I interviewed Tom Meschery, a former NBA player, English teacher, poet, World War II refugee and Russian immigrant in 2017. I wrote a trio of stories about Meschery for The Japan Times.
Eclectic Meschery has lived rich life in NBA, literature
Take a typical Hollywood script and add several more twists and turns to the plot. That would help give you a vivid picture of the life that Tom Meschery has lived.
Immigrant. War survivor. College basketball star. NBA standout. Poet. Bookstore owner. High school English teacher.
Meschery was born in Harbin, Manchuria (in present-day China). His parents had emigrated to Harbin to escape the 1917 Russian Revolution in their native land.
“The Bolsheviks shot most of my relatives,” he told Sports Illustrated.
His father had served in the White Russian Army, and distant relatives on his mother’s side of the family included the gifted writers Leo and Aleksey Tolstoy. That rich Russian literary tradition helped shape his future intellectual pursuits.
Meschery, now 78, only lived in Harbin for a few years. His father, Nicholas, left Manchuria as World War II escalated in Asia and settled in San Francisco. Like many others, his family was unable to stay united during the war. Meschery, his mother and sister were in Japan; not by choice, though, they couldn’t get visas to join the family patriarch in America.
In a recent interview, Meschery (given name Tomislav Nicholiavich Mescheriakov) looked back on his early days, a life in basketball and academia, his current writing projects and impressions of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
Spending time in a Tokyo-area internment camp during World War II had a profound impact on Meschery’s life (a topic that will be explored in a few weeks for the third installment). From age 3, some of his earliest memories were the sights, sounds and smells of the war and intense aerial bombardment of Tokyo.
Asked how the trauma of war affected his life, Meschery said, “It’s hard to say. I’m pretty sure that one of the results of the camp was a long-abiding sense of insecurity that I’ve always had.
“In basketball, it helped me a great deal because I always thought that I was about to lose my job and that every season I had to battle,” added the No. 7 overall pick in the 1961 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia Warriors by phone from his home in Sacramento, California. “And that’s just the way I’ve kind of always lived my life. I was always looking over my shoulder, and I think that must have come from the camp.”
Raised in San Francisco after WWII with his family reunited, Meschery excelled in basketball at Lowell High School and nearby Saint Mary’s College (his No. 31 is retired). He helped the Gaels reach the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in ’59, falling to the University of the California. Two years later, he was chosen as a First Team All-American by the United States Basketball Writers Association, and was the West Coast Conference Player of the Year.
“Once I got to the United States, things changed very positively,” Meschery said in August. “I was always successful. I had a lot of success from the early years on, and so I should’ve been re-enforced. I should’ve had a really strong ego. But I think the camp had at a very early age made me sort of insecure, and I think that insecurity also made me a kind of go-getter, too.”
On the basketball court, he was always in the thick of things. He was known for his toughness, his hard-nosed style of play. As a rookie, he led the NBA in fouls (330) in the 1961-62 season.
That, of course, wasn’t his most memorable fact of the season. The March 2, 1962, game in Hershey, Pennsylvania, gets top billing. In Warriors center Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, Philly topped the New York Knicks 169-147, with Meschery and fellow starting forward Paul Arizin both scoring 16 points and backcourt mates Al Attles and Guy Rodgers putting 17 and 11 on the board. Wilt had 31 fourth-quarter points to set the single-game scoring standard before a crowd of 4,124.
Nothing about that contest surprised Meschery, who was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
“They tried to do everything, but the Knicks were not a very good team,” acknowledged Meschery who averaged 12.7 points and 8.6 rebounds in his 10 NBA seasons and was the first foreign-born player to appear in an All-Star Game in 1963. “You have to remember that, and that’s not any kind of asterisk. . . . But they had their own pride. They knew what was happening.
“Everybody in the arena after the third quarter sensed what was going on, and they did everything they could physically to stop Wilt from scoring.
“Wilt was going to score 100 points, and they beat on him. Wilt was the most beat-on player ever and he never lost his temper except once in his career.”
Who caused the Big Dipper to lose his composure?
The former University of Kansas forward established a notorious reputation during his 11 seasons in the NBA, Meschery insisted.
“He was a mean son of a bitch,” he said of Lovellette, “and always was, and dirty. I mean a truly dirty (expletive) player. I really disliked him . . .
“Anyway, Clyde threw one too many elbows at Wilt, and Wilt knocked him out with one punch. And the punch traveled no more than one foot maybe at most. It was just a jab, but the fiercest jab I ever saw.”
The muscular 198-cm Meschery, who was dubbed “The Mad Russian” in his playing days, helped the Warriors, who relocated to San Francisco in 1962, reach the NBA Finals in 1964 (a five-game loss to the Boston Celtics) and in ’67 (a six-game defeat to Wilt’s Philadelphia 76ers). Joining the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1967 expansion draft, he spent the final four seasons of his career with the new franchise.
Once while suiting up for the Sonics, Meschery got ticked off at ex-teammate Chamberlain, who was then with the Lakers.
Meschery started throwing punches at the 216-cm Wilt, a scene described in Sports Illustrated as “like right out of a comic book.”
I asked Meschery if he agreed with that description.
“It was,” he says now. “Looking back at it, I don’t think I was thinking that at the time, but as I was being interviewed and as I’ve kind of come to think of it all my life as . . . it was like a comic book.
“Wilt was literally holding my head. I was trying to hit him and I was of course moving towards him, and so my forward motion was impeded by his hand. So he had his hand on my forehead, so imagine the pictures.
“His hand on my forehead and me wildly swinging and because of course his arm was so long I couldn’t hit him,” Meschery added with a chuckle.
“He had a little sort of chagrin smile on his face (as if to say), ‘Really, are you kidding me?’ But I thought I was being very brave.”
Did Meschery’s teammates mock him about that incident for the rest of the season and even afterward?
“Yeah, I got a truck load of s—- after that. They got a lot of fun at my expense,” he said.
I asked Meschery if there was a sequence of events that led to his anger rising beyond his control in that game. Or was it one play that led to fisticuffs with the Big Dipper?
“No, I don’t think so,” said Meschery, who coached the ABA’s Carolina Cougars for the 1971-72 season, then Larry Brown was his replacement. That experienced became the subject of his 1973 book “Caught in the Pivot: The Diary of a Rookie Coach in the Exploding World of Pro Basketball”
He added: “It always took a little while for me to get to a point where I was going to fight, and it really required a few elbows being thrown, maybe an embarrassment or something, maybe somebody chewed me out and I felt embarrassed.
“I really can’t remember what caused the fight, but I’m pretty sure a few other things happened before I tried to take it out on Wilt.”
The two never engaged in hand-to-hand combat again.
“Wilt and I were close. We were friends,” Meschery said. “We played with each other. We were teammates. . . . I don’t allow people to call me Tommy, but he did. (In that game), that’s what he was saying, ‘Say hello, Tommy. Come on, Tommy,’ like I was some kind of little boy, and I was. Compared to him I was a little boy.”
In the years after the larger-than-life Chamberlain passed away on Oct. 12, 1999, Meschery remembers his teammate as “the biggest man I’ve ever seen” and “the strongest man in the world. He was amazing.”
He privately mourned Chamberlain’s passing.
“I couldn’t do it. I’m not good at funerals,” Meschery admitted. “I don’t want anybody to be at mine, and I don’t plan to attend anybody else’s.
Instead, he added, “I sat down and wrote a poem when Wilt died. The next day, I wrote a poem, and I sent it to Barbara (his sister).”
The poem is entitled “Mourning Wilt.”
Enjoying renewed interest
Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum penned a feature on Meschery for the magazine’s “Where Are They Now Issue?” in June. It brought greater exposure to Meschery, introducing him to a large segment of the population that was unaware of his background, playing career and post-NBA life as a coach, poet and teacher (more on the latter two in the next installment of this series).
What sparked SI’s interest in telling Meschery’s story?
“I think that it had a lot to do with my rediscovering professional basketball through the Golden State Warriors,” he said. “I think that was his shtick. I think that was the idea. In my old age, I rediscovered the game that I had sort of put aside a little bit.”
He added: “I was up in Truckee living in the mountains (in Northern California), and then through a series of incidents, one that included my contracting multiple myeloma (cancer of the white blood cells), my son bought me a season NBA pass on TV and I started watching the games again.”
To combat his health issue, Meschery underwent a stem-cell transplant in December 2006.
But with a renewed interest in his former team and the league again, Meschery became more attuned to present-day Warriors. Rick Welts, the team president and chief operating officer, came on board in September 2011. Welts was a ballboy for the Seattle SuperSonics during Meschery’s time with the team.
Decades later, they became reacquainted with Welts a prominent part of the new Golden State ownership’s brain trust. Meschery remembers Welts telling him that the new ownership “was trying to embrace all of the older players and bring them back in the fold.”
Meschery called it “charming” and “wonderful.”
In time, he became a more visible member of the Warriors fraternity again. Which led to his increased viewing of their games in Stephen Curry’s early years on the squad. (He also fervently embraced watching the Spurs. “I thought the Spurs played basketball the right way,” he said.)
“In short, the Warriors kind of re-embraced me as I, in turn, re-embraced them.”
The reigning champion Warriors, winners of two titles in the past three seasons, thrill Meschery, invigorate him.
“I think the Warriors have somehow, and I’m not exactly sure how, have discovered the true spirit of the game of basketball, and they play with that in mind,” he said. “They are the most unselfish, poised, talented team I’ve ever seen, but what makes them unique, I think, is they all understand the true nature of basketball, and they all play it that way.”
He went on: “. . .The Warriors, just every player seems to understand exactly how the nature of the game developed. It’s almost as if they are playing a refined playground ball. . . . It’s the natural way of playing. . . . And I think what the Warriors have done is they’ve found this naturalness, the way the game should always be played — instinctively and with joy — and they’ve taken it to a very high professional level.”
Meschery has no complaints about the publicity that McCallum’s piece generated. As a writer seeking to boost his own credentials and publish his first novel, it can’t hurt, either, he noted, pointing out that in recent query letters to book agents he’s included the fact that he was featured in the prominent national magazine.
“Surprisingly, all of a sudden I’m getting a lot of requests for autographs,” he revealed. “People have been sending me cards for autographs. . . . Yeah, all of a sudden I’m a basketball player again. I kind of gave up on that idea a long time ago. I spent more time in front of a classroom than I did on the basketball court. . . . Now I sort of think of myself as a basketball player again.”
“But I can’t shoot a shot, that’s for sure,” he quipped.
After two shoulder replacements while coping with the chronic pain of two bad knees and a bad back, Meschery, whose No. 14 was retired by the Warriors, putting him in elite company along with Chamberlain (No. 13), Attles (No. 16), Nate Thurmond (No. 42), Barry (No. 24), among others, hasn’t played basketball in years.
“I don’t think I could make a free throw,” he said.
“I just tell people how to shoot. I don’t shoot them,” he blurted out.
Which isn’t to say that he was a horrible shooter during his NBA career. After all, he did manage to be a double-digit scorer during his decade in the pros.
“I had very good shooting form. I was a pretty good decent offensive player,” he said.
But remember this: The contemporary game’s rapid-fire barrage of 3-point shots was not the way the NBA operated in the 1960s and early ’70s.
“It was a center-dominated league back then, and it was a power league, and most coaches would’ve yanked you out of the game if you started shooting them from 23 feet, 24 feet,” said Meschery, who conceded he was effective shooting 20 feet from the basket.”
With the conversation shifting back to four famous men with ties to the Warriors organization, Meschery offered his articulate insights about head coach Steve Kerry, Curry, Hall of Famer Barry and the late, great play-by-play broadcaster Bill King.
*On Kerr: “(He) is brave, honorable and incredibly intelligent. The bravery, of course, goes back to his father’s assassination (Malcolm Kerr, president of American University of Beirut, was shot to death by gunmen in January 1984) and how he was able to overcome and having lived through that and to rise above that kind of terrible (act) and still remain a strong liberal voice.”
*On Curry: “He’s religious. He’s got great faith. He walks his talk. He is gifted. . . . I don’t think there will ever be a player like him. I just think his ability to shoot the ball is so natural, so instinctive that I don’t think there’ll be a player to shoot like him again.
“I like him because he is down to earth. I think he is a team-first kind of guy, and I think he is modest and I think he is willing to sacrifice for his team.”
*On Barry: “I have a hard time with Rick. He had a huge ego that he was able to live up to, and he was a man of enormous willpower because when he came into the league he really could not shoot jump shots accurately. And he turned himself into a jump shooter. By the end of his career, he was a 3-point shooter, and I think that takes an awful lot of courage, so give Rick a lot of credit for being able to live up to his belief in himself.
“Oh s—, he was as good a 3 as there was in the league, and he’ll always be. He could do everything — he could pass. He couldn’t play center; Magic Johnson could play center . . . but Rick could probably only be able to play 1, 2 and 3. But he was as good a stretch 3 as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
*On close friend King’s posthumous induction into the broadcasters’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in July:
“For one thing, I was incredibly pleased. At the same time, my thought was that it was a long time coming, and this guy was incredible. He announced three sports at the same time. He was broadcasting the Warriors, and broadcasting the Raiders and broadcasting the A’s. And at one time he was doing all of them. He was never home. He was on an airplane all the time. . . . And he was fabulous. Besides doing this incredible job, he was erudite, he had a great memory, he knew the game, he created images on the radio, which was very difficult. He’s a superstar. He should be in the Hall of Fame in football, baseball and basketball.
“We were great friends,” he was like my older brother,” said Meschery, who has mentioned he and King, the 2017 Ford C. Frick Award recipient, had talked about planning an adventurous trek across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but it didn’t come to pass before King died in October 2005. “He was very much like my brother.”
Further reading: Meschery’s online blog: mescherysmusings.blogspot.jp
Love of books, poetry made Meschery unique in NBA
Tom Meschery is comfortable conversing about the improvisational beauty of basketball and the giants of classical Russian literature. And he’s a brilliant observer of both art forms.
Which may make him the only former first-round NBA draft pick — taken No. 7 by the Philadelphia Warriors in 1961 — to hold that distinction.
Meschery has always been one of the unique characters in NBA history.
As detailed in part one of this column series, Meschery started alongside Wilt Chamberlain when the legendary center scored 100 points against the New York Knicks in a 1962 game, and wound up getting mocked by the “Big Dipper” years later when he instigated and failed miserably to fight his ex-teammate.
Off the court, Meschery, who turns 79 on Oct 26, has carved his own niche as both a writer (nonfiction, poet), though he now aims to make a name for himself as a fiction writer.
After his NBA playing days ended in 1971, the bruising 198-cm forward pursued a career in coaching. He was hired to lead the rival ABA’s Carolina Cougars. The Cougars went 35-49 in the 1971-72 campaign, and future Hall of Fame coach Larry “Next Town” (to borrow a timeless nickname from the inimitable Peter Vecsey) Brown was hired as his replacement. Carolina posted a 57-27 record in Brown’s first season in charge. Meschery spent two seasons, 1974-75 and the following campaign, as a Portland Trail Blazers assistant under Lenny Wilkens. After Wilkens was fired following the 1975-76 season, Jack Ramsay was hired, and the Blazers won the title in his first year at the helm.
In a recent interview, Meschery recalled the chain of events that led to his improbable position as the Carolina coach.
“I had no coaching experience. I’d just retired from the Sonics at the end of the ’70-71 season. I was being interviewed by Evergreen College for a position in the English department. My wife, Joanne, was against it because she was tired of (Pacific) Northwest weather. So, I took a job in the Peace Corps as basketball coach in Venezuela,” Meschery told Hoop Scoop. “Tricky Dick (Richard Nixon) was president, and by mid-August had dismantled lots of the Peace Corps, which included my position.
“Carl Scheer, GM of the Cougars, contacted me to see if I was interested in the vacant Cougars head basketball coaching job. I interviewed and was hired. Remember, no coaching experience. North Carolina was still a racist state. A couple of racial incidents occurred early upon my arrival that affected the way I thought about the job, the state and the people. By the end, more bad memories than good ones.”
That season provided the backdrop for Meschery’s book “Caught in the Pivot: a Diary of a Rookie Coach in the Exploding World of Pro Basketball,” which was published in 1973.
Looking back on the project, he insisted it wasn’t a successful endeavor.
“My one regret about the book was that it was far too serious,” Meschery lamented. “In retrospect, rereading it I thought it was whiny. Oh woe is me! On the whole and to be honest, I was a miserable coach, lacking in X’s and O’s, lacking patience, lacking the ability to see the full court in an interactive way.”
Did he plan writing this book all along?
“No, I didn’t think of a book until the very end of the season,” he says now, “and I think if I’d been taking notes from the beginning it would have been a different and better book.
“Very little reaction,” he added. “It sold few copies. A memoir without humor doesn’t work. I never really saw the big picture taking place around me . . .”
Nowadays, Meschery, who earned a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa, writes mostly in the mornings, devoting about four hours a day to sitting at his computer.
After napping and reading in the afternoon, he sometimes writes again in the evenings, “but only if there’s some real reason to do it,” he said by phone from his home in Sacramento, California.
“A thought or a chapter I didn’t finish or a stanza that I was working on that I got another idea for,” he offered.
Meschery’s blog (mescherysmusings.blogspot.jp/) provides an outlet for him to vent his anger at President Donald Trump.
“I’m so thoroughly pissed off at Trump that I have so many things to say,” Meschery declared.
In February 2015, he published a poetry book, “Sweat: New and Selected Poems About Sports.”
He also recently finished writing his first mystery novel and was waiting to hear back from a literary agent he sent the manuscript to when we spoke a few weeks ago.
Meschery, who was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 2002, is collaborating with his wife, Melanie, an artist, on an upcoming poetry book. He’s writing about 25 poems and she’s providing sketches for the book about his wife’s elderly mother, “who’s living with us and is very, very old and dying . . . and the experienced has turned into a chat book,” explained Meschery, who considers Toni Morrison one of his favorite living writers.
Another ambitious project is keeping him busy: approximately 50 poems about art, and Black Rock Press is scheduled to publish “The Light of Greece.”
It started when the couple traveled to Greece this summer, with Melanie among 14-15 watercolorists drawing inspiration from the Mediterranean Sea’s beautiful surroundings. They visited the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, Mykonos and Santorini islands, among other locales.
“I was along for the ride,” Meschery underlined.
While Meschery enjoyed consuming the local cuisine and wine, his creative juices were flowing.
“I started writing poems about what they were doing,” he said. “And it actually turned into a whole series of poems about art, about color, about technique, about all sorts of different subjects that have to do with art and watercolor, sketching pen and ink, whatever the medium was they were using. It turned out pretty damn good, I thought, and Mel is going to do facing pages.
“For every poem, she’s going to do a facing page of the particular poem, and so we’re going to have quite a good-sized book. . . . I’ve got the poems roughed out pretty much.”
Meschery said with a chuckle that the two poetry projects have helped him cope with the fact that he hasn’t been able to publish a novel yet.
“You’ve got to be stubborn, boy,” he blurted out. “My wife keeps saying don’t worry. Tony Hillerman’s novels got rejected 35 times before he was accepted. That helps a little bit, I guess.”
In the past six years, Meschery has been consumed with mysteries, including the late Hillerman’s books, and praised Scottish writer Ian Rankin and British-born novelist Peter Robinson, noting he’s been reading the trio’s books quite a bit. (He’s also a huge fan of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens; he’s read all of Dickens’ books.)
Meschery’s first mystery novel series (“The Brovelli Boys Used Car and Detective Agency”) takes place in April and May of 1968 for “The Case of the 61 Impala,” followed by “The Case of the 66 Mustang,” centered on December 1969 and January 1970.
What’s the subject matter?
“The novel’s about two used car dealers, two young guys who inadvertently get involved in murders and mysteries and solve them,” Meschery stated. “But their main job is used cars.”
A true original
One fascinating aspect of Meschery’s NBA career was the fact that the San Francisco Warriors retired his No. 14 jersey on the opening night of the 1967-68 season in a game against the Seattle SuperSonics. He was 28 years old.
Many pros often wait decades after their playing days to be honored with jersey retirement ceremonies.
Instead, Meschery had it happen in his hometown while he was still an active player.
Forty years later, David Andriesen of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer penned a look back at the SuperSonics’ inaugural season, including Meschery’s valuable role as a veteran leader.
But his career almost ended in 1967 after he was taken by the Sonics in the NBA expansion draft. He had seriously considered hanging up his shoes.
In Andriesen’s account of the team’s origins, he noted that Meschery “told them (the Sonics) they had wasted the pick — he planned to retire and take an administrative post with the Peace Corps in South Korea. The Sonics asked what salary would change his mind, and he threw out a number he was sure they would laugh at — $35,000. He was shocked when the Sonics said yes.”
Meschery’s lifelong interest in literature was on full display during his decade as a pro athlete. He defied the stereotype of a dumb jock.
In an August 2011 feature, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub reported that Meschery “was reading literature on the plane and writing poetry in his spare time” when he was a rookie with the Philadelphia Warriors 50 years earlier.
“A Philadelphia journalist found out (about his poetry) and published one of his poems,” Hartlaub wrote,” which resulted in gentle ribbing from Warriors teammates.”
“They knew me. I had a pretty fierce temper, so I don’t think anybody wanted to go too far,” the player known as The Mad Russian told Hartlaub.
Meschery’s teammates respected his on-court intensity and his intellect.
Warriors great Al Attles, who coached the team to an NBA title in the 1974-75 season and later served as a longtime front-office executive, reflected on Meschery’s personality in 2001, telling the Chronicle that “Tommy was very cerebral, a very liberal thinker.”
A lifetime of books
If the subject is Russian literature, Meschery will fill you in about the best of the best without hesitation. He pays attention, has put in the time to devour the books and know the ins and outs of the subject matter.
Decades after a large percentage of English-speaking citizens ceased to be avid readers of translated Russian texts, Meschery remains a keen observer of the books that made the Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who died in 1881, and many of his contemporaries well-known writers.
“I’m a huge Dostoyevsky fan and have read all his novels,” revealed Meschery, who retired in 2005 after a 21-year career as a high school English teacher in Reno, Nevada. ” ‘Brothers Karamsov’ is a favorite. It’s just so ambitious. I put (Dostoyevsky’s) ‘Crime and Punishment’ on my seniors’ summer reading list when I taught. They did not bless me.”
But he was blessed with the right temperament for the classroom. After making the transition from tough-guy NBA forward to teacher, it was a perfect match.
Or as he put it in 2011, speaking to the Chronicle: “I loved high school-age students. They’re just so wonderfully in between childhood and maturity. Naive and intelligent at the same time. It was just a great fit. And I loved the intensity. It was just like basketball. . . . You’re there to teach and the kids are there to learn. . . . I had to prepare and get ready, and then when I stepped into the classroom it was like stepping on the court. Somebody threw the ball up. The school bell rang. There I was.”
Meschery praised the 19th century classic “War and Peace,” written by maternal ancestor Leo Tolstoy for “its scope and history,” adding, “I love historical novels. Read (Amor Towles’) ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’, a recent New York Times best seller. It’s wonderful.”
Asked to offer his assessment of the influential Anton Chekhov, Meschery paid the biggest compliment.
“There is no better short story writer in any language than Chekhov,” he told Hoop Scoop.
Meschery was just warming up. “I love historical novels and films,” he added. “I like (Mikhail) Lermontov better than (Alexander) Pushkin, but not by much. For Russians, Pushkin is gold, Lermontov is silver — the sun and the moon. Lermontov by analogy writes on the darker side. I believe Lermontov dug deeper into human psyche than did Pushkin.”
“Of the more modern greats, Meschery noted, “Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova are favorites.”
While the just-cited authors may be obscure to 99 percent or more of this column’s readers, Meschery holds a special respect for the aesthetic value of Russian prose.
“Russian poetry is difficult to translate into English with the same effect, I guess, as all poetry is,” he said. “Russians rhyme with better effect. English doesn’t lend itself to rhyme as it contains fewer linguistic possibilities.”
Meschery has always embraced his Russian literary roots.
“Unlike a lot of American boys, growing up I never felt poetry was somehow feminine,” he told Hartlaub in 2011. “My father was 6-foot-1 (185 cm) and big and strong and looked like a bear, and he recited poetry and read poetry. I figure, ‘Why not me?’ ”
A little more than 70 years after the 3-year-old Meschery and his mother and 5-year-old sister arrived in Japan from China (he was born in Harbin), just days after the Japanese military’s bombing of Pearl Harbor triggered the United States’ entry into World War II, he gave the 2012 commencement address at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. (The third installment of this series explores Meschery’s memories of WWII in Japan at greater length.)
Meschery’s natural ability to personalize his stories while also speaking to the bigger points that resonate with a large group shined through on that May day at his alma mater.
In an eloquent speech, he reflected on the Christian Brothers’ kindness after “scores of other British, French, American and Chinese emigres, my mother, sister and I had been transported by the Japanese from China to the Port of Yokohama. From there we would be distributed to various concentration camps around the island of Japan,” Meschery said in his commencement address. “It was in this month of transition and uncertainty and fear that three Christian Brothers came to our aid. I don’t remember very much about them, except that they were French, seemed extraordinarily tall, and smiled a lot . . .”
As Meschery’s mother informed him many years later, the three Christian Brothers, a part of a global religious community within the Catholic Church, “would give our little family half of their daily rations of rice,” as well as milk and extra blankets and even a pillow and a toy, “a small jade frog that was followed by a small carved ivory elephant,” he said in the commencement address.
He went on: “So it was not surprising that 16 years later in 1957 when a man by the name of John Henning, and a tiny man in a black robe sporting a funny white collar under his chin by the name of Brother Albert walked into our apartment in San Francisco bearing an offer of a basketball scholarship for Tomislav Nicholaevich Mescheriakov, renamed Thomas Nicholas Meschery, that my mother looked at me, smiled broadly, and said, ‘Take that scholarship!’ ”
“It may or may not be true that mothers know best, but in this case my mother did indeed know what was best for her son,” he said in the same poignant speech. “After a visit to the campus and a chance to talk to the basketball players already committed to the college, I signed on the dotted line. I have never regretted my choice, and I like to believe that playing basketball for St. Mary’s College — in some small way — repaid those three brothers in 1941 for their kindness to our family . . .”
Looking back on his message before a crowd of several hundred to honor St. Mary’s Class of 2012, Meschery told me “it was a great honor. I was very pleased to do it. I was extremely nervous. I think in many ways I thought they did that more because I had become a scholar as well as an athlete. . . . I enjoyed that a great deal, and I hope that some of my thoughts are still with the graduating class.”
As an immigrant to the United States who survived WWII in Japan and emerged as a star athlete at Lowell High School in San Francisco, Meschery has never forgotten his unique story. He expressed that message during the speech.
“The whole idea had to do with embracing life,” he recalled, “and opening that door and stepping through it and not hesitating.”
The speech was enriched by the inclusion of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Prospective Immigrant, Please Note.” He went on to explain that “Rich said she meant immigrants to include anyone moving from one state of being into another.”
Memories of war have had profound effect on Meschery
Memories help define who we are as individuals, and provide common links among communities, cultures and nations.
For Tom Meschery, memories of World War II remain etched in the backroads of his mind. A young boy in Tokyo during the war, the former NBA forward can never forget what he witnessed and endured between the ages of 3 and nearly 7.
Born in Manchuria, China, to Russian immigrants who escaped that nation’s violent revolution 100 years ago, Meschery, his mother and older sister spent WWII mostly in a Tokyo-area internment camp. From China, Meschery’s father Nicholas was able to emigrate to San Francisco, but the entire family couldn’t join him during a time of global warfare, lacking passports to travel to the United States.
Dozens of internment camps (also called concentration camps) held foreign prisoners of war throughout Japan and numerous other locales controlled or seized by the Japanese empire during WWII.
“There are moments when I wish I could roll back the clock and take all the sadness away, but I have the feeling that if I did, the joy would be gone as well,” novelist Nicholas Sparks wrote in “A Walk to Remember.”
Speaking to Meschery by phone from his home in Sacramento, California, several weeks ago, it was immediately clear that he values his memories, happy ones and traumatic recollections, too. He also recognizes that being controlled by the reality of war as a young boy played a big role in shaping who he became: an intense, bruising star athlete (San Francisco’s Lowell High School and nearby Saint Mary’s College before an NBA career from 1961-71 with the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors and Seattle SuperSonics; and later an ABA head coach with the Carolina Cougars), a high school English teacher and writer.
Even to this day, life’s basic essentials weigh heavily on Meschery’s mind. He describes himself as a “foodie.”
“The camp very well might have turned me into a foodie,” Meschery, who turns 79 on Oct. 26, told Hoop Scoop. “I love to cook and I love to eat. That may have started in the camp when food was very scarce.
“Our meals in the concentration camp were frugal — rice and some fish and vegetables.
“My mother and sister would always remember that as a little boy I would always say, ‘fish, fish,’ and I would kind of cry because it was just the same old, same old.”
Wherever they are, people try to survive the horror of war. Luxurious items or splurging on extravagance is not expected.
Toward the end of the war, Meschery recalled that the Red Cross began to sent food supplies via parachutes for prisoners of war. Among the canned goods in the packages were Spam and corned beef, items Meschery and others in the camps ate repeatedly.
“I’ve hated Spam and corned beef ever since,” he said. “I won’t eat Spam; you couldn’t get me to eat Spam.”
But his fondness for food has never diminished, and it’s been a constant struggle for Meschery to maintain his weight.
“I’ve been fighting this damn weight all my life, trying not to get fat but loving to eat,” said the ex-forward who started alongside Wilt Chamberlain when the Big Dipper dropped 100 points on the New York Knicks in a 1962 game in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a feat that remains as remarkable and mythical as it was more than a half century ago.
In 1999, Meschery’s poetry book “Nothing We Lose Can Be Replaced,” with thoughtful reflections on Russia’s revolution, massive societal changes and his family’s experiences during World War I and WWII, was published. It provided an outlet for him to contemplate the personal and collective experiences shared by Russians in the 20th century.
Nearly 20 years later, he speaks without hesitation about what he experienced in Japan.
“The Japanese treated us very well aside from the fact that we didn’t have a lot of food,” he said.
“They were very respectful, particularly of my mother, who had children.”
And all these years later, Meschery still describes the camp guards as “very respectful and kind to us.”
The Meschery family, which altered its original Russian surname (Mescheriakov) in America, was grateful for the kindness of the Japanese guards. And it wanted to show its gratitude after the war ended.
It sent packages to a guard named Inoue-san, a fellow who was “particularly kind to us,” Meschery remembered, characterizing him as “very kind, very gentle.”
“For five or six years, we would always send some food and clothing maybe and stuff like that to him, and then we finally lost touch. I don’t know what happened to him.”
Separated by conflict
What does Meschery first remember about the war?
It involves a painful lesson involving the absence of his father, Nicholas.
Meschery recalled “being in a room with a chair and crying, really crying, leaning on the chair and being very angry, because I had thought I had gone to America and my father was supposed to be there.”
He went on: “I remember that and that was strange because that was very early. We’re talking about 3 years old there (in 1941-42).”
As he grew up in the tightly guarded confines of the war camp, Meschery retained more memories as he got older.
“Later, in the last years of the war, those years do come back to me sometimes as nightmares,” Meschery admitted.
For instance, he added, “when our camp was bombed, it didn’t take a direct hit, but the church next door to it did, there was a cathedral, a Catholic church, and we were in the elementary school or the school building. That was our camp.”
Recollections of the bombing never vanished.
After the church was bombed “our building got on fire, and we were in the basement in the bomb shelter, and we were whisked out through the back of the cellar door, and we were escorted around Tokyo, which was obliterated, literally,” Meschery told me.
And the place he knew as home during the war no longer was.
For some time, the Mescherys had to survive on the streets.
“There were hardly any buildings,” said Meschery, who was the No. 7 pick in the 1961 NBA Draft and an All-Star in 1963. “We slept on the street. We would take some boxes . . . and make a shelter and sleep there, and then move on. And I remember waking up one time and there was an arm sticking out of rubble right next to me. I woke up, and that returns to me as a dream. . . .
“Every once in a while I’ll have that recurring dream of that arm.”
Ann Meschery, Tom’s older sister, remembered his optimistic persona during those dark days.
“From the time Tom was a toddler, through the time of the war and now into his senior years, he has always had a very sunny disposition,” she wrote in an email from New York City, where she resides. “He was always cracking jokes as a child that made adults laugh and he was always the center of attention. I think it was this jolly, happy way about him that helped him cope with the realities of war.”
During the war, Meschery once fell out of a tree and broke his collarbone. This accident sent him to a hospital, where a Japanese doctor inserted a piece of metal in his collarbone to repair it.
He had few prized possessions during the war.
But he had two cherished toys: a small, ivory elephant and a green, jade fog.
“I would play with those two little toys with the white sheets on my knees, and I created mountains, and the little toys moved as I wished them to move over the mountains . . . It’s an image that I’ve retained,” he said.
End of war, new beginning
After the aforementioned church and dormitory were damaged by bombs and fire, the Mescherys eventually found their way to a Tokyo-area convent at another camp before the war’s end.
They slept in the attic because there wasn’t room anywhere else, and Meschery was there when Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in August 1945.
“It was a dreadful sight. . . . We were there in that attic when the end of the war was announced,” Meschery said. “The director of our internment camp came into the attic and he was weeping, and he bowed very low to us, and very stiff, very formally and announced that the war was over and he was crying. I remember he ran out of the room he was so distraught.
“And that was it. There were no more guards. . . . Everybody left. We were left to our own devices, and nobody knew what to do as far as I know, as far as I can recollect until the American troops finally came on shore and they started a civil government of some sort.”
The Mescherys departed Japan on a ship and reunited with the family patriarch in San Francisco, where they established roots. But before the City By The Bay became home, there was the monumental arrival day in America.
And Meschery will never forget it.
He recalled a photograph of that day that was published in a Bay Area newspaper this way: “My mother, sister and I were debarking from the ship. . . . We are all three dressed in army fatigues and army caps.”
Witnesses to history
From time to time, Meschery and his sister will discuss WWII and being in Tokyo at that time “as siblings will do,” he noted.
They’ve spoken about the aerial bombardment of Tokyo, and where they were throughout the U.S. military’s air raids of the capital.
One horrifying incident stands out among their many shared memories.
“There was a beautiful cherry tree outside the wall of the concentration camp, and I always remember that being so beautiful,” Meschery underlined.
“There was more than one, and I remember that one of them caught on fire. It was burning and I felt terribly sad about that, and then the fire that burned our concentration camp, my sister actually ran back into the fire, into the upstairs to the bedroom and we thought she was going to die, frightened to death.
“And she just tore into the building and ran upstairs through the smoke and got her teddy bear and then ran back (outside). That’s her recollection. I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like for her, but she was very determined to get her teddy bear.”
Ann Meschery remembered the tale with additional details.
“One story that has become family folklore is that, when Tom was born, I was so thrilled I had a new baby brother, that I gave him my most precious possession, my stuffed teddy bear,” she wrote in an email. “Tom and that bear became inseparable. When we were in the internment camp and the building was burning from the dropped incendiary bombs, we were told to evacuate and to leave everything behind. Tom was told to drop his bear. When we got outside, I could see he was really upset and crying that he had to leave his bear behind. I said, no way, and promptly marched back into the burning building and retrieved the bear.
“Our mom always marveled at this and was very proud to repeat it over and over although I am sure it gave her close to a heart attack at the time.”
As the chaos unfolded, Tom and his sister had a close-up view of the destruction of Tokyo.
“Down in the basement, my sister and I would crawl up on the ledge — there was a small window that was blacked out, a blacked-out curtain — and we would look out during the bombings, and the last year the bombings were day and night, and towards the end of the year we spent most of our time in the basement,” Meschery recalled. “At night you could look up and see the search lights crisscrossing the sky and you could see the planes. Every time there was a hit, we could see parachutes falling down . . . we could see the guns being fired up into the air.”
Looking back on how the war shaped their lives, Ann Meschery said it had a profound impact.
“I think by witnessing the actual bombing of Tokyo we both understood the realities of war at a very young age. And seeing the results of war, the people with flesh burnt beyond recognition and wandering around a burning city during the incendiary bombing of Tokyo armed us with a certain toughness, even as children,” she revealed. “I think this early toughness shaped his attitude toward everything he later did. I know it certainly did shape my own life. For me, seeing the ravages of war has made me a lifelong pacifist. . . .
“As far as his writing and his love of teaching, it probably came from the stellar start-up education we received in the camp. Our fellow internees were Catholic nuns and Protestant missionaries, all of whom were teachers. So we had private tutors in all the various subjects we learned. When we arrived in the U.S. we were already reading and writing at an advanced level vs. the other kids in our classes. But maybe his writing talent comes, not from any wartime experience, but is in the DNA. After all, we have Tolstoy blood in our veins.”
The war presented plenty of confusion for the young Meschery. In his mind, there were no clear-cut good guys and bad guys. After all, as he pointed out in our conversation, he and his family felt they were treated quite well by the Japanese guards.
“I remember feeling very torn because here were the Americans,” he said. “My mother talked to us about America and that’s where we were going to go. But at the same time, it was the Americans about to kill us, so we were trying to figure out who were the bad guys here.”
Meschery acknowledged that he hasn’t studied WWII extensively through books, documentaries and other means.
He said he didn’t meet other war camp survivors in the United States after his family arrived in California. But he became acquainted with a number of Japanese-Americans who spent time in U.S.-run internment camps during the war, including his boyhood best friend Magnus Nagase, who played basketball with him in elementary school “all the time . . . every day.”
The Nagase family was interned at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in northern California during WWII.
Nagase and Meschery both graduated from Lowell High in June 1957.
At St. Mary’s, where Meschery received a basketball scholarship, he met Dr. Ted Tsukahara, now the director of the school’s John F. Henning Institute and a former student sportswriter who covered the Gaels basketball games. The Tsukaharas were sent to a Utah concentration camp, Meschery said.
“Neither one of us had a great experience, I’m sure,” said Meschery, who recently dined with Tsukahara. “But looking back on it, it’s interesting. The Japanese concentration camps in the United States I think was just craziness. But I can understand why we were in a concentration camp; I can’t understand why the Japanese in America were in concentration camps, particularly since a whole bunch of them (the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team) went over to Europe and won the (Congressional) Medal of Honor fighting the Nazis. The nisei were great Americans.”