Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends" Series: Saint Mary's Tom Meschery

July 31st, 2011
In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Saint Mary's great Tom Meschery. In addition to his career at the California school Meschery went on to have an outstanding career in the NBA. Despite the Gaels' recent string of success Meschery is still considered by many to be the school's greatest player.

Jon Teitel: Some of your nicknames were the "Mad Russian" and the "Renaissance Man". How did you get those nicknames, and which one did you like the most? 

Tom Meschery: The "Russian" part was because I am a Russian immigrant, while the "Mad" part was because I had a temper and got caught up in a few on-court altercations.  Rudy LaRusso was a favorite target. "Renaissance Man" probably came about because I write poetry and read a lot of literature.  I think that hardly constitutes a Renaissance Man, but I sure like it the best. 

JT: You were born in China after your parents fled from Russia in 1917 due to the October Revolution, and after spending part of WWII in a Tokyo prison camp your family emigrated to the US and changed its name from Meshcheryakov to Meschery. How did you survive the prison camp, and how hard was it to be a an Asian immigrant in America in the 1950s? 

TM: The camp was a women's/children's camp, so it was not that difficult.  Food was scarce but we were generally treated well.  My mom and sister were there, and we had lots of help from nuns, missionaries and fellow prisoners. We received regular Red Cross packages that were air-dropped.  The last months of the war were harrowing as our camp was bombed, but we made it out alive and wandered the streets under guard, sleeping wherever there was shelter.  A hospital finally took us in and we stayed in an attic for the duration to end of war.  It was a little tough in the US while my name was Mescheryakov and I still spoke broken English, but once my dad changed our name and I began to become integrated into society (primarily through sports, as I was very coordinated), things became better.  Being good at something always helps.

JT: You were an All-American at Lowell High School before going to St. Mary's. How did you get into basketball, and why did you decide to attend Saint Mary's? 

TM: I was in the Lowell HS district.  I got into basketball because a playground director by the name of Cappy Lavin (a former star player at San Francisco) taught me to play from my grammar school days through the 8th grade.  After that I honed my skills by playing in playground pick-up games all over the city. My high school coach Benny Neff (a San Francisco legend) helped me a great deal. I chose Saint Mary's because the offered me $36 million: just joking!  The principal recruiter for Saint Mary's was a fellow named John Henning, a great man who was the head of the AFL-CIO in California.  He convinced me that Saint Mary's would be right for me. They also had a strong freshman recruiting class, so I knew we could win, and we did: our freshman team did not lose a game! 

JT: In college you were a two-time All American and named conference POY. What did it mean to you to win such outstanding individual honors? 

TM: The honors were great for my ego, and it also justified all the hard work that I had put in.  As a team player it also meant that I had strong teammates who recognized my ability and helped me in any way they could.

JT: In the spring of 1961 you were drafted seventh overall by Philadelphia (six spots behind Walt Bellamy). Did you see that as a validation of your college career or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA? 

TM: Yes.  As for Walter (who always referred to himself in the third person and used his full name!), I felt that I had a better rookie season than he did. The statistical edge was his, but he was a pretty selfish player and not one of my favorites.  I passed up an opportunity to go to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in order to play ball.

JT: In 1962 you led the league in personal fouls, and you played 79+ games in eight of your 10 seasons. How important a part of your game was your physicality, and how were you able to remain so durable throughout your career? 

TM: As for the personal fouls, I always felt that they came out of my tenacity to play defense. When you play hard, you commit some fouls.  Also, I was not super-fast, so being physical was necessary if I was going to compete against speedier players.  I was durable, but I cannot give you a good reason for it.  I have always been strong ever since I was a kid. I also had a high tolerance for pain, and often played through injuries that might have sent today's players to the doctor.  

JT: In March 1962 you scored 16 points in a win over the Knicks, as your teammate Wilt Chamberlain (who you once picked a fight with) scored an NBA-record 100 points. When did you start to realize that Wilt was on his way to such a legendary night, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards? 

TM: At the start of the fourth quarter when "The Zink" (our PA guy Dave Zinkoff) announced that Wilt had around 80 points.  The feeling in the locker room was a bit surreal because there were virtually no reporters.  The game was not considered an important one and was being played in Hershey, PA (not Philly), so it was quiet with just a couple of local reporters and some quickly assembled camera crews.  The rest of us dressed and headed for the bus while Wilt and Coach Frank McGuire remained.  Before the season started, McGuire had actually predicted Wilt would score 100 points during the season! 

JT: In the 1962 Eastern Division Finals you had a two-point loss to the eventual champion Celtics in Game 7 after a game-winning shot by Hall of Famer Sam Jones. Do you think you should have won that series, and where does that Celtics team rank among the best you have ever seen (Bob Cousy and Bill Russell called it the greatest Celtics team of all-time)? 

TM: Yes, we should have won.  During a timeout in those last seconds Tom Gola asked McGuire if he could guard Sam, but McGuire kept Guy Rodgers on him even though Guy was not a good defender: voila!  If we would have won, we would have slaughtered the Lakers in the Finals.  The Celtics were much better the following year with the addition of John Havlicek.

JT: In 1963 your West squad lost by seven in the All-Star Game. What did it mean to you to be named an All-Star, and how on earth did you lose the game when you had seven future Hall of Fame teammates (Walt Bellamy, Bob Pettit, Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Lenny Wilkens and Bailey Howell)?  

TM: I was simply delighted to have made the team so I was sort of a stargazer.  As for the loss, I consider it a Bill Russell victory.

JT: In 1964 you had a 10-point win over St. Louis in Game 7 of the Western Division Finals before losing to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. How special was it to win Game 7 and reach the Finals, and how frustrating was it to keep running into the Celtics in the playoffs? 

TM: The win over the Hawks was special in itself, as they had given us trouble all year. It was particularly pleasing for me because I had a very good series.  It was frustrating to lose to the Celtics, but we were a bit injured and beat up from the Hawks series.  Of course, the Celtics had a better team at each position, and their reserves were stronger than ours. 

JT: In the 1967 NBA Finals you had a three-point loss to the 76ers in Game 6. How great was your former teammate Wilt down the stretch (six blocks in the 4th quarter), and how did it feel to face your former coach (Alex Hannum) leading a team from the city where you used to play? 

TM: It was a game that proved that irony rules the earth.  My much-loved ex-coach Hannum and ex-teammate Wilt came back to beat us, but Nate Thurmond was a fantastic center and gave Wilt everything he could handle.  It was tough series and the Warriors had nothing to hang their heads over: we acquitted ourselves well.

JT: In the summer of 1967 you were selected by Seattle in the expansion draft and ended up leading the team in rebounding during their inaugural season with 10.2 RPG. Was it awkward to be the highest-paid player on the team, and what is your secret for rebounding? 

TM: It was not awkward at all: we are not talking millions here!  However I am pretty sure that Walt Hazzard was paid more than me; check it out.  My secrets for rebounding: always keep moving, always block out (but not for too long), go hard for the ball when you think it is about to reach its greatest height, try to see which direction the ball bounces off the rim in practice, work on your leg strength, once you catch the ball spread your legs/elbows as you bring the ball down, be determined, and do not worry about hurting anyone. 

JT: You averaged 12.7 PPG during your 10-year NBA career, and your 8.6 RPG is still in the top-100 all-time. How satisfied are you with your career, and do you have any regrets? 

TM: I am satisfied that I did the best I could in every game I played.  My only regret is that I missed reaching the 10,000-point mark by less than 100 points. 

JT: You had various head and assistant coaching stints in the ABA, CBA and NBA. How did you like being a coach, and what were the biggest differences between the various leagues?  

TM: I hated being a coach. I had no patience for incompetence and laziness, of which there is more than you can imagine.  I also did not possess a good vision of the whole game, which made me a bad game-day coach.  The biggest difference between the ABA and NBA back when I coached was the caliber of players.  In the ABA, there were only a few bona fide stars and lots of marginally-talented players.  I loved the three-point rule, which the NBA later adopted, but I hated the red, white and blue ball, which the NBA did not adopt (thank God!). 

JT: After leaving the coaching ranks you got your MFA from Iowa and studied poetry with future US poet laureate Mark Strand. Why did you decide to go get a Masters degree, and what role does poetry play in your life? 

TM: I took a class from Mark at Washington while I was playing.  When I decided to quit coaching, Mark suggested that I apply to the Iowa Writers Workshop.  He later taught there for a semester and I took another class with him.  I also studied under Donald Justice and Marvin Bell (the first Poet Laureate of the state of Iowa), who were highly influential in my development as a poet.  I love poetry: it is an ongoing investigation of my life and the world around me, and is a way of seeing clearly. 
Meschery is also on Jon's list of best pro players in WCC history.

Gonzaga: John Stockton (1985)
Loyola Marymount: Rick Adelman (1969)
Pepperdine: Dennis Johnson (1977)
Portland: Ray Scott (1962)
Saint Mary's: Tom Meschery (1962)
San Diego: Stan Washington (1975)
San Francisco: Bill Russell (1957)
Santa Clara: Steve Nash (1997)