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.

In a remarkable triumph of the fan, Shaber's grasp of the past has endeared him to the very men he idolizes. He is accepted by the Fraternity not as a wannabe but as an equal. He says he loves these guys. The players insist the feeling is mutual.

"He's a legend. No doubt about it!" roars Gotkin, whose small stature and fearsome play earned him his nickname. "Jack, to me, is the most fabulous guy I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. One day he flew up to New York to the board of education and asked for old box scores. He brought back 65 box scores from junior high! I've never seen such dedication."

Ossie Schectman concurs. "Jack is unique. Growing up, he was always sort of a hero worshipper, but he's shown that you don't have to excel at sports to become a legend. You can become a legend by being interested in other legends. There aren't others like him."

The Basketball Fraternity assembled informally about twenty years ago, when retired players began migrating from New York to Florida. There are no rules and no dues. The main event is an annual dinner held in a hotel ballroom the day after Christmas. Almost 300 people turned out for last year's banquet, whose featured speaker was former NYU All-American Dolph Schayes. About 30 diehards show up for the Tuesday-morning breakfasts, the only other official activity.

"I think for most of us when we reach this age bracket, it's very difficult to find people who have shared the same experiences, with whom we can discuss things that happened 60 years ago," posits Schectman, who, hampered by injuries, quit the Knicks after one season to enter the textile business. "Instead of spending time thinking about our problems, we're here discussing our glories."

With any group this size, especially one whose members challenge actuarial tables for life expectancy, people tend to fall out of touch. Some die. Some move away. Some simply disappear. It's not uncommon for a senile former player to forget his friends and his past.

That's when Jack Shaber really steps up to the line. Not only does the trivia master wear the crown of Mr. Basketball, but he has also dubbed himself the Fraternity's Goodwill Ambassador: He makes it his business to find the lost or forgotten members and bring them back into the fold, to let them share the comfortable joy of reminiscing.

"It's nice to be remembered -- it's as simple as that," says Gotkin.
That's something Jack Shaber knows better than anyone.

Trivia Question: Who was the first commissioner of the NBA? Answer: Maurice Podoloff.

"I've found another one!" Shaber blurts as he inches his middle-aged Chevy Corsica up I-95 on the way to visit Harry "Jammy" Moskowitz. "I found another guy, in a nursing home. His name is Moe Dubilier. You know how they have that show America's Most Wanted? Well, I should have Jack Shaber's Most Wanted. This year I've found four guys already!"

Shaber shouts when he talks. Every sentence out of his mouth is a declaration of excitement. His paragraphs are peppered with canyoubelievethats and beauty-fuls. The theme of all this talk is a man excited about life -- at least when it comes to basketball. "He lives for this," says his friend Seymour Paley, a restaurateur based in Pembroke Pines. "Basketball is his whole life, it's all he has. He has nothing else. Basketball is what keeps him going."

Shaber is not a small man, but his hunched-over posture, head pulling torso, makes him appear shorter than he is. A photo of his wedding day that he still carries in his wallet shows a groom full in the face and thick in the chest. Now he weighs 60 pounds less -- a veritable pencil-neck -- thanks to a regimented diet to which he's been faithful since 1968. No sodium, no cholesterol. No nothing. Paley once offered Shaber $500 to eat a hot dog. Shaber wouldn't bite.

He wears thick bifocals and a nitroglycerin patch on his chest, a souvenir from a 1992 heart attack. In his day he was an athlete, he says, average in ability but good enough to make his mediocre high school hoops team. His 1938-39 Tilden High squad finished 3-7 and lost both games it played against city powerhouse Madison High. Madison's coach is the man Shaber is going to visit today.

Jammy Moskowitz is a hero of the City Game, as basketball was known in its New York heyday. Now 92, he made his name as a star for the professional New York Hakoahs in the Twenties. He made his legend when he took over the coaching duties at James Madison. Five hundred and forty-one victories and two public school championships later, he is a member of the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame, alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor) and Red Auerbach.

He was embraced by the Fraternity when he retired to Florida. "He used to come to our dinners all the time," Shaber recalls. "Oh that Jammy, at the dinners you couldn't shut him up, he was always talking! Nowadays he's not doing so good. He doesn't have it all together up there, you know."

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