Bill Kenville, like many of his teammates, was a bit irritated. The former St. Bonaventure basketball star, as a 24-year-old second-year player, had just helped the Syracuse Nationals to the 1954-55 NBA championship.
Kenville, in fact, played a prominent role in bringing Syracuse, then one of just eight NBA franchises, its only title before leaving to become the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963.
With his team down 17 in the deciding game, the Elmhurst, N.Y. native was brought in off the bench by head coach Al Cervi, who told his young shooting guard, “get in there and win this thing.” Kenville wound up scoring a team-high 15 points as Syracuse came back to beat the Fort Wayne Pistons, 92-91, for the title.
The 6-foot-2 guard was thrilled to have won a championship —“it was a good feeling to win it, especially when you came from 17 down,” he said in a recent interview with WBNG in Binghamton — but there was something missing. He and the rest of his teammates were never really feted for their accomplishment.
AT THE TIME, the only thing the Nationals were rewarded with was a dressed up ice bucket, silver with a basketball figurine as the handle, to serve as a trophy.
“We were all a little ticked off we didn’t receive anything,” Kenville recounted.
Exactly sixty years later, however, the 1955 NBA champions were finally given the recognition that they had always — internally, anyway — hoped for.
In early April, the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch held a pre-game ceremony to honor that Syracuse team, on which Kenville averaged seven points and four rebounds per game. At the end, the three living players from that team — Kenville, Dolph Schayes and Jim Tucker, as well as family members of Paul Seymour, Bill Gabor and Earl Lloyd — were given what had long been overdue: a glitzy championship ring.
“It was a surprise definitely,” Kenville, now 84, said to WBNG. “It was something everyone on the team thought there was going to be immediately after — you know, maybe a week or two.”
He then added: “It’s 60 years later now, but it was nice to receive as a memento. Now the kids can fight over it.”
The recognition brought to the forefront the accomplished playing career of Kenville, one that first truly began to take shape at St. Bonaventure.
AS OLDER alums and fans can attest to, Kenville was one of the first standouts at Bona, carving his place in Bona annals nearly two decades before Bob Lanier guided the former Brown Indians to the Final Four and a handful of years before the Stith brothers essentially put the program on the collegiate basketball map.
The owner of jersey No. 20, alongside Bob Sassone, led St. Bonaventure to its first appearance in the National Invitation Tournament in 1951 and to a third-place NIT finish in 1952. Those Bona teams were nationally ranked, at one point or another, in all three of Kenville’s seasons from 1950-1953, reaching as high as No. 4 in the country in February of 1952.
“Billy” Kenville, as he was known throughout his playing career, led the Bonnies in scoring (19 points per game) as a senior, paced the team in rebounds (11.4) as a junior and field goal percentage (.347) as a sophomore, his first varsity campaign. According to his son, Mark, he scored St. Bonaventure’s first-ever basket inside Madison Square Garden.
Today, he ranks No. 51 on the school’s career scoring list — he totaled 908 points in just three seasons — bumped out of the top 50 just this season by Youssou Ndoye (971 points), who went from 82nd to 45th on that list after a strong senior year.
Upon graduating from St. Bonaventure, Kenville was taken in the third round (with the 22nd pick) of the 1953 NBA Draft by Syracuse, where he played for three seasons before playing three more with Fort Wayne/Detroit. He has the distinction of being the only Bona player to win an NBA title.
In the aftermath of the April ceremony in Syracuse, and even before that night, a growing contingent comprised primarily of family and close friends has emerged that would like to one day see Kenville’s name up in the Bona rafters (he WAS inducted into the SBU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1971).
While that honor is debatable, there is an argument to be made there.
What’s inarguable, however, was Kenville’s early impact on the program — he and Sassone were the driving force behind a team that spent most of 1951-52 ranked in the top 15 nationally — and what he helped pave the way for, and the fact that, as an NBA champion, he deserved a ring, even if, as he told WBNG:
“Maybe I’ll wear it, I don’t know. The look of it, god, it’s monstrous!”
(J.P. Butler, a sports writer for the Olean Times Herald, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)