The sports world lost an icon Oct. 7 when Harry “The Horse” Gallatin passed away at the age of 88 at his home in Edwardsville.
If you aren’t familiar with Gallatin, then you’re missing out. He is arguably the greatest athlete Greater Alton has ever produced. The 1944 Roxana High grad is a member of 10 Hall of Fames, most notably the Naismith Memorial Basketball HOF.
I had the pleasure of meeting Gallatin when I first became a sportswriter, visiting him in his Edwardsville home and writing a feature story about his illustrious career. It was a great honor for me. Hearing stories and seeing Gallatin interact with people, he had a knack for touching people’s lives with his humble and friendly demeanor.
The stories, the countless experiences he had, those were the things myself and fellow AdVantage News sportswriter Steve Porter thought about when we remembered “The Horse.”
He was born April 26, 1927, in Roxana and cut his teeth shooting hoops around Wood River and Roxana in alleys, driveways and front yards before heading to East Alton-Wood River High from 1940-41. Roxana High opened after that and Gallatin graduated a Shell in 1944.
After high school he spent 15 months in the Navy until the end of World War II. He played basketball on scholarship at Northeast Missouri College in Kirksville, Mo., now Truman State University.
He was the top pick of the New York Knicks in 1948, beginning a nine-year NBA career that included seven all-star selections. He also played minor league baseball in the Cubs organization early during his NBA career.
When playing for the Knicks, they did a barnstorming tour around New York at local high schools, attempting to drum up support and interest from fans. In 1953 Gallatin and the Knicks were at Lafayette High in Brooklyn, ready to put on a show, when one prep player really stepped up his game.
Gallatin told how this player pushed he and his teammates to the brink, even dunking once during the contest. The Knicks had to pick it up to win the scrimmage.
Afterward Gallatin introduced himself to the lanky left-hander and asked his name, the player responded, “Sandy Koufax.”
Koufax told Gallatin he was his favorite player and “The Horse” wished him good luck on his career, which included a stint at the University of Cincinnati to play basketball before turning to baseball. Koufax went on to become a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher, one of the best lefties ever, but Gallatin said he could have been an NBA star if he would have desired.
Gallatin got his nickname “The Horse” during his rugged NBA career. He never missed a practice and played in 610 consecutive games with the Knicks, still a team record today. He also played for a short time with the Detroit Pistons.
He told me once, “If you want to be the best, you have to practice to be the best.”
It was that work ethic that defined him as a player and later as a coach. His coaching career started at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he led the Salukis from 1959-62, compiling a 79-35 record. He guided them to the small-school NCAA Tournament in ‘59, ‘60 and ‘61. In his three seasons, SIUC eclipsed 20 wins each year and won three IIAC conference championships.
From there he went to the St. Louis Hawks to coach (‘62-65), where he won the NBA Coach of the Year in 1963. He coached stars like Bob Pettit, Ed Macauley, Lenny Wilkens and Charlie “Chico” Vaughn. Gallatin coached Vaughn at SIUC and with the Hawks.
His return to coach the Knicks wasn’t quite as fruitful. He was only there from ‘65-66, but he helped construct a team that would go on to win NBA championships in 1970 and ‘73.
One of his techniques finding young players to draft was playing them one-on-one to gauge their talent level. Two of those players were Willis Reed and Bill Bradley.
Reed eventually tied Gallatin’s Knick-record for rebounds in a game with 33, but it was a story Gallatin told me about Bradley that I thought was pretty cool.
After battling these players on the court, Gallatin would chat with them to get to know their personalities. He asked Bradley what he wanted to do in his post-basketball career and Bradley responded frankly, “I want to be president of the United States.”
Gallatin laughed the statement off at the time, but when Bradley become a three-term senator from New Jersey and narrowly missed the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2000, he was impressed with Bradley’s resolve.
Gallatin also would joke how missing his opportunity to coach Walt Frazier kept him from being a Hall of Fame NBA coach. Frazier played at SIUC from ‘63-67 and was drafted by the Knicks in ‘67. Frazier helped lead the Salukis to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in ‘67 and was part of the ‘70 and ‘73 NBA titles in New York.
Gallatin returned home after losing his job with the Knicks, becoming the first men’s basketball coach and athletics director at SIUE in 1967. He guided the Cougars athletics department and basketball team until 1972.
Early on the Cougars played their games at Edwardsville High, now Lincoln Middle School. He was instrumental in finding SIUE a home at the Vadalabene Center and has been “Mr. Cougar” ever since.
He shifted to coaching golf, leading the Cougars to 18 NCAA Division II Championship appearances and producing multiple All-Americans in his 24 years at the helm. When a golf practice facility was erected at SIUE, it was a no-brainer to have it don Gallatin’s name.
Gallatin dabbled as a teacher at SIUE, even teaching bowling, where Porter had him as an instructor.
“When you roll the ball, don’t throw it. Roll it like you are rolling it to a dog,” Gallatin used to say about the finesse part of bowling.
He was in the inaugural HOF class at SIUE in 2005. He joined the sister school in SIUC’s athletics HOF in January. He’s the only man to coach both basketball programs.
His ability to touch people and mentor them is what should be remembered about “The Horse.”
While my dealings with Gallatin were minuscule, I will never forget my time with him. He’s meant so much more to countless others. He was a friend to Edwardsville native Don Ohl as he entered an NBA all-star career in the ‘60s, he helped mentor Alton native Brad Hewitt as he became director of athletics at SIUE and there are many more.
Hewitt summed it up best in a press release after his passing.
“I visited Harry alone a couple weeks ago,” Hewitt said. “I went to hopefully cheer him up; instead he chose to lift me with these words, ‘It is OK Brad, I understand. Just remember, no matter what, stay positive, and keep working for the ‘right causes’ for the ‘right reasons.’ Do it respectfully, and kindly, but be confident, tough, smart — never quit. You will make a difference!’
“‘The Price of Greatness is Responsibility.’ Winston Churchill created this quote; Harry Gallatin lived it.”
Harry “The Horse” — you will be missed.