We’d just completed a debate about the greatest athletes in our lifetime. My choices were Muhammed Ali, Mick Jagger, and Secretariat. Not in that order.
Walking away, I started to think about the three greatest basketball players I’d seen. Over the course of several thousand games, I’ve seen a lot of guys hang in the sky... a bunch of them shoot like Robin Hood ... and even a few who saw the game a half second ahead of the other nine guys on the floor.
It was too hard to pick three. I first decided to go with the three who best helped me fall in love with the game. Then, I thought about the pairs of players I had the most fun watching. The guys who never let themselves or the team down. The duos who had me standing in line 2 hours before game time.
One was a “Batman and Robin” scenario. Another pair seemed more like “Batman and Batman”. And the other might have been like a “Batman and Alfred... or Aunt Harriet” deal.
J.P. and T.R.
J.P. was John Ptacek. My neighbor who was the finest schoolboy basketball player I’ve seen. In the middle 1950s, the game was evolving. The push shot (delivered with little rotation from the chest) was being replaced by the jump shot. It was our version of going from analog to digital. Persimmon to metal woods. Rand McNally to GPS.
J.P. embraced new things. He changed his high jump form from the scissors to the Texas Roll and leaped over 6 feet. And, he committed fully to the jump shot... baseline from 15 feet.
I sat in the stands as the angular 6’4” J.P. rose with the ball high above his head to take the last shot and send our school on to the Final Eight. Since I’d watched him shoot thousands of those shots in his driveway, I knew the result before anyone else. Cotton.
He was the first unanimous All-State choice in Iowa history. And he took that little school of less than 600 students to the Big School State Final Four and Final Eight in consecutive years. Played college ball, later became a physician and practiced for nearly 50 years.
J.P. had help in the enormous presence of T.R. (Terry Roberts). They said he was seven feet tall, but he probably was about a nickel over the 6’10” mark. He lived a couple blocks away and walked up to J.P.’s driveway every summer day to play ball. He was the biggest guy in town. The biggest person I knew. And the biggest human I talked to face-to-face until I literally bumped into Wilt Chamberlain many years later in a South Lake Tahoe casino.
He was a year younger than J.P. and gave our school another pretty good year after those two glory seasons. Went into education. First as a teacher, then as an administrator. “OK, OK! Just don’t send me to the Principal’s office!”
They were both great people. I was an 11 year old kid, but they talked with me... not to me... and they made going to the high school games incredibly personal and exciting. And, both went on to play at Iowa State.
Love of sport has no purer form than a small town with a good basketball team. I have spent the rest of my life trying to recapture the aura of those special seasons and my proximity to those two great players.
Jack and Al
I hadn’t paid close attention to the local junior college until the early 1960s. It was about that time they became a host for a 24 team National Juco Regional. And, it was about then, they had a couple of real players stumble into town to join the team.
Jack Carr was a 5’11” shake and bake guard. He walked with a concocted dead leg limp and played as if he were going in three directions at the same time. He was tougher to guard than a bread wrapper in a windstorm. Before the three point line was invented, he had a 22 foot jumper that should have been worth four points. Ivory Soap pure. Averaged 21 points per game for his two years. Smiled all day, married a local girl and went into sales. Heard he died a few years ago while working out. Whenever I hear Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs singing “Stay... just a little bit longer”, I think about the most care free, loosest basketball player I ever saw.
Al Eckhoff was incredible. A six two center. Six two. Practiced jumping with a backpack full of sand all summer. And he could jump! In the Regional final both years, he guarded a 6’8” player who went on to New Mexico State and later had some time in the ABA.
Both times Al was the better player. Over his two years, he averaged 20 points a game. He always stood perfectly straight and rarely changed his stoic expression. A few years ago, I heard his name on a radio commercial. Insurance agent in Eastern Iowa I think. Bet he kept his promises to all his clients.
Jack and Al complimented each other perfectly on the court. Unselfish and always involved other teammates. But off the court, I don’t remember seeing them together around town. Two different people with a common purpose at game time.
The JuCo games of the early 1960s were a starter kit for my addiction to the college game. When someone talks about a good inside/outside pair, I think about these two and how much I loved heading for that gym on a cold February night.
Neto and Lovie
Bob Netolecky was a star in the Missouri Valley. And, The Valley was the best league in America in the mid-1960s. He was 6’8” and could jump higher than any one in the league. Remember Flubber? Higher.
He had started college a semester before me. We had nothing else in common. He drove a red Corvette, had a pet ocelot and boa constrictor, and was a rock star around campus.
Got drafted by the Pacers and became a huge celebrity in Indianapolis. What Joe Namath was to New York, Neto was to Indy. Owned a nightclub, wore a fur coat, and used his baby-faced charm and money to dazzle the women of Indiana as easily as the co-eds of Drake.
Still an Indy guy. Shows up for Butler games and the State High School Championship. Life has brought him some challenges that basketball rarely did.He was a hoot to watch.
As much fun as Neto already was, he became infinitely more interesting when Gary Lovemark came to town. Lovie transferred in with two years to play. At 6’7” with his own Corvette (silver) and a similar youthful appearance, he could easily be mistaken for Neto’s stunt double. I could tell those two girls on the Patti Duke Show apart, but Bob and Gary always confused me.
In those days, it was permissible to dunk in warm ups. The last 3 minutes of the pregame were the “Lovie and Neto Show”. Neto would leap with the ball at his waist and “windmill” it around his shoulder and head as he slammed it in. His head would be even with the rim. Lovie would spin it on his finger, go up and do a 180 before slamming it back over his head.
Like Neto, Gary was probably born on third base and scored on a wild pitch. But it always sounded like a home run when they told the story. He has a son named Jaimie who is a professional golfer of some renown. And he probably still has a nice car.
Seeing those two come out for the introductions made for exciting game days. But, sitting in the bar just off campus on a Friday night and seeing those twin Corvettes slide up to the curb (with a couple of very tall dandies driving and two women right out of Central Casting giggling), made me proud to be an American.
Those three “greatest athletes” I listed? They all had qualities that separated them from the pack. Love him or hate him, The Champ truly was The Greatest.
In 1965, Mick Jagger would have been the coolest guy in the room. Any room.
And Secretariat. His heart was literally twice the size of a normal thoroughbred.
My three pairs didn’t “Shock the World”. They “couldn’t always get what they wanted”. And, they certainly never won any race by 26 lengths. But they were all instrumental in putting the bricks in my wall.
This week I’ll buckle up for The Tournament and hope it provides a few more memories. But, even if it does, they can’t replace the smiles I’ve already collected.