It is no wonder that Indiana has been home to a good number of legendary basketball stars, including Glenn Robertson, Larry Bird, Dick Barnett, and Junior Bridgeman (to name a few).
In the 1940s and 1950s, it was an East Chicago native with the nickname “Moose” who was making sports headlines. A high school Indiana All-Star player, Vincent Boryla went on to be an All-American on two college teams, an Olympic Gold Medalist, a popular NBA player, coach, and general manager
Boryla was born on March 11, 1927, in East Chicago, Indiana. His parents, Vincente and Felixa Boryla, were Polish immigrants. Boryla developed a knack for basketball at a young age and became a star on the East Chicago Washington High School team. He would have been an Indiana All-Star his senior year (1943-44), but no team was named due to WWII. Boryla was later retroactively awarded the honor.
As a freshman at Notre Dame, Boryla became a star player. As a team forward, he averaged 15.7 points per game and was named an All-American. After witnessing his prowess at the game of basketball, an administrator for the Great Lakes Naval Training Base suggested that he enlist in the Navy and play basketball for the Great Lakes team. Boryla had already been considering his options for a mandatory wartime service requirement and decided to pursue this opportunity.
After completing his freshman year, Boryla reported to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, but foot surgery that summer derailed his plans to enlist. Instead, Boryla ended up back at Notre Dame for his sophomore year, where he again showed his skill as a star player with an average of 15.3 points per game.
It was after his sophomore year that Boryla’s military commitment again surfaced. He reported to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, for duty and was eventually transferred to Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado. While stationed in Denver, Boryla became a local celebrity playing for an amateur team.
In the summer of 1948, Boryla was tapped to play a guard position on the U.S. Olympic basketball team at the London Games. To participate in the games, American athletes had to take a six-day journey by boat to the UK. This was before the days when Americans dominated Olympic basketball. The team arrived with little fanfare or expectation of winning but left with Olympic Gold medals.
Upon returning to Denver, Boryla enrolled at the University of Denver for his junior year of college. He was a star player on the school’s basketball team during the 1948-1949 season, scoring an average of 19 points per game. Boryla was the fourth-leading scorer in college basketball that year. The achievement earned him another All-American honor. As the only consensus All-American men’s basketball player in the history of the University of Denver, Boryla became one of the school’s most famous alumni and an inaugural inductee into the University of Denver Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996.
Boryla still had one season of college basketball left when he was recruited by the New York Knicks. To sweeten the deal, they signed him to a coveted three-year contract. Boryla played five seasons with the New York Knicks, from 1949-1954. Boryla was their star forward-center and team captain. He had a career average of 11.2 points per game and 3.7 rebounds. Boryla’s claim to fame was his famous left-handed hook-and-set shot, which was described by local New York broadcaster Marty Glickman as the “Boryla Bomb.”
In 1951, Boryla was named to the inaugural NBA All-Star Team for the 1950-1951 season. He scored nine points in the All-Star game. In 1951 and 1953, Boryla twice led the Knicks to the NBA Finals, but the team ultimately lost both games. A wrist injury ended Boryla’s playing career in 1954.
Back in Denver, Boryla took up a coaching job for the Denver Bankers for the 1954-1955 season. An opportunity to coach the Knicks had him back in New York for the next three seasons, from 1955-1958. He later served as General Manager and chief scout for the team.
After his coaching career ended in 1958, Boryla returned to Denver and became a successful businessman and real estate investor. In the late-1960s, he was instrumental in bringing an ABA franchise to Denver (the Denver Nuggets), although his efforts remained behind-the-scenes.
It wasn’t until 1970 that Boryla formally returned to the world of professional basketball. That year, he accepted a job as General Manager of the Utah Stars. Boryla held this position for four years, during which time the team achieved the best win-loss record in the ABA.
In 1984, Boryla became president and general manager of the Denver Nuggets. In a brilliant move shortly after beginning the gig, he arranged a key trade for the team with the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland got up-and-coming star Kiki Vandeweghe, while Denver traded for center Wayne Cooper, guard Lafayette “Fat” Lever, and forward Calvin Natt. Denver also got two draft choices in the deal.
Under Boryla’s leadership, the Denver Nuggets greatly improved their game. During the next season, they raised their wins from 38 to 52 and finished first in the Midwest Division of the NBA. Denver made it to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in seven years. They ultimately lost to the Los Angeles Lakers, who, with star player Magic Johnson, went on to win the championship title. That year, Boryla was named NBA executive of the year. Boryla retired in 1987. He died on March 27, 2016.
As a star player for high school and college basketball teams, an Olympic athlete, and a professional basketball player, Vince Boryla approached every game with a fighting spirit. Over the years, he has been inducted into countless halls of fame, including the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame (1973), the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame (1984), the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame (1986), and the East Chicago Sports Hall of Fame at the John A. Baratto Center.