One weekend last summer, I had occasion to visit my fiancee Janet’s hometown of Centerville, a sleepy and sultry suburb of nearby Dayton, Ohio – the town where the Wright Brothers grew up and first dreamed of flying. On that warm late summer weekend, I had the thrilling experience of meeting, among a group of Janet’s parents friends, a very tall, unassuming gentleman named Don Meineke, who is not only one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, but as it turns out, was also was the first man ever to be named NBA Rookie of the Year.
As it happened, Janet and I were in Centerville that weekend last summer, visiting her parents and my future in-laws, and we were invited to an old-fashioned neighborhood shindig. It seemed her neighbors, the Walshes, were having an outdoor patio party, the kind of thing that was popular back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in close-knit neighborhoods. Back in those days it was commonplace for families who lived within spittin’ distance of each other to get together for no particular reason and have a dandy of a time, just talkin’, drinkin’ beer and wine; in other words celebrating life. I suppose this kind of thing stopped happening quite a while ago in most towns when people began locking their doors at night and stopped getting to know their neighbors.
But in Centerville it still goes on. (Although I’m pretty sure they lock their doors at night.)
I went along, looking forward to meeting some of my future in-laws’ good friends and enjoying a nice summer night, as well as meeting my in-laws’ best friends and neighbors never expecting to meet and talk half the night away with Don Meineke. When we arrived, Don was sitting completely contentedly next to his equally hospitable and kind wife, Mary Jane. After the introductions, and after being told that Don had not only been a college basketball standout for the University of Dayton Flyers, where he is still held in great reverence, but also a star for the former Fort Wayne Pistons (now the Detroit Pistons), I moved to the closest chair near Don so I could listen and learn more. He looked like a guy with a few stories to tell and that night, Don didn’t disappoint.
Having personally been a tall teenager and an aspiring basketball player myself, and someone who still has a keen interest in the game, I was anxious to hear about what it was like to play “old school” basketball in the 1950s. Don regaled me with countless stories of his days playing, first college and then NBA basketball. He told stories of the low pay and big men he played against, including one of my heroes, Bill Russell and all the miles he traveled to get to the next city and next game – Syracuse, New York, Boston, etc.
But perhaps most fascinatingly, Don told me of his association with fellow Fort Wayne Piston star Jack Molinas, a man whose life has been chronicle’s in a book titled, “The Wizard Of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed The Game Of Basketball.”
According to author Charley Rosen, and confirmed by Don Meineke as I sat next to him in complete awe, Molinas was a guy with a tremendous amount of talent who threw it all away by fixing a bunch of basketball games. Don told me he was questioned by the team owner and the commissioner of the NBA, but they had nothing on him. For Molinas though, his criminal activities connected to basketball landed him in jail, then after he was suspended from the game, in the company of mobsters which led to, according to Rosen, “a gruesome and mysterious murder.”
Wow! Suddenly Don Meineke was telling me his story and the sad, but inevitable fall of Jack Molinas and I was more than a little intrigued. Don had other stories as well, about other records he set, and his years after he retired from the NBA and I sat and listened with rapt attention until it was late and Don and his wife had to call it a night. I spoke to Don again last December I went to a University of Dayton basketball game where Don and a number of other former stars were honored. (The team is quite competitive, winning the NIT championship last season by defeating North Carolina in the final game.)
I spent some more time at yet another party speaking to Don Meinike on my most recent trip to Centerville, I went to a Fourth of July gathering and Don and I posed for pictures together and talked some more. It’s not every day, after all, that you get to hang out with an NBA legend.
I hope that Don Meineke will always be my good friend.