First in a three-part series
Take a typical Hollywood script and add several more twists and turns to the plot. That would help give you a vivid picture of the life that Tom Meschery has lived.
Immigrant. War survivor. College basketball star. NBA standout. Poet. Bookstore owner. High school English teacher.
Meschery was born in Harbin, Manchuria (in present-day China). His parents had emigrated to Harbin to escape the 1917 Russian Revolution in their native land.
“The Bolsheviks shot most of my relatives,” he told Sports Illustrated.
His father had served in the White Russian Army, and distant relatives on his mother’s side of the family included the gifted writers Leo and Aleksey Tolstoy. That rich Russian literary tradition helped shape his future intellectual pursuits.
Meschery, now 78, only lived in Harbin for a few years. His father, Nicholas, left Manchuria as World War II escalated in Asia and settled in San Francisco. Like many others, his family was unable to stay united during the war. Meschery, his mother and sister were in Japan; not by choice, though, they couldn’t get visas to join the family patriarch in America.
In a recent interview, Meschery (given name Tomislav Nicholiavich Mescheriakov) looked back on his early days, a life in basketball and academia, his current writing projects and impressions of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
Spending time in a Tokyo-area internment camp during World War II had a profound impact on Meschery’s life (a topic that will be explored in a few weeks for the third installment). From age 3, some of his earliest memories were the sights, sounds and smells of the war and intense aerial bombardment of Tokyo.
Asked how the trauma of war affected his life, Meschery said, “It’s hard to say. I’m pretty sure that one of the results of the camp was a long-abiding sense of insecurity that I’ve always had.
“In basketball, it helped me a great deal because I always thought that I was about to lose my job and that every season I had to battle,” added the No. 7 overall pick in the 1961 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia Warriors by phone from his home in Sacramento, California. “And that’s just the way I’ve kind of always lived my life. I was always looking over my shoulder, and I think that must have come from the camp.”
Raised in San Francisco after WWII with his family reunited, Meschery excelled in basketball at Lowell High School and nearby Saint Mary’s College (his No. 31 is retired). He helped the Gaels reach the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in ’59, falling to the University of the California. Two years later, he was chosen as a First Team All-American by the United States Basketball Writers Association, and was the West Coast Conference Player of the Year.
“Once I got to the United States, things changed very positively,” Meschery said in August. “I was always successful. I had a lot of success from the early years on, and so I should’ve been re-enforced. I should’ve had a really strong ego. But I think the camp had at a very early age made me sort of insecure, and I think that insecurity also made me a kind of go-getter, too.”
On the basketball court, he was always in the thick of things. He was known for his toughness, his hard-nosed style of play. As a rookie, he led the NBA in fouls (330) in the 1961-62 season.
That, of course, wasn’t his most memorable fact of the season. The March 2, 1962, game in Hershey, Pennsylvania, gets top billing. In Warriors center Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, Philly topped the New York Knicks 169-147, with Meschery and fellow starting forward Paul Arizin both scoring 16 points and backcourt mates Al Attles and Guy Rodgers putting 17 and 11 on the board. Wilt had 31 fourth-quarter points to set the single-game scoring standard before a crowd of 4,124.
Nothing about that contest surprised Meschery, who was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
“They tried to do everything, but the Knicks were not a very good team,” acknowledged Meschery who averaged 12.7 points and 8.6 rebounds in his 10 NBA seasons and was the first foreign-born player to appear in an All-Star Game in 1963. “You have to remember that, and that’s not any kind of asterisk. . . . But they had their own pride. They knew what was happening.
“Everybody in the arena after the third quarter sensed what was going on, and they did everything they could physically to stop Wilt from scoring.
“Wilt was going to score 100 points, and they beat on him. Wilt was the most beat-on player ever and he never lost his temper except once in his career.”
Who caused the Big Dipper to lose his composure?
The former University of Kansas forward established a notorious reputation during his 11 seasons in the NBA, Meschery insisted.
“He was a mean son of a bitch,” he said of Lovellette, “and always was, and dirty. I mean a truly dirty (expletive) player. I really disliked him . . .
“Anyway, Clyde threw one too many elbows at Wilt, and Wilt knocked him out with one punch. And the punch traveled no more than one foot maybe at most. It was just a jab, but the fiercest jab I ever saw.”
The muscular 198-cm Meschery, who was dubbed “The Mad Russian” in his playing days, helped the Warriors, who relocated to San Francisco in 1962, reach the NBA Finals in 1964 (a five-game loss to the Boston Celtics) and in ’67 (a six-game defeat to Wilt’s Philadelphia 76ers). Joining the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1967 expansion draft, he spent the final four seasons of his career with the new franchise.
Once while suiting up for the Sonics, Meschery got ticked off at ex-teammate Chamberlain, who was then with the Lakers.
Meschery started throwing punches at the 216-cm Wilt, a scene described in Sports Illustrated as “like right out of a comic book.”
I asked Meschery if he agreed with that description.
“It was,” he says now. “Looking back at it, I don’t think I was thinking that at the time, but as I was being interviewed and as I’ve kind of come to think of it all my life as . . . it was like a comic book.
“Wilt was literally holding my head. I was trying to hit him and I was of course moving towards him, and so my forward motion was impeded by his hand. So he had his hand on my forehead, so imagine the pictures.
“His hand on my forehead and me wildly swinging and because of course his arm was so long I couldn’t hit him,” Meschery added with a chuckle.
“He had a little sort of chagrin smile on his face (as if to say), ‘Really, are you kidding me?’ But I thought I was being very brave.”
Did Meschery’s teammates mock him about that incident for the rest of the season and even afterward?
“Yeah, I got a truck load of s—- after that. They got a lot of fun at my expense,” he said.
I asked Meschery if there was a sequence of events that led to his anger rising beyond his control in that game. Or was it one play that led to fisticuffs with the Big Dipper?
“No, I don’t think so,” said Meschery, who coached the ABA’s Carolina Cougars for the 1971-72 season, then Larry Brown was his replacement. That experienced became the subject of his 1973 book “Caught in the Pivot: The Diary of a Rookie Coach in the Exploding World of Pro Basketball”
He added: “It always took a little while for me to get to a point where I was going to fight, and it really required a few elbows being thrown, maybe an embarrassment or something, maybe somebody chewed me out and I felt embarrassed.
“I really can’t remember what caused the fight, but I’m pretty sure a few other things happened before I tried to take it out on Wilt.”
The two never engaged in hand-to-hand combat again.
“Wilt and I were close. We were friends,” Meschery said. “We played with each other. We were teammates. . . . I don’t allow people to call me Tommy, but he did. (In that game), that’s what he was saying, ‘Say hello, Tommy. Come on, Tommy,’ like I was some kind of little boy, and I was. Compared to him I was a little boy.”
In the years after the larger-than-life Chamberlain passed away on Oct. 12, 1999, Meschery remembers his teammate as “the biggest man I’ve ever seen” and “the strongest man in the world. He was amazing.”
He privately mourned Chamberlain’s passing.
“I couldn’t do it. I’m not good at funerals,” Meschery admitted. “I don’t want anybody to be at mine, and I don’t plan to attend anybody else’s.
Instead, he added, “I sat down and wrote a poem when Wilt died. The next day, I wrote a poem, and I sent it to Barbara (his sister).”
The poem is entitled “Mourning Wilt.”
Enjoying renewed interest
Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum penned a feature on Meschery for the magazine’s “Where Are They Now Issue?” in June. It brought greater exposure to Meschery, introducing him to a large segment of the population that was unaware of his background, playing career and post-NBA life as a coach, poet and teacher (more on the latter two in the next installment of this series).
What sparked SI’s interest in telling Meschery’s story?
“I think that it had a lot to do with my rediscovering professional basketball through the Golden State Warriors,” he said. “I think that was his shtick. I think that was the idea. In my old age, I rediscovered the game that I had sort of put aside a little bit.”
He added: “I was up in Truckee living in the mountains (in Northern California), and then through a series of incidents, one that included my contracting multiple myeloma (cancer of the white blood cells), my son bought me a season NBA pass on TV and I started watching the games again.”
To combat his health issue, Meschery underwent a stem-cell transplant in December 2006.
But with a renewed interest in his former team and the league again, Meschery became more attuned to present-day Warriors. Rick Welts, the team president and chief operating officer, came on board in September 2011. Welts was a ballboy for the Seattle SuperSonics during Meschery’s time with the team.
Decades later, they became reacquainted with Welts a prominent part of the new Golden State ownership’s brain trust. Meschery remembers Welts telling him that the new ownership “was trying to embrace all of the older players and bring them back in the fold.”
Meschery called it “charming” and “wonderful.”
In time, he became a more visible member of the Warriors fraternity again. Which led to his increased viewing of their games in Stephen Curry’s early years on the squad. (He also fervently embraced watching the Spurs. “I thought the Spurs played basketball the right way,” he said.)
“In short, the Warriors kind of re-embraced me as I, in turn, re-embraced them.”
The reigning champion Warriors, winners of two titles in the past three seasons, thrill Meschery, invigorate him.
“I think the Warriors have somehow, and I’m not exactly sure how, have discovered the true spirit of the game of basketball, and they play with that in mind,” he said. “They are the most unselfish, poised, talented team I’ve ever seen, but what makes them unique, I think, is they all understand the true nature of basketball, and they all play it that way.”
He went on: “. . .The Warriors, just every player seems to understand exactly how the nature of the game developed. It’s almost as if they are playing a refined playground ball. . . . It’s the natural way of playing. . . . And I think what the Warriors have done is they’ve found this naturalness, the way the game should always be played — instinctively and with joy — and they’ve taken it to a very high professional level.”
Meschery has no complaints about the publicity that McCallum’s piece generated. As a writer seeking to boost his own credentials and publish his first novel, it can’t hurt, either, he noted, pointing out that in recent query letters to book agents he’s included the fact that he was featured in the prominent national magazine.
“Surprisingly, all of a sudden I’m getting a lot of requests for autographs,” he revealed. “People have been sending me cards for autographs. . . . Yeah, all of a sudden I’m a basketball player again. I kind of gave up on that idea a long time ago. I spent more time in front of a classroom than I did on the basketball court. . . . Now I sort of think of myself as a basketball player again.”
“But I can’t shoot a shot, that’s for sure,” he quipped.
After two shoulder replacements while coping with the chronic pain of two bad knees and a bad back, Meschery, whose No. 14 was retired by the Warriors, putting him in elite company along with Chamberlain (No. 13), Attles (No. 16), Nate Thurmond (No. 42), Barry (No. 24), among others, hasn’t played basketball in years.
“I don’t think I could make a free throw,” he said.
“I just tell people how to shoot. I don’t shoot them,” he blurted out.
Which isn’t to say that he was a horrible shooter during his NBA career. After all, he did manage to be a double-digit scorer during his decade in the pros.
“I had very good shooting form. I was a pretty good decent offensive player,” he said.
But remember this: The contemporary game’s rapid-fire barrage of 3-point shots was not the way the NBA operated in the 1960s and early ’70s.
“It was a center-dominated league back then, and it was a power league, and most coaches would’ve yanked you out of the game if you started shooting them from 23 feet, 24 feet,” said Meschery, who conceded he was effective shooting 20 feet from the basket.”
With the conversation shifting back to four famous men with ties to the Warriors organization, Meschery offered his articulate insights about head coach Steve Kerry, Curry, Hall of Famer Barry and the late, great play-by-play broadcaster Bill King.
*On Kerr: “(He) is brave, honorable and incredibly intelligent. The bravery, of course, goes back to his father’s assassination (Malcolm Kerr, president of American University of Beirut, was shot to death by gunmen in January 1984) and how he was able to overcome and having lived through that and to rise above that kind of terrible (act) and still remain a strong liberal voice.”
*On Curry: “He’s religious. He’s got great faith. He walks his talk. He is gifted. . . . I don’t think there will ever be a player like him. I just think his ability to shoot the ball is so natural, so instinctive that I don’t think there’ll be a player to shoot like him again.
“I like him because he is down to earth. I think he is a team-first kind of guy, and I think he is modest and I think he is willing to sacrifice for his team.”
*On Barry: “I have a hard time with Rick. He had a huge ego that he was able to live up to, and he was a man of enormous willpower because when he came into the league he really could not shoot jump shots accurately. And he turned himself into a jump shooter. By the end of his career, he was a 3-point shooter, and I think that takes an awful lot of courage, so give Rick a lot of credit for being able to live up to his belief in himself.
“Oh s—, he was as good a 3 as there was in the league, and he’ll always be. He could do everything — he could pass. He couldn’t play center; Magic Johnson could play center . . . but Rick could probably only be able to play 1, 2 and 3. But he was as good a stretch 3 as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
*On close friend King’s posthumous induction into the broadcasters’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in July:
“For one thing, I was incredibly pleased. At the same time, my thought was that it was a long time coming, and this guy was incredible. He announced three sports at the same time. He was broadcasting the Warriors, and broadcasting the Raiders and broadcasting the A’s. And at one time he was doing all of them. He was never home. He was on an airplane all the time. . . . And he was fabulous. Besides doing this incredible job, he was erudite, he had a great memory, he knew the game, he created images on the radio, which was very difficult. He’s a superstar. He should be in the Hall of Fame in football, baseball and basketball.
“We were great friends,” he was like my older brother,” said Meschery, who has mentioned he and King, the 2017 Ford C. Frick Award recipient, had talked about planning an adventurous trek across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but it didn’t come to pass before King died in October 2005. “He was very much like my brother.”
Further reading: Meschery’s online blog: mescherysmusings.blogspot.jp
Contact the columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org