Gone But Not Forgotten

By Peter Vecsey

For years, Dutch Garfinkel and I were part of a regular dinner group –– Larry Doby, who broke the American League color barrier, Fuzzy Levane, Larry ‘The Scout’ Pearlstein) hosted by then Nets’ owner, Joe Taub.

     Dutch and Fuzzy were teammates on pro basketball’s original Fantasy Team, Les Harrison’s 1946 BAA champion Rochester Royals —Bob Davies, Al Cervi, Red Holzman, (Browns QB) Otto Graham (catcher), Del Rice and (The Rifleman) Chuck Connors.

     Restaurants should’ve charged an entertainment tax. Every meal was a skyscraper of stories. Like Harrison discovering Levane wasn’t Jewish and asking him to find one. Fuzzy found two, Holzman and Dutch. How much extra did players receive for winning the title? They threw a blanket out on the court after the clincher and the fans went to their pockets for roughly $200. 

     Shortly before Dutch, 95, passed, we spoke for the last time. He admonished me for retiring too (69) young in 2012. After a long pause, he sorrowfully wondered, “Who’s going to write my obituary?” 

    From July, 30, 2013, through April 30, 2014, the NBA lost 16 family members. No expanse of writing experience provides the know how to express how privileged I feel being entrusted with accentuating their positives, discovering untold stories, and being so fortuitous to put to rest Dutch’s fear of dying forgotten.

     What were these people best known for? Proudest accomplishments? How do their wives, children, teammates, friends and opponents want them remembered? The hope is to cut to the core of the extravagant character and unreasonable will to win and live that connects and cements the 16. 

     Ossie Schectman (March 30, 1919--July 30, 2013): Memorialized as the guy who scored the first two points in NBA history for the Knicks in Toronto. Captaining each team—Tilden High School, Long Island University, Knicks--he played for is an achievement often talked about with his two sons, Stew and Peter. An injury while diving for a loose ball, unintentionally mangled by Max Zaslofsky, kept his career from advancing beyond his rookie year. By all accounts, he was the team’s best player at the time. 

     Ossie’s athletic prowess, which carried over to softball, where he continued to dive for loose balls, on cement to beat a throw, awed Peter, 12, who used to stop bouncing the ball 250 feet away and marvel at his father’s fluidity, fierceness and fielding skills as a hard-hitting third baseman. 

   However, “just as profound to me, and in my reality much more important, my dad never pushed me in basketball, allowing me to develop if I could or if I wanted to,” Peter recounted. “I knew at a young age his competitive nature always burned in his belly and he excelled by playing sports hard, with purpose, and to win. Yet he knew I never possessed that same desire and graciously and lovingly avoided the pitfall of pushing a sensitive youngster too far.”

     Jack ‘Dutch’ Garfinkel (June 13, 1918--August 14, 2013): Informally acknowledged for inventing the no-look pass and being the best at that skill until Bob Cousy and Dick McGuire emerged.

     His most gratifying moment, underlined his son, Rich, was the September night (’92) he was inducted into the NYC Basketball Hal of Fame with Marty Glickman, Sihugo Green, Richie Guerin, Sonny Hertzberg, Joe Lapchick, Frank McGuire, Willis Reed, Satch Sanders and John Isaacs. 

    Beyond belonging to such an exalted class, the greater honor was Pop Gates and Isaacs, of New York Rens eminence, inviting Dutch, long accredited for being colorblind, to join them at their table for some birthday cake. 

     Dean Meminger (May 13, 1948--August 23, 2013): Until 1973, the Celtics had never lost a Game 7 home playoff game. He is best remembered for spearheading the end to that insolence of invincibility. Replacing Earl Monroe in the second quarter of the Eastern Conference Finals, the nuclear sub held Jo Jo White scoreless in the second half while notching 13 points. The Knicks beat the Lakers for the title.

    Overcoming human issues was infinitely more challenging, one tormenting conflict at a time…though you’d never know it by his six-pack, Dean Jr correctly noted. “He took pride in his physical appearance. He wanted to look sharp and be physically fit.” 

     Even in his 60s, Meminger always seemed to be bouncing a ball. You’d hear him coming before you could see him, his daughter, Miesha, smilingly remarked during the exceedingly uplifting celebration of Dean the Dream’s life at Harlem’s St. Charles Borromeo Church—his No. 7 jersey hung on an altar and photographs showing Meminger at Rice HS, Marquette University and the NBA.

    “Most people only know my father as Dean the Dream,” Dean Jr said. “They don’t realize he was a philosopher and great debater on policies relating from religion to politics. He knew real stuff, not just athletics. He was multi-faceted. He came from that era, when everything was being questioned. 

    “He was much more than Dean the Dream. He was definitely Dean the Proud Father. And Dean the Proud Grandfather, with another grandson on the way. He and my sister’s father-in-law were always teasing each other about who would have more time with the new baby.”

     Zelmo Beaty (Oct 25, 1939--August 27, 2013): Irrefutably, one of the game’s roughest customers to take care of business in the occupied area. One of its shrewdest also. 

     “Z couldn’t run. You could beat him down court, but before you took off, you’d pay a price,” Mel Daniels vividly recalled. 

     “Z couldn’t jump. He didn’t have to, ‘cause he’d lock you up with brute strength and studied subtlety,” the HOF center attested.

     “I wish I had thanked Zelmo for everything he taught me,” Daniels closed.

     And, despite being barely 6-7½, ‘Z’ stood unflinchingly erect against some of the greatest centers of all-time for a dozen NBA/ABA seasons (17.1 points, 10.9 rebounds), snatching the MVP award by its thyroid gland in the Utah Stars 1970 championship run.

     How did Beaty become so tough? Bill Downey, 90, a Prairie View A&M alumnus, and Beaty’s most faithful  advocate, supplied the answer upon being tracked down. 

     “When Zelmo came to school, he was milquetoast. Coach Leroy Moore told Johnnie Walker, whose body appeared to be built in a laboratory, to beat up on him every day at practice. He left a monster.” 

      Willie Wise’s ultimate respect for his Stars’ roommate of four years embodied his on-the-court work ethic (“Lazy was a word he couldn’t even spell”) and human rights activism.

     “Slim was greatly influenced by Martin Luther King and became a staunch proponent for equality in all arenas, especially education. That’s why he became a substitute teacher. He went into the unruliest schools in Washington State because he wanted Afro American kids to have a chance to learn.”

     Don ‘Monk’ Meineke (Oct. 30, 1930--Sept. 2, 2013): Best known for winning the initial (1953) NBA rookie award. The 6-7 center was equally pumped for leading the league one year in disqualifications,” Don Jr chuckled. “Losing his front teeth was a badge of honor.”

      Tom Blackburn’s Dayton program (inherited by Don Donoher) was tops in Division I throughout the ‘50s, when Monk gained national recognition for the Flyers, and the ‘60s. The winning was certainly meaningful, for a moment. The camaraderie established as teammates lasted a lifetime. 

     “Dad was most proud of being a Flyer,” Don Jr said. “Those relationships have remained unbroken for decades.” 

     The uniqueness of the Dayton teams of the 50's is illustrated by the circumstance that a lot of those guys-- Meineke, Arlen Bockhorn, Pete Boyle, Carmen Riazzi and Jim Paxson Sr--stayed in the Dayton area. As a result, their kids kind of grew up together and wound up playing for Archbishop Alter HS. Two Meineke’s, one Bockhorn, two Boyles, a Riazzi and John Paxson teamed to win the ’78 Ohio State title. 

     Last August Meineke entered Bethany Lutheran, the same Ohio nursing home/assisted facility where the arthritically afflicted Paxson still resides. Monk’s heart was failing.

      “Jim was very protective the short time he was there,” Don Jr said. “Numerous times, he wheeled himself over to dad’s room in the nursing section to offer encouragement. And he’d bring cookies. Later, he’d call and tell me I had to do something because dad had stopped eating. Jim thought he was giving up.” 

      Joe C. Meriweather (Oct. 26, 1953--Oct. 13, 2013): The  6-10 center was so skinny (215) when the Rockets drafted him in 1975, he had to remove one ‘r’ from his name so it could fit on his uniform. Drum roll, please.

     Upon turning pro, nothing made him swell with satisfaction more than taking care of his mother, Hattie Meriweather. She was able to retire from working in a Columbus, Georgia cotton mill and move into the home he purchased for her.

     Joe and Gail were married 16 years. For the 12 since being divorced, he never missed a Christmas or a Thanksgiving with his ex and their two children, Jonathan and Jillian. Moreover, each morning, he’d send them a text message containing “today’s scripture”.

     “He was an excellent father and a great friend,” Gail said. “He had opportunities to move away from Kansas City, but wanted to be around for his kids. Joe understood how important that was.”

     So much so, Joe started a Fatherhood Program and helped inmates at Leavenworth Prison. He also taught tribal children in Arizona and North Carolina about sports and other life skills.

     Jonathan, 28, played one year in Australia (he was invited to a workout with the Lakers’ Development team). He’s now with Ford, completing his MBA in financing. Jillian graduated cum laude from Harvard with a Social Studies degree, has a masters from UNLV and will be pursuing a Phd. 

     “Though Joe passed under that threshold far too soon, I’m secure knowing he’d been so close to his children,” Gail said. “None of this would’ve happened if they didn’t have both parents moving in the right direction.”

     Bill Sharman (May 25, 1926--Oct. 25, 2013): Of all his accomplishments in his non-seeking limelight life as patriot, official scorer for the first four Celtics’ champions teams, proud father of four children, reverential husband, animal lover, shrew manipulator of megalomaniacs on three title teams in three leagues, savvy executive, adroit athlete for all seasons, creator of the shoot-around and 3-point make, brains behind a record 33 straight Laker wins, one of three (John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens) HOF inductees as both coach and player, one stands out in Joyce Sharman’s wifely eyes.

     Earl Lloyd was the first African American to play (Washington Capitols) in the NBA, Oct. 31, 1950. Before they folded 35 games into the season, the rookie was greatly touched by Sharman, also a rookie. In an essay about his influences and lessons learned about dignity, perseverance and humanity called ‘Handprints’, Lloyd proclaimed appreciation for his former teammate (and others) who risked denigration by supporting him when Sharman could’ve laid low without anyone catching on.

     “In my life, there were many good people who restored my faith in human nature. Bill is one I will never forget.”  In those days, he would drive into the hood and take Earl back and forth to practice and games, and if a restaurant turned him away, Bill would go, too. 

     “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Lloyd emphasized. If he hadn’t, no one would have criticized him…” 

     A framed copy of those evocative words, compliments of a Lloyd care package, as a token of his love, respect and high esteem, hangs prominently in the Sharman’s den. 

     “I think what Earl wrote about Bill was so important because none of us know how we effect someone else's life by saying a kind word or giving a helping hand,” Joyce said.

 “Bill was the kindest person, genuine through and through. And I think what he did for Earl shows that better than anything else that ever could be said. It was complete kindness and compassion...and that is who Bill was. He never knew Earl would pay him such a profound tribute until many years later. And to have it come from someone like 

Earl makes it even more emotional for me because he is such a great man. How blessed I feel to know both of these amazing men!”

     Walt Bellamy (July 24, 1939--Nov. 2, 2013): Regrettably, he’s best known for being packaged with Howie Komives to the Pistons for Dave DeBusschere, permitting Red Holzman to rearrange roster roles and positions, leading to two Knicks’ title: 

     Rather than being hailed as a ten-or-better Hall of Fame center; or the centerfold for the original Olympic (’60) Dream Team; or for consistently producing at an elite plateau (20.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, 51.6 FG%, 13 seasons) while playing for four different franchises/teammates and many systems, an indelible testament to his career.

     The consequences of that trade, I submit (or maybe it was just being unlucky to play at the same time and being overshadowed by so many great centers) also cost Bellamy in the minds of Top 50 voters 

     “I’m glad you brought that up,” said Helen Bellamy, who would’ve been married to Walt 54 years come July 11. “He never said a word about it or the trade. But it hurt me. I’m not an envious person. And I’m not selfish. But Walt was better than some that made it. I had to turn it loose.

    “Walt loved the NBA. Loved his family. Loved his mother (Theo died a few months after him), who lived with us for 21 years. And loved me. We never had an argument. If I wanted the moon, Walt would get it for me.”

     Vern Mikkelsen (Oct. 21, 1928--Nov. 21, 2013): Minnesota’s macho (bruiser on the court, gentle giant off) HOF forward on four title teams. He also happens to be the career never-to-be-broken (six fouls now v five then) leader in disqualifications, 127. 

     Raised in one of the smallest of small towns in northern Minnesota, Vern lived out a dream come true without sidestepping values. Coach John Kundla knew whom to count on by asking him to have Elgin Baylor’s back when so many people messed with the rookie, especially on the road. Not long ago, he unearthed Elgin’s original numbered shorts and called him to say he would send them. Baylor was ecstatic. He said he planned to frame the shorts and give it to one of his children. 

     In 2008, after Big Mikk suffered a stroke, Little Mikk came from Santa Monica to care for his dad, for a while, he thought. He never left. His dad refused to quit. 

     “He’d had double hip surgery. Had prostate cancer for 13 years. And now he couldn’t use his right hand. But he never complained. He always had a good thought for some one else,” said John; Vern called him by his middle name, Pete. 

      Big Mikk was getting more fan mail in those years than ever before. So, he learned how to write (and eat) with his left hand. It took him ten painstaking minutes to sign one autograph. He’d do three a day, never wanting to turn down a fan. The next day he’d wake up and exclaim, “Hey, we got another day. Love and gratitude. LG, Petey, LG. Here’s to us.” 

     Marv Wolfenson (August 13, 1926--Dec. 21, 2013): Together with lifelong business partner, Harvey Ratner, they returned Minnesota back to NBA relevance, paying $32.5 million for the rights of the 1989 expansion Timberwolves, and financing the Target Center’s construction for 94M.

     “Getting into the NBA was quite a departure from the under-the-radar reality he lived before that,” said his daughter, Ellyn, sister of Ernie and David. “But he grabbed onto it like everything else. Whatever he did, he really loved. And whomever he did it with, loved him back.

     “My dad loved going to work, the excitement and invigoration of his business life was a thrill to him, but he always told us, ‘Don’t fall in love with your business, fall in love with your family.’ He lived that principle every day. 

      “The Timberwolves were an incredibly thrilling time for all of us, but my dad made it perfectly clear the five of us at home—a winning, functional, happy ‘5-man’ team--was the most important one he ever built.” 

     Fifteen years ago, Wolfenson had a stroke after hip surgery. Walking and talking were difficult. He apologized to Ellyn for having trouble communicating. “I have so much more to tell you,” he said.

     “Dad was a fabulous athlete his whole life. Early on, he was a star basketball and baseball player. Later, he became an excellent tennis player and golfer. He survived so long because he was so competitive. He was just not a person who quit. 

     “Dad always chose life, no matter what. Even in sickness. Even in his last breath, he wished he could’ve lived longer.”

     Conrad ‘Connie’ Dierking (Oct 2, 1936—Dec 29, 2013): Fifty-seven years after the 6-9 slender center played for Cincinnati, he still holds the school’s single-season rebounding average, 18.8 and single-game mark, 33. Yet, the man is far better known for being partial payment in a trade for Wilt Chamberlain 

     “There were five of us. As the oldest, Connie had the toughest time of all,” said Fred Dierking, who followed his brother to UC and helped win back-to-back NCAA titles after Oscar Robertson and Connie graduated.

     “My father was a laborer. He didn’t understand the value of an education. He felt you should get a job and keep it. Connie had to sneak out of the house to play ball and sneak back in afterward.”

     In ten seasons, Connie’s scoring average was 10. So, when he drained 45 one enchanting evening against none other than Chamberlain, a big deal was made by all. Dippy even signed the game ball, which became the centerpiece on the Dierking’s living room mantle.

     Looking for a ball to play H.O.R.S.E in the backyard, and unaware of the leather treasure’s significance, Kammy, 8, took it. Next thing she knew, it had rolled down the hill and into a creek, never to be seen again. 

     “My mother had a conniption, “Kammy recalled. ‘Oh, my, God, what did you do!’ “But when my dad got home and heard the news, he just shrugged, ‘Oh, well,’ and laughed. That was him. He didn’t care about stuff. He’d always tell us, ‘It’s people and memories that matter.’”

     Tom Gola (Jan. 13, 1933--Jan. 26, 2014): Scrabble should’ve named the blank in its set after the near 6-6 portable player, who capably clamped down on college centers and serial scoring guards alike. 

    The NCAA’s all-time leading rebounder (2,201; as well as 2,462 points) carried upstart LaSalle to NIT (’52) and NCAA (’54) championships, and was runner-up to Bill Russell’s Dons in ’55. In ’56, he joined lowly Philadelphia and figured out how to best serve in an understudy capacity to shooting stars Paul Arizin and Neil Johnston during the Warriors’ title crusade. 

     “Tom was one of the game’s all-time intellectuals,” Sonny Hill testified. “Almost an Oscar Robertson type. He’d place teammates in their strength positions and, without getting in their way, do whatever else needed to be done.” 

     Gola was recruited by 200-plus colleges, but loved the Christian Brothers, his HS teaching order. “Tom was very confused. He had no one to guide him,” said Caroline, his wife since ’55. “So, he went to see the president of LaSalle and they spoke for 20 minutes. That was it. He felt comfortable there and got a great education.” 

     That flawlessly summarizes Gola; easy to understand, no fuss, no muss, no favors, no nonsense, no bringing the game home, win or lose, no regrets, Caroline expounded. 

     On the flip side of his prayer card picture, Gola’s fundamentally pure words say it all: “I am a contented person. I gave it my best in all that I did, in sports, in businesses and in public office. I would have never second- guessed myself.”

    In 2013, the Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Legends, in its inaugural ceremony staged at Brooklyn’s Barkley Center, honored Gola, who was inducted into every imaginable basketball HOF and has LaSalle’s arena named after him. 

     He was bedridden for the last 8½ years of his life, and thus unable to attend. Caroline substituted. Another recipient, Monk Meineke, introduced himself. “I have to tell you a story when I was a senior and Tom was a freshman,” she related. “Dayton played LaSalle for the NIT championship. Before the game, I said, ‘Dear Lord, he has three years to get better and this is my last game. Please let me win.’”  

      Sam Lacey (March 8, 1948—March 14, 2014): In 1970, after signing with Cincinnati, he spent part of his bonus on a Canary yellow Grand Prix, drove it to Indianola, Mississippi and gave it to Andrew Brown, his Gentry HS coach.

     Otis Birdsong maintains ‘Slammin’ Sam’ was “the unequivocal leader” on a Kings team that had very strong personalities, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Phil Ford, for example. “He was all-out aggression, all the time, to compensate for his lack of height and bulk. He was always on the march forward.” 

     The seeing-eye center was also the best passing big man Birdsong ever played off. “He’d find me on cuts for three or four layups a game.”

     Gretchen Lacey said her dad was a very private person, but you’d never know it. “A hundred people would line up and he’d talk to all of them. He was generous with his time, almost to a fault…

     “…Sam would often sing to Gretchen’s daughter, 11. He’d come into the house, stick his head through her door and say, ‘Alyvia, I heard you gave away my hugs.’”

     Peyton turned 13 in May. “It’s so strange to watch him play, passing, passing, passing,” Gretchen said wistfully. He had switched from Sam’s No. 44 to Walter Payton’s 34. Devastated when Sam died, Peyton asked for his old number back to “make grandpa proud.” 

     “He’s really shining right now. He sees the floor and threads the needle like Sam did.” At an April game, every other word out of the mouths of Gretchen and her husband, Brent Downey, was, “Wow!’”

     Lou Hudson (July 11, 1944—April 11, 2014): The obsession to succeed, to overcome any obstacles blocking ambitions that great athletes brandish is not a characteristic lost when applause dies. 

     Much is known about Sweet Lou’s simonized springer that earned him six All-Star appearances, a 20.2 average and the rare retirement of a Hawks number (23). Clearly, scoring 17,940 points is not done by being passive, or lacking fighting spirit. 

     When Hudson broke his right wrist one season, he played in a cast and averaged 18 points shooting lefty. When he suffered a stroke in 2005, confining him to a wheelchair, he made public appearances as an “ambassador’ for the “Power to End Stroke” organization.

     Four years later, Hudson, whose condition had improved very little, was brought to Atlanta for an event. Former teammate Jim Washington picked him at the airport. On the baggage belt were Lou’s golf clubs.

     “I started to say, ‘why did you bring your…’ until it dawned on me, this was his way of saying, ‘I’m going to get better. Next year, I’ll be out on the course with you.’ So, I switched up and said, ‘you could’ve used mine.’

     A couple years ago, Hudson moved back to Atlanta from Park City, Utah. Each day he’d work out three times, 35 minutes per. He declined an offer of a motorized wheelchair, and the promise of greater mobility and independence. In his mind, it would’ve meant giving up. 

     Following another stroke in late March, upon being removed from life support, Hudson lasted two weeks in hospice. Normally, it’s one.

     Michael Heisley (March 13, 1937—April 26, 2014): “I’ve always admired people who are charitable and don’t want the whole world to know about it,” Jerry West said. “That’s what I’d like people to know about Michael. “He did so many great things for people. Anytime there was a cause, he was there, yet never wanted credit.”

     West had plenty of prosperous years with the Lakers. “Probably the happiest” was his second year (2004) as GM with the Grizzlies when he hired Hubie Brown to coach and they made the playoffs. “It was definitely my proudest moment.”

      Heisley desperately wanted to win, West said. “He’d tell me, ‘I just want us to make the playoffs one year.’ “I guaranteed him we’d make it more than that. He was thrilled beyond description when we made it. The enthusiasm in the building was fantastic. It was one of the highlights of my life to see him so happy.  

     “People often misread Michael because he was unbelievably honest and could sometimes be irascible with that big, old booming voice of his,” West said. “That’s the side most people saw, his toughness because he was self-made, taking companies on their death bed and turning them around with his unique leadership qualities. But he was so different. 

     “I never had anyone in my life treat me like he did. I’m not talking financially. The more I was around him the more I felt something special. He was one of the people I liked the most.” 

     Jack Ramsay (Feb 21, 1925—April 28, 2014):Who didn't Dr. Jack touch as a husband, father, friend, World War II veteran, general manager, coach at the college & pro levels, broadcaster, fitness/fashion freak and cancer patient who never retreated, whose unflinching faith in God enabled him to retain his spirit, vibrancy and NBA voice almost to the end of a multi-decorated life lived decorously.

     Who wasn’t touched by him?

     No one, consensus attests, suffered defeat harder. Which partially explains why Dr. Jack remained unconquerable for 15 years despite eight different forms of malignancy that swamped his body. 

     “Losing would destroy him,” said Magic executive Pat Williams 46 years after Ramsay gave him his first NBA chance, handling business for the 76ers, so Dr. Jack could concentrate on his return to the sidelines after leaving St. Joseph’s two years earlier due to retina trouble related to stress.

      Why Ramsay’s eyes didn’t succumb to NBA stress remains a mystery. “I remember losing in Chicago Stadium. Not a good place to leave unescorted ” Williams related. “Jack waved off the bus. He walked back to the hotel.”  And made it unscathed.

     “That’s how bad things are going,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t even get mugged.”

     When your best player is coachable and reinforces everything you say, it’s easy to be successful, Dr. Jack would underscore. He and Bill Walton enjoyed a fervently committed relationship. He often reminisced about it, as he did the Blazers’ 1977 championship season and its selfless components.

    After each team pre-game meeting, Walton would say, “Come on, now, let’s go out on the floor and do what coach taught us.” 

     Let’s go.

     The above tributes were written for the 2014 NBA Finals program.