At the Top of the Wheel
I just finished a lunch at the Oberlin Inn with Dr. George Korkos of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and his grandson Nick, a freshman on the Oberlin College football team. I had a BLT and some coffee. They both had French onion soup and a sandwich. The first big snowfall of the year swirled wildly outside. It is not a distinguished restaurant. In fact, to be honest, it’s about the last place in town that I’d choose to eat.
We met at noon. Tired from a week that included three round-trip commutes from Oberlin to my job in Ann Arbor, I had only just woken up an hour before to see the text from my friend, Oberlin football coach Jeff Ramsey, that Dr. Korkos wanted to meet me at noon. I treasure my morning routine and was somewhat put out that this lunch was on my schedule. But Jeff had gone out of his way to arrange this and so, much as I wanted to just stay warm in my pajamas and robe, enjoying my coffee and breakfast with my wife, I hustled to get dressed and shuffle out into the snow and wind.
You see, Dr. George Korkos, together with his friend Wesley Pavalon, raised the funds through an IPO to found the expansion Milwaukee Bucks in 1968. The Bucks – I have told the story more than once – figured enormously in my early childhood, stimulating and populating my imagination as I learned the game in my driveway, playing alone, against my siblings and father, or neighborhood friends.
Dr. Korkos won the coin flip with Phoenix that landed the Bucks the # 1 pick in the 1969 NBA draft (a guy named Lew Alcindor out of UCLA). He is the man who then, in an office in New York with Alcindor and his agent Sam Gilbert, made the young star an offer he couldn’t refuse. Even as ABA commissioner and NBA legend George Mikan waited in the next room to try, unsuccessfully, to lure Alcindor to join the upstart young league. He is also the man who in the next off-season – 1970 now, when I am five – met with Oscar Robertson and persuaded the aging, but brilliant guard, to sign with the Bucks.
The rest would be history and historic: the Bucks — with Oscar and Kareem, Lucius Allen and Bob Dandridge, and a talented cast of role players — would go on in the 1970-1971 season to win 66 regular season games and then cruise to the Championship winning 12 of 14 playoff games, including a 4-0 sweep of the Baltimore Bullets. According to the analysis of Neil Paine at basketball-reference.com, that Bucks team was the most dominant in NBA history.
Dr. Korkos was a warm, interesting, and interested lunch companion. He knew of my childhood attachment to the Bucks and obligingly regaled me with the important inside stories he understood that I’d want to hear. And as he did so, I could appreciate that the stories were just as thrilling to him. Though he hadn’t been a child but a grown man — a businessman and an owner at that — his heart was just as open to the wonder of those singularly talented athletes and the excitement of potential dynasty rising up unexpectedly out of a small midwestern city in the early 70s.
At one point, thinking of players and individuals associated with those teams, he asked me if I remembered Eddie Doucette, the team’s radio and television announcer (it was mostly radio back then). “Remember?!” Dr. Korkos didn’t know it, but Eddie Doucette’s voice had been at least as big a part of my connection to the team as any of the players, as the thrill of seeing them play in person. I told him this as soberly as I could and, with a mischievous and enthusiastic look, he said, “Let’s call Eddie!”
And so, within a minute or so, I am holding Dr. Korkos’ cell phone to my ear in the Oberlin Inn and the voice leaping across cell towers through the ether is also leaping across time: it is coming from the little dice-shaped radio I’d keep close to my pillow at night, it is coming from my bedroom, it is coming from 1971. It is coming from Eddie Doucette, but somehow it is also echoing up out of my heart’s memory. Mr. Doucette and I talk for a few minutes, recalling those teams, players, and games. I thank him for what he did for me. And he talks about how important he felt his job was; how seriously he took the charge of bringing the players to the fans; the sense of warmth and family he sought to cultivate through his broadcasts.
I am growing younger as he speaks. And I cannot resist asking him. “I wonder, Mr. Doucette,” if you would do me a favor.” “What’s that?” he asked. “Would you just give me a ‘Bango!,” for old times sake? Just to tide me over?” (“Bango!” is what Eddie would exclaim when the Bucks’ scored.) “Why sure,” he replied, “that’s easy.” And then I hear this, through the phone, through time: “Oscar bringing it up over the timeline to the top of the wheel,” — my hand goes to my heart, my mouth opens wide, tears come to my eyes, Dr. Korkos nudges his grandson and points to me, beaming — “The Big O swings it over to Bobby D. The Greyhound fakes the jumper, dribbles right, dumps it down to Kareem in the toaster. Kareem waits, fakes, turns to the baseline. Skyhook! Bango! Bucks win!! Bucks win!!”
I am speechless. Thrown unexpectedly by Eddie and my feelings up against the inadequacy of language to convey the world and lifetime of thrilling anticipation and expansive relief, of longing and desire, of love and identification and bonding, of elective family and warm belonging, I gasped and then incoherently mumbled my thanks. Eddie said to get a pen. He wanted to give me his number, “in case I can ever do anything for you.” Now I want to cry. What more could he possibly do for me? Is there no limit to his generosity? And yet, I am in this moment so young that it doesn’t even cross my mind that I might reciprocate the offer. I greedily stand to go and get a pen and paper and write the numbers down. And in my mind, way in the back of my reptilian 6 year old brain, I am hatching schemes by which I will one day meet Oscar Robertson, Kareem, and the rest of my pantheon.
I don’t know if Dr. Korkos saw me eyeing his championship ring or not (I know I was by now scheming also about how to get the ring off his finger), but he said, “It’s a shame you can’t take a picture of the ring.” “I can take a picture,” I replied unabashedly. And before it was off his finger, I had my phone out and my camera ready. I shot the top and the two sides of the ring. He held it carefully on his finger so that I could get the best angle.
Just before we left, lingering over coffee. He told me a story about a fishing trip where he learned that he and his friends were going to be fishing near Ted Williams house. Williams, maybe the greatest hitter of all time, was not — he’d heard — a friendly man. He was reclusive. But Dr. Korkos was not going to waste the opportunity. So he told me how he went to the door with quickening breath and knocked. How a housekeeper answered and he said that he was “Dr. George Korkos,” a big fan of Mr. Williams, and was hoping to have a word with him. How she asked him to wait a moment. Now, he said, “my heart was really pounding.” And then, miraculously, how Ted Williams was standing in the doorway, holding a beer, asking him what he could do for him. Dr. Korkos explained that Mr. Williams had been his biggest hero growing up and that he couldn’t let pass the chance to meet him. Ted Williams inexplicably opened the door — “I think he sensed my sincerity” — and said, “C’mon in. I’ll give you a beer. It’s my 65th birthday.” As they finished their beer, Dr. Korkos told me, he told Ted Williams, “‘Ted’ — for now he is ‘Ted’ — I see that you tie your own flies [for fishing] and I’ve got a group of friends I’ve left behind. I wonder if you would be so kind as to give me seven of them to take back to my friends.’ Can you believe, Yago, how bold I was?’ But that was Ted Williams. Ted Williams. How could I not?”
I understood perfectly.
In my job teaching the Cultures of Basketball, and in thinking critically about the game, I rarely find myself sympathizing with owners. I more often identify with the players. I know that there are reasons for this. Some of them good. But today I met an owner. An old-school owner, yes, and so maybe that accounts for some of the differences in feeling, but an owner nonetheless. He spoke of the players as gentlemen. In fact, “gentleman” seemed to be his honorific of choice, the highest compliment he could pay a man. As I left he and his grandson behind at the Inn, I overheard him say to Nick, “He’s a gentleman.”
Today, I met an owner and he was a gentleman and, as importantly, he was like me, brimming with a thrilled and eager, childlike enthusiasm for the game and for the sheer experience of feeling that the game can deliver.