Archive for May 11th, 2018

Hard Labor and the Mad Russian

May 11, 2018



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.

or this one

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.


Sam Smith’s Hard Labor is a great respite from the hard analyses and serious tomes which fill my life. We all need a breather from discerning the warp and woof of history and if you once were a basketball coach, this book is quite engaging, jam packed with the stuff of life.




At one level, the idea of even caring about privileged NBA players having hard labor is ridiculous. For example, Kyle Lowry of the Raptors makes $28 million per year. Grossly overpaid for sure. Lowry seems like a decent guy but his salary in a suffering world is an insult to creation, a good example of what’s wrong with capitalism. Half of humanity lives on a toonie a day so why should we give a damn about NBA players? Good question.


As Lewis Mumford wrote in 1934 “Sport is one of the least effective reactions against the machine. ”It is just part of the spectacle which diverts our attention from the serious matters at hand. Give it a glance and move on.




But the book Hard Labor is about a different time when mostly black players were treated like they were still on the plantation. In 1964 most had second jobs. Smith lays all of this out in compelling terms. Jim Crow was still alive when Oscar Robertson and friends challenged the owners to treat them as more than chattels.


This was the generation of players which paved the way for the mega salaries of today. As Robertson says in the book,”Most of today’s players don’t give a shit” about the trail blazers. Amnesia goes with capitalism.




One nugget among many in this book is the fact that Shaquille O’Neal paid for the funeral of George Mikan, the first great NBA big man.


I liked this book because, like the incomparable Dave Zirin who writes about the politics of sport for The Nation magazine, Smith places sport within the broader confines of society and politics. Few sports writers today are worth reading at all simply because they treat the topic as stand alone and worthy of our time. It isn’t. check out Zirin’s latest Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down (The New Press.)


Back to Hard Labor.


The most interesting story was about a journeyman player named Tom Meschery, the author of the poems above. Smith calls him the Mad Russian warrior poet, a good handle and a fascinating story.




Meschery was born in Manchuria as Tomislav Nicolaivich Mescherakov. His father, a Russian officer fought with the Bolsheviks in the revolution. His mother was related to Tolstoy’s second cousin the family finally got a visa to the US in 1938 the year Tom was born.They never got there and were interned in a Japanese internment camp where young Tommy learned English from missionaries.


After the war they landed in San Francisco and Tom had to fight his way to school and in the playground because his mother dressed him in knickers. He quickly learned two things—how to fight and sport was the great equalizer. Meschery went on to be a two-time All-American at St. Mary’s College, 20 miles east of Frisco where he was taught by the Christian Brothers and later incarnated the school’s motto ‘enter to learn, leave to serve.’ In 1961 he was drafted in the first round by the Philadelphia Warriors and enjoyed a 10 year career averaging 12,7 points and 8.6 rebounds.  He generally led the league in fouls and brawls hence his nickname the Mad Russian.The other side of this was he was loved by his teammates as a gentle warrior the lost and lonely.


I had a temper, I admit,” he says. “And I wasn’t about to back down. And maybe that was sort of the immigrant in me, come to think of it. You know, I had to put up my dukes a lot when I was young. So I think I had a little bit of a short fuse.”



When his time in the show was up, the insatiably curious multi-linguist met the American poet laureate of 1991 Mark Strand who suggested “he retreat to a life of poetry and contemplation full time.”


After running a bookstore into the ground he discovered teaching in Reno and Truckee ,Nevada. With his degree from the Iowa Writers Workshop he had found a new home, writing poetry and teaching and ranting on his blog about Donald Trump (http:/

Working Man

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.


In the end Hard Labor is a serious attempt at contextualizing pro sport in our turbocapitalist world.