Arnie Risen (1924-2012), Great Early ‘Big’

They called him “Stilts” because Arnie Risen played back in the days when 6-foot-9 was really something. He weighed 210 pounds for much of his career, maybe 220 later, but what he lacked in bulk, Risen made up for in agility.

“He was also a constant thorn in the side of some of the more prominent big men such as George Mikan, Alex Groza and Larry Foust,” is how “The Biographical History of Pro Basketball” described Risen, a 1998 Naismith Hall of Fame inductee who died Saturday in Beachwood, Ohio, at age 87. “Perhaps only Mikan, Neil Johnston, Ed Macauley and Alex Groza were more polished at the pivot position during the NBA’s first half dozen seasons.”

Risen, who starred at Ohio State and was a part of NBA championship squads in Rochester (1951) and Boston (1957), was a longtime resident of the Cleveland area. He died from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“He was a very nice, gentle man who became such a competitor,” Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy told the Cleveland Plain Dealer Monday. “He, obviously, reached the highest echelon in his profession and the NBA, and you don’t get there unless you’re a pretty intense competitor. But you’d never know that. He was a sweet and gentle person.”

The Cleveland newspaper had more info on Risen’s background:

Risen was born Oct. 9, 1924, and grew up in Williamstown, Ky., the oldest of four siblings. He always told his son, Dennis, that he played in the first basketball game he ever saw. He married his high school sweetheart, Betty Barnes, wound up in his high school’s Hall of Fame and had a street named after him in Williamstown. …

[Risen] began his professional career with the Indianapolis Kautskys of the National Basketball League, playing for $50 a game, although he eventually persuaded the owner that he should get the same salary untested rookie George Mikan was getting from the Chicago Gears — an astounding $12,000 a year.

Risen’s best individiual season probably was 1950-51, when Rochester eliminated Fort Wayne and Minneapolis before beating New York in seven games to win the NBA title. Risen averaged a team-high 16.3 points and 12.0 rebounds, the start of five consecutive double-double seasons for him (he might have had more but the NBA didn’t track rebounds until that season, neglecting the stat during Risen’s first three pro seasons).

A four-time All-Star (1952-55), Risen’s contract was sold to Boston in October 1955, after which he adapted as a role player. He averaged 7.3 points and 6.9 rebounds in three seasons with the Celtics, helped introduce Bill Russell to the NBA and helped them win the first of what now are 17 championships.

Risen worked in the construction industry after his 1958 retirement, raised a family and was active with Cousy in lobbying the league and the players’ association to boost retirement benefits for former players.

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