Original Old School: The Dude Abides

Being born in China to Russian parents before settling in San Fran helped make former All-Star Tom Meschery one of the most unique players in NBA history. Read Gregory Dole’s story on the amazing Meschery as it originally appeared in SLAM 134.–Ed.

by Gregory Dole

The date was March 2, 1962. The city was Hershey, PA. We all know the story: Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knickerbockers. One of Wilt’s Philadelphia Warriors teammates that night was a rookie named Tom Meschery.

“That was the most profound moment in my career,” says Meschery today. “I don’t think anything could top that moment. I remember it clearly. I didn’t know at the time much about East Coast basketball, nor professional basketball. Our coach, Frank Maguire, had predicted that he would score 100 points. I had already seen Chamberlain in practice but I would never have imagined.”

To be playing alongside the best player in the world was a long way from where he started. Meschery was a Russian, born in China, making him in fact both the first Russian and Chinese-born player in the NBA. In 1938, Tomislav Nikolayevich Mescheryakov, aka Tom Meschery,was born to Russian exiles living in the Manchurian city of Harbin, in what is now called China. His parents were members of the Russian elite, or White  Russians, who fled Russia’s Bolshevik revolution.

“It is true, I was born in China, but being born to Russian parents had a deep effect on me. Russia is in my blood,” recalls Meschery from his home in Truckee, CA. “I obviously immigrated and became American, but my family is Russian. My mother was Russian aristocracy and her father was a member of the senate, a strong supporter of the Czar and a head figure in the Russian Orthodox Church.”

With communism sweeping through Russia, the elite classes were on the run. Yet Manchuria would not offer much refuge to the Mescherys or the other White Russians. World War II would bring the invading Japanese Imperial Army. Meschery, his mother and sister were sent to a concentration camp in Japan. Meschery’s father had already immigrated to the United States and it was only after the war that they would reunite. Growing up in the camp, the world of professional sports could not have crossed the young Meschery’s mind.

When Meschery finally arrived in San Francisco, he had a difficult time integrating into American life; he was an outsider. Basketball helped greatly. “Sports made my transition to America much easier,” Meschery recalls. “I tried so hard to play, almost in an effort to prove that I was a real American. The better I would play, the more I would be considered American. It became a passion. I was obsessed by basketball. There was not a minute that I did not enjoy it, practicing or otherwise. Basketball combines the team game and the individual game in such a profound way. The individual talent can be absorbed into the team.”

Following a successful career at nearby St. Mary’s University, well beyond the spotlight of the NBA’s East Coast teams, Meschery thought of becoming a diplomat in the US State Department. Those plans were cast aside when, after a standout performance for the US Olympic team at an AAU tournament in Denver, NBA teams came calling. In the footsteps of West Coast college stars like Bill Russell and KC Jones, Meschery was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors in the NBA’s first round.

“We were on a basketball tour in Kansas City and Warriors GM Eddie Goldberg came into my room and kicked my roommate out, sat me down and started negotiating. Eddie offered me something and I accepted. No agent, no negotiations!”

Meschery’s rookie year was one of the most memorable seasons in NBA history. His Warriors, led by Chamberlain, made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost in seven games to the mighty Boston Celtics. The 6-6 Meschery would go on to play 10 years in the NBA, with per-game averages of 12.7 points and 8.6 rebounds for his career.

“I saw myself as an all-around player. I tried my damnedest. My role changed when the Warriors drafted Rick Barry. Prior to him, I was an offensive player. I made the All-Star team [in 1963] as an offensive player. With the new players, while I didn’t pass up good shots, a lot of the offense went through Nate Thurmond and Rick Barry. We also had good shooting guards. So I learned how to be a good offensive rebounder.”

Clifford Ray, current Boston Celtics assistant coach and former Warrior remembers Meschery: “He was a player that went all out. Non-stop, giving it his all. From what I was told, he flat out went off against his competition. I had worn the number 14 in Chicago, but when I went to the Warriors I had to change because that had been Tom’s number. He was a legend with the Warriors. But Tom was more than that. He was a renaissance man. We all knew that he left the game to write poetry and open a bookstore up in Northern California.”

The game of basketball was going through a period of great development and innovation, with Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West pushing the quality of play to new heights. “The minute I stepped on the court and I had to play against West and Robinson, I knew that these were special players,” says Meschery. “That generation of draft choices from 1960 onward really changed the way that the League was perceived. There was great change. Those guys in George Mikan’s era couldn’t compete today, but my era saw players who transcended all eras, bringing the game to a level it had not known before.”

Without the benefit of televised coverage and replays, players could get away with a great deal more. The man they called the “Mad Manchurian” played close to the edge. “I think there was a different mindset. In those days, if guards went into the key, they would get elbowed. They would get thrown to the ground,” recalls Meschery. “A guard like West was one of the few guys who could get to the key and he would earn it. Robertson had his pull-up jump shot to avoid getting hit. There were no easy layups. I would have knocked Kobe or any guard on his ass 20 times a game if they had gone into the key.”

Meschery became the first pick of the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1967 expansion draft. It was in Seattle that he would begin pursuing off-court interests that would eventually become his second career. “I didn’t see myself as an academic at that point in my life,” he says. “I realized that I read more books than most of my teammates and on the team plane rides, I would read poetry and that sort of thing instead of playing poker. Actually, I would only play poker when Wilt Chamberlain was playing because he was a horrible player. It was easy money!”

A chance encounter with University of Washington poetry chair Mark Strand—who would later become the poet laureate of the United States—set Meschery on the course toward becoming a poet. “I never grew up thinking poetry was effeminate. My father was 6-3, a great bear of a man, and he would read poetry and weep. He would cry over it. From a young age I appreciated poetry,” says Meschery. “My teammates found my interest in poetry to be odd, however, I had a strong temper so they didn’t push it.”

Having set a goal of retiring when he would no longer be considered a starter, it became time to hang up his sneakers. After flirting with the idea of joining the Peace Corps to teach basketball in South America, Meschery instead became head coach of the ABA’s Carolina Cougars. “I hated coaching,” he admits. “I was a bad coach. I had no patience whatsoever. I did not see the big picture. I was a single-minded player. I knew my position well but I had never had that Lenny Wilkens ability to see the whole court. I was a terrible coach and I hated it. I don’t like failing at anything.”

After a Cougars game in New Jersey, Meschery went for drinks with the poet Strand, who convinced him to pack in the coaching gig and pursue poetry writing at the University of Iowa. And that was it.

Meschery would go on to write a poem about his former teammate Chamberlain. While the two were very different types—Meschery a socialist and Chamberlain a conservative—they maintained contact throughout their lives.

“Wilt had a small coterie of friends. We were also friends,” says Meschery. “He was misunderstood by the media and fans. He was not an arrogant guy. He was a wonderful guy. When I was in Seattle, I had a summer league tournament event for the inner-city kids. I wanted a superstar for the event. I called up one great center and he refused me. I called up Wilt, and he came up on his own dime from Los Angeles. He stayed for three days and even refereed the whole tournament. He never did a lot of stuff for media. Much of his good works he did not do for publicity. He was always doing good things for the public. He was a very private guy. He was a sweet guy. I just never understood how he could vote for Richard Nixon, and I told him that.”

As a player from a simpler time in the NBA, you would expect Meschery to have a dim view of the League and its scandals. Not true. “The major leagues combined wouldn’t hold a candle to what evil corporate types have done to society—the Enrons or a George Bush and a Dick Cheney,” Meschery says. “I suspect that there are much greater thieves in the corporate world. The root of it is greed and there will always be problems in the NBA. It is the job of the commissioner to keep on top of it, however no one will ever be able to eliminate human transgressions.”

Meschery remains a basketball fan to this day. During his battle and recovery from cancer a few years ago, Meschery’s son bought him the NBA League Pass, just as the Warriors were embarking on their magical run in 2007.

“I will always be a Golden State Warrior. My son is even part of the Warriors blog Fear the Beard. You could say I left it in San Francisco. I became hooked again on the NBA during my recovery. Once the ball goes up, the game is still the best game in the world.”