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Former Syracuse National looks back on winning NBA title 60 years later

Matt Richmond/WSKG
Bill Kenville at his home in Binghamton

The NBA playoffs begin this weekend. And while big city teams like Oakland, Cleveland and Atlanta are the favorites, sixty years ago the league looked much different.

In 1955, the Syracuse Nationals took home the title, beating the Fort Wayne Pistons in seven games. One of the guards on that team was Binghamton resident Bill Kenville, known during his playing days as Billy the Kid, and Kenville followed a surprising path to the NBA.

“Well, I never made the team because I was small, so I never played in high school or anything,” Kenville says.
Then by chance, he wound up playing during college at St. Bonaventure’s University in Cattaraugus County.
“They had given out five scholarships and one of the players ended up not coming so they had to pick up a student to take the fifth place,” Kenville says. “So the coach picked me out of the gym when he saw me playing half court or something and that’s how I got on the team.”
He says the “Bonnies” had a good run for a few years, playing in a postseason tournament three years in a row. That got him noticed by the Syracuse Nationals, who drafted him in 1953.
“You didn’t get rich in those days,” Kenville recalls. “You know, the teams were owned basically by individuals. Our owner in Syracuse, Danny Biasone, he owned a bowling alley. And that was his claim to fame.”
Biasone’s other claim to fame was the 24-second shot clock. He developed it and convinced the league to adopt it in 1954. In the interest of a more exciting, fan-friendly game, teams had to get a shot off within 24 seconds of gaining possession.
“We adjusted to it rather rapidly and then it was just like before, we just got up there sooner,” Kenville says.
They also had a head start. Kenville and the Nationals had been practicing with Biasone’s 24-second clock before it was adopted. It’s probably not a coincidence the Nationals won the title the year it was introduced league-wide.  
“A little bit of an advantage, which we needed,” Kenville says.
That year was the Nationals’ one-and-only championship. There was a player who would soon enter the NBA and dominate for the next decade.
“Boston became a dynasty because Bill Russell came out of college and no one else had a big man like him,” Kenville says. “But when he came it ended for everybody for about 10 years, no one else won.”
Russell was drafted in 1956 and went on to win 11 championships in 13 years. Kenville played for the Nationals for another year and then moved on to play for the Fort Wayne and then Detroit Pistons until 1960. After leaving the NBA, he ran Broome County’s Probation Department. In a recent ceremony at the Onondaga County War Memorial Arena, the NBA awarded championship rings to the members of that Nationals team.

Matt Richmond comes to Binghamton's WSKG, a WRVO partner station in the Innovation Trail consortium, from South Sudan, where he worked as a stringer for Bloomberg, and freelanced for Radio France International, Voice of America, and German Press Agency dpa. He has worked with KQED in Los Angeles, Cape Times in Cape Town, South Africa, and served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. Matt's masters in journalism is from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.