Tom Meschery: Bard of the Backboards
Wrapped in a handshake, the powerful clutch of Tom Meschery’s large right paw jibes with the NBA All-Star’s rugged reputation.
A minute spent in his presence provides a whole different perception of the man. Truth is, the self-described “enforcer” during his 10-year NBA career is now a gentle giant.
Meschery’s benevolent smile gives it away despite his tough-guy jaw line. His friendly eyes and cool character serve further testament, defying his wide body suited to bully opponents under the rim.
Now 69, the longtime Truckee resident remembers well his playing days with the Warriors and SuperSonics in a career that spanned through the 1960s. Sitting in his green-and-white Victorian home in downtown Truckee ” purchased in 1975 ” Meschery swells with pride when he taps into his memories played out on the hardwood.
He recalls with a smile banging in the paint alongside Warrior teammates Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond, playing with Jerry West and Lenny Wilkens. He chuckles when queried about his epic battles with Lakers power forward Rudy LaRusso, a 6-foot-7 dirty-work specialist of the same mold as Meschery.
“Elgin Baylor used to say the game didn’t start until me and LaRusso got in a fight,” says Meschery, describing his role on the team as a tough defender and rebounder whose job included assisting the center ” and acting as enforcer.
Meschery also had deft touch for a big man ” he was listed at 6-foot-6, although he’s “lost an inch” now that he’s 38, he jokes. He averaged 12.7 points in his career and finished the 1962 season sixth in free throw percentage, at .824.
The seventh overall pick in the 1961 draft and a 1963 All-Star, Meschery’s 8.6 rebounds per game ranks 79th all time. And with the enforcer role came fouls, as Meschery led the league in 1962 with 330 and is 84th all time with 2,841.
Talking present times, Meschery cautions making comparisons between the NBA of old and what it is now.
“I don’t think you can. I think it’s a mistake to try to do that,” he says. “What would a player of my era or earlier do with physical training? If we had the same physical fitness I think we would go toe to toe these guys today. Imagine a buffed-up Oscar Robertson.”
Meschery wouldn’t be as tuned into the current state of basketball had his son not bought him the NBA TV network the winter of 2006, when he spent two months on his back after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He underwent a stem-cell transplant and says he’s in remission and feels well.
The former All-Star had stopped watching the NBA in the early 1990s. But with televised games aplenty during his downtime, as well as a continued influx of foreign players injecting an exciting new dynamic into the sport, Meschery says he regained interest.
Like most NBA fans young and old, he’s intrigued by this year’s Lakers-Celtics Finals. But he’s had far too many tussles with the Lakers to pull for the West Coast team.
“I’m an ex-Warrior, so there’s no love lost on the Lakers,” says Meschery, who rented a house on Donner Lake during his playing days. “But it’s partly because I don’t like Kobe Bryant. I think he’s arrogant.”
Yet Meschery says he gives Bryant credit for being one of the best pure shooters he’s seen. He also likes watching big men Kevin Garnett and Amare Stoudemire, and guards Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili and Baron Davis.
In his day, Meschery says Elgin Baylor was the most skilled player he ever guarded.
“For sure. He was incredible. I’d just get my fouls and sit down. But the refs were always wrong, though.” Meschery still has a sense of humor.
He says Bill Russell perhaps was the best defender he ever faced, “but he couldn’t spit in an ocean” on the offensive end.
Then there was Wilt “the Stilt,” a close friend of Meschery’s and subject of two of his published poems later in life ” one about Chamberlain’s 100-point game and the other about his death.
“I knew him very well. We were close,” Meschery says of Chamberlain. “He was a terrific guy. He was so misunderstood. The media made him out to be a snob when he wasn’t at all. He was outgoing and very generous.”
Playing alongside Chamberlain, “there was a learning curve,” Meschery says. “He was not a great defensive player when I played with him. He was OK, but not the passer and defender he was later on. He still was a scoring machine, though.”
Never more so than on March 2, 1962, when Chamberlain lit up the Knicks for 100 points in a 169-147 win. Besides the record point total, Chamberlain also set marks that stand today with 36 field goals and 63 field goal attempts. His 28 free throws is tied with the current record.
“By the beginning of the fourth quarter we knew something magic was going on, so we just started feeding him,” says Meschery, who contributed 16 points in the rout. “Anything he shot he made. He had a fadeaway going, finger rolls and, of course, dunks. And the free throws just added to the magic.”
Retiring after spending the final four years of his career in Seattle, Meschery took over as coach of the now-defunct American Basketball Association’s Carolina Cougars for part of the season before being replaced by Larry Brown.
“It was a bad experience,” says Meschery. “I may have been the (worst) coach in the history of basketball.”
But he hadn’t gotten his fill, as Meschery went on to coach with Lenny Wilkens as an assistant at Portland. The two played together at Seattle and remain close friends.
Thinking back, Meschery ” the son of Russian immigrants ” says the most rewarding part of his basketball career was his induction into the Bay Area Hall of Fame about five years ago. Mainly because he grew up in San Francisco, moving there as a child after his family was sent to an internment camp near Tokyo during World War II. He graduated from Saint Mary’s College.
Second on that list is when the Warriors retired his No. 14 jersey ” the first of five jerseys the team has retired.
But Meschery’s NBA career only scratches the surface of his accomplished professional life, which includes running a bookstore in downtown Truckee, teaching English at Reno High and creative writing at Sierra College, and writing books of poems and essays. He was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 2002.
“The more I think about it, the more proud I am of being a teacher,” he says. “I may not have been as happy doing it (versus playing basketball), but I’m more proud of it.”
That’s a different story altogether.