Close your eyes, breathe in deeply, now exhale slowly… That was easy, wasn’t it? Not for everyone…
Up in the Catskills, a man named Yossi Zablocki is trying to save the last blintz palace of my generation’s youth. The place is called Kutsher’s Country Club.
Once, in another world, I spent a lot of time there covering basketball players and boxers in training for their big fights and sports clinics that drew 500 high school and college coaches from all over the country for a week each summer to study under coaching giants like Red Auerbach, Nat Holman, Ara Parseghian and Adolph Rupp.
The man who made it all work was Milton Kutsher.
It was also a time when that slice of the world, comprised of a great wall of kosher hotels affectionately known as the Borscht Belt, had its own lifestyle, bringing with it a ritual of family summers that didn’t need jet air travel or Caribbean beaches or the green felt tables of Las Vegas.
This was the world of stomach-bending meals, group activities, games of “Simon Says,” and stages that served as training grounds for future giants of comedy.
And the soft, summer evenings were punctuated from one end of the “Jewish Alps” to the other with the steady thump, thump, thump of basketballs dribbled against asphalt and the perfect punctuation mark of the swish as the ball arched through the net.
Everybody had a team of pseudo-busboys and bellmen straight off college campuses. Who could ever forget the sight of the world’s tallest bellhop out of Philadelphia – a man named Wilt Chamberlain – and a surrounding cast of players featuring talent like Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagen and Neil Johnson?
But all of that pales against the memory of what Kutsher put together with the Maurice Stokes Basketball Game.
The story begins in 1958 on an airplane bringing the Cincinnati Royals home from Detroit, where they had been seven-point losers to the Pistons in the first of a best-of-three, opening-round NBA playoff series.
The plane was more than halfway to Cincinnati when Maurice Stokes, a man with a spectacularly impressive body and who, at 6-feet-7, had been the NBA’s third best rebounder, suddenly collapsed.
That he did not die right there was the direct result of a determined flight attendant who raced for an oxygen tank. That he did not die en route to the hospital in Cincinnati was the direct result of an alert pilot’s radio message and a dedicated EMS team.
That he continued to live for 12 years, during which time he taught himself to speak again and became wheelchair ambulatory, was the result of his own refusal to die.
And that he could defy every medical prognosis surrounding his affliction with encephalitis during that period was the direct result of the remarkable self-sacrifice of teammate Jack Twyman, the determination of the best players in the NBA, who set an unequalled standard for caring, and the total commitment of a Catskill hotel owner: Milton Kutsher.
It was Twyman, a Cincinnati resident, who camped out in the hospital, had himself declared Stokes’s official guardian and managed the money while he struggled to find more. And it was Kutsher who set in motion the vehicle that cut into the debts, paid the bills and kept on paying them.
Kutsher gave new meaning to the phrase “Do the right thing” by creating the Maurice Stokes Basketball Game, which drew NBA All-Stars and became a lifesaver for the needy in the basketball community.
Back then salaries were more modest, there was no NBA pension plan and a lot of family members of basketball players needed help.
It began when Twyman, desperate for funds to keep Stokes alive, happened to hold a chance conversation with Kutsher.
“We got a hotel and we got an outdoor basketball court,” he told Twyman. “You tell the players to get here and we’ll house them, we’ll feed them and we’ll sell the tickets.”
Nobody who ever played in the game asked for a plane ticket to get there. Started on an outdoor court, the game ultimately moved into a gym that held 4,000 and sold out every time.
In a world of far too many ersatz heroes, I-got-mine role models and what’s-in-it-for-me superstars, the game was a success thanks to Kutsher and a handful of NBA players with a social conscience.
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