Opting to focus on life's gifts, Scolari let hits slide off back

March 15, 1998|By John Steadman

Everything about Fred Scolari had to do with why he couldn't make the grade. He was blind in his left eye, deaf in the right ear, only 5 feet 10 1/2 and in a basketball uniform resembled Humpty Dumpty, only he didn't play like him.

Rather incredibly, he sat on the bench at the University of San Francisco for a freshman team that lost 16 straight games, yet the coach never let him play a single minute. Still, he put such rejection and dejection aside and ultimately spent nine seasons at the highest professional level as a colorful and productive backcourt man for the Washington Caps and Baltimore Bullets -- where he was a player-coach in 1952 -- the Syracuse Nationals, Fort Wayne Pistons and Boston Celtics.

Scolari never sat around feeling sorry for himself. He has known illness as an adult -- prostate removal, a colostomy 20 years ago and neck surgery. But his religious beliefs and a strong woman -- his childhood sweetheart, wife Gloria -- never allowed him to give in to despair.

The greatest grief came with the loss of two sons, David at age 26, Billy at 21. Both were killed by drunken drivers, David while waiting in front of a restaurant and Billy when a driver going 70 mph ignored a stop sign and drove his compact car a full city block past the intersection.

Scolari was raised by immigrant parents. "Their proudest moment was when they got their American citizenship papers," he recalls. "My father could speak English, but wasn't able to read it. We were poor. Our rent was $7 a month. But I was a happy kid playing sports all the time. I never knew a sad day. I had two pair of shoes, one to wear during the week and the other to church on Sunday."

In 1937, he couldn't afford to pay the 25-cent dues to join a San Francisco boys club called the Salesians, but he got a scholarship. "I was from as poor a family as you can imagine, but, you know, I got to say it again: I never had a sad day as a child."

The other night, he was cheered by a crowd of admirers who turned out to salute the hometown boy who went off to play professionally in 1946 and, even though the West Coast newspapers rarely mentioned the results, he was doing commendable things with a basketball. The San Francisco Bay Area Hall of Fame inducted Scolari, golfer Johnny Miller, football player and coach Art Shell and former Olympian Matt Biondi in impressive ceremonies.

"I told them it had taken me 43 years to get there since I retired from the NBA, but that it was one of the great moments I ever experienced."

Scolari certainly qualifies as one of the most unorthodox shooters in the history of basketball. He literally shot from the hip, a motion he developed after breaking his left shoulder as a teen-ager. "I took it to another degree as my right arm strengthened and I didn't need to go back to a two-hand set shot."

When he launched the ball and it went in the net, it appeared to be an accident -- except he kept shooting and they constantly found the mark. He scored 34 points in an AAU tournament game in Denver in 1945 and Ken Loeffler, then coach of the St. Louis Bombers, wanted to sign him. Instead, Scolari accompanied Bob Ferrick, a friend, to training camp with Red Auerbach's newly formed Washington Caps.

"Red said the salary limit for the team was $60,000 and he only had $4,500 left to spend on me. But the next year he raised me to $7,000 after I averaged 12 points a game as a rookie."

During World War II, Scolari worked for the Bank of America. "The perforated ear drum kept me out of the military. And when I took the eye test I couldn't even see the big 'E' with my left eye. The draft was taking boys 5-foot-5, 122 pounds and sending me home."

Scolari said had it not been for time spent at the Salesian Boys Club he might have found trouble rather than basketball. It was located in the same neighborhood that produced the DiMaggio brothers -- Joe, Vince and Dom -- Dino Restelli, Gino Cimoli and Dario Lodigiani for the major leagues, plus middleweight boxing champion Fred Apostoli.

After he left the NBA in 1955, Scolari was on his way to becoming a millionaire selling insurance. But his heart and interest belonged to the old boys' club. He went back as its executive director and stayed 31 years in the position, plus two more as a consultant.

In 1956, he got a phone call from Auerbach, who asked him to scout a USF player named Bill Russell. What Auerbach wanted was Scolari's trusted opinion, a professional's reaction to a college prospect. Scolari told him that his style would augment that of Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman in the backcourt and also that of Frank Ramsey. Russell then became the catalyst for the Celtics' dynasty -- no doubt his presence was a result of what Scolari told Auerbach in his early report.

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