The sport I love best is baseball, but my husband was a basketball fan.
Jim played basketball as a kid for some sort of Knights of Columbus team, but mostly he was a fan. An NBA fan, a Celtics fan, a Bill Russell fan.
He’d talk about coming down on the bus from Bellows Falls when he was in high school to watch the greats – Cousy, Sharman, and, of course, Bill Russell – play. While he was never a can’t-miss-a-game, I-bleed-green kind of guy – he rarely went to games in person as an adult - he kept a regular eye on the Celtics over the years, and saw it through its many different eras. But he really loved the old guard teams, and knew quite a bit of the lore and the history of the early NBA.
Sometimes, I would hear a basketball game on, and when I’d come into the room, find Jim avidly watching an old film of a game from the era of those who-wears-short-shorts uniforms. Sometimes the games were in black and white.
Jim spent most of the last week of his life in the hospital.
A couple of days before he died, I was taking a break from MGH. I came home for an hour or so, and after I walked in the door, I just collapsed on the couch to look through the mail.
There was a letter addressed to Jim from Syracuse, NY. From Dolph Schayes, a Hall of Famer, early NBA star who’d played for the Syracuse Nationals. (Those were the days when an NBA star could have gone to NYU, and a town like Syracuse – or Fort Wayne – could have an NBA team.)
My friend Sean lives in Syracuse, and he knew that Jim was a major fan of the old-time NBA, so I figured he’d gotten an autograph from Dolph Schayes through someone he knew who knew someone who knew who knew someone who knew….
But when I opened the envelope, I found a long and detailed letter to Jim from Dolph Schayes.
I know the letter’s around here somewhere – I came across it when I was putting some stuff away a week or so ago – but I can’t put my hands on it at the moment.
The letter was full of wonderful reminiscences about Dolph’s playing days – late 1940’s up until the mid 1960’s – with special bits about playing against the Celtics. He shared his observations about the greatest players ever – was Oscar Robertson his main man? I can’t remember – and also shared his observations on the current state of basketball.
When I got back to the hospital that evening, I started to read the letter to Jim.
About half way through, he fell asleep.
When he woke up, he asked me to read him the rest. When I finished, Jim smiled, closed his eyes, and said “Perfect.”
And it was perfect.
How kind and generous of Dolph Schayes to take the time to write such an interesting, personal and thoughtful letter to someone he didn’t know. Oh, I’m sure Dolph as happy to have an audience who could appreciate what he had to say, but it was just a supremely nice thing to do. He could have just dashed off a “best-wishes-Dolph-Schayes” little note, but he took the time to put something quite wonderful together.
A few days later, after Jim had died, I wrote Dolph Schayes a letter to thank him for his note to Jim.
There’s a word for guys like Dolph Schayes, which I’m almost certain I used in that letter I wrote. That word is mensch.
Dolph Schayes died yesterday. He was 87. He was a mensch.
They don’t make ‘em like they used to.
A nod of thanks to my brother-in-law, Rick, for pointing out that Dolph had died.