Basketball | HOOP SCOOP

Love of poetry, books made Meschery unique in NBA

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Second in a three-part series

Tom Meschery is comfortable conversing about the improvisational beauty of basketball and the giants of classical Russian literature. And he’s a brilliant observer of both art forms.

Which may make him the only former first-round NBA draft pick — taken No. 7 by the Philadelphia Warriors in 1961 — to hold that distinction.

Meschery has always been one of the unique characters in NBA history.

As detailed in part one of this column series, Meschery started alongside Wilt Chamberlain when the legendary center scored 100 points against the New York Knicks in a 1962 game, and wound up getting mocked by the “Big Dipper” years later when he instigated and failed miserably to fight his ex-teammate.

Off the court, Meschery, who turns 79 on Oct 26, has carved his own niche as both a writer (nonfiction, poet), though he now aims to make a name for himself as a fiction writer.

After his NBA playing days ended in 1971, the bruising 198-cm forward pursued a career in coaching. He was hired to lead the rival ABA’s Carolina Cougars. The Cougars went 35-49 in the 1971-72 campaign, and future Hall of Fame coach Larry “Next Town” (to borrow a timeless nickname from the inimitable Peter Vecsey) Brown was hired as his replacement. Carolina posted a 57-27 record in Brown’s first season in charge. Meschery spent two seasons, 1974-75 and the following campaign, as a Portland Trail Blazers assistant under Lenny Wilkens. After Wilkens was fired following the 1975-76 season, Jack Ramsay was hired, and the Blazers won the title in his first year at the helm.

In a recent interview, Meschery recalled the chain of events that led to his improbable position as the Carolina coach.

“I had no coaching experience. I’d just retired from the Sonics at the end of the ’70-71 season. I was being interviewed by Evergreen College for a position in the English department. My wife, Joanne, was against it because she was tired of (Pacific) Northwest weather. So, I took a job in the Peace Corps as basketball coach in Venezuela,” Meschery told Hoop Scoop. “Tricky Dick (Richard Nixon) was president, and by mid-August had dismantled lots of the Peace Corps, which included my position.

“Carl Scheer, GM of the Cougars, contacted me to see if I was interested in the vacant Cougars head basketball coaching job. I interviewed and was hired. Remember, no coaching experience. North Carolina was still a racist state. A couple of racial incidents occurred early upon my arrival that affected the way I thought about the job, the state and the people. By the end, more bad memories than good ones.”

That season provided the backdrop for Meschery’s book “Caught in the Pivot: a Diary of a Rookie Coach in the Exploding World of Pro Basketball,” which was published in 1973.

Looking back on the project, he insisted it wasn’t a successful endeavor.

“My one regret about the book was that it was far too serious,” Meschery lamented. “In retrospect, rereading it I thought it was whiny. Oh woe is me! On the whole and to be honest, I was a miserable coach, lacking in X’s and O’s, lacking patience, lacking the ability to see the full court in an interactive way.”

Did he plan writing this book all along?

“No, I didn’t think of a book until the very end of the season,” he says now, “and I think if I’d been taking notes from the beginning it would have been a different and better book.

“Very little reaction,” he added. “It sold few copies. A memoir without humor doesn’t work. I never really saw the big picture taking place around me . . .”

Nowadays, Meschery, who earned a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa, writes mostly in the mornings, devoting about four hours a day to sitting at his computer.

After napping and reading in the afternoon, he sometimes writes again in the evenings, “but only if there’s some real reason to do it,” he said by phone from his home in Sacramento, California.

Such as?

“A thought or a chapter I didn’t finish or a stanza that I was working on that I got another idea for,” he offered.

Meschery’s blog (mescherysmusings.blogspot.jp/) provides an outlet for him to vent his anger at President Donald Trump.

“I’m so thoroughly pissed off at Trump that I have so many things to say,” Meschery declared.

In February 2015, he published a poetry book, “Sweat: New and Selected Poems About Sports.”

He also recently finished writing his first mystery novel and was waiting to hear back from a literary agent he sent the manuscript to when we spoke a few weeks ago.

Meschery, who was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 2002, is collaborating with his wife, Melanie, an artist, on an upcoming poetry book. He’s writing about 25 poems and she’s providing sketches for the book about his wife’s elderly mother, “who’s living with us and is very, very old and dying . . . and the experienced has turned into a chat book,” explained Meschery, who considers Toni Morrison one of his favorite living writers.

Another ambitious project is keeping him busy: approximately 50 poems about art, and Black Rock Press is scheduled to publish “The Light of Greece.”

It started when the couple traveled to Greece this summer, with Melanie among 14-15 watercolorists drawing inspiration from the Mediterranean Sea’s beautiful surroundings. They visited the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, Mykonos and Santorini islands, among other locales.

“I was along for the ride,” Meschery underlined.

While Meschery enjoyed consuming the local cuisine and wine, his creative juices were flowing.

“I started writing poems about what they were doing,” he said. “And it actually turned into a whole series of poems about art, about color, about technique, about all sorts of different subjects that have to do with art and watercolor, sketching pen and ink, whatever the medium was they were using. It turned out pretty damn good, I thought, and Mel is going to do facing pages.

“For every poem, she’s going to do a facing page of the particular poem, and so we’re going to have quite a good-sized book. . . . I’ve got the poems roughed out pretty much.”

Meschery said with a chuckle that the two poetry projects have helped him cope with the fact that he hasn’t been able to publish a novel yet.

“You’ve got to be stubborn, boy,” he blurted out. “My wife keeps saying don’t worry. Tony Hillerman’s novels got rejected 35 times before he was accepted. That helps a little bit, I guess.”

In the past six years, Meschery has been consumed with mysteries, including the late Hillerman’s books, and praised Scottish writer Ian Rankin and British-born novelist Peter Robinson, noting he’s been reading the trio’s books quite a bit. (He’s also a huge fan of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens; he’s read all of Dickens’ books.)

Meschery’s first mystery novel series (“The Brovelli Boys Used Car and Detective Agency”) takes place in April and May of 1968 for “The Case of the 61 Impala,” followed by “The Case of the 66 Mustang,” centered on December 1969 and January 1970.

What’s the subject matter?

“The novel’s about two used car dealers, two young guys who inadvertently get involved in murders and mysteries and solve them,” Meschery stated. “But their main job is used cars.”

A TRUE ORIGINAL

One fascinating aspect of Meschery’s NBA career was the fact that the San Francisco Warriors retired his No. 14 jersey on the opening night of the 1967-68 season in a game against the Seattle SuperSonics. He was 28 years old.

Many pros often wait decades after their playing days to be honored with jersey retirement ceremonies.

Instead, Meschery had it happen in his hometown while he was still an active player.

Forty years later, David Andriesen of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer penned a look back at the SuperSonics’ inaugural season, including Meschery’s valuable role as a veteran leader.

But his career almost ended in 1967 after he was taken by the Sonics in the NBA expansion draft. He had seriously considered hanging up his shoes.

In Andriesen’s account of the team’s origins, he noted that Meschery “told them (the Sonics) they had wasted the pick — he planned to retire and take an administrative post with the Peace Corps in South Korea. The Sonics asked what salary would change his mind, and he threw out a number he was sure they would laugh at — $35,000. He was shocked when the Sonics said yes.”

Meschery’s lifelong interest in literature was on full display during his decade as a pro athlete. He defied the stereotype of a dumb jock.

In an August 2011 feature, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub reported that Meschery “was reading literature on the plane and writing poetry in his spare time” when he was a rookie with the Philadelphia Warriors 50 years earlier.

“A Philadelphia journalist found out (about his poetry) and published one of his poems,” Hartlaub wrote,” which resulted in gentle ribbing from Warriors teammates.”

Meschery’s reaction?

“They knew me. I had a pretty fierce temper, so I don’t think anybody wanted to go too far,” the player known as The Mad Russian told Hartlaub.

Meschery’s teammates respected his on-court intensity and his intellect.

Warriors great Al Attles, who coached the team to an NBA title in the 1974-75 season and later served as a longtime front-office executive, reflected on Meschery’s personality in 2001, telling the Chronicle that “Tommy was very cerebral, a very liberal thinker.”

A LIFETIME OF BOOKS

If the subject is Russian literature, Meschery will fill you in about the best of the best without hesitation. He pays attention, has put in the time to devour the books and know the ins and outs of the subject matter.

Decades after a large percentage of English-speaking citizens ceased to be avid readers of translated Russian texts, Meschery remains a keen observer of the books that made the Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who died in 1881, and many of his contemporaries well-known writers.

“I’m a huge Dostoyevsky fan and have read all his novels,” revealed Meschery, who retired in 2005 after a 21-year career as a high school English teacher in Reno, Nevada. ” ‘Brothers Karamsov’ is a favorite. It’s just so ambitious. I put (Dostoyevsky’s) ‘Crime and Punishment’ on my seniors’ summer reading list when I taught. They did not bless me.”

But he was blessed with the right temperament for the classroom. After making the transition from tough-guy NBA forward to teacher, it was a perfect match.

Or as he put it in 2011, speaking to the Chronicle: “I loved high school-age students. They’re just so wonderfully in between childhood and maturity. Naive and intelligent at the same time. It was just a great fit. And I loved the intensity. It was just like basketball. . . . You’re there to teach and the kids are there to learn. . . . I had to prepare and get ready, and then when I stepped into the classroom it was like stepping on the court. Somebody threw the ball up. The school bell rang. There I was.”

Meschery praised the 19th century classic “War and Peace,” written by maternal ancestor Leo Tolstoy for “its scope and history,” adding, “I love historical novels. Read (Amor Towles’) ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’, a recent New York Times best seller. It’s wonderful.”

Asked to offer his assessment of the influential Anton Chekhov, Meschery paid the biggest compliment.

“There is no better short story writer in any language than Chekhov,” he told Hoop Scoop.

Meschery was just warming up. “I love historical novels and films,” he added. “I like (Mikhail) Lermontov better than (Alexander) Pushkin, but not by much. For Russians, Pushkin is gold, Lermontov is silver — the sun and the moon. Lermontov by analogy writes on the darker side. I believe Lermontov dug deeper into human psyche than did Pushkin.”

“Of the more moderns greats, Meschery noted, “Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova are favorites.”

While the just-cited authors may be obscure to 99 percent or more of this column’s readers, Meschery holds a special respect for the aesthetic value of Russian prose.

“Russian poetry is difficult to translate into English with the same effect, I guess, as all poetry is,” he said. “Russians rhyme with better effect. English doesn’t lend itself to rhyme as it contains fewer linguistic possibilities.”

Meschery has always embraced his Russian literary roots.

“Unlike a lot of American boys, growing up I never felt poetry was somehow feminine,” he told Hartlaub in 2011. “My father was 6-foot-1 (185 cm) and big and strong and looked like a bear, and he recited poetry and read poetry. I figure, ‘Why not me?’ ”

ETERNAL GRATITUDE

A little more than 70 years after the 3-year-old Meschery and his mother and 5-year-old sister arrived in Japan from China (he was born in Harbin), just days after the Japanese military’s bombing of Pearl Harbor triggered the United States’ entry into World War II, he gave the 2012 commencement address at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. (The third installment of this series explores Meschery’s memories of WWII in Japan at greater length.)

Meschery’s natural ability to personalize his stories while also speaking to the bigger points that resonate with a large group shined through on that May day at his alma mater.

In an eloquent speech, he reflected on the Christian Brothers’ kindness after “scores of other British, French, American and Chinese emigres, my mother, sister and I had been transported by the Japanese from China to the Port of Yokohama. From there we would be distributed to various concentration camps around the island of Japan,” Meschery said in his commencement address. “It was in this month of transition and uncertainty and fear that three Christian Brothers came to our aid. I don’t remember very much about them, except that they were French, seemed extraordinarily tall, and smiled a lot . . .”

As Meschery’s mother informed him many years later, the three Christian Brothers, a part of a global religious community within the Catholic Church, “would give our little family half of their daily rations of rice,” as well as milk and extra blankets and even a pillow and a toy, “a small jade frog that was followed by a small carved ivory elephant,” he said in the commencement address.

He went on: “So it was not surprising that 16 years later in 1957 when a man by the name of John Henning, and a tiny man in a black robe sporting a funny white collar under his chin by the name of Brother Albert walked into our apartment in San Francisco bearing an offer of a basketball scholarship for Tomislav Nicholaevich Mescheriakov, renamed Thomas Nicholas Meschery, that my mother looked at me, smiled broadly, and said, ‘Take that scholarship!’ ”

“It may or may not be true that mothers know best, but in this case my mother did indeed know what was best for her son,” he said in the same poignant speech. “After a visit to the campus and a chance to talk to the basketball players already committed to the college, I signed on the dotted line. I have never regretted my choice, and I like to believe that playing basketball for St. Mary’s College — in some small way — repaid those three brothers in 1941 for their kindness to our family . . .”

Looking back on his message before a crowd of several hundred to honor St. Mary’s Class of 2012, Meschery told me “it was a great honor. I was very pleased to do it. I was extremely nervous. I think in many ways I thought they did that more because I had become a scholar as well as an athlete. . . . I enjoyed that a great deal, and I hope that some of my thoughts are still with the graduating class.”

As an immigrant to the United States who survived WWII in Japan and emerged as a star athlete at Lowell High School in San Francisco, Meschery has never forgotten his unique story. He expressed that message during the speech.

“The whole idea had to do with embracing life,” he recalled, “and opening that door and stepping through it and not hesitating.”

The speech was enriched by the inclusion of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Prospective Immigrant, Please Note.” He went on to explain that “Rich said she meant immigrants to including anyone moving from one state of being into another.”