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One of the most unique personalities in Warriors history, Tom Meschery is truly a Bay Area legend. Born in China to Russian immigrants, Meschery moved to San Francisco as a youngster and instantly became addicted to basketball. He played collegiately at St. Mary’s before being drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors with the seventh selection of the 1961 NBA Draft. Meschery played six seasons for the Warriors and was named an All-Star in 1963. His interest in poetry and literature earned him the nickname of “Renaissance Man” among his Warriors teammates, but his ferociousness and intensity on the court made him known by others as “The Mad Russian.” Meschery averaged 12.9 points and 8.5 rebounds for his Warriors career and in 1967 he became the first player in franchise history to have his jersey retired.
Warriors.com (DotCom):What are your fondest memories of playing with the Warriors, both in Philadelphia and San Francisco? Tom Meschery (TM): Beating the Lakers consistently was always a fond memory. Of course the highlight of anything I did as a player was during my first season and I played with Wilt in the game that he scored 100 points. That’s being part of history. I don’t think very much can top that.
DotCom:What was it like to play for a Franklin Mieuli-owned team? TM: Franklin was one of the dearest men I have ever met. He was just a sweet guy. He was very old-fashioned in terms of business. It was a handshake and that’s how he dealt with things for the most part. He was just a wonderful guy. He was very truthful and did everything he could to keep the Warriors afloat. It was tough financial times for him and in order to do that, he had to go into debt a number of times. I got along fabulous with him and did for most of his life.
DotCom:Your parents were in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. Is that correct? TM: Correct, they were what were called “White Russians.” San Francisco is still full of the descendants of White Russians. My mother and father were both there in Russia and had to flee the Bolsheviks and settled in Northern China in what was called Manchuria, and that’s where my sister and I were born.
DotCom:Would it be correct to assume that your parents immigrated to the United States from Manchuria? TM: My father came ahead of us prior to World War II and then he sent for us after he got visas for us. But the Second World War broke out and my sister, mother and I were interned in a Japanese concentration camp in Tokyo for the duration of the war. After the war ended, we were brought, via the Red Cross, to San Francisco. My sister and I were very young, but we remember the last years of the war. We’re old enough to remember the bombing and being in bomb shelters and surviving what were nightly raids. It was a terrible time for my mother and I’m sure the rest of the people in the camp.
DotCom:You were WCC Player of the Year in 1961 while at St. Mary’s. Did you expect to get drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors? TM: By the time I was a junior in college, I pretty much knew that I was going to try and play professionally. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going to go. At that time there was a league called the National Industrial Basketball League that had a tremendous amateur basketball league. They paid very, very well and prepared you for executive positions. It was very attractive and a lot of the players were equally good to the players in the NBA. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going to go but by my senior year I realized that I wanted to test myself against the very best and the very best were in the NBA.
DotCom:One of your nicknames was “The Mad Russian.” What bought out the competitive nature and physical nature in you? TM: I was just competitive. There were certain things that I knew I could do well, but I was a little step slow, I wasn’t quite as talented physically as some of the really terrific players. I knew that in order to make it in the NBA, I had to be tenacious. I had to have more energy and work harder on the court. I think that translated into being tough, and to a certain extent I was. I wasn’t about to let anybody intimidate me, that’s for sure, and I had a bit of temper. After a while, I don’t think a lot of people crossed me. I always joked that if I ever got in a fight, I was playing with Wilt Chamberlain and I also had Al Attles on my team, and Al Attles was the meanest son of a gun that ever walked the face of the earth, and maybe one of the toughest, and nobody tangled with Al. So I felt fairly secure in any fights that I got into.
DotCom:Is there a particular altercation on the court that stands out in your career? TM: I always remember the bruising battles that I had with Rudy LaRusso of the Lakers. We had numerous fights. None of them lasted too long because players tend to break up fights pretty quickly. Elgin Baylor used to say that the games against the Warriors never started until LaRusso and I got into a fight.
DotCom:People should know that you were more than just a physical player. You were an All-Star in 1963 as well. TM: I was a little bit more of a finesse player than history is allotting me. In my third year in the league, we drafted a guy named Rick Barry. From that point on, I became a power forward. Prior to that, I was a scoring forward.
DotCom:During your NBA career, you were an avid reader of poetry. How did that come about? TM: We’re Russians, and for Russians, poetry is an important part of our heritage. On my mother’s side, we have a very strong literary heritage. My maternal grandmother’s family are Tolstoys, related to Leo Tolstoy and Aleksey Tolstoy. So I have those literary genes in me and they came out at a young age. I love poetry and I started working on poetry when I was in college a little bit, but I never really got into it much until I was with Seattle, and there I met a guy named Mark Strand. He was teaching at the University of Washington, and he convinced me that after I retired I should apply to the University of Iowa’s writer’s workshop, and that’s exactly what I did. From then on, I’ve never stopped writing poetry.
DotCom:Did the fact that your dad enjoyed reciting poetry have anything to do with the oral tradition that Russia has? TM: I think one of the things about my father reciting poetry is I never once believed the mythology in grammar school and high school that poetry was feminine, that you weren’t manly if you loved poetry. My father was about 6-foot-2 and as big as a bear, and probably stronger than most bears, and when he recited poetry and it brought tears to his eyes, his son didn’t dare call him feminine. I never grew up with that notion of it.
DotCom:You were quite close with former Warriors broadcaster Bill King. What were your conversations with him like? TM: When you mention Bill’s name, you have to mention Nancy Stephens, his longtime partner and wife. They were like older brothers and sisters to me. They were just dear friends. We used to have long conversations about Russia, about poetry and just about everything. They were just wonderful people and I miss them tremendously. Bill and I had promised ourselves that after we retired and got to be old men, we would take the trans-Siberian railroad across Siberia and learn to play the balalaika, recite a lot of poetry, drink a lot of vodka and just have one hell of a good time.
DotCom:Can you describe the experience of having your number retired by the Warriors? TM: I almost can’t express it well. I’m a San Francisco guy. I grew up playing ball on the streets of San Francisco. To have my number retired so that people see my name and number every time I go to a game, it’s truly an honor. I’m very proud of that moment. Having my Warriors number retired and being in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, that sort of brings the circle to a full close.
Read Tom Meschery's blog, entitled Meschery's Musings on Sports, Literature and Life, by clicking here.
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