You know those commercials featuring “the most interesting man in the world?” Tom Meschery should have gotten the gig.
Bio Note #1: Tom Meschery was born in Manchuria and spent five childhood years in a Japanese internment camp. He received an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers Workshop, where his teachers included Mark Strand, Marvin Bell, and Helen Chasin. After Iowa, Tom ran a bookstore, taught for Poets in the Schools, and did physical labor before receiving his teaching credentials. He joined the faculty of Reno High School, where he taught Advanced Placement English and creative writing for 25 years; he also taught at Sierra College. Tom is the author of several books of poetry, including Nothing We Lose Can Be Replaced, Some Men, and Sweat: New and Selected Poems About Sports; he has also published the nonfiction Caught in the Pivot. In 2001 he was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.
Bio Note #2: Tom Meschery was born in Manchuria and spent five childhood years in a Japanese internment camp. He was an All-American basketball player in high school and college, and an NBA All Star. He played ten years, mostly for The Warriors (first in Philadelphia and then in San Francisco) and later for the Seattle Supersonics, appearing in two NBA Finals. His #31 has been retired by Saint Mary’s College (where his career rebounding record stood for 48 years), as has his #14 by the Warriors. Tom coached the Carolina Cougars and was the assistant coach for the Portland Trailblazers. In 2003 he was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.
I’ve been fascinated by Tom Meschery since I heard about a former NBA star, whose name was often prefixed with “hard-nosed,” turning from personal fouls to personal poems. I started a list of “athletes who write poetry” for use with reluctant students when I toured high schools. Not long after my father died in 2001, I was moved and impressed by Tom’s poem “Working Man," in which he addresses his late father (more about this later). Over the years, I have read the poem to several of my Columbia classes, and one day a student said: “He was my high school English teacher!” Interesting.
Recently, I talked to Tom (while he was recovering from his second shoulder replacement surgery); this piece is based on that conversation and other sources (see note on bottom).
Manchuria to the NBA
Thomas Nicholas Meschery was born Tomislav Nikolayevich Mescheryakov. His father was a hereditary officer in Admiral Kolchak’s Army. His mother was the daughter of Vladimir Nicholayavich, who participated in Kornilov’s failed coup against Kerensky: “My grandpa was put under arrest in the Winter Palace. Together with Nicholas II.” Tom’s mother was related to the poet Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy (second cousin to Leo).
Tom’s parents met, in exile, in Manchuria, and Tom was born in 1938. In 1939, Tom’s father went ahead to San Francisco; his mother was to follow with Tom and his sister when they obtained the necessary papers. They were awaiting voyage on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The Mescheryakovs were placed in a Tokyo-area internment camp for women and children, where “there was no suffering” and they were fed well. Towards the end of the war, the guards gave them the rejects from intercepted Red Cross packages (lots of spam).
They finally made it to San Francisco. In “A Small Embrace,” Tom writes in his mother’s voice addressing him; the poem ends:
a voice kept yelling over the loudspeaker: citizens to the left,
stateless to the right. A band was playing something cheerful.
You pointed to the wrong father. I to the wrong husband.
Tom’s weak English was mitigated by his size and athletic prowess. He became a star basketball player at Lowell High School, where he developed his game in a modest facility that was “full of shadows” with a corduroy floor and wood backboards.
[from] Lowell High
Our coach, who was as old as the building,
Taunted and inspired us, swore and cajoled us,
He taught us to play without frills.
We became red brick and corduroy
And learned to see through shadows.
Tom went on to be a two-time All-American at St. Mary’s College, and was drafted in the first round by the Philadelphia Warriors. On March 2, 1962, in a game played in Hershey Pennsylvania, Wilt Chamberlain and Tom combined for 116 points in a 169-147 victory over the Knicks. Wilt scored 100. The game was not televised, but Tom wrote a poem about it.
[from] The 100 Point Game
That night through the fourth quarter
in that mad scramble for history
we all passed the ball the full length
of the court to Wilt, straight and high
into the dark around the rafters
Tom played for 10 seasons, averaging 12.7 points and 8.6 rebounds. His stat line in Game 7 of the Eastern Division finals is particularly impressive: 48 minutes, 32 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, and only 3 personal fouls.
The NBA to Iowa
Tom's first collection, Over the Rim, was published while he was an active player, and the cartoon on the back of his 1970-71 playing card is captioned “Tom is a writer of poetry.”
But, Tom says, his reading had been confined to earlier Russian and British and classic American verse, and the poems in Over the Rim were “ordinary” and “didn’t test limits or push parameters.” This began to change at a poker game. "Mark Strand was teaching at the University of Washington while I was playing for the Sonics, and I met him at a poker game run by a couple of professors.” Strand invited Tom to sit in on his class when the team was in town, and he got his “first exposure to contemporary American poetry.”
Meschery and Strand became good friends and, while Tom was coaching Carolina, the two met for dinner when the Cougars were in town to play the Nets. Tom complained about his coaching job (he titled a poem "Why I Was a Terrible Coach"), and Strand advised, “Well, if you hate it that much get the hell out of there.” He told Tom he’d write a recommendation for Iowa. In Tom’s subsequent book about his coaching year, Caught in the Pivot, he writes, “Mark told us about the number of poets who are frustrated jocks. Here I am a jock who’s a frustrated poet.”
Tom was accepted and quit his job. He and his then-wife (the novelist Joanne Meschery) packed up with their three small children and moved to Iowa, where he had “two great years. I just loved it. From then on I just couldn’t stop writing poetry.” But the transition wasn’t easy. “For the first six months I was pretty timid, I sneaked around and sat in the back of the workshops. I felt very unsure of myself.” The turning point came when he studied with Helen Chasin. “She was the first one who really said, ‘You’re not too bad you can do this, don’t hesitate to talk.’” Tom “became more confident, experimental, she gave me a bunch of poets to read and said imitate.” Classmate Michael Waters remembers, “Tom was without pretensions, itself remarkable in the Workshop, and generous with his praise."
The Mad Russian and the Sweet and Generous Man
As a basketball player, Tom Meschery was known as the Mad Russian. One game, Tom tried to stay out of trouble by swearing in Russian, but eventually a referee called him for a technical based on his “intonation.” Tom’s on-court anger often went beyond words. He told an interviewer, “If I was elbowed I elbowed twice.” Former teammate Al Attles says, “His eyes would start rolling around in his head if somebody did something to him on the floor and he’d lose it …”
In the Moment
The whistle blows
and I am caught
between curbing my anger
or hitting the player
who just fouled me.
Oh, what the hell, I say.
But the hostility remained on the court. During Tom’s rookie year, Tom Heinsohn of the Celtics bloodied his eye with a right cross. After the game, they ran into each other in the tavern below Boston Garden, drank some beers, and wound up talking about painting: “[Heinsohn] said he painted in the Wyeth School.” Tom wasn’t always the smartest fighter. While playing for Golden State, he tried to punch his former teammate and close friend Chamberlain (then with the Lakers). Tom recalls, “It was cartoonish. I couldn’t reach him— he was holding my head.”
[from] Tom Heinsohn
Today I write poems and admire the back-light
in Wyeth’s painting of the yellow dog sunning himself
in the window and think that the violence
we made together was the work of artists
Iowa classmate Michael Ryan says about Tom, “His heart and spirit and sheer gusto were as big as he was. And that's saying something. What a sweet and generous man.” When Kyle Smith—now the head coach of the Columbia University Lions—was an assistant at Saint Mary’s, he got to know Tom first through his presence that “loomed in the folklore of the alums as his jersey hung in the rafters. He was known as the ‘Mad Russian.’ Once I met the man, I do not think there could have been a more inappropriate nickname. Far from Mad, Tom Meschery is a prince of a human being who once physically touched people on the court who touched the hearts of his students and loved ones. I am sure the Christian Brothers who educated him at Saint Mary's would be so proud to see someone who has embodied the Lasallian spirit of the school motto ‘enter to learn, leave to serve.’”
The modern game is much calmer, due in part to every moment being televised and players protecting huge salaries.
(for Phil Jackson)
I return to your book, Sacred Hoops
and I think, perhaps you’ve discovered
the secret to the modern game,
the centered-self each player can achieve
with right-breathing, as if the soul
were a tight muscle in need of stretching.
Team mantras, spiritual championships.
If only I’d known
I didn’t have to throw that elbow
at LaRusso or stalk Chet Walker
to his locker room, spoiling for a fight,
or take a swing at Wilt,
while my breathless teammates
feared for my life.
All I had to do was breathe
my way out of anger.
Lungs instead of fists.
Writing workshops are non-contact endeavors (physically), but Tom recalls that at Iowa “a fight erupted in our kitchen” between a concrete poet and a traditional poet during a poker party. “Raymond Carver broke the fight up.” Michael Waters said it was the only time he saw Tom angry: “Tom had placed a huge glass bowl filled with scoops of Baskin-Robbins ice cream—all their flavors—on his dining room table, and the ice cream slowly melted into a deep rainbow sludge while folks stood around outside, calming down, wondering if the party would continue. I always remember that ice cream when I think of Tom.”
The Court to the Desk
After Iowa, Tom tried coaching again, this time as the assistant to Portland’s player-coach Lenny Wilkins, a former teammate (#18, below). Bill Walton (#32) was also on the team. At the time, the FBI was searching for Patty Hearst—the kidnapped heiress who helped rob a bank—and Bill Walton had been questioned by the FBI (there was no connection). Michael Waters recalls that Tom would “invite me to games, let me stay with him in his hotel room, and beg me not to make jokes about Patty Hearst hiding in his bathroom.”
When Wilkins lost his coaching job, Tom left the game. He had a “hard transition from professional sports. Ran a bookstore for three years, painted houses, rock work.” To pick up a little extra money, Tom “got hooked up with the poets in the schools—a week gig here and there, elementary, middle, high school, take over an English class. I just loved it. I really liked high school kids. They were on the verge of being mature, at the same time they were still wonderfully naïve, full of piss and vinegar.”
Tom earned his teaching credentials at the University of Nevada, and, while waiting for a teaching position, he spent six months coaching in Africa, where he had made previous trips for the USIA during his playing days.
Republic of the Congo
Entering the airport, the soldier
guarding the passport booth
can’t be more than fifteen years old.
He’s holding a rifle at port arms
a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Above him, a banner in red print reads:
A Bas Les Americains! Down with Americans!
"Don’t worry,” the Embassy man says,
“They don’t mean basketball players.”
Given Tom’s subsequent success as a teacher, one might expect him to have developed a love for coaching, but his competitive fire had no outlet on the bench, especially when his players didn’t approach the game with the same intensity he had. “The blindness that I have felt so often when I become enraged was beginning to cloud my eyes,” he wrote in Caught in the Pivot. Before one game, he “tried something different. I walked into the locker room and told the players to discuss the game among themselves and to come out when they were ready to play.” This didn’t turn into a transformational moment when all the swearing and cajoling take hold. Instead, “They came out all right and we got bombed…”
Teaching high school English provided Tom with an “intensity of experience” without the warfare. He has said, “In basketball you always have to be on. I think that's also true as a teacher. Every day is like a new game. The game starts at 8 in the morning and the final buzzer rings at 2:10.”
Tom was known for his tough exams and generosity of spirit. “It was the advice for life, beyond English, that was by far the greatest gift Tom gave me,” posted one student on Rate My Teachers, and another wrote, “I like all the poems we read, he's really flexible too he puts his big leg up on his desk while he's standing it’s cool.”
Now retired, Tom says, “I miss them terribly.” He kept seating charts and is “pondering putting together a project to find out what happened to 20 or 30 kids.”
Tom and His Father
[from] Reasons to Teach
…And my father, old immigrant,
believer in misery, could not believe
they did pay good money for a game, for work
you didn’t hate and come home weak from drudgery.
“Sport.” The word flew from his mouth like spit.
Tom and his father had a strained relationship and, after Tom was drafted in the first round by the Warriors, “he just said to me, ‘What kind of work is this for a man?’” His father died while Tom was serving a stint in the Army and he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. “That always stayed with me. I always carried my father around in me, so I wasn’t surprised that when I started to write about myself as a basketball player that it translated very quickly into a poem about my father.”
I admit sleeping in late at the Hilton,
ordering room service, handing out
big tips while your kind of men
were opening their lunch buckets.
You would have scolded me:
"Что это за работа для человека?"
“What kind of work is this for a man?"
Old immigrant, I admit all of this
too late. You died before I could explain
sportswriters call me a journeyman.
They write I roll up my sleeves
and go to work. They use words
like hammer and muscle to describe me.
For three straight years on the job
my nose collapsed. My knees ached
and I could never talk myself out of less
than two injuries at a time. Father,
you would have been proud of me:
I labored in the company of large men.
An earlier version of the poem ends with “I labored in the company of tall men,” but Tom changed it because “When you think of Chamberlain and Moses Malone, they weren’t just tall they were really large,” as was his father.
Tom didn’t let his father impede his basketball career, and he gives him credit for instilling in him a love of poetry. “In my childhood I learned many verses by heart. My father liked the old poetry which had to be beautiful, with rhythm and rhyme. He did not accept either Mayakovski or Esenin. For us, the Russians, poetry is a part of our soul. My father, a huge and strong soldier, recited verses for me and there were tears in his eyes.”
There’s no way of knowing if Tom’s father would have come to appreciate his son laboring in the company of large men, but Tom is certain he’d be impressed with Tom’s induction into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. “He'd be pleased with his son.”
Tom lives in Sacramento with his wife, the painter Melanie Marchant Meschery, and he maintains a blog called Meschery's Musings on Sports, Literature and Life. He is also writing fiction, including a series of young adult novels about basketball. Tom had “kind of drifted away” from basketball when he was “teaching hard,” but has reconnected with the sport due to the combination of having more time in retirement and the welcome from Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. The team won the NBA championship last Spring, and Tom rode in the Victory parade ("I can’t stop writing little haikus about Steph Curry").
Tom has also rekindled his friendship with Robert Hass (former U.S. Poet Laureate), who was an undergraduate classmate at Saint Mary’s. The two recently read together at their alma mater. According to one account, “Throughout the evening, the respect the two men felt for each other was evident.” Hass told “a story about a memorable college soiree where Meschery was seen hanging out of an upper-floor window in Dante Hall reciting” Rimbaud.
Hass has written about Tom’s poetry: “My only regret is that William Carlos Williams isn’t alive to read it or for me to read it to him. One of the things he wanted was a poetry like a clean jab, straight through, all force and grace…”
For an image that would have delighted WCW, let’s go back to "The 100 Point Game." Tom, Wilt, and their co-workers are headed home, when Tom sees a fellow working man at the end of his shift.
Later, on the bus driving back to Philly
I watched a farmer in a horse and buggy
trotting through dark Amish countryside
following the brief light of his lantern home.
Note: Most of the material in this piece comes from my conversation with Tom Meschery. Other sources include: Russian language Sport-Express (translated into English), Bob Lemke blog, NBA.com, SFGate, Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, Saint Mary's College. Nothing We Lose Can Be Replaced, Some Men, and Sweat: New and Selected Poems About Sports were published by Black Rock Press.