It isn’t so surprising to Dave Meyers’ former teammate—both collegiate and professional—that he has retreated to a quiet life with his family. You don’t see him on TV talking about the old days or read about his post-basketball exploits. Meyers wants to be a father, husband, friend, teacher and, most of all, a man of faith. None of that requires any time in the spotlight. In fact, Meyers wouldn’t speak for this article. He just wants to live his life and sees no reason to talk about what happened more than 30 years ago.
It makes sense, really. When Meyers the player was off the court, he was as pleasant and mild as anyone. He was considered a great friend, a man with an easy laugh and a calm countenance. “He was a gentle, compassionate guy,” says former UCLA and Milwaukee Bucks teammate Marques Johnson. Meyers was unselfish, pragmatic and sensible.
Until he hit the court.
That’s when the quiet guy in the corner became a furious basketball force. The 6-8, 215-pound forward would dunk on anybody in pickup games, trade elbows with beefy power forwards who had 30 pounds on him and dive for loose balls. Meyers’ on-court persona was so different from his everyday behavior that some couldn’t believe anyone was capable of such divergent character traits.
“He played with reckless abandon,” Johnson says. “He was quiet, but he played with great spirit. He didn’t back down to big guys. He would get knocked down and get up and get in people’s faces. He talked trash to the beastliest black guys in the League. He was also a great teammate.”
Meyers’ spirit defined him as a player and a person. And it made him a beloved teammate. He gave of himself both in the game and away from it, and when he decided to leave basketball—abruptly—after the 1979-80 season, he refused to enter that world again. His back ached. His family beckoned. His Jehovah’s Witness religion offered him a place away from the materialistic NBA world. David Meyers’ basketball career was filled with highlights, but he never let that define him. Today, he lives and works in Southern California, content to be a fourth-grade schoolteacher. His sole basketball work is done with kids, far away from the big-time hoops world he once inhabited.
“What really impressed me about his retirement was that he was saying life is more important than basketball,” says Sidney Moncrief, who played with Meyers in Milwaukee.
Some see Meyers’ retreat as a mystery. Those who knew him aren’t surprised at all. Why would someone who put others first be consumed with squeezing every basket and dollar out of a game that he didn’t believe really defined him? When it was time to leave, Meyers left. There was no hand wringing or agony—except for his back pain. It was the right choice.
“He was such an easy, talented guy,” Moncrief says. “Because of his personality and skill level, he’s one of my favorite teammates. He was a team guy—that’s what he cared about.”
The Meyers’ house in La Habra, CA, had a staircase that featured a landing about four steps from the second floor. From there, it was 12 more steps to the first. When they were young, David and his sister, Ann, two years his junior, would see how many steps they could jump down without hurting themselves. At first, they made it five or six. “But David was so competitive,” Ann says. “He kept going until he could jump down 12.”
Listening to Ann speak about her big brother is a fascinating exercise. Here is someone who was a pioneer in women’s basketball. Who was the first-ever four-time All-American while at UCLA. Who played on a Silver medal-winning Olympic team, was married to the late baseball great Don Drysdale and won two WNBA titles as GM of the Phoenix Mercury. She’s a Hall of Famer, a sporting legend in her own right. When she talks about her big brother, though, she sounds almost star-struck.
“I feel blessed to be his sister,” says Ann, who is now a VP of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury. “When I was younger, I was the tag-along.”
Meyers was one of 11 children. His father, Bob, was a former Marquette hoops star who captained the team during the 1944-45 season, and his mother, Pat, eventually became close friends with legendary UCLA coach John Wooden’s wife, Nellie, a bond forged by the time they spent together at UCLA games. “They would go out at halftime of games to smoke,” Ann says.
Sports were the common currency in the Meyers house, and everybody played just about everything, whether it was hoops in the pool, football on the beach or organized sports. David was born in San Diego and moved with his family to Chicago in the early 1960s but returned to Southern California in time for high school—Sonora High—where he earned state Player of the Year honors and the attention of Wooden, or as Ann calls him, “Papa.” That was enough for him. It was on to UCLA.
When Meyers arrived in Westwood in the fall of 1971, few people in the college basketball community noticed. The important UCLA names then were Bill Walton and Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes, sophomores who were moving up to the varsity (freshmen weren’t eligible to play then) and who were expected to continue the program’s streak of five consecutive National Titles.
By the time Meyers joined the Bruins’ varsity in 1972, the team had made it six Championships and had embarked on the legendary 88-game winning streak. There wasn’t a lot of room for Meyers in the lineup, and his numbers (4.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg) reflected that. He played in all but two of the Bruins’ games that year and logged 10 minutes in the ’73 National Title game against Memphis State, but he was a decidedly complementary cog.
“Coach [John] Wooden referred to him as a gangly colt,” Johnson says. “I read that when I was a senior at [Los Angeles’] Crenshaw High. I didn’t know a lot about him when I got to UCLA, but he was a long, hustling type of player.”
Meyers moved into the starting lineup as a junior and became a substantial contributor, scoring 11.4 ppg and grabbing 5.7 rpg on a team still dominated by Wilkes and Walton but had room for the energetic power forward.
“He was like Connie Hawkins,” Walton says. “He could soar through the air. He had fantastic hands and was a great rebounder. He was phenomenal on the fastbreak and great on the press. He could really play.”
Unfortunately for UCLA, 1973-74 was the season of ended streaks. First, Notre Dame spoiled the 88-game winning string. Then came the “lost weekend” in the Pacific Northwest, when Oregon State and Oregon dumped the Bruins on back-to-back days, ending their run of 50 consecutive Pac-8 victories. Finally, in one of the greatest NCAA Tournament games ever played, in the national semifinals, North Carolina State defeated UCLA, 80-77, in double overtime to put an end to the program’s seven-season-long National Championship run. “I let [Meyers] down when I was a senior,” Walton says of the game that he considers the lowest point of his basketball career.
Meyers still had a year to go with UCLA, unlike the Redhead, who was on his way to the NBA. He had provided a fine counterbalance to the senior-laden starting group of ’73-74 that tried to impose its specific culture on the team. Meyers was now ready to be a leader.
“Dave was a fun guy to be around,” says Richard Washington, a sophomore forward on the ’73-74 team and later a teammate of Meyers’ in Milwaukee. “He was mellow and low-key but was an excellent leader. The last year he was here, we were able to relax. Walton and those guys were so intense. They were trying to get us to be vegetarian, do Transcendental Meditation and protest this or that. We wanted to play basketball.”
Wooden named Meyers captain for the 1974-75 season. The forward was the sole returning starter on the team, and he joked in a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times that “I imagine reading that Dave Meyers was UCLA’s only returning starter was not something to fear.”
As usual, Meyers was underselling himself. He averaged 18.3 ppg and 7.9 rpg that year and was a unanimous First-Team All-American. Though the Bruins lacked recognizable names around him, Johnson, Washington, Andre McCarter and Pete Trgovich moved up from the reserve ranks and joined him in a formidable five. The Bruins won the Pac-8 title and headed into the NCAA Tournament ranked second in the nation.
After defeating Louisville in a dramatic, national semifinal decision, Wooden delivered some news that stunned his players. He would be retiring from coaching after the National Title game against Kentucky. “I don’t think there was any doubt in anybody’s mind when we went into [the final] that we were going to win,” Washington says.
The Bruins did prevail, 92-85, thanks in large part to Meyers’ 24 points, 11 boards and 3 blocks. UCLA had earned its 10th championship in 12 years, erased the bad memory of the previous season’s defeat and sent Wooden into retirement as the ultimate champion. Meyers, who had arrived on campus as a relative unknown, had been the leader of the last hurrah.
“If I was putting together a college team, I would want a player like Dave Meyers on that team,” says McCarter, the Bruins’ point guard that year. “I am proud to have played with Dave Meyers.”
• • •
Though Meyers is known by many primarily for his decision to curtail his professional career, he is also a footnote on one of the most important trades in NBA history. The Lakers drafted him second overall in 1975 and less than three weeks later dealt him, along with Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters and Elmore Smith, to Milwaukee for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley. The Bucks had sagged to last in the Midwest Division—a year after taking Boston to seven games in the NBA Finals—largely because of Oscar Robertson’s retirement. Abdul-Jabbar had asked to be traded eight months earlier, to New York or L.A., and the Bucks couldn’t persuade him to reverse course.
So, instead of going home to Southern California, Meyers was heading to Wisconsin.
He encountered a Bucks team that was struggling to find its identity without Abdul-Jabbar. Although Milwaukee won the Midwest Division in his rookie year, 1975-76, it posted just a 38-44 record and was ousted in the first round of the Playoffs. The Bucks slid to 30-52 the next season, finishing last, but rebounded to go 44-38 the next year, good for second place and a spot in the Western semifinals. Meyers played well, but his stats weren’t overwhelming—7.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg in ’75-76; 9.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg in ’76-77. Not that it was a problem for him. The goal was to compete and win.
“He took every ballgame seriously,” Smith says. “Dave was tough. He was the kind of guy you wanted on your team. You didn’t worry about his end. You knew he would hold it up.”
Smith and Meyers became fast friends. During their second season in Milwaukee, Smith was having a condominium built, and he and his family moved in with Meyers and his wife. In 1975, Smith had already become a Jehovah’s Witness during a mass baptism at Dodger Stadium. A couple years later, after speaking at times with Smith, Meyers converted from Catholicism.
“I brought it to his attention,” Smith says. “That’s what you do, when you get a chance and find someone who wants to live in a different way. You feel obligated to tell them about it. Over time, he took it and ran with it.”
While Meyers was making a large life change, his basketball career was enduring some trials. Despite scoring 14.7 ppg and pulling down 6.7 boards for the ’77-78 Bucks who finished second and lost to Denver in the Western semis, Meyers hurt his back and was unable to play at all the following year. Although he returned in 1979 and averaged 12.1 ppg and 5.7 rpg, he was in constant pain. The team wasn’t too sympathetic. “What they did to him in Milwaukee regarding his back was shameful,” Walton says.
By 1980, Meyers was gone. He didn’t want to fight through the pain any longer, and he wanted to see his two children more than half a year. According to Ann Meyers, Milwaukee GM Wayne Embry called Wooden and asked whether Meyers was holding out for more money. “Wooden said, ‘You don’t know David,’” Ann says. Meyers’ style of play didn’t blend with the NBA’s star power ethos. He wasn’t a good-time party guy, either. It was time to move on. Meyers was just fine with that. Others weren’t. “People don’t understand why other people want to spend time with their kids,” Ann says.
Smith wasn’t at all surprised by Meyers’ actions. The two had spoken often about how incongruent the world of professional basketball was with their faith and the way they wanted to live.
“What we were learning at the time in our religion went against what it took to perform in sports and to be a winner,” Smith says. “You had to have a killer instinct.
“I’m proud of Dave.”
It’s hard not to be.
Photos via Getty Images