First it helped Stokes pay his bills, but it lasted well beyond him. Every time others talked about calling it quits, Kutsher reminded them that the game helped Gene Conley, the old Celtic, with his heart problem and his wife with a throat operation. It helped Gus Johnson when he was dying of cancer. It helped Timmy Bassett’s kid, who had a malignant brain tumor. It helped Howard Porter go to drug rehab to turn his life around. It helped John Williamson get dialysis treatments. It helped Mark Jackson’s agent, who was shot on a street corner while walking his dog.
Over the years, nobody could match Wilt Chamberlain’s quiet devotion. Part of it was his friendship with Kutsher. But a lot of it had to do with Chamberlain’s feeling for the men with whom he played the game.
Year after year, no matter where he was, no matter what he was doing, when it came time for the game, Chamberlain got there no matter what it took.
In 1970, Chamberlain was rushing back from Europe to play in the Stokes game when he was caught on a connecting flight with a hijacker who took the plane to Denver.
After the plane landed in Chicago and the police took over, Chamberlain chartered a plane. It could take him to Kennedy Airport, but it couldn’t land near Monticello because it was too big. So then he hired another charter to take him from Kennedy Airport to tiny Sullivan County Airport.
Chamberlain was anxious aboard the flight that he’d miss this game. When they finally reached the airspace over the airport, they discovered that the runway lights had all conked out.
“Find me a field and land,” Chamberlain told the pilot. “And call the car rental people.”
You don’t argue with someone 7-feet tall who has biceps bigger than your thighs.
The pilot complied and had a car waiting, but Chamberlain didn’t get to Kutsher’s until the game was ending. He stayed to sign autographs.
“I would do the whole thing over again tomorrow if we had another game like this,” Chamberlain told Kutsher.
Stokes and Kutsher and Chamberlain are gone. But the memory of what they did still shines like a beacon.
I hope Zablocki can save Kutsher’s. I want one day to turn off the New York State Thruway, see the mountain and turn back the clock. And if I do, I know just as sure as God inspired kreplach, a part of me will hear the ghostly thump of the ball against the asphalt and see Milton Kutsher smile again. (JTA)
Jerry Izenberg is the columnist emeritus for the Star-Ledger of New Jersey. He was inducted into the National Sportscaster and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and is a winner of the Associated Press’s Red Smith Award for major contributions to sports journalism – often considered the Pulitzer Prize of sports journalism. This is his 59th year in the business.