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.

Trivia question: Who won the first NIT championship in 1937-38? Answer: Temple.

The shot clock of Jack Shaber's life resets at 5:00 a.m. every Tuesday. That's when he taps the alarm that wakes him from a fitful night. Rolling out of bed in the only room in his apartment not crammed to bursting with memorabilia, he flicks on a Miami Heat light switch and wearily marches to the kitchen. "I can never sleep on Monday nights," he complains. "I get so hopped up for the Tuesday meetings that I can't turn my mind off."

He eats before the meeting so he won't be distracted at the restaurant. Breakfast is always the same: A bowl of Publix Quick Oats followed by a mixture of bran flakes, Shredded Wheat, granulated oat bran, banana, and a few ounces of lactose-reduced milk, which he pulls from a yellow refrigerator pasted with magnetic Miami Heat schedules. He puts the meal on a red plastic tray and carts it into the living room, where he dines in a battered wooden chair, the tray resting on his knees.

It is the only place to sit in the whole apartment. Folders crammed with blown-up photos of Fraternity gatherings clog the dining-room table. Against a far wall, beneath an oil painting depicting his son Gerald's bar mitzvah, are a TV set and a mound of Heat media guides. Another chair is the repository for Heat box scores and articles clipped from the Herald, Sun-Sentinel, and New York Times. Eyeing the pile, Shaber shakes his head. "I'm way behind on my clippings," he worries. "I'm way behind."

He eats in silence, chewing carefully, thinking of what questions he'll ask at today's meeting. He recently unearthed from his archive a newsletter from the Philadelphia Spahs, Moe Dubilier's old team, and he photocopied the four-page pamphlet to distribute at the breakfast. He also crafted a quiz question he's rather proud of: Which coach won more than 100 games for three different colleges? (Answer: Frank McGuire, with St. John's, South Carolina, and North Carolina.) His follow-up questions involve the NIT: What two teams played in the 1939-40 championship game, what was the score, and who was the most valuable player? (Colorado beat Duquesne 51-40. Bob Doll was MVP.)

Clad in his NBA sweatshirt, Shaber loads two easels into the car, along with his briefcase and two file boxes full of reference books. For display on the easels he packs two homemade posters plastered with snapshots of Fraternity members. He departs, as always, at 6:10, so as to arrive at Bagels & Lox at 6:45. With nearly an hour before anyone else shows up, he sets up his easels while a waitress drags several tables for two into one table long enough to seat 24.

At 7:30 the first players arrive. "Jack, howya doing?" calls out Howard Rothstein. "Hey, Jack!" belts LIU alumnus Saul Berkoff, shaking hands. Fifteen minutes later a full squad of heroes is munching toast and reminiscing about old times.

Shaber circles the table, placing homemade name tags in front of every diner. He rummages through his file boxes for the folders containing the Spahs programs, pausing when he finds them to survey the crowd: "It's a beauty-ful turnout," he says, cracking a rich laugh that rings above the slurping of tomato juice and coffee. He shuffles off in his white loafers, folders in hand.

"Okay, boys!"he cries. "How about a quiz question?

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