In the ’49 BAA Draft, the Boston Celtics selected Tony Lavelli out of Yale. A 6-3 forward was coming off an impressive college run, where he set the school record in points, led the nation in scoring his senior year, was a 2x All-American and the College Player of the Year, all while pursuing a second passion of his – music.
So when he got into the BAA, Tony started playing in Boston – not at the Garden but the Latin Quarter, a Hub nightclub. He prioritized a career in music, as it took heavy persuasive efforts by the C’s owner to get him back to playing basketball – $13,000 salary and a special clause in his contract, which enabled him to play the accordion at halftime to entertain the crowds, with $125 guaranteed for each of 25 halftime concerts.
I realized that basketball could help me in my career in show business.Tony Lavelli, Sports Illustrated
And that’s exactly what happened. Lavelli became far better known for his musical gifts than as a basketball player, especially the ones of equal on-court productivity. He even got to showcase his talent outside of basketball arenas, as Tony got booked for national television appearances on the Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, and Steve Allen shows.
I gave a halftime concert in every city. They really liked me in Rochester. Was it tiring after playing? Not really. I had a few minutes to rest when I went into the dressing room. I would put on my sweats, get my accordion, and, a few minutes before the second half started, I would play. I loved playing the accordion for the fans.Tony Lavelli, Sports Illustrated
Lavelli, a reserve forward for most of his rookie campaign, finished the season averaging 8.8 points in 56 games played. The Celtics finished last in the East with a record of 22-46 but drew increasingly more attention in the press as the Boston fan base began to grow. A lot of that was due to Tony’s halftime performances, for which a lot of basketball historians give him credit for saving the early Celtics franchise.
After his one-year run in Boston, Tony left the Celtics, hoping to pursue a movie and music career. And so he landed in New York where he continued to dabble with the Knicks, but not nearly as successful. In 30 games played, Lavelli only averaged 3.3 PPG, as his BAA career officially came to an. And so, after a two-year stretch of managing two different career paths, Tony decided to pursue music.
My heart was no longer in it. I have no regrets at all about leaving basketball when I did. Music was always my first love. I loved entertaining people with the accordion and as a comedian and singer.Tony Lavelli, Sports Illustrated
As a comedian, Lavelli was a part of Harlem Globetrotters’ roadshow oppositions from ’50 to ’52, after which he ditched basketball for good and started touring the nation with his accordion. During the tour, he would roll out a portable hoop and strip down to his old Celtics uniform, wowing the fans with his hook shot.
That was Lavelli’s last connection with the game of basketball. He wanted to be remembered as an entertainer, not as a former basketball player. And with how unique his career was, that’s exactly what people will remember him for.