I was in awe of Sam Toperoff days into my freshman year at Hofstra College. From my workship with the athletic department, I knew he was a transfer basketball player, out of the service, waiting to play the following season.
Then he turned up in a sociology class, and he stood out. He was 5-6 years older than me and knew how to talk in class.
I still remember Professor Nelson explaining the sociological concept of brothers and others – the circles of life, people we care about, people we don’t necessarily care about.
“You, Toperoff, are my brother,” Professor Nelson said, “and the rest are others.”
A hundred people in this huge lecture hall, and the professor knew Sam’s name.
Toperoff started for a couple of seasons of varsity ball. My strongest memory of him is singing – maybe a Belafonte song? – in the locker room before a road game, nervous energy, channeled into song.
He was a force. Stephen Dunn
, the shooting guard, now a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, tells about listening to Sam and another teammate in a hotel room, talking about Moby Dick. Imagine. Not women or zone defenses, but words, concepts.
(That was quite a team -- a novelist and a poet, starting.)
Sam taught at Hofstra for 20 years and has written 13 books on extremely varied subjects,
including the gripping Pilgrim of the Sun and Stars,
about a Basque peasant who makes a pilgrimage to the Vatican. Sam also wrote sports for magazines and for 15 years worked for public television, most notably a travelogue series. My wife bought all of them.
Now Sam lives in the French Alps (in a house he built) with his wife and daughter and grandson. He is a hero to his pals because he has continued to write. Lillian & Dash
, his novel about the long affair between Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, is being published by Other Press
in July of 2013.
Sam has gotten good advance attention, including a Kirkus review
. The novel is available via Amazon and other sources. I've read it, and I love the dialogue and insight into two talented people from another time and place.
It’s been a lot of decades; Toperoff still scores.
Sam, left, Asher right, in the French Alps.
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Brant Alyea could leap; Stephen Dunn could shoot against the zone. (Dunn photo by Andrea Dunn)
They are a walking advertisement for that elusive blend of sports and education – starting with a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Stephen Dunn
, all 12 a credit to themselves and the school.
My guys from Hofstra College, circa 1959-60, knew the academic apparatus of that modest commuter school would flunk them right off the team if their grades slipped.
The basketball team from that year, which won 23 games and lost only one, is being honored Saturday by induction into the Athletics Hall of Fame
. There is a dinner at 4 P.M. followed by a lacrosse game
against sixth-ranked North Carolina.
That team was coached by Butch van Breda Kolff, the former Knick, who would later coach Bill Bradley at Princeton and bench Wilt Chamberlain
in a championship loss with the Lakers. They still hear Butch’s piercing whistle in their nightmares.
I was a student publicist on a workship. Saw them up close, kept track of their assists and rebounds, sometimes did the public address, called the results into the papers, and listened to Butch and his assistant Paul Lynner tell great stories at diners, very late at night. That was an education, too.
I’ve written a lot about that team over the years:
The shot by Bob Larsen of Wagner for the only loss of the season. We caught up with Larsen last year in New York:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/01/sports/ncaabasketball/52-years-later-recalling-a-shot-that-sank-a-season.html?_r=0
There was a reunion in 2000, when the players and school got to thank Butch one more time: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/06/sports/sports-of-the-times-for-butch-s-players-23-hoop-dreams-and-one-nightmare.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
But the main thing was, the players went to class – even after late bus rides back from Pennsylvania. They knew the team had been decimated a few years earlier because players were not getting the grades.
This was a small, serious place, where first-generation college students were getting an education. The president was John Cranford Adams, a Shakespearean scholar whose dream was not the basketball team being invited to the National Invitation Tournament but building a permanent home for the Globe Theatre – now the John Cranford Adams Playhouse, a wonderful place. Francis Ford Coppola produced original plays in that building. He was our classmate. Lainie Kazan sang in the musicals. She was also a classmate.
(Did I mention that our football team was 9-0 in 1959? Alas, our aging classmates do not feel part of that any more, since Hofstra abruptly terminated the program
Most of the basketball players are coming back on Saturday, some of them with rebuilt hips and knees after all the torque they put on their bodies. (One of them has a reinforced aorta from a recent operation; others are survivors of this and that; thank goodness for modern medicine.) Stevie Balber, the bow-legged point guard from Brooklyn, who gave everybody nicknames, has passed on.
In 2000, I wrote, “They took their educations and went about being responsible adults.” I mentioned Adam Gadzinski an accountant; Bob Stowers a teacher; Ted Jackson a parole hearing officer; Stan Einbender an endodontist; Curt Block for many years a vice president for media relations at NBC; Richie Swartz a furniture salesman; Bob Lauster a salesman for I.B.M.; Richard Goldstein, operating the family shoe accessory business; Stevie Balber the chairman of a direct-mail company; John McGowan an engineer; Stephen Dunn, poet and teacher; and Brant Alyea who played 361 games
in the majors.
I cannot wait to stand at the fringe of these guys I admire so much, and hear the stories – often about Butch. I love Brant’s stories about being managed by Ted Williams and Dick Williams. The players recall how Stowers could do a standing leap from the floor of the gym to the stage at one end of the court; how Swartz could lull you into submission in practice and then flick the ball away with his long arms; how Einbender – the 6-4 captain and leading rebounder -- blew a dunk in the closing minute of his final game and walked straight to the bench, to save Butch the trouble of hauling him off the court for showboating.
They could also talk about the modest commuter college that was doing things right. Their lives reflect that.
* * *
In a totally different time, Hofstra appointed a new coach, Joe Mihalich, on Wednesday. Mihalich, the coach at Niagara for 15 years, replaces Mo Cassara after a turbulent season. Mo put his heart into the school. I wish both of them well.
* * *
Stephen Dunn wrote a lovely essay about his education from Butch and Hofstra, on a site called sbnation.com but the link does not seem to be working without signing up for the site. http://www.sbnation.com/whiskey-room/2013/4/6/4190298/stephen-dunn-poetry-and-basketball
Front: Bob Lauster, John McGowan, Richard Goldstein, Stephen Dunn, Curt Block. Back: AD Jeff Hathaway, Ted Jackson, Stan Einbender, Brant Alyea, Bob Stowers.
WHAT THE CAPTAIN SAID:
(I went to school nine straight years with Stan Einbender, from JHS 157 to Jamaica to Hofstra. We are closer than ever. I enjoyed his remarks on Saturday when Hofstra honored the team, and I enjoy his second thoughts on Sunday. I saw him chatting with a member of the great 81-82 women's team that had such spirit at the dinner. That was one thing we did not enjoy in our time -- visible female athletes. How much richer sports are today with competitors like the women from 81-82. Here are Stanley's remarks GV)
AT THE DINNER:
Speech for ’59-’60 Team
First I would like to thank the committee that gave us this great honor, President Rabinowitz and Athletic director Jeff Hathaway who both seem committed to restoring Hofstra Basketball to the standard that we set. I listened to the news conference on my computer on Wednesday to introduce Coach Michalic and was encouraged that this was a good first step to reaching that standard.
I was the only senior on the team, and I assume that was the reason I was asked to say a few words. I know that some of the other players might be more articulate, such as Steve “Radar” Dunn, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, or even my longtime friend George Vessey who was not a member of the team, but has written many articles about our team in the NY Times. I was eager to take up this task because of the fond memories I hold for this team and our accomplishments, and my gratitude to Hofstra University for giving me the opportunity to compete and get a great education which led to my career as a dentist for 40 yrs.
It is very apropos that we be inducted into the Hofstra Athletic Hall of Fame as a team, because we were the best example of a team. There was no superstar on our team. I believe we had at least five players that averaged double figures. Under the guidance of Coach Butch VanBreda Koff and Ass’t Coach Paul Lynner, we were not interested in who shot or who scored, but only leaving all we had on the court and winning. As our 23-1 record showed, we did a pretty good job.
A successful basketball coach is depends on his recruiting and being able to get his role players to accept their job. Butch had an easy time with the ’59-’60 Team, because we were all role players.
Some players today do not realize what a privilege it is to compete in any inter-scholastic sport, especially at a great school like Hofstra University where we could also receive a great education.
In closing, I would like to mention a conversation I had with Coach Van Breda koff. After leaving Hofstra for the second time, he would return for certain basketball functions. It was very annoying that we seemed to age and loose some hair, and the Coach seemed to stay the same with that boisterous voice. The last time I saw him he looked quite frail. He was suffering from the Parkinson’s Disease that took his life, but he was alert enough say to me, “Stanley, these players today are better athletes, but you guys were better basketball players”. That meant a lot to me then and I am sure it does to all the members of the ’59-’60 Team. It still means a lot to I stand here now.
EINBENDER'S THOUGHTS ON SUNDAY
Last night, I, along with my teammates from the ’59-60 Hofstra basketball team, received the long awaited recognition by being inducted as a team into the Hofstra University Athletic Hall of Fame. Our record of 23-1 stands as the best record ever established by a Hofstra men’s basketball team. As expected, the University put on a great show with lengthy introductions, a great meal, and most important, the recognition of our accomplishments. I was given the honor of speaking for our team, which gave me a chance to thank Hofstra for the great memories that I still hold. The best part of the evening was the ability to renew old friendships with my teammates, many who I have not seen for over 50 years. When I am not looking in the mirror, I still see myself as that smiling person holding the basketball in the ’59-’60 team picture. After seeing my teammates from that team, I realize that our time as basketball players has passed, but at least we definitely had our time. I hope these renewed friendships will continue and we can all keep seeing ourselves as we were in that picture. I believe that those memories will help us to survive in fleeting years that remain.
The Glider Will Visit Hofstra This Week
Rusty Staub, Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, Art Shamsky, Ed Charles, Skip Lockwood and Joan Hodges -- just to drop a few names.
A lot of early Mets history will be coming to Hofstra University on Long Island Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Then there are the writers (Stan Isaacs and Steve Jacobson) and broadcasters (Sal Marciano) and historians (John Thorn) among panel members, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Amazing Mets in a conference that figures to be both academic and fun.
I'll be moderating two panels at Hofstra, my alma mater, Friday afternoon.
In the spring of 1962, I was taking my one and, as it turned out, my only graduate course -- the novel, with a terrific three-week segment by Dr. Hull on Ulysses, about a very human being who spends a long day wandering but finally gets to go home. How fitting. .
In sleet and rain, on Friday, April 13, also fitting, I attended the Mets' first home game – as a fan -- at the Polo Grounds, along with my Newsday pal George Usher. By mid-season I was one of Casey Stengel’s “my writers,” standing by his side at his 72nd birthday party in St. Louis, when he most emphatically did not ask, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
Never signed up for any more grad courses. Dr. Hull and Casey. Both great teachers.
With my three grad credits, I get to run two panels Friday afternoon at the Hofstra conference.
At 3:15 PM, I will introduce my long-time friend, Ed Charles
, the heart and soul of the 1969 Mets, who promises to recite a new poem for the anniversary.
And at 4:15 PM, I will conduct a panel entitled: New Yorkers Recall the Dark Ages: Four Long Years Before the Birth of the Mets.
Panel members will include Joan Lombardi Hodges, Gil Hodges, Jr., Stan Isaacs, the landmark Newsday columnist
known for his appropriately-named column Out of Left Field, and Marty Adler, head of the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame.
Although a proud son of Brooklyn
, Stan Isaacs promises to stick up for his dearly departed New York Giants.
We will be talking about the four lean years without the National League in New York,and then the bizarre early years of the Amazing Mets.
For information: http://www.hofstra.edu/community/culctr/culctr_events_mets.html
Like the Neil Diamond Song: Brooklyn Roads.