December 1, 2013
Redwood Empire's forgotten NBA big man
California: Phil Jordon may have been the greatest Native American basketball player of all time:
He was a double-digit
scorer over seven NBA seasons;
And he died at age 31.
Phil Jordon was born in Lakeport, California and played at Willits High School. He was the first Redwood Empire product to play in the NBA.
Jordon played 442 games with four different teams and yet is virtually unknown by sports fans, due to his early death and era in which he played.
John Jordon, Phil's father, was Native American from the Wailaki and the Nomlaki tribes, and his mother was white. Phil's early life wasn't easy. His family was not well off, and his father died when Phil was a teenager. That left his mother, Elizabeth, to care for five children.
Phil Jordon grew to 6-foot-10 and was described as having a feathery touch with the basketball. It was said that Jordon “is known to have hooked in 10 straight baskets with either hand in his college days.”
Jordon earned an athletic scholarship to Whitworth College, an NAIA school in Spokane, Wash. Jordon twice led Whitworth to National Small College Championships. After two years, he left school for “the color and excitement of the barnstorming National Industrial Basketball League” according to a 1962 newspaper article.
Jordon played AAU ball for the Federal Insurance team, and then the Buchan Bakers. In those days, the AAU hoops were highly competitive. The Bakers won the national title.
In 1956, the Minneapolis Lakers selected Jordon in the NBA draft, but he never played for them. Instead, he suited up as a rookie with New York Knicks. Jordon played parts of 2 seasons with the Knicks, 1 1/2 years with the Detroit Pistons, 1 year with the Cincinnati Royals, another year with New York and a final season with the St. Louis Hawks in 1962-63.
Jordon was no bench-warmer. He averaged 14.3 points a game for the Pistons in 1958-59, and 13.4 for the Royals the next year. During those two seasons, and the next split between Cincinnati and New York, he never averaged less than 8.3 rebounds per game.
Willie Naulls, 78, was Jordon's teammate with the Knicks for three seasons.
“He was as good as most of the big men in that era, except for the real outstanding ones like Russell and Chamberlain,” he said. "But I think he was limited by his (early) competition. ... There wasn't very much local competition where he was growing up, as there is today. He had the physical frame and natural grace and ability to develop into a very competitive athlete.”
Jordon's family didn't have the money to get to many of his games.
“I used to come up from Petaluma sometimes, go up to Ukiah because there was a TV station there where his games would be on,” said Perry Jordon, 75. “I did get to see him play a few times, went to a couple games. He was at the Cow Palace (in San Francisco) one time.”
Strangely, Jordon may be best remembered for an absence rather than an accomplishment.
On March 1, 1962, the Knicks were preparing to play the Philadelphia Warriors in Hershey, PA the next day. According to author Gary Pomerantz, Jordon spent the afternoon and early evening in a room with teammate Sam Stith, whose wife had gone into labor. Jordon brought a case of beer and drank the whole thing, then went out on the town with teammate Donnie Butcher that night.
The next day Jordon was in no condition to play, writes Pomerantz in his book Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era:
“From behind the closed bathroom door in their hotel room, Butcher heard Jordon groaning and vomiting. He asked Butcher to get Pepto-Bismol to help soothe his stomach. Butcher stopped at a nearby pharmacy to get it. As the Knicks prepared to leave for Hershey, Jordon said to Butcher from behind the bathroom door, 'Butch, tell them I can't go. I've got to stay here.'”
Willie Naulls has his own version of the events:
“Phil didn't play in the game because he was ill. Whoever that writer was, he wasn't there, so he didn't know. I will not participate in character assassination. He was my teammate. I don't think anyone has the right in 2013 to speculate negatively about an athlete.”
For whatever reason, Phil Jordon missed the game. The Knicks were left with one big man, Darrall Imhoff, and it wasn't nearly enough. The powerful Chamberlain scored at will. His 100-point onslaught is an NBA record that stands today.
By 1963, Jordon had played his last NBA game. In 1965, while living in Tacoma, Wash., he fell into the Puyallup River when the raft on which he was riding broke apart. His three raft-mates swam to safety; Jordon did not.
It took authorities nearly a month to find his body.
Village © Gina Boltz
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