Aug. 8, 2012

By Mary Schmitt Boyer, The Plain Dealer

Former Boston Celtics great Bob Cousy remembered Arnie Risen as an intense teammate on the court and a gentle soul off it.

Risen, 87, of Pepper Pike, a former Ohio State University star and two-time NBA champion who was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1998, died Saturday from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

A lung cancer survivor, he had been in remission the past six years.

“He was a very nice, gentle man who became such a competitor,” Cousy said in a telephone interview 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 knew that. He was a sweet and gentle person.”

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.

He went on to Ohio State, playing and starting two seasons for coach Harold G. Olsen, becoming the All-Big Ten center in 1944 and a Helms Foundation second-team All-American in 1945, when the Buckeyes finished first and second, respectively, in the Big Ten.

He also is in the Ohio State Hall of Fame.

“The Risen family is in the thoughts and prayers of the Ohio State basketball family,” said Dan Wallenberg, associate athletics director-communications at Ohio State. “Mr. Risen made significant contributions to Ohio State during one of the basketball program’s most prominent eras. His contributions as an All-Big Ten center [1944] and two-year starter [1944, 1945] helped the Buckeyes reach the Final Four over three consecutive years [1944-46]. The Ohio State department of athletics and its men’s basketball program is saddened by the loss.”

Risen, a three-time All-Star who was nicknamed “Stilts” for his lanky 6-foot-9, 200-pound frame as well as his rebounding prowess, 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.

After two and a half years in Indianapolis, Risen played seven-plus years with the Rochester Royals, winning the NBA championship in 1951, when he averaged 16.3 points and 12 rebounds per game. In 1948-49, he led the league in field goal percentage at 42.3 percent.

The Royals later moved to Cincinnati, Kansas City and then Sacramento. According to third edition of The Official NBA Encyclopedia, published in 2000, Risen holds Rochester records for points and rebounds in a season, scoring average and career rebounds. Risen remains eighth in rebounding in franchise history with 3,812, and seventh in free throws made (2,023) and attempted (2,888.)

He joined Cousy and the Celtics in 1955, winning another NBA championship in 1957 before retiring in 1958.

After working in construction in the Rochester area for many years, Risen moved to the Cleveland area 27 years ago at the urging of his son, Dennis, a project manager in the IT services design group at Case Western Reserve University. Once here, he helped Dennis and his wife, Candace, raise their three daughters and acted as a loving patriarch for the extended Risen family that also includes his daughter, Barbara Reisenauer of West Chester, Ohio, her husband, Dan, and their two daughters. In spite of his private, humble nature, in recent years Risen joined Cousy and other NBA veterans speaking out in a successful effort to raise pension benefits for retired players.

“Fortunately we were somewhat successful, although not as much as some people might have hoped,” Cousy said. “But I think most of us were satisfied with the results.” Cousy spoke about Risen’s work for the cause, then paused to speak of his friend’s passing.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” Cousy said. “We didn’t see each other often enough. He was a very sweet, gentle soul.”