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.

When discussing her ex-husband and basketball, Shirley uses the word "obsessed." Shaber doesn't shy from the label, admitting his devotion to his interests can sometimes be fanatical. He once earned a newspaper writeup for tracking down Mike, a Scottish collie featured in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills; Shaber was so taken with the dog that he ended up flying to California in 1988 to meet him. He spent an hour and a half playing with the dog.

Today's obsession, Moe Dubilier, takes Shaber only to Miami Shores, a twelve-minute drive from his North Miami Beach apartment. In the early days of the pro game, "Dubie" stood apart from other players with his athletic ability and his good looks. He starred on such pioneering clubs as the Washington Brewers and the Philadelphia Spahs -- often for more than one team at a time, owing to how little money players earned in those days. He started at guard and forward for the Troy (New York) Celtics, a forerunner of the NBA team now in Boston.

After his playing career ended, Dubilier kicked around the country. One sighting placed him in Las Vegas, partying with the showgirls. "He was a real knock-around guy," Shaber recalls. "He never settled down, never married." After moving to Miami, Dubilier became a regular at the Basketball Fraternity banquets. In the past few years, though, he vanished. Dinner invitations mailed to his Collins Avenue address came back in the mail. No one in the Fraternity knew whether he was alive, and if he was, where he lived.

It was the Miami Herald that provided the answer. Last month in its Neighbors section, the paper ran a short profile of Dubilier, noting that the former star lived at the Mount Sinai/St. Francis Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. "I saw that story and I went, 'Can you believe that -- it's Moe Dubilier!'" Shaber recalls with glee. "We found Moe Dubilier -- can you believe that?"

Chuckling at the memory, Shaber glides his Corsica onto the Mount Sinai grounds, where he will meet up with Fraternity brother Ruby Nabatoff for a celebration of Dubilier's 82nd birthday. In his trunk is a homemade birthday poster plastered with reproductions of Dubilier's team photos and box scores. "Look at this birthday card," Shaber said as he was loading the poster into the car. "It's beauty-ful! A professional couldn't do as nice a job as that." He also packed an inflatable beach basketball, and his Heat jacket and baseball cap, for picture taking.

Shaber asked several of the guys to meet him for the party, but Nabatoff was the only one who could make it. "These guys, they don't like to drive down from Broward," Shaber sniffs. "None of them were real close to Dubie anyway." Nabatoff, a bench warmer at City College whose wife died only ten days earlier, greets Shaber spiritedly and thanks him for the invitation. "I'm all alone now. I need someone to talk to," he says, pumping Shaber's hand before carrying the easel into the nursing home.

Mount Sinai's activities director Diane Bader guides the party to an outdoor courtyard. "Moe, here's your buddies," she announces to a man parked in a wheelchair under a lime-green canopy and sporting a pink blazer over a 1996 Summer Olympics T-shirt. Dubilier's plaid shorts reveal a left leg covered in bandages from a painful coffee spill. Seven other residents, all women, silently share the tent with him. Shaber sticks a red "Very Special Birthday" ribbon on the blazer, then sets the giant birthday card on the easel.

"Hey, you're one of the boys now, Moe!" Shaber cheers. Nabatoff pulls over a white plastic lawn chair and hands Dubilier his own card. "You were one of the best ballplayers in your time, and one of the nicest guys," it reads. "Oh, that's beautiful," Dubilier says in a voice as faint as the breeze. "That's just beautiful."

Shaber hands him the inflatable ball, which he has personalized with a black marker. Then, turning the wheelchair toward the easel, he leads the onetime American Basketball League scoring champion on a tour of his birthday card. Photos from the Brewers and the Spahs are framed by autographs from Butch Schwartz, Irving "Pickles" Banks, and other frat brothers. In one corner, in shaky red ink: "To Moe Dubilier, a great player and a swell guy, Jammy Moskowitz."

As the women in the tent watch vacantly, the men pose for a series of snapshots.

"I can't even begin to say what a wonderful feeling it is to have a guy like Shaber stop by like this," a smiling Dubilier gushes in his permanent whisper. "He remembers me. When I was growing up, I didn't know the guy, and now he shows up with all these stories about me, and these posters. It's wonderful."

"When I see a guy in a wheelchair like Moe, I think that there are guys in homes all over the county that I may not know of," Shaber says later. "They got sick and nobody is there to take care of them. I have to keep going to find them, because if I was to sit down and brood on my aches and pains, I wouldn't be able to do anything. What would I do?"

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