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.

Moskowitz's ill health has confined him to a nursing home, and it keeps him from the dinners and the breakfasts. Few, if any, Fraternity brothers ever stop in to see him. Shaber still visits, though. Shaber always visits. "If I found out that someone was living in Africa, I would make contact with him," he asserts. "I would! I don't care about the cost. I like to reminisce with them. As long as they played basketball and I got the box scores, I'll try to find them. That's the simple criteria for this."

He parks at the Hyatt North Park Senior Living Center, a campus of gray condos off a busy West Hollywood intersection, and strides through the automatic glass doors into a modest lobby. Ragtime music fills the halls. "Jammy was a great coach!" Shaber shouts over the piano and snare drum. "He used to coach Lou Lipman, a great player for LIU. Lipman sat at the same table as Dolph Schayes at the Fraternity dinner last year; I've got a picture."

A nurse at the reception desk stops Shaber midreminiscence. "You're here to see Mr. Moskowitz?" she queries. "I'm afraid he's going to have to be going to the hospital. He fell about an hour ago. The paramedics are on their way."

"Well, how do you like these old people?" Shaber cracks. "Can I still see him?"

"You can if you hurry."
Haze seeps through closed blinds onto the bare white walls of Moskowitz's studio apartment. On a card table in a corner rest the coach's laurels, including an NYC Basketball Hall of Fame trophy and a plaque of appreciation for 35 years of teaching. On his bedstand are a basketball history book and From Ellis Island to Ebbets Field, a study of Jews in sports (in which Moskowitz and the Fraternity are mentioned). Moskowitz lies atop the bed, dressed in khakis, brown leather sneakers, and a red Basketball Fraternity windbreaker.

"How are you, Jammy?" Shaber calls. Moskowitz cocks his head slightly but doesn't reply. "Hey," Shaber repeats. "How are you doing?"

"I ... I fell down. I have to go to the hospital," Moskowitz warbles, and reaches slowly toward his back to show where it hurts.

"I know. I know," Shaber says, gently changing the subject. "Listen, Jammy, I brought over some trivia questions I want to ask you. Do you remember Moe Dubilier?"

Silence.
"Come on Jammy, think! I know you can do it. Moe Dubilier!"
The old coach's eyes flicker. "Oh, yes," he mumbles, suddenly animated. "Of course I remember Moe! He was a great player. A great player and a nice guy."

"Well, I found him the other day -- can you believe that? He's living in a nursing home in Miami Shores. Can you believe that?"

Moskowitz laughs. His memory jogged, he offers up his own Moe Dubilier history: "He went to John Marshall [college]. Matty Begovich was his coach. Matty came from Hoboken, and in high school Dave Tobey, a great referee, coached against him."

"How about that, Jammy!" Shaber cheers. "That had to be in the mid-Twenties! That's New Jersey. How would I know that, Jammy? I'm from Brownsville, Brooklyn. And besides, you're 92 and I'm 75. You got more years coaching than I got alive!"

The paramedics arrive. When Shaber takes out a disposable camera and begins taking pictures of Moskowitz, one of the medics asks if he works for an insurance company.

"Do you know who this man is?" Shaber responds, incredulous. "He is a giant of basketball!"

Who did he play for? asks the paramedic.
"He didn't play, he coached. For James Madison High School! He's in the NYC Basketball Hall of Fame!"

"I don't follow sports," the paramedic deadpans, carefully lifting Moskowitz onto a stretcher.

Shaber snaps more pictures as they cart the legend away. "I want to share you with the other old-timers!" he bellows. "Smile, Jammy!" Moskowitz, rolling out the door, smiles.

"His mind is sharp," Shaber beams, packing up his camera and a birthday card for Moe Dubilier that he'd wanted Moskowitz to sign. "He remembers all the way back to the Twenties. If you ask him the place he is living in, he won't know. Yet if you bring up basketball teams from the Twenties, he remembers them like it was last week! Oh, that Jammy! I'll have to come back."

Trivia Question: Who invented the shot clock? Answer: Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals.

Jack Shaber's personal basketball history begins with his parole from his mother's careful watch, at age nine. "As a really young kid I was sick a lot, very sick," he remembers. "My mother kept me under wraps. I couldn't go out more or less on my own. Then when I was nine my brother was born and I was let loose." His mother, who had separated from his father, couldn't keep her two eyes on all three Shaber boys. (Shaber had an older brother; both brothers died in their fifties.) "So I was out on the street playing ball. Punchball, stickball, whatever. My favorite game was basketball."

His love for basketball made him a neighborhood legend early on. Every morning, as the Brownsville players gathered to discuss the previous night's games, Shaber would saunter over with the scores to every game in the country. "We couldn't figure out where he got all this information," recalls Ossie Schectman, who grew up just outside of Brownsville and knew Shaber informally. "Then we learned that he was running over to a newsstand in Times Square every morning to purchase a dozen out-of-town papers."

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