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You’re Never Too Old to Make New Life-Long Friends
How a Late Basketball Legend Made It Happen for Me (with an Addendum)
It is conventional wisdom that as we age it gets more difficult to make new friends, especially close – let alone “life-long” – friends. The older we get, the more we tend to withdraw into family, grandkids, while our friends from childhood are doing the same. Often they live far away and so it’s hard to see them.
COVID, of course, made things much worse. So much so that loneliness has become a major problem -- one author labels it an “epidemic” -- in the US. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/20/nyregion/loneliness-epidemic.html. A Harvard study says 1/3 of Americans are lonely, and the data cut across age groups. https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/loneliness-in-america?stream=top. And American men, in particular, appear to be in a “friendship recession” that predates the pandemic. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/28/well/family/male-friendship-loneliness.html?searchResultPosition=1.
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This is not a “how to” column on how to cure loneliness, although one good suggestion in an Axios column (which came into my in-box two weeks ago but I can’t figure out how to link to it) about the Harvard study jumps out: pick up the phone and talk to, and even more important, listen to people you know, family members and friends from long ago. Even better, from my experience, interact over zoom, Teams, or some other video platform. Seeing people establishes even stronger connections than just hearing them (if you work all day on video platforms, like I do, you may be zoomed out, but I still find zooming or Teaming to be a great personal experience).
Instead, my purpose here is to relay a personal story of how serendipity -- or how “Luck Matters,”
-- with a bit of effort, and a connection with the past and a basketball legend whom I never really knew but long admired, combined in my case to confound the conventional wisdom about the difficulty of making new friends in our 60s and 70s. Maybe readers will find there are elements in this story that resonate with your own lives.
I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, in a middle-class family with loving parents, who had zero interest in sports. But I somehow got the sports bug at age 6 watching college football on TV (I think my first game was Oklahoma coached by Bud Wilkinson against Notre Dame), and later pro football by watching the legendary 1958 Colts-Giants NFL championship game, rooting for Johnny Unitas and Alan “the Horse” Ameche, in what many believe to be the greatest NFL game of all time. In the same year, I also first fell in love with the Boston Celtics, especially Bill Russell (one of my lifelong idols), and later John Havlicek, along with many other Celtic icons.
Mind you I was much better at watching sports than playing them. I was small, skinny, couldn’t run fast or jump. But I was really good at ping pong, and good enough at tennis to barely letter my senior year in high school. The closest I got to basketball game action was being the basketball manager for my middle school, high school, and freshman college basketball teams (and as for baseball, I was recruited through my high school debate experience to become the stadium announcer for the high school state baseball tournament, a gig that led to three summers as stadium announcer for an annual semi-pro national championship baseball tournament held in Wichita.
Since I grew up in a mid-size city with no professional sports teams, the biggest thing around was to be able to go to Wichita University (later Wichita State) college basketball games. Wichita played in the Missouri Valley Conference, which back then, was one of the premier college basketball conferences in the country. Cincinnati was a perennial power in the MVC, won the NCAA championship in 1961 and 1962 and was one basket away from winning it all again in 1963 before Loyola of Chicago upset them by a basket in overtime (FYI: Cincy never won the whole thing before those years when the great Oscar Robertson played; he didn’t have sufficient support around him to take the team all the way).
Since my parents weren’t into sports, they didn’t have season tickets for “Shocker” (short for “Wheatshocker”) games, which were a hot commodity in Wichita in the early to late 1960s. A few times I got lucky and got to attend with boyhood friends and their parents.
But my really lucky break came in February 1993 when my father’s business partner in McPherson, Kansas (where I spent the first five years of my life), who was also a state representative, got tickets for my Dad and me to attend what would become one of the greatest Shocker games (or any games, for that matter) of all time. It was the night that Wichita upset then No. 1 ranked Cincy, with its 37-game winning streak coming off its second NCAA championship in a row. I won’t spill all the beans about the game itself because it’s in a book I mention below, but the hero that game was my then other basketball idol, 6’ 7” Dave Stallworth, who scored 46 of the Shockers’ 65 points, one point more than Cincy.
Why do I go into all this personal history, especially my early love of basketball? Because it turned out that my boyhood admiration for Dave Stallworth – who went on to be the third overall pick in the 1965 NBA draft and to play for the New Knicks (a rival of my beloved Celtics, and thus a team I never would have rooted for), and who played a key role in the Knicks’ legendary triumph over the Lakers in the 1970 Championship series – led indirectly, of course without Stallworth’s knowledge, to a “life-long” friendship many years later (52 years, to be precise). By randomness, or luck, as in “Luck Matters.”
To spare you all the twists and turns in my life, after spending my adult years mostly on the East Coast (college, law/grad school, working) and for a decade in Kansas City, I returned, at the age of 64, to my hometown of Wichita, Kansas with my wife, Margaret (also a huge college basketball fan). I was able to do so because of another lucky break, being taken on as a partner at Korein Tillery, a St. Louis-based law firm, which allowed me to work remotely (this was back in 2014, well before the post-pandemic surge in remote working) from anywhere I wanted (I have since switched to another law firm, Philadelphia-based Berger Montague, but continue to work closely with my former partners at KT on a major litigation).
With the choice of living anywhere in the country while working remotely, many of you would have picked Hawaii, California, Florida, or maybe Montana, right? Not for Margaret and me. It was back to Wichita. Why? Partially because of some family and friends, but the deciding reason was that the two of us then could have what I never had growing up, season tickets to Shocker basketball games! And by coincidence (luck again), we moved in a period in the mid 2010’s when the team was riding high: they went on another miracle run to the Final Four in 2013, and then had several more years of greatness, largely under the leadership of Ron Baker, who also briefly played for the Knicks, and Fred “Bet on Yourself” Van Vleet, now an all-star point guard for the Toronto Raptors.
Then, still another stroke of luck. A year after we came back, in early 2015, I saw an item in the sports pages of the remaining local paper, the Wichita Eagle, about Bob Powers, a sophomore on the Shockers’ 1964-65 that miraculously made it to the Final Four in 1965, even though the team missed its two best players who left after January: Stallworth graduating mid-year, and the team’s 6’ 10” center, the late Nate Bowman, becoming academically ineligible (Bowman later played with Stallworth on the Knicks, as the backup to the great Willis Reed). The Eagle article reported that Powers was organizing a dinner to honor all the surviving players from that magical 1964-65 Shocker team, including Stallworth, whom I had never personally met up to that point.
Seeing Stallworth’s name and that he was going to be at the dinner was all it took. Although tickets to the event came in blocks of four and cost a bundle for the “public” (the dinner was a fundraiser for the university), I managed to reach Powers by telephone, and bought a table for four, bringing along two Wichita State faculty legends, history professor John Dreifort (whose son became a major league pitcher), and Jim Rhatigan (Wichita State’s legendary vice president of student affairs). I can’t remember the third person!
In any event, the dinner was held in the spring of 2015 and was one of the great nights of my life. Reliving that miracle run with those team members who could make it. And finally getting to meet one of my boyhood heroes! Dave “The Rave” Stallworth, who by then was in a wheelchair suffering from congestive heart failure, but couldn’t have been nicer, flashing his radiant hallmark to me and to everyone else who lined up to talk with him.
I didn’t know it then, but Bob Powers was the “power” behind those team reunions, the glue that kept them all together through the years. Even though he never started, sitting on the bench for three years, before leaving the team so he could focus full time on his studies. Graduated from Wichita State, then went on to get his Masters. Opened a financial advisory business, which he has to this day.
In any event, almost to the day after that 50th reunion dinner, two years later, Stallworth died, at the age of 75. I kind of expected it, but still cried when I saw the announcement in the paper. Margaret and I went to his memorial service at Koch arena (the stadium where the Shockers played, renamed after Charles Koch funded its refurbishment), another moving experience. After that, I figured, like everyone else at the memorial -- I guess about 800, too few given his fame and what he done for the university, putting it on the map of college basketball, (which had to play a part in the university later attracting a number of stars later, especially Antoine Carr, who played for the Utah Jazz; Xavier McDaniel or the “X Man,” who played for multiple NBA teams, including the Knicks; and of course Baker and Van Vleet) – I would have to put my Stallworth memories in a mental box and relive them just to myself from time to time.
That didn’t last long. Several months later, I saw another article in the Eagle, announcing plans, led by who else – Powers -- to raise funds to build a statue of Dave, to be placed in front of a newer, larger Wichita arena where the Shockers occasionally played, Intrust Bank arena. I immediately got in touch with Bob, who at that point I still did not know well, and said I would help him fundraise, but that the statute could not go anywhere but in front of “Roundhouse” (the original nickname for Koch Arena). All those in my generation in Wichita also knew the Roundhouse as the “House that Dave [Stallworth] Built.” To make a semi-long story short, we got the placement of the statue moved, and then launched an effort, assisted by a great group of longstanding Shocker basketball supporters, to approach and persuade just about everyone we collectively knew to donate funds for the statue and a Memorial Scholarship in Dave’s name for future WSU education students. The captain of the 64-65 team, Dave Leach (for whom I had worked as his basketball manager when he later coached at my high school), found a superb nationally known sculptor, Ann LaRose, to design and construct the statue. Eventually the money for the statute and some additional amount for the Scholarship came in.
By this time, I was talking, emailing or texting with Powers about every day. We were an unusual combination: me at 5’ 8” raised in a traditional Jewish home in Wichita who had gone East to college and law/grad schools, and Bob P, a gentle giant at 6’ 8,” raised in a traditional Catholic family in a small town near Pittsburgh, Pa, with 8 children of his own and at that time I believe about 24 grandchildren (I had zero grandchildren at the time, now thankfully four). Over time, our friendship grew. Throughout the back and forth, it felt like we became business partners, even brothers.
Through Bob I also got to know well two other Shocker greats, Cleo Littleton, the Shockers’ first great national star in the 1950s, and Mohammed Sharif (formerly Kelly Pete), the Shocker point guard who, along with Leach and lights-out shooter Jamie Thompson, put that 64-65 team on their backs and took them on that remarkable run to the Final Four.
But beyond having superb organizational skills, and a ton of street smarts and a great feel for people, Bob was relentless. Bob wanted a major event to honor both Dave and all those who contributed to the statue and the scholarship fund. So, we then set about organizing yet another dinner in December 2018 for that purpose, to be followed by the formal unveiling of the statue the next morning at the University.
If anything, the December 2018 dinner was even better (at least for me) than the 50th reunion dinner, although not all the 65-65 team members could join. One who did was Leach, and this time my wife and I got to spend a lot more time reliving with him our high school days, when as the basketball coach, he was the biggest man on campus (which at 6’ 5” he almost, but not quite, was). Bob asked me to MC, which was a thrill. Many spoke from the heart about Dave. The next morning’s event was also just as memorable, unveiling the remarkable statue that from then on has greeted every fan coming into the Roundhouse (and if you ever watch Shocker home games on TV, is always shown at or the near the beginning of the telecast).
You’d think that would be the end of this little story, but it isn’t. Shortly after the December 2018 dinner, my wife and I moved to Lawrence, Kansas (home of Wichita State’s rarely played arch rival, Kansas University – which deigned to play WSU only when forced to in NCAA tournament games, very rare events) for my personal health reasons. We were sorry to leave Wichita, and for me especially, it was hard to leave Bob Powers, who had become by then my closest friend in town – all traceable to our joint bond with Dave Stallworth. After our move, Bob and I continued to keep in touch by phone and text, but we didn’t see each other, especially of course through the pandemic.
But Bob the “relentless” still wasn’t done. Bob was bothered that Dave’s Memorial scholarship wasn’t more fully funded, so he had yet another idea: why not write a “small” pamphlet about Stallworth’s life, to be handed out to potential donors? One thing led to another, and before long, I was writing with Bob a real full-length biography about Dave the Rave’s life. It would be (and turned out to be) well researched, with help from many people who talked to us, and by discovering the website “newspapers.com” (courtesy of the radio and TV “voice of the Shockers,” Mike Kennedy, who coincidentally was two years ahead of me in high school). The newspapers.com website, with a subscription, allows access to archives of newspapers from all around the country, going back at least 60 years. We couldn’t have written the book, The Life and Times of Dave “The Rave” Stallworth: A View from the Bench and the Stands, without access to those newspapers. Our collective memories, needless to say, were then and are not now what they used to be, so thank goodness for newspapers.com.
I personally learned so much that I didn’t know about Stallworth throughout all this research, his ups and downs during his life (there was one really big down), and the humility and grace he displayed both during his playing years and after he retired from basketball and moved on with the rest of his life. I also got to know some really cool people (they’re in the book!), as well as to meet and interview for the book Dave’s wife of thirty years, Gloria – who, I am not kidding, I learned was in my same high school class! Very classy lady, with a spine of steel, as readers of the book will discover.
Speaking of book readers, I want to make it clear that this column is not a pitch to get you to buy the book, available here from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=life+and+times+of+dave+the+rave+stallworth&crid=1V25J8JS0ECCH&sprefix=life+and+times+of+dave+the+rave+stallworth%2Caps%2C255&ref=nb_sb_noss.
Although if you do buy it, you should know that all the net proceeds will go to the Stallworth Memorial Scholarship Fund. For the two of us (the two “Bobs”), the book was a labor love, and as a “give back” to readers, while having the proceeds from the book augment the Fund (and hopefully encouraging more people to donate to it).
The real point of my telling you all this, though, is to underscore again what role luck or randomness plays in our lives, even into our late 60s and 70s (and hopefully beyond!): in my case, here, the string of coincidences, from attending that Shocker game in 1963, to moving back to my home town in my 60s, to my seeing by chance an article in the hometown newspaper, plus some effort to follow up all these coincidences, all led to one of my great life-long friendships. And hopefully to do some good for the future beneficiaries of the Stallworth scholarship fund, and to all those Shocker fans who will pass by, maybe touch and read the tribute that is etched into that statue to a remarkable man who deserves to be remembered for many future generations.
I am confident many readers of this post have had similar coincidences in their lives that they look back on and pinch themselves, and wonder “how did all this happen”? If you haven’t thought such things before, then maybe you will now be prompted to do so. And maybe this story will inspire readers who are “older,” shall we say, to reach out into their pasts and make a connection or renew one that has laid dormant for too long, and in the process make a new friend for life (or two) of your own.
PS. It turns out that basketball has rekindled or kindled other “new” friendships in my later years, especially from my college days (1968 through 1972 at Penn). Here I owe a big thanks to our senior class president and chief sportswriter from our college newspaper, Jeff Rothbard. I didn’t know Jeff (or “Bard” as he is now called by his many friends) well in college, but in the past several years have gotten to know him really well through his remarkable efforts bringing many of our classmates together, especially during the runup to our 50th reunion held in May. Along the way, I have connected and reconnected with a lot of my classmates and certain star basketball players whose identities I will not namedrop or embarrass here, though I expect to be writing about some of them in the future. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, I can’t help but close with this thought. One of my favorite television shows is Ted Lasso, starring Jason Sudekis, a Kansas City native (and whose character in the very first episode gets fired from a soccer team in, of all places, WICHITA, KANSAS – this is NOT the reason I love the show, nor is the reason the show has won so many Emmy’s). In any event there is a character in the show whose signature line is “Football is Life,” For me, “Basketball is Life.”
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