Willie Naulls, a four-time All-Star forward with the Knicks, a member of three consecutive N.B.A. championship teams with the Boston Celtics and one of pro basketball’s early black stars, died Thursday at his home in Laguna Niguel, Calif. He was 84.
The cause was respiratory failure resulting from Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare condition that can restrict blood flow to vital organs and tissues, his wife, Dr. Anne Van de Water Naulls, said.
A fine outside shooter and a rugged rebounder at 6 feet 6 inches and 225 pounds or so, Naulls was an All-American at U.C.L.A. in 1955, his senior season, playing for the future Hall of Fame coach John Wooden.
He was a second–round draft pick of the St. Louis Hawks but was distraught over the city’s racial climate, his family having moved from Dallas to Southern California to escape segregation.
“To go to St. Louis and its segregated hotels, restaurants, cabs, living districts and attitude was a cultural shock,” Naulls once told the Knicks’ Hardwood Classic website. “As a 21-year-old man, I had rarely experienced that since I was 8 years old.”
But the Hawks traded Naulls to the Knicks in December 1956 after he played in 19 games for them, and he spent all or parts of seven seasons in New York. He teamed with guard Richie Guerin and forward Kenny Sears as outstanding players on lackluster teams.
When Naulls played in his first All-Star Game, in January 1958, he joined Bill Russell and Maurice Stokes as the only black players on the court.
He became the Knicks’ captain in the early 1960s, the first black athlete to hold such a post for any team in a major American sport, according to the Knicks.
Naulls once held two Knicks scoring records. He set a single-season mark in 1960-61 with 1,846 points, an average of 23.4 a game, and another record when he scored at least 30 points in seven consecutive games.
During that streak, his tally of 31 points against the Philadelphia Warriors on March 2, 1962, went essentially unnoticed. On the same court in Hershey, Pa., Wilt Chamberlain had astonished the basketball world with a 100-point game. That night, putting the trouncing aside, Naulls and a few other Knicks drove back to New York with Chamberlain, who was living there while owning a Harlem nightclub.
Naulls shed the burden of playing for losing teams when he joined the Celtics in 1963 after a brief stint with the San Francisco Warriors. He played on Boston teams that won N.B.A. championships in 1964, 1965 and 1966.
William Dean Naulls was born on Oct. 7, 1934, in Dallas, a son of Daily and Bettie (Artis) Naulls. The family moved to Los Angeles during World War II, and his father worked at shipyards in the port of San Pedro. His mother was a domestic worker.
Naulls was a basketball star at San Pedro High School before Wooden recruited him. He averaged more than 15 points and 11 rebounds per game in his three seasons at U.C.L.A. but he battled weight problems, bringing him the unwanted nickname Willie the Whale.
His biggest game may have come in December 1954 when his Bruins earned a 47-40 victory over the University of San Francisco, which was led by Russell and K.C. Jones, his future Celtics teammates. It was the only defeat that season for the Dons, who would win the first of two consecutive N.C.A.A. tournament championships.
After all those poor seasons with the Knicks and briefly with the Warriors, Naulls considered retiring. But he changed his mind after receiving a phone call from Russell urging him to become a Celtic.
Red Auerbach, the Celtics’ coach, who oversaw the franchise’s personnel moves, obtained him from the Warriors for cash and a future draft pick.
Naulls was unaccustomed to Auerbach’s grueling preseason drills preparing his team for its fast-break offense, and he fainted during his first workout. But he grew to like playing in an up-tempo style he had not experienced since his U.C.L.A. years.
Naulls was part of the N.B.A.’s first all-black starting lineup, along with Russell at center, K.C. and Sam Jones at the guards and Satch Sanders at forward for a December 1964 game against the Hawks in St. Louis.
He retired after his three seasons with the Celtics, having averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game in 10 N.B.A. seasons.
Turning to the business world after leaving basketball, Naulls owned an auto dealership in Los Angeles and invested in enterprises that he felt could provide jobs in black communities.
Influenced by his mother’s strong Baptist faith, he had a spiritual awakening in the early 1990s. He created Willie Naulls Ministries in 1993 and received a master’s degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., in 1994. The following year, he opened a facility in Hawthorne, Calif., to house community-based programs that focused on inspiring young people from inner-city neighborhoods to lead productive lives. At his death, he was the ministry’s president.
In addition to his wife, an obstetrician/gynecologist who is the ministry’s secretary-treasurer, he is survived by his sons Shannon and Jonah, his daughters Lisa Naulls and Malaika Naulls Morrison, and six grandchildren.
Two months before the death of Chamberlain, his longtime friend, in October 1999, Pastor Naulls, as he was known then, reflected on Chamberlain’s 100-point game, viewing it as a glorious moment with racial significance in a pro sport that had been wary of seeing too many black faces on the court.
“Wilt had rung the bell of freedom loud and clear, shouting, ‘Let my people be free to express themselves,’” Naulls wrote in his church newsletter, as related in Gary M. Pomerantz’s “Wilt, 1962” (2005).
“For we were and will be for all time those who withstood the humiliation of racial quotas even to the point of the N.B.A.’s facing extinction because of retarded expression and stagnating growth,” Naulls continued.
Recalling the camaraderie of that shared ride to New York after the game in Hershey, Naulls wrote, “We are Brothers, in the Night of His Flight, Forever.”