REMEMBERING FUZZY LEVANE
by Dennis D’Agostino
Knicks Team Historian
The record books say that Fuzzy Levane stopped coaching the Knicks on December 18, 1959, in the aftermath of what he would always call “The Last Supper”.
Don’t believe it. Fuzzy Levane never stopped coaching the Knicks.
That was evident with every office visit (some even announced), every courtside conversation, and, later, every phone call down to his retirement home in South Carolina. He would rant, he would rail, he would pontificate with a passion that was uniquely his. He couldn’t understand things like eight-man coaching staffs or player entourages. (“Who the hell are all those guys behind the bench?” he’d always say). And there was a very simple reason for that. . .so much of his knowledge and love of the game was grounded in a New York sensibility brought about in the sport’s pioneer days.
We lost Fuzzy Levane – formal name Andrew --- on April 30, after he had given 92 rollicking years to a city, a game, and an endless list of friends.
We don’t use the word “raconteur” too much anymore, but that was Fuzzy. . .in a press room, at the practice gym, at an airport. No one could hold court or work a room better. Wherever Fuzzy went, laughter and good times followed.
Like his eventual scouting cohort Dick McGuire, it’s almost impossible to comprehend Fuzzy’s historical reach in the game. The Big Apple’s own and the son of an immigrant musician, he was a member of the famed James Madison squad that won the city high school championship in 1939, then won the Haggerty Award as the city’s best college player in 1943, playing for Joe Lapchick at St. John’s. More than sixty years later, he was still on the Knicks payroll.
In between was a basketball life lived to its fullest. Following St. John’s, Fuzzy was a professional even before there was an NBA. In 1945, a full year before the NBA was born, he joined the star-studded Rochester Royals of the National League. Fuzzy loved telling everyone who’d listen (and some who didn’t) that not only did he play alongside future Hall of Famers Bob Davies and Bobby Wanzer, but his Royals also included a Football Hall of Famer (Otto Graham) and two baseball stars (Chuck Connors, the future Rifleman, and Del Rice). He was a living trivia question.
Fuzzy took such pride in his playing career that in his later years, he had personalized bubble gum cards made up with his vital stats on the back and a color shot of a wavy-haired Young Andrew resplendent in his Rochester uniform on the front. Then he proceeded to give them away to just about everyone who lived in New York City. At the Knicks offices at the Garden, many a wide-eyed intern encountered Fuzzy on that first bewildering day of work and left with a seminar on basketball circa 1948 and their very own Fuzzy Levane bubble gum card.
But the Fuzzy that most of us came to love was a coach. He piloted the Hawks in Milwaukee for two seasons (and later in St. Louis for another), then came home in 1958 to succeed Vince Boryla at the helm of the Knicks.
So much of Fuzzy’s career was wrapped in humor and mirth, but also know this: Over an 11-year span --- from 1956 through 1966 – the Knicks made the Playoffs exactly once. And the man who got them there was Fuzzy Levane.
That was in his one full year as Knicks coach, 1958-59, when he led them to a 40-32 mark and a second-place finish in the East. The Knicks didn’t have a winning mark in each of the prior three seasons, and it would be nine years before they would have another one.
The following year, the Knicks got off to an 8-19 start and Fuzzy saw the handwriting on the wall. Or rather, at the dinner table. On a cold New England night in December 1959, the Knicks’ traveling party planned a dinner following a game against the Celtics. The head seat at the head table was reserved for the Knicks’ head man, Ned Irish. Levane soon noticed that all invited parties were accounted for, except Irish. Not a good sign. . .especially when it turned out that Irish was back at the hotel, negotiating a deal for Carl Braun to become player-coach.
That was The Last Supper.
But Fuzzy’s basketball life was only beginning. He coached a traveling, foil-for-the-Globetrotters type team called the New York Skyscrapers (which featured a former Fordham star named John Andariese), coached the Hawks again for part of a season, and then, in 1976, returned to the Knicks as a scout.
It was Red Holzman who brought Fuzzy back to the Knicks, and that was only natural. Wherever you saw Red, you saw Fuzzy. They were inseparable, and the personal histories of the two New Yorkers were intertwined for half a century.
They were teammates in Rochester. Then, in the Milwaukee days, Levane hired Holzman as his assistant and scout. . .and Red wound up succeeding Fuzzy as Hawks coach in 1954. When Fuzzy joined the Knicks, he again hired Red to be a scout. You know what happened next. Holzman, who famously didn’t want to coach, eventually wound up leading the Knicks to two NBA titles. Three years after the second one, he called for his old running mate.
So Fuzzy wound up joining Dick McGuire on the scouting trail, a post he would hold with the Knicks for nearly 30 years. When he wasn’t haunting the office, he was on the road, a hoop nomad’s journey defined by mileage expense forms, motor hotels and dusty, cramped gyms.
Fuzzy always boasted that he was a big man up in Albany, back when they had a CBA team named the Patroons and people like George Karl and Phil Jackson coached it. He also followed a league called the USBL and a team called the Long Island Surf and it was there – in one of the enduring Knicks legends --- where he “discovered” a hellbent, muscular forward out of Queens named Anthony Mason.
Mase’s success as one of the signature Knicks of the ‘90s was a constant source of pride for Fuzzy. At this same time, though, he’d had a brush with death --- or, as he always put it, “When I almost passed into the great beyond.” ---- in the wake of perhaps his greatest honor.
That was in the fall of 1991, on the night he was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame. On the way home to Long Island, he felt progressively worse and passed out. It was a ruptured aorta, and only the swiftest of doctors’ skills saved his life. Fuzzy recovered and persevered for more than 20 years.
In the last several years, thought, age and time took their toll. A piece of Fuzzy died when Holzman passed away in 1998, then another when he lost his wife Kay in 2009 after a 64-year journey together. With those closest to him starting to depart, there was no reason for him to stay in his beloved New York. So he headed south where his daughter could tend to him and where he could dote on many of his 13 grandchildren.
He became one of DirecTV’s best customers and never missed a Knicks game. And the nightly fate of the team would determine the tone of the phone call that would very often follow the next morning.
“Helloooooooooo,” he’d coo. “How’s my boobie?” But if it had been a long night for the orange and blue, that cheerfulness would soon turn into, “Ahhh, I can’t believe what they did last night. I mean, HOW could. . .”, and off he’d go, coaching again.
But there will be no more phone calls. And New York City basketball will never be the same again, not without a commanding figure whose presence, joy and laughter filled every room, every gym, every night. Now, finally, Fuzzy Levane is reunited with his beloved Kay, and with Red and Selma, and Dickie, and with the son he lost years ago.
And this time, the head seat at the head table is filled.