http://theclassical.org/articles/grandpa-was-a-baller (click on this link to see the photos, etc)
Grandpa Was A Baller
The weird, wonderful tales of an early NBA player, who happens to be my grandfather.
By Matt Kallman
My grandfather is missing an ear. Melanoma was eating away the left one, so it had to be removed. He’s hobbled by bad legs, particularly the right one, banged-up since college—two members of a forgotten Big Ten special teams unit both decided to tackle his kneecap at the same time. His feet swell at night for unknown reasons, but soaking them in ice water helps. Walking is difficult; he relies on a cane, or two hands along the wall.
Daytime is spent in the “middle bedroom,” where the recliner— a dark green La-Z-Boy, the seat and back of it faded to the color invisible—sits about three feet from a 50-inch television. A wireless headphones product called TV Ears are often found hanging around his neck; four pairs of these are scattered around the house, to go along with the other everyday items he’s ordered over the phone: a Shake Weight, a coffee table that swings upward to TV-dinner height, and one Teeter Hang-Ups EP-560. That’s the “inversion table” that flips him upside-down. Gravity’s tender tug is good for posture.
He just turned 88. Ask him how he feels on any given morning, and you’ll get a straight answer: “The same. Terrific.” This is Bernard “Ben” Schadler, retired professional basketball player, three-sport college letterman at Northwestern University, and for all intents and purposes, sometimes my roommate.
Six-foot tall point guard “Benny Bones” Schadler, the long-distance, one-handed-shot wizard out of Benton Harbor, Michigan, was no stud on paper. His career statistics don’t paint much of a picture: 1.5 points per game, 0.2 assists, and a .198 field goal percentage that went lockstep with that era’s lousy shooting. The consolation would be that these numbers come from his 1947-48 season with the BAA Chicago Stags, the only one that’s officially recorded. Schadler would continue on with the Detroit Vagabond Kings, Waterloo Hawks, and Sheboygan Red Skins, all of the NBL, just up until the merger that allowed a few NBL teams (and all of the BAA) to join the record books for posterity.
Schadler was a well-rounded athlete, a self-proclaimed “triple threat.” He lettered in basketball, baseball, and football at Northwestern, back when lettering was a mark of accomplishment. For good measure, he was a high school tennis champ, an avid golfer, and an enthusiastic bowler. He drew the NFL’s attention first by being NU’s defensive play-caller; he also logged time at every offensive skill position, most notably quarterback, not to mention blocking on punt returns. He was selected by the Detroit Lions in the 1945 Draft, a fact he discovered himself when reading the newspaper. Alas, another draft would take precedence that year, as he was commissioned by the US Navy for a six-month, torpedo boat trip to Borneo. Upon returning home in early-1946, Schadler snubbed the NFL, choosing instead to play out his final year of eligibility with Northwestern. His goal all along had been a less injury-prone career in hoops.
Schadler was a scorer, plain and simple. He was known for his outside jumpers (a sort of overhanded toss, back then), and for being especially deadly from the “coffin corner” along the baseline. As a defender, he was more attuned to jumping the passing lanes than manning up on the ball. I grew up picturing his game like a right-handed Nick Van Exel: not the biggest guy on the court, but always able to get his shot up in memorable fashion. After being named the 1947 Northwestern team MVP, Ben Schadler was selected by Chicago in the 2nd round, 18th overall in the first ever pro-basketball draft that summer. His pro career lasted less than three seasons.
The only uniform I’d ever see him in was a blue smock. Grandpa Ben owned and managed a Rexall Drug my whole childhood, retiring during my freshman year of high school when the store’s lease expired. I lived next door to him growing up; that he was an ex-NBA’er was a fun fact to toss around to my friends, especially when he ventured out into the driveway to shoot around with us, which he did regularly. Once in a while a buddy would ask for his autograph, which would lead to Grandpa and I sharing a laugh, in on his joke that he was no John Stockton, or Mark Price, or Tony Massenburg, or Keith Jennings. Still, he would politely oblige.
To my adolescent ears, Grandpa Ben’s tales had the vague quality of being vaguely … off, somehow:
“The only time I got in a game at the Knicks, Madison Square Garden was booked for the circus, so we had to play in the armory building.”
“One time Otto Graham almost blew off my friend’s face on a skeet shooting trip.”
“My sister met Muhammad Ali at the post office.”
In what I suppose would have been a typical 12-year-old’s reaction, I learned to tune out this noise, and I still don’t know if he realized he only ever had half of my attention. If he did, he didn’t care.
When I was away at college, I received a 200-page working copy of Grandpa Was A Junkie: aka The Double Fake,his memoir. The separate titles reflect both his numerous obsessions (a sports, news, entertainment, business “addict”), and the football play he diagrammed and mailed to San Francisco 49ers headquarters that he remains convinced was used with success in Super Bowl XVI. For what it’s worth, his letter was received a week before the game (“signature required!”), and the play in question, a touchdown pass from Montana to Cooper, was a call not seen from head coach Bill Walsh in years.
This “Junkie” reads like my grandfather talks—a series of plainspoken anecdotes. He has to wear his sister’s shoes as hand-me-downs; he saves a child that fell down an abandoned grain silo. Naturally, there are long forays into his college and pro days on the road. I’m guessing that it hits a wall during his days of retail management; I could never get through it. He had mailed the same document to a handful of local sportswriters to drum up ghostwriting interest but received no replies. That was twelve years ago, and until recently, I had forgotten about its existence altogether.
My own schedules had me bouncing between more than one address as of late. Now and then I’ve found myself holing up downstairs at my grandpa’s house for a few weeks at a time.
A couple of months ago, Grandpa Ben finished reading A Band of Misfits: Tales of the 2010 San Francisco Giants by former San Jose Mercury beat-writer Andrew Baggarly. Of major importance to Grandpa was a note on the book’s dust jacket: Baggarly received his journalism degree from Northwestern. I came by for a visit around this time, and for Ben Schadler, the stars were aligned. It was time to kick the tires on Grandpa Was A Junkie.Because he considered me the “fastest typist in the family,” I was to take down a selection of his anecdotes and a brief life synopsis to FedEx (“signature required!”) over to Baggarly’s publishers. As I took down the letter one conversation at a time, I found myself going beyond brief synopsis.
Year one of Schadler’s pro career began the day he received a letter in the mail from the Chicago Stags in July of 1947, explaining that he was their property. He’d heard whispers that the NBL’s Tri-Cities Blackhawks would come courting, but to the BAA he went. The Stags offered him one night’s free housing somewhere in suburban Chicago to come visit the franchise, and upon accepting the job, a $4,500 season’s salary ($47k in today’s terms), a $500 bonus if they made the playoffs, and $10 per diems on travel days.
Schadler settled down in a boarding house in Evanston, a half-hour drive north from home court, Chicago Stadium. Attendance averaged 2,500 in the 15,000 seat arena, and if the stadium was booked for any other reason (a convention, the circus), games would be moved to a local high school gym. His first career professional game was at the Washington Capitols, memorable mostly because a pair of strangers—they had apparently grown up playing pinochle with his parents—wished him luck during the shootaround. Schadler’s playing time would yo-yo throughout the season, a constant source of frustration. Six-foot wasn’t tall, even for the 1940s Association, and getting subbed when bigger defenders got into the game was common, regardless of his current performance. One night, after nailing three straight long jumpers only to get pulled as bigger opposing guards got called to the scorers table, Schadler took his warm-up jacket and threw it in front of his bench. Coach Harold Olsen told him at halftime he’d never play another game if he pulled something like that again. “Getting fired” from a pro team was a viable threat; players’ leverage was a foreign concept.
The Stags had to travel to their away games by train, as Coach Olsen was afraid to fly. But to compensate for the longer travel, and the shared sleeping compartments, players could order “whatever they wanted” for lunch. Things stayed that way even after Olsen missed a chunk of the season with appendicitis; guard/ forward Jim Seminoff served as player-coach until someone from the local high school could be convinced to take the job.
A few notable NBA names popped up in that single BAA season. Red Holzman played dirty, grabbing the waistline of Schadler’s uniform on D, getting close enough to block a referee’s view. League-leading scorer Max Zaslofsky didn’t chip in for gas money or cab fares. Buddy Jeannette was left in the dust behind one of Schadler’s best crossovers (though my grandpa immediately airballed his open shot). These reminiscences often revolved around single plays: the magical time he flipped a pass between his legs; his 180-reverse layup between New York’s big men; accidentally biting a defender after fighting through a screen.
Pre- and post-game meals leave their own legacy. Getting taken to task by Stags accounting for ordering a steak at the Lord Baltimore hotel. Or the time three “big-nosed, business-type men” approached my grandpa and two teammates, offering to take them out for “whatever they wanted” for dinner (a term that, I’ve come to realize, held a lot of worth). Schadler believes he and his cohort were recognized as Stags, and that perhaps this date wasn’t so innocent. “All they wanted to talk about was basketball.” Word got around free food was the exchange rate for gambling tips.
BenShootMy grandfather’s only BAA season would turn out to be his most “professional” in basketball. It was exactly what I imagined the early NBA to be: an unglamorous but fun job that payed better than average for a partial year’s work. My grandpa took pharmaceutical training courses in California when the season wrapped; some guys were PE teachers; the Stags trainer was a jazz pianist. It was the switch to the NBL in 1948, however, that really shows how impossibly far he was from today’s game. He could have told me The Fonz was hired as a guest referee and I wouldn’t have blinked.
In that first offseason, the Stags rescinded its $500 playoff bonus, and he refused to play. Schadler asked Chicago to work out a trade to the Minneapolis Lakers, which quickly fell apart. After sitting out a week of Stags games, my grandfather asked for his outright release.
After a few days passed, the now teamless Schadler was starting to have doubts about his return to the pro ranks. No teams had reached out. He felt a church service the following Sunday served him a dose of humility, and left the sermon thinking perhaps he overvalued his own abilities. If a team didn’t contact him within a week, he’d hang it up. His sister took him straight from service to shoot a round of golf, and he returned home that afternoon to a phone message his mother had taken down. An “advance man” from the NBL’s Detroit Vagabond Kings had called, and promised to try back later that evening (with that team name, you’d think the team rolled from game to game in a limo). While negotiating a season salary, the Kings promised to schedule and promote two games in Ben’s hometown of Benton Harbor against whatever “all-star” team they could assemble, with proceeds from the gate going straight into Schadler’s pocket as a signing bonus.
Schadler agreed. The Vagabond Kings promptly won their first game with him on board. Days later in Benton Harbor, his family hosted the Vagabond Kings roster and coaching staff for dinner before all heading to the gym. The Kings quickly took a twenty-point lead, and some guys left the court, sitting in the stands and hitting on girls, letting the game proceed 5 on 4 while still seeing their advantage through to a lopsided victory. A beaming Schadler approached Benton Harbor’s mayor, one of the game’s promoters, to collect his windfall after the game. First letdown: he found out tickets to the game cost a dollar, and fifty cents less for kids. The second: no one knew what he was talking about.
Detroit’s coach gave Schadler the score: “I have a wife and kids, and I’m keeping this money. I’ll see to it that you get yours at the end of the season.” Payment never came. It wasn’t just this game—two weeks had passed without Schadler, let alone any of the Vagabond Kings’ eight players, being paid a dime. The team was co-owned by two men, one of whom also owned a car dealership. The car salesman wanted out, and as a parting gift to the remaining owner (given out of guilt, and accepted out of an essential need) the Kings received two limousines. Since they couldn’t afford a bus, this became how they travelled around the country; hundreds of miles at a time, from game to game, in two limos—a confusing symbol for a failing league. Their lodging situation, though, screamed that the end was near. If a game was held in the vicinity of Detroit, team owner King Boring (yes, King Boring) began to shuttle the players to his home to sleep in his game room on air mattresses.
The 2-16 Kings rolled into a matchup against the league leading Anderson Duffy Packers following the night after one such Boring getaway. The mood was tense during warm-ups; when a referee came down to announce the game would be starting in five minutes, my grandfather spoke up for the team: “We won’t be playing tonight’s game.” No one would walk out on that court until the entire team was paid. NBL Commissioner Doxie Moore happened to be in the house. Moore walked into the Kings locker room (“good-looking suit, polished shoes”) after hearing the team’s ultimatum. My grandfather recalled Moore’s words:
“Guys, I know you haven’t been paid, but I’m telling you, if you don’t get your asses on that floor within five minutes, you will never play another pro basketball game in your lives. If you try to get at King Boring for back wages, you will also never play another game. He’s a heck of a nice guy that’s in over his head.”
Commissioner Moore explained that the NBL couldn’t keep the Kings afloat any longer, and promised a new team home and fair pay after the night was over.
A 15-minute strike. The 1948-49 Detroit Vagabond Kings’ final record would hit the books at 2-17, after dropping a nail-biter that night to the eventual league champ Duffy Packers.
As of the next morning, Detroit no long had a professional basketball team. The Vagabond Kings were erased and replaced by the barnstorming, all-black New York Renaissance, creating the Dayton Rens. (Quite a cultural benchmark; a few NBL teams had black players, but never an all-black team. The BAA remained whites-only).
Schadler was picked up by another NBL squad, the Waterloo Hawks. He’s convinced they came calling for one specific reason. In a game earlier that year, Hawks player/coach Charley Shipp was coming down on a 2-on-1 fastbreak against the Kings, with Schadler the sole defender. Schadler backpedaled, demonstratively faked going for a steal, then dropped into the passing lane. A shook Shipp picked up his dribble and shot a pass clear into the cheap seats. Turns out the play earned him a job. (Quick aside: I wrote an essay on this defensive move for a seventh grade English assignment titled “Something a Hero Has Taught Me”).
The 1948-49 Hawks season went swimmingly for Schadler, at least in terms pay, travel, and lodging; though, he stayed on Coach Shipp’s weary side. With a full day off before a night game at the Denver Nuggets, Schadler and teammate Elmer Gainer craved a round of golf, despite the fact that it had been snowing. Nothing spraypainting the balls black couldn’t fix. The two got their 18 holes in and arrived at the game beet red from sunburns. Shipp could tell they’d been out, ticked off that they zapped their energy, and said he’d rather they show up to the game drunk than tired from golf. Whatever: Schadler hit a shot at the buzzer to send the night’s game into overtime, and Gainer hit the winning bucket in the extra frame.
The Waterloo Hawks finished the season at 30-32, with my grandpa getting in 43 games.
Schadler accepted a contract offer from the Sheboygan Red Skins for the 1949-50 season, but Year Three never truly materialized.
The 1949 season marked the BAA and NBL’s merger into the NBA. Team rosters were unstable, and as a number of NBL franchises folded altogether, the glut of available players made for stiff competition. Schadler found himself to be one of the smallest guys on the court, and thought he looked silly against bigger defenders. The Red Skins cut him just as the season got underway.
Sheboygan kindly let him know that the Denver Nuggets had interest in picking him up. Schadler drove west, still early in the 1949 season, to drop in on the team but they were out of town. He took this as a sign, and called it a playing career.
The coda to his life in basketball: Ben Schadler’s state-champ high school coach was a friend and former NBL teammate of one John Wooden. Schadler and his old coach had stayed in touch, and spent one evening together with Wooden in the summer of 1949. Wooden had mentioned looking for an assistant to coach his freshman squad.
After leaving Denver, Schadler headed to Southern California for his pharmaceutical work, but decided to pop in on Wooden unannounced. The goal was to score that coaching job, but Schadler, afraid of being rude, swore not to mention basketball once. The two had a nice chat, and the sport never came up.
Schadler stayed in California for his remaining working life in drug store retail.
When I first began taking down my grandfather’s story, I asked him what he felt he could gain by writing this publisher’s notice. Ben Schadler is his generation’s poster child for clean and honest living, and I’ve never heard him curse. His curt, impassioned response to me was the most fiery I’ve ever seen him: “My family should know who I am, and I’m not going to be around to tell them.”
On a morning after our conversations were through, the phone rang at 9AM with a bizarre request. A basketball aficionado was offering the arbitrary amount of $10,000 for any Chicago Stags memorabilia my grandfather might still have, preferably his uniform. A couple times a year, my grandpa does get a letter or old program in the mail, looking for a signature, but nothing like this. Suspicious of the caller or not, my grandmother took the line and said “there isn’t anything to give, and if there was, we’d be happier giving it to the grandkids.” Not having anything of worth to a collector would be the truth, but there’s a wealth of history here that Ben Schadler and I are happy to share with anyone interested.
Matt Kallman is keyboardist for the band GIRLS, and co-founder of the forthcoming Body Double reissue project. Follow him on Twitter at @KallmanSays.