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The Oldest Player to Play in the NBA: Nat Hickey

Nat Hickey

Credit: via Flickr

The oldest player to play in the NBA is Nat Hickey (also known as Nicola Zarnecich). Hickey played until he was 45 years and 363 days old. He was only TWO days away from turning 46. The next oldest player to play in the NBA was Kevin Willis, who played until he was 44 years and 224 days old.

While researching Nat Hickey, I noticed that no other articles have stated that Hickey is also the oldest NBA rookie! Technically, if we consider the BAA a part of the NBA, Hickey is also the oldest NBA rookie since he was 45 when he played his first game in the NBA/BAA. The next oldest NBA rookie is Pablo Prigioni, who played his first NBA game at 35!

Hickey was a 5'11" Guard/Forward that played 27 seasons of professional basketball (1921-1948)! To consider how long that is, Vince Carter, who currently holds the record for longest NBA career, played 22 seasons in the NBA!

Throughout those 27 seasons, Hickey played in four different leagues: American Basketball League, National Basketball League, Independent Leagues, and the Basketball Association of America (now NBA).

Here were the teams Nat Hickey played for in each league:

  • Cleveland Rosenblums: 1925-28

  • Chicago Bruins: 1928-31

  • Boston Trojans: 1934-35

  • 1944-45: Pittsburgh Raiders

  • 1945-46: Indiannapolis Kautskys

  • 1946-48: Tri-Cities Hawks (now Atlanta Hawks)

Independent Leagues/Teams:

  • 1921-22: Hoboken St. Josephs

  • 1922-23, 1923-25: Eddie Holly's Majors

  • 1922-23: New York Crescents

  • 1931-34, 1934-42: Original/New York Celtics

  • 1947-48: Providence Steamrollers

In addition to playing 27 seasons of professional basketball, Hickey also played minor professional baseball for 16 seasons! From 1922-1938, Hickey played for nine teams and played 1,555 games. Within those 1,555 games, Hickey had 290 double hits, 109 triple hits, and 77 home runs while having a 30.6% batting average.

Back to his basketball career, unfortunately, none of Nat Hickey's stats with the independent teams are available, most likely because they were independent or because of how long ago it was. Nevertheless, stats of Hickey's time in the ABL, NBL, and BAA are thankfully still available.

American Basketball League

Nat Hickey was one of the Cleveland Rosenblums' best players. In the three and a half seasons that Hickey was with the Rosenblums, he was always top four in scoring. His best season with the Rosenblums was during the 1926-27 ABL season. He averaged 8.4 points per game. The season prior (1925-26) was Hickey's best playoff performance. He averaged 10.7 points per game, helping the Rosenblums win their first Championship!

Although 10.7 points sounds like nothing, here were the total scores for each playoff game:

  • Game 1: 36-33

  • Game 2: 37-21

  • Game 3: 23-22

On average, Nat Hickey was scoring 30.3% of the team's points during the playoffs!

Although Hickey won a Championship, he could have won another two if the Rosenblums didn't trade him to the Chicago Bruins midway through the 1928-29 ABL season. In the 1928-29 and following ABL season, the Rosenblums won back-to-back Championships. On the other hand, the Bruins didn't even qualify for the playoffs in either season.

After his stints with the Rosenblulms and Bruins, Hickey would play one season with the Boston Trojans in the 1934-35 ABL season. This team was as bad as the Bruins, not qualifying for the playoffs and ending in sixth place in the regular season. Although this was one of the worst teams that Hickey played for, he had his career-high PPG this season (10.6).

National Basketball League

In 1942, Nat Hickey retired from playing full-time professional basketball. Hickey was mostly dedicated to coaching, but occasionally, Hickey would insert himself as a player into the teams that he coached. From 1944-48, Hickey played and coached for the Pittsburgh Raiders, Indianapolis Kautskys, and Tri-Cities Blackhawks.

No offense to Nat Hickey, but he was a pretty horrible coach and player during his time in the NBL. He played two games and averaged four points in his first season with the Pittsburgh Raiders (1944-45). The team's regular-season record was 7-23 (23.3 W/L%), and they finished as the worst team in the league.

The following season (1945-46), Hickey joined the Indianapolis Kautskys as a player/coach. Hickey would play 13 games with the Kautskys and averaged 5.6 points per game. This isn't that bad, considering that he played more than 50% of the regular season while coaching the team. Hickey was the eighth leading scorer on the team.

As for their record, like the Raiders, the Kautskys were pretty bad. The Kautsksys went 10-22 (31.3 W/L%) and finished as the worst team in the Western Conference.

In the 1946-47 season, Nat Hickey changed teams AGAIN. This time, he was a player/coach for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. This season, Hickey would play eight games and average three points per game. The team's regular-season record was 19-25 (43.2 W/L%).

Although the team had a negative record, this was the first time a Hickey-coached team wasn't the worst in the league or conference. The Blackhawks were the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference. Interestingly, the team led the league in OPPG (51.8). Being the second-worst team in a conference and still leading the league in a defensive-related stat is impressive.

In the 1947-48 and final season in the NBL, Hickey would continue coaching for the Blackhawks. This season was Hickey's worst season as a player but best as a coach. Hickey only played three games and averaged one point per game. However, the team's record was 30-30 (50 W/L%). For the first time in Hickey's coaching career, the team he was coaching didn't have a negative record.

Since the Blackhawks actually had a good record, they were ranked second in the Western Conference and, as a result, made the playoffs! Smartly, Hickey stuck to coaching the Blackhawks for the playoffs. In the first round, the Blackhawks beat Hickey's former team, Indianapolis Kautskys, 3-1.

Unfortunately, the Blackhawks would lose 0-2 in the second round to the Minneapolis Lakers. I won't fault them for losing since the Lakers had George Mikan, who averaged 24.4 points per game in this season's playoffs!

Basketball Association of America

Nat Hickey's final stop as a player was with the Providence Steamrollers in the 1947-48 BAA season. This season at 45 YEARS OLD, Hickey played two games for the Steamrollers. The only other player on the team that was older than 30 was Hank Beeders (31), and he ended up retiring a season later!

Both games that Hickey played in were atrocious. In the first game, on January 27th, 1948, against the St. Louis Bombers, Hickey attempted five field goals and missed ALL OF THEM. Thankfully, he would redeem himself by shooting 2/3 from the free-throw line. The Steamrollers would lose by 33 POINTs (61-94).

Just a day later, on January 28th, 1948, against the New York Knicks, Hickey played three minutes and missed his only field goal attempt. This seems better than the previous game, but somehow, Hickey ended up with four personal fouls. Every 45 seconds, Hickey fouled someone. To no one's surprise, the Steamrollers lost this game as well. However, only by two points (73-75).

Putting the two games together, this season, Nat Hickey averaged:

1.0 Points, 0.0 Assists, 2.5 Personal Fouls

0.00 FG%, 66.7 FT%

2 Games


Nat Hickey also had his worst coaching performance this season. Hickey coached the Steamrollers for 29 games, and within those 29 games, the team went 4-25 (13.8 W/L%). This is the worst regular-season record that Hickey has had as a coach throughout his entire career.

What's crazy is that the coach before Nat Hickey, Albert Soar, had an even WORSE record, 2-17 (10.5 W/L%). Technically, that means Hickey improved the team! In the end, the team went 6-42 (12.5 W/L%) and, to no one's surprise, were the worst team in the league. In Hickey's defense, in the three seasons that the Steamrollers were in the NBA/BAA, they always had a negative record.

To end this on a brighter note, Nat Hickey's cousin, Nick Piantanida, was a professional parachuter/skydiver!



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