York in.

Although the Knicks likely missed out on a title, upon his return it became quite clear Braun hadn’t missed a basketball beat. His shooting percentages rose considerably as he was able to maintain a scoring average comparable to his pre-Army days while taking fewer shots. Efficiency aficionados rejoice.

Braun also became more and more of a facilitator on offense. His assists jumped from a mediocre 1.3 in 1948 to 5.5 by 1958, which was good enough for fifth in the NBA that season. This increasing shift from shooting guard to point guard for Braun can be partially explained by the surrounding roster. Early in his career he had the fortune of playing off of the great point guard Dick McGuire. Later in his career, he played alongside the scoring machine Richie Guerin.

Braun’s return in the 1952-53 season boosted the Knicks to the best regular season record yet in franchise history with 47 wins and 23 losses. The .671 win percentage stood until the 1970 season when the club surpassed it on their way to an NBA title.

The 1953 Knicks still did not capture the title. The Lakers once again stood in their way as Braun once again was the leading scorer for the Manhattanites. New York stole Game 1 in Minnesota, but Minneapolis swept the next four games to win the series. Braun averaged his usual 14.8 PPG as the club’s typically balanced offensive scoring load failed to breach the titanic Mikan.

Unfortunately for Braun, this would easily be the closest he’d come to a title with his hometown team.

DOLDRUMS

The NBA had some seriously stupid playoff rules in 1954, so although the Knicks finished with the best record in the East (44-28), they were eliminated in an absurd round-robin tournament. From there on the club slowly slid into mediocrity.

38-34 in 1955. 35-37 in 1956. 36-36 in 1957. 35-37 in 1958.

By the 1958 season, the team had undergone a major overhaul. In two separate trades conducted in April 1957, Gallatin and Clifton and then McGuire were shipped off to the Detroit Pistons. This left Braun as the only player left from the early 1950s glory years.

Replacing the golden-age crew were youngsters Willie Naulls (23), Kenny Sears (24), and Richie Guerin (25) playing alongside the suddenly-elder statesman Braun (30).

In the 1957-58 campaign, Carl averaged a career-high of 16.5 points along with a career-high 5.5 assists and a career-high 4.6 rebounds and a career-high .849 FT%. Looks like the old man did his best keep up the continuity in the face of the changes.

For 1959 the kids fully took over as Braun averaged a (to this point) career-low 10.5 PPG. But Naulls, Sears, and Guerin chucked about 55 PPG, so the Knicks were good on scoring. Braun continued his playmaking with 4.8 APG, just a smidge behind Guerin’s 5.1 APG for the team lead.

The Knicks in ‘59 enjoyed their final good season with Braun as they went 40-32. Unfortunately, they ran into Syracuse, who boasted a misleading 35-37 record. The Nats had acquired disgruntled superstar George Yardley from Detroit for practically nothing at the February trade deadline. Paired with Dolph Schayes, the Nationals swept New York out of the playoffs.

The next season, 1959-60, the wheels completely came off the wagon as the Knicks became bad for the first time in franchise history. They mustered a pathetic 27-48 record.

Coach Andrew “Fuzzy” Levane quit after 27 games with an 8-19 record. Braun was made player-coach. Such was life in the NBA at the time. Head coach quits? Just make the longest-tenured player coach until you come up with something long-term!

The Knicks played better but still not well under Braun’s guidance. Understandable. He was thrust into a coaching gig on short notice. The Swish Masters finished the 1959 season with a 19-29 record on the coaching ledger.

As for playing, 1959 was really his swan song: 13 PPG, five APG, and three RPG in 28 minutes a night. The next season, 33-year-old Braun appeared in just 15 games averaging 5.7 points and 3.2 assists per game as he focused more upon coaching.

Considering he had a miserable 21-58 record during the 1960-61 campaign, I’d hate to see how bad things would have been if he hadn’t focused on coaching. Then again the Knicks were becoming a laughing stock by always taking a center in the draft, regardless of how talented he was. (Spoiler: they were usually not that talented).

In May 1961, Braun was fired as coach and released from any obligations to the Knicks.

(Hilariously, Knicks owner Ned Irish criticized, however politely, Braun’s coaching while pumping up his replacement Eddie Donovan. Well, Braun’s win percentage as Knicks coach was .315. Donovan? .302. Jokes on you, Ned!)

After spending nearly all his adult life with the Knicks, Braun was now free to sign with whomever he pleased. I guess after the Army snatched two chances at a title in 1951 and 1952 and then losing to the Lakers in 1953, Braun wanted his NBA championship immediately.

So just a week after getting fired by New York, Carl signed with the Boston Celtics.

Fast forward a year and Braun was at last an NBA champion. He averaged just under five PPG for Boston, so it’s not like he made the difference for the Cs. But the old man deserved a title for all those years in New York… plus his totally bad-ass stand against racism that season.

Read all about it.

Anyhoo, that was pretty much it for Braun’s playing career as he retired after the ‘62 campaign.

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FINAL ANALYSIS

Over 12 seasons with New York, Braun made a name for himself as one of the NBA’s best guards. He was selected five times to the All-Star Game and was a member of the All-BAA 2nd Team as a rookie and the All-NBA 2nd Team in 1954.

For seven straight seasons, Braun led the Knicks in PPG. For 11 consecutive campaigns he was either first (3x) or second (8x) in APG on the club.

When he left the Knicks in 1961, Braun was their all-time leader in points, games played, minutes played, and field goals made. He also staked out a second-place claim on free throws made and assists dished. Braun’s prime-time play is obviously long ago, yet, he still remains high up in the Knicks’ leader board: games (4th), minutes (9th), field goals (7th), free throws (5th), assists (4th), and points (5th).

Braun also carried the Knicks to victory in dramatic fashion every now and then. In March 1950, he nailed a 30-foot shot at the buzzer to down the St. Louis Bombers in overtime. While in January 1954, he made only one basket in a game, but it happened to be the last one and defeated the Philadelphia Warriors.

His shooting style may have been a peculiar over-the-head style, but Braun’s career still remains under-the-radar. And his number should be up in the MSG rafters.

It’d be the perfect and overdue toast to the man who gave us SWISH!