Rubino: 'Rifleman' among athletes to play both pro basketball, baseball

  • Robert Rubino

All the best to Tracy McGrady. A 16-year NBA veteran and seven-time All-Star, McGrady is embarking, at 34, on a professional baseball career as a pitcher for the Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent minor-league team.

While the eventual result is unlikely to rate comparisons to multisport immortals such as Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrikson, Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, McGrady might at least aspire to join those athletes who played both baseball and basketball at the highest professional levels: Athletes such as:

Chuck Connors. Before he starred in "The Rifleman," a Western drama that ran on ABC from 1958-63, Connors played some ball. In the 1946-47 season, the first in the history of what would become the NBA, Connors played in 49 games for the Celtics, averaging just less than five points. In the next season, he played in four games before turning to baseball. He played one game with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949 and 66 with the Chicago Cubs in 1951.

Dick Groat. In 1952, Groat played 95 games at shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, then played 26 games at guard for the NBA's Fort Wayne Pistons. After two years of military service, Groat began a 13-year stint in big-league baseball that included an MVP award and World Series title with the Pirates in 1960.

Gene Conley. During six of Conley's 11 years (1952, 1954-63) as a major-league pitcher, he also played in the NBA. His best baseball seasons were 1954, when he won 14 games for the Milwaukee Braves, and 1962, when he won 15 for the Boston Red Sox. He was part of the Braves' World Series championship team in 1957. Conley, who averaged six points, six rebounds and 16 minutes in 351 NBA games, also played on three Celtics championship teams (1959-61).

Dave DeBusschere. His 13-year Hall of Fame playing career in the NBA included key roles on the New York Knicks' championship teams of 1970 and '73, six first-team All-Defensive selections and eight All-Star appearances. His 6? years with the Detroit Pistons included three as player-coach beginning in 1964 when he was 24 years old. And how's this for consistency? In 875 regular-season games, DeBusschere averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds. In 96 playoff games, he averaged 16 points and 12 rebounds. DeBusschere also pitched for the Chicago White Sox in 1962 and '63, coinciding with his first two years in the NBA, compiling a 3-4 record and an ERA of 2.90 in 36 games (102 innings), including one shutout.

Ron Reed. During Reed's NBA career (1965-67), he was DeBusschere's teammate on the Pistons, averaging 19 minutes and eight points per game. His pro basketball career coincided, in 1966, with the start of his 19-year major league baseball career in which he pitched in 751 games, winning 146 and saving 103. Reed is one of only 15 pitchers to win and save at least 100 games. He appeared in the 1980 and '83 World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Danny Ainge. Before Ainge launched a 14-season NBA playing career that included championships in 1984 and '86 with the Boston Celtics, he made his major-league debut as a 20-year-old second baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays, getting three hits, scoring three runs and driving in one. Ainge would play in 211 games over three seasons with Toronto before making his NBA debut with the Celtics on Dec. 9, 1981.

And honorable mention goes to the following:

Bob Gibson. While a pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals minor-league system, Gibson played the 1957-58 basketball season with the Harlem Globetrotters. OK, that's not the NBA, but the Globetrotters were stocked with exceptionally talented players (Wilt Chamberlain would play for them the following season) and back then frequently packed the same arenas that were half-empty for NBA games. Gibson, of course, then went on to a 17-year Hall of Fame career with the Cardinals.

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