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.

After a World War II European tour with the army, Shaber returned to Brownsville, and to jobs moving furniture for his father and driving a horse and buggy in Central Park. On the side he clerked for a bookie, using his remarkable memory to store in his head the spreads of 40 different ballgames. A self-described "degenerate gambler," he wagered his own money on basketball, baseball, and Rangers hockey games.

At a Saturday-night neighborhood dance in April 1950, he discovered another passion: a young Tilden High grad named Shirley Davies. Unemployed at the time, he began working on Shirley, calling her for dates and sitting next to her on the subway ride home from her downtown job. They wed that December. Eleven months later Shirley gave birth to Gerald, the first of their two sons. "She was the best thing that ever happened to me," Shaber asserts. "If it wasn't for marrying her, I don't know where I'd be. My logic is, I would have gambled and ended up nowhere."

Shirley straightened out her new husband, keeping him focused on work and family responsibilities. He began clerking for an outfit that sold meat to cruise ships. In four and a half years of tracking invoices on Danish hams, despite strikes and snowstorms, Shaber never missed a day. And he drove the buggy at night. "He was basically a hard-working guy," recollects Gerald, now 45 and a dairy manager living in Woodbury, New York. "He worked two jobs, and because of it he'd often get lost for days at a time. He'd leave for work Friday morning and wouldn't come home until Sunday, then he'd sleep all day. When he'd come home at night during the week, he liked to be in his room with his hobbies." (In addition to collecting basketball memorabilia, Shaber has distinguished himself as an amateur stamp collector.)

The Shabers relocated to North Miami Beach in 1970 to be closer to Shirley's extended family. Jack worked in a bank, then an oil company, then finally as clerk for the City of Surfside. For fifteen years he handled permits for construction, remodeling, and garbage collection. "He kept everything in his mind," recalls Rina Alfonso, the town comptroller. "He knew every person in the town, and he was the type that if somebody didn't pay their bill, he would be on their doorstep in the morning to see why they weren't paying."

Despite his hard work, or perhaps because of it, Shirley sought a divorce in 1984, after 34 years of marriage. "We'd argue all the time about, oh, money and stuff. I don't want to get into it," Shaber says. "She threatened to divorce me, but I never thought she'd have the guts to go through with it. I thought she was bluffing."

She wasn't. "I wanted to do what I want to do," Shirley says. "I'm a very independent person. And with the kids grown, I didn't see a reason not to. It was my choice." Her new husband, she says, is a former New York City police officer. They live not far from Shaber, in Bay Harbor Islands. Shaber sometimes drives by their place, checking to see if her husband's car is in the driveway. If it isn't, he might give Shirley a ring.

"I told him, 'Jack, please, don't call me. It is not right. Leave me alone,'" she explains. "For a long time I wasn't even answering the telephone. It's not fair. I said, 'Jack, if you were married, would your wife like it? I just don't think it's right.'

"'Well, you're my friend,' he said, 'how're the children?'" Shirley recalls with some bitterness. "I told him to call them."

Of the two sons, only the eldest, Gerald, stays in touch with his father, sharing trivia questions he unearths from the four tons of memorabilia Shaber sent up to him after the divorce. ("My wife doesn't see the value in all this stuff," Gerald admits. "She's always threatening to burn my den down.")

Gerald says that although his father has always been a basketball fan, his interest in the Fraternity has risen dramatically since the heart attack. (After a year in a nursing home, he never returned to his job in Surfside.) "He's only really become fanatical about this stuff in the past two years, and he's started visiting the nursing homes only recently," Gerald relays. "He likes living in the past, I'll be quite honest. In a way it keeps him going. What else does he have? I'm up here. He only has one other son, Steven, and he doesn't speak to him too much -- for some reason Steven has always had very ill feelings toward my dad."

Shaber's ex-wife reports that she regularly talks to Steven, a chemist in Pennsylvania who speaks Chinese and Japanese and often flies to Asia on business. When Steven travels to Miami, he stays at her house, she says, and he never calls his father.

Trivia question: Which NBA player played in the most games in a single season, excluding playoffs? Answer: Walter Jones Bellamy, who played the first 35 games of the 1968-69 season for the New York Knicks and, after being traded midseason, played in the Detroit Pistons' 53 remaining games, for a total of 88 games in an 82-game season.

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