Mr. Basketball

Dozens of pro hoops pioneers retired to South Florida, destined to grow old and die in obscurity. Not if Jack Shaber has anything to say about it.

The arena is Bagels & Lox restaurant, a strip-mall deli in Lauderhill. The league is the weekly breakfast meeting of the Basketball Fraternity, a long-standing local fellowship of retirees, most of whom played college or pro ball during the game's infancy. The contest is trivia. And Jack Shaber, Mr. Basketball, is the league commissioner, referee, and unimpeachable expert.

He throws up a jump ball: "Okay, boys, I've got one for you. Who was the first seven-footer to play major college ball?"

There's a grumbling among the 30 men. "George Mikan!" Abe Gerchick shouts over the clatter of breakfast platters being served. "It had to be Mikan," seconds Hy "The Mighty Mite" Gotkin. They're referring to the DePaul superstar who revolutionized the game in the Forties -- and they're wrong. "C'mon, fellas! This is easy!" Shaber trash-talks as they tuck into their egg-white omelets and knishes.

"Jack, I know this. It has to be Mikan," protests a newcomer, naive to Shaber's command of basketball arcana.

"No, it wasn't," the master shoots back, gleefully scooting over to a briefcase bulging with laminated box scores and newspaper clippings, and furiously shovels for his proof. "Here it is!" he trumpets, pulling out a yellowed photo of a human giraffe. "Mikan was only 6'10". The first seven-footer was Elmore Morgenthaler, who played for Boston College: He was 7'1". I've got the picture here to prove it."

A coffee-stained groan rises from the court. Shaber always has the picture, or the box score, or the newspaper article. Ever since he discovered basketball in 1930 at age nine, he has collected the daily basketball box scores from up to thirteen different newspapers. High school, college, early professional leagues, the NBA -- he clipped them all.

And he never threw them away.
"My apartment, you'd think a twister hit it!" he'll tell you. "I got an exterminator coming around later this month and I don't know what I am going to do. It's a zoo!"

He owns Spalding and Reach basketball guides dating back to 1900, pro programs, college media guides, boxfuls of ticket stubs, even rolls of newswire ticker tapes from select championship games. He's constantly scouring his dozens of reference books for inaccuracies. "The St. John's 'Wonder Five' [the first college basketball dream team] played together for only two years!" he says disgustedly, spotting an error in one tome. "Everybody always says it was four, even the NCAA guidebook! But it was only two years, 1929-30, 1930-31. I've got to give them a call."

And he will give them a call. So sharp is his memory, so comprehensive are his archives, that he himself has become a reference. Zelda Spoelstra, manager of special projects for the National Basketball Association, called him in a panic last year when she couldn't find a box score for the league's first game (November 1, 1946, between the New York Knickerbockers and the Toronto Huskies). Shaber had the box score, of course, and sent it to her. He also threw in the addresses of several of the men who played in that historic contest, including one Husky whom league officials had thought dead.

"An exceptional resource -- he was very, very helpful," recalls Spoelstra, who sent Shaber a thank-you trove of NBA goodies, including a gray NBA sweatshirt that he hasn't removed since. "I really enjoyed talking to the man. I feel he is very special, that he really cares."

Shaber's archiving continues to this day. He follows the modern pro game so passionately that he had the words "Heat fan" printed on his Basketball Fraternity calling cards. He has held season tickets since the Miami team's inception and charts its progress rabidly. Heat radio announcer David Halberstam has thanked Shaber on the air for his corrections.

But it is these weekly meetings with the Fraternity that Shaber lives for. Like him, most of these men hail from the Jewish ghettos of Brooklyn. As they were growing up in the Thirties and Forties, the game of basketball was exploding in popularity. Kids he battled on the P.S. 183 playground later starred at City College, Manhattan, Long Island University, and the six other city schools. The ultimate basketball showcase of the time, the National Invitational Tournament (The NCAA "March Madness" that concludes Monday superseded the NIT only in the past few decades), was held each spring at Madison Square Garden; local squads like St. John's seemed to win the title every season. "1936 to 1939 -- those are my three great years," Shaber crows. "You tell me a player's name and I'll tell you what school he played on. That's just the way my mind works."

The basketball heroes of that era remain Shaber's heroes today. Hy Gotkin, the St. John's All-American and the only man ever to play on back-to-back NIT championship squads. Butch Schwartz, who starred for Seward Park High and LIU. Ossie Schectman, an LIU standout, the first captain of the New York Knicks, and the man who scored the first basket in NBA history.

Thanks to the Basketball Fraternity, Shaber's heroes are eating breakfast right in front of him. There's Gotkin over there -- the Mighty Mite himself -- telling anyone who'll listen how he once appeared in a basketball sketch on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. Norm Drucker, retired referee. Jack Kleinman, who played at St. John's with the Wonder Five, listening to Howard Rothstein, father of the Heat's first coach. And Schectman, recalling his glory days under Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee.

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