Do they play Basketball in Heaven?

January 27, 2016

How many times over the years did I hear my associates standing outside my office door start whistling their version of Brother Bones’ “Sweet Georgia Brown”? More than I can remember! It meant only one thing … next, I was soon to hear the familiar cackling laughter of one of my favorite clients and a friend.

In fact, although my relationship was personal, millions of families and children of all ages considered him their friend. Then, bigger than life, he would plop his gangling frame into the only chair in my office that was well worn and without springs… and without fail, he would always admonish me to fix the darn thing. Religiously, I would promise to get it done.  I never did! And each time he visited…that plop in seat/ complaint was part of our ritual… sort of a “bonding”.

For more than 24 seasons, he was America’s foremost Goodwill Ambassador to the world. He never went to a school of diplomacy… he was not a government official, nor was he a member of any political administration, but he knew what the right thing was to do every time he met someone new. Meadowlark Lemon passed away this month and the world is sadder for it. Millions of people whom he entertained by using a Basketball, all felt as if they knew him. He never failed to leave everyone who saw him and the Harlem Globetrotters perform whether on the deck of an Aircraft Carrier where only the men serving were the audience… to the cavernous Houston Astrodome where 50,000 filled the seats … or before a private audience in Moscow. Here the spectators  were Premier Nikita Khruschev and the ruling Politburo’s inner circle… he made friends for the United States. He was our Secretary of State without portfolio. On one of our many visits, he had just come back from China.  He brought me the gift of a stone from the Great Wall where ABCTV had just finished filming a Globetrotter Special. The TV Special included doing their famous opening routine to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown” on the wall . I am sure it was the first time, the tune reached China which was still an enigma to the West.  President Nixon hadn’t yet opened up China through his famed Ping Pong Diplomacy. The Globetrotter visits to Moscow and China, with the blessing of our State Department, did a great deal to help ease tensions that were prevalent at the time. As a member of the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness at the time, I had a front row seat to History. President Nixon used both Basketball (The Globetrotters) and our National Table Tennis Team to help normalize United States relations with both Communist countries. Meadowlark was the Pied Piper.  Everywhere he went massive crowds of people followed him. He once complained to me that he could not go the men’s room without being followed. With all the stress in today’s precarious world, a little of the Meadowlark humor could go a long way. When I was a kid in Boston, Earle, myself, Arnie and Gene could not wait for the Globetrotters’ annual visit to the Garden.

The fledgling NBA, which was struggling to exist in those days, would hire the ‘Trotters” to be the main event in order to fill the stands.  The Trotters with Goose Tatum as their stellar performer would never disappoint.

But it wasn’t until the 70’s, with Meadowlark Lemon in the role that “Goose” once played, that the Harlem Globetrotters became a household name. He not only expanded the Basketball skill level, but broadened the comedy with more hilarious skits. Part of his charm and success was incorporating many youngsters from the audience into individual skits.

He lived up to the show business adage. “Leave them wanting more”.

The Globetrotters were founded in 1927 by Abe Saperstein and played most of their games in the Savoy Ballroom.  It was on the South Side of Chicago where most of the players, all black, had grown up. They played exhibitions against all comers. They were simply called the Savoy Big Five. With Saperstein promoting, they became the Harlem Globetrotters. Saperstein believed that since Harlem was associated with Black Life in America at the time and by adding an out-of- Chicago name to the team, it created more mystery. But make no bones about it they were a Basketball team first… and at the time there were no Blacks playing in the NBA. It actually took four decades before the Harlem Globetrotters would actually play a game in Harlem. They expanded their Basketball repertoire to include showmanship… Thus, the signature of what they had to offer evolved…” an exhibition basketball team that combined athleticism, theater and comedy”.

Meadowlark embodied all of these qualities. In 24 seasons, he played in more than 7500 consecutive games before popes, kings, queens, presidents, and dictators in over 100 countries. He is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The Trotters were good!   At one time, they had a winning streak of 2,495 straight until 1971 when they lost in triple overtime. They would go on to win an alleged 8,829 Victories. In Vienna, Austria on September 12,1995, they lost to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s All-Stars. To date, they have played over 20,000 games in 120 countries. Wilt Chamberlain when asked who he considered the greatest ballplayer of all time, named Meadow. As for Michael Jordan… He thought of Meadow as one of his boyhood idols!

As for Shelly Saltman, I once beat Meadow in a game of 21!

When Is A Game Not A Game ?

Shelly and Clayton

January 18, 2016

That’s a question I have been asking myself for quite sometime now. I don’t have the answer! As a matter of fact, like millions of Americans and fans worldwide on February 7th, I shall be glued to a TV set somewhere to watch, cheer, boo and experience the roller coast ride that the wonderful spectacle known as the Super Bowl provides.

I’ll cheer as a wide receiver for my favorite team makes a one-handed grab in the End Zone for a touchdown. I’ll ache and feel dismayed when I think the referee  has made the wrong call… especially, when he calls it against my team. I’ll hold my head in my hands and feel sad if my team loses on a last second field goal. All this being said…I love the game!

Since 1956 I have been involved in all type of sports and in every aspect. I have been a participant, a coach, a member of the President’s Council of Physical Fitness, a team owner, a league Commissioner, a TV Executive, a L Referee, as well as a Licensed Second and corner man, a TV/Events Consultant to the NFLPA  and even promoted for  many memorable Events and some not so memorable.

However, now in my older years, I have formed a different perspective on Sports.  I have changed my position from where I felt that Sports is completely healthy without reservation. Now, to me, Sports is only healthy when put in the proper perspective.

When we play the game, especially when we are young, we possess the belief and the omnipresent feeling that we are indestructible… nothing can harm us.  The men who take the field on February 7th, being youthful and in great shape, share that feeling.

As for me, I have been learning a great deal about the “win at all costs” philosophy and how it damages the future health of those who play today.  Presently, most active participants do not buy into that rationale.

However, constant surveys and studies have shown disastrous results.  A lot has been written about Brain Trauma caused by concussion and what can result in years after leaving the game. However, there is not a single limb or appendage that is not put in jeopardy.

After last year’s Super Bowl  which was seen by 111.5 million people worldwide, Newsday revealed a two year survey that was done by the Harrison Group.  This survey was nearly a two-year project that included an anonymous  and voluntary survey of 763 former players, a  review of hundreds of pages of court documents, and more than 70 interviews with former players, NFL and NFLPA  executives, doctors, professors and other experts.

Retired players say they paved the way that allowed the NFL to become a multi-million dollar business juggernaut.

A team of Newsday reporters and editors developed a list of questions which  was supplied to the NFL Players Association. The NFLPA senior director of the Former players’ services department, Noel Harrison III, a former player himself sent the Survey by email and text  to over 7000 former players.

It is not a truly scientific study since there are probably at least another 9000 players who are not in the NFLPA data base. However, I think you’ll agree that 7000 certainly can give us an insight into the day-to-day perils facing many retirees.

763 former players responded. Their participation was completely voluntary and anonymous. Let’s look at some of the questions and the answers.

Did you find it difficult to adjust to daily life after your NFL career ended? Almost 62% answered yes! 

What has been your biggest challenge in post-NFL life? Over 550 cited injuries from playing career and healthy lifestyle!

On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best rate your physical well-being in post NFL career? No respondent reached 10, but 145 reached 7!

What ailments do you suffer from that you believe are related to your NFL  Playing days? The type of injury ran the gamut of all the body parts. The list is too long to answer here. Here is just a sampling: 

72% of the respondents suffered from at least one injury, many had multiple injuries. 

Of the 763 respondents, here are some of the  injuries cited as having lasting effects that have affected their daily life…  everything from memory loss to not being able to swallow, or even walk properly: 

  • Knee Injuries……………………. 525
  • Shoulder Injuries……………… 490
  • Lower Back Injuries…………. 510
  • Neck Injuries……………………..425
  • Head Injuries…………………….380
  • Memory Loss…………………….375
  • Ankle Injuries……………………375

Did you take prescription painkillers during you career? 65% answered yes! 

Do you currently take prescription painkillers for injuries suffered during your career? 28% answered yes! 

Did you experience marital problems after your career? Over 50% answered in the affirmative whereas during their playing day,  the number was a fraction of that! 

Is the league doing enough to make the game safer? 66% answered NO!

Have you struggled financially since your career ended ?  For 51%, the answer was yes! 

There were many more questions and most of them were in a similar fashion. Yet, when the survey asked the final question, the answer was shocking.   

If you had the chance to make the decision all, over again, would you still play in the NFL? 

The shocking answer was a resounding 90+ percent said yes!!! 

The conclusion is two fold:

First, is to prophylactically bring about more sophisticated equipment, medical examinations and immediate care when there is an injury… and with better enforcement of the rules.

Second, increased and better benefits for the retired players.  However, if the first is done, the resulting damage will be greatly reduced.

But, I still ask…When little Johnny comes home asking for permission to play at school, what will your answer be?

Today and Yesterday

head shot

January 12, 2016

Well, it’s been over six months since my last column.

For all of you who have written asking where had I gone, the answer is simple.

I severed my relationship with the National Examiner with the idea that I would finish my latest book which I have been writing entitled “Excerpts of a Full Life. The work has turned out to be a tome, I have more than 600 pages written… (boy, when I finish it’s truly going to need a great editor) is nearing completion.

Now, I can turn my attention to once again delivering a column on a timely basis.

How to do this, posed a quandary. The solution I have come up with, I hope meets your approval. Today, I am starting my own Blog. The title of my Blog as you can see from the header is “A SPORTS SCRAPBOOK”.

Hopefully, the title will prove appropriate. I shall try to blend current events in the world of sport by tapping into my reservoir of knowledge based on over 60 years of actively working in the World of Sports.

I have been privileged to work in all facets: as an athlete, a coach, an announcer, a TV Producer and an Executive. I shall be comparing the old with the new… telling behind-the-scenes stories of which in most instances, I have first-hand knowledge.

I shall also be speaking out when I see a wrong that has been committed.

Today, let’s take a look at serious injuries. In particular, the NFL CONCUSION EPIDEMIC and the lasting damage that can be done.

The late John Mackey was one of my closest and dearest friends. I even sat on the Board of his foundation. John, was a great one!

This Football Hall-of-Famer is credited with creating the position that today is known as “Tight End”. According to most experts, John was the Greatest Tight End in the first 50 years of the NFL’s existence.

Coming out of the same high school in Long Island as the great Jim Brown, John followed him to Syracuse University. Jim wore number 44 there. John once told me he opted for a jersey with the numeral 88. With a glint in his eye, he predicted he would be twice as good as Jim had been.

John, an unselfish man dedicated himself to helping better the lot of all NFL players. As the First President of the Players’ Association, he fought the league for better working conditions, player pensions and contract minimum guarantees. He had many small victories and here and there a major one… His efforts reminded me of the game we played as kids, “Simon Sez”.

It was as if the NFL was Simon and they controlled everything he attempted to achieve. In 1981-82, I was the NFLPA’s Sports and TV Consultant. In this capacity, I became knowledgeable of the fight, put on by the Union for the good of its players. They were thwarted at every step of the way. The owners unless forced to were not about to spend any extra monies

His efforts saw the NFL prevent his entrance into the Hall of Fame way past the time it was his turn. It took overwhelming pressure from fans around the nation to the NFL to relax its stand.

John, like so many others suffered both mentally and physically from the trauma of being hit in the head many times during his playing days. Toward the end of his life he suffered dreadfully from Dementia and eventually Alzheimer’s until his passing.

His courageous and beautiful wife Sylvia fought for cognizance by the league of this existing problem. She was able to get the League owners to agree to pay each retiree suffering from brain-related injuries, $88.000 a year to help with medical expenses. The number 88 is in honor of John’s jersey number. However, this is a pittance of what the medical costs amount to.

This year, the public has recently been made dramatically aware of the problem in great part due to the Biographical movie, CONCUSION. Will Smith gives an Oscar worthy performance as Pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu.

Dr. Omalu while performing an autopsy on NFL football player Mike Webster,(he played for the Pittsburg Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs) found he suffered from Neurological Deterioration Disorder similar to Alzheimer’s Disease.

He named the disorder CHRONIC TRAUMATIC ENCEPHOLAPITHY and published his findings. The NFL and its multi-billion dollar industry attempts to and continues trying to debunk these findings. However, Dr. Omalu is on secure ground.

The NFL points to safety steps it has taken to avoid such injury. In particular, they talk about the advancement in Helmet Technology. The Helmet, it must be noted, is made of a hard non-flexible plastic. True, they have improved the padding on the inside to cushion any blow. What they can’t alleviate is the bouncing that takes inside the cranium.

As my long-time friend, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s doctor as well as other noteworthy Neurosurgeons and Neurologists, with whom I have consulted have noted, “The brain floats inside the hard shell of the cranium which in turn is encased in the hard Helmet and any hit of significance will bounce the brain like the little round ball in a pinball machine, thus incontrovertible damage is done”.

Football remains America’s Game and the injuries will continue. I have put the question to many of my friends, mostly former NFLers, “Knowing today what you know about the injury possibility, would you still have played?’, the answer for the most part is “Yes.”

So what is to be done? I do not know the answer, but I do know this. The NFL must continue research into ways to make the game safer and parents must think seriously before they sign the permission slip little Johnny brings home from school allowing him to play the game.


               Shelly Saltman can be contacted at …….