One on One
Sportswriter Ira Berkow takes an old friend to court.
By Ben Joravsky
In years to come the little court at Paschen Playground will be a shrine to some–a small but important piece of Chicago’s basketball-playing past not unlike the west-side boys club where Isiah Thomas used to play.
For it was on that court at Lunt and Damen one day last summer that Stuart Menaker and Ira Berkow, two worn and creaky 50-something basketball warriors, met to continue their ancient rivalry.
Berkow is, of course, a sports columnist for the New York Times, and the showdown against Menaker (his old high school teammate) is a key part of his new book, To the Hoop, a delightful account of Berkow’s lifelong obsession with the game. If the book becomes, as many suspect it will, a classic of its genre, their game on that court–funny, sweet, and sad–will become part of basketball folklore. “It was just going to be a game,” says Menaker. “But it turned into something bigger about ourselves, our lives, and our city.”
Menaker and Berkow met as Sullivan High School freshmen in 1954. As Menaker tells the story, Berkow was cooler than most, having just moved to Rogers Park from the west side; he had worked at the Maxwell Street open market, selling nylon stockings and had a raft of stories about the characters he’d met. Most of all he was a great basketball player. “They played more basketball on the west side, and Ira came to Sullivan with all the tools of the game,” says Menaker. “He had a great shot and all of us were a little envious.”
This was a pivotal time in the city’s basketball history; the game, long dominated by Jews and Italians, was becoming more of a black kids sport. In 1954 the DuSable High School Panthers, the first all-black team to win the city crown, revolutionized the game with its fast, aggressive, high-flying techniques. “We were good, but those guys at DuSable were great,” says Berkow. “They helped change the game.”
Berkow started on the frosh-soph team as a freshman, while Menaker rode the bench. By junior year their roles had somewhat reversed. “I practiced nearly every day and got better,” says Menaker. “Ira hurt his ankle and the coach started starting me and I did well. When Ira’s ankle got better, he started to substitute me for Ira. We both realized something had changed, and I think he was a little envious of me.”
The rivalry never turned to hate, however; they were cut from the same cloth. Working-class Jewish kids (Berkow’s father was a city precinct captain, Menaker’s a sign painter), the two became inseparable friends. “We played basketball and baseball all day and hung out at night,” says Berkow. “I’d go to his house or he came to mine. We’d sneak into Wrigley Field, go to movies at the Granada. There was Tony’s hot dog place on the corner of Touhy and California–we went there. The big place was Ashkenaz, the old deli on Morse. That was the center of our social life. We’d eat there and laugh and be fools, a bunch of loud-mouthed kids. Each one thought he was smarter than the other.”
They double-dated to their prom and wound up hearing Nat King Cole at the old Chez Paree. “We were at the urinals and Stu was holding his date’s coat, and he was talking to me and not paying attention,” says Berkow. “The next thing I know he’s peeing on the coat. I said, ‘Stu, watch it.’ He starts flapping the thing, trying to shake out the piss, and I’m yelling, ‘Don’t flap it, for Christ’s sake.’ It was a good thing it was raining that night–I don’t think his date knew the difference.”
By then they were seniors without a clue as to the future. Neither had been an auspicious student. Berkow claims he only read one book in four years at Sullivan (and that one was How to Play Baseball by Tommy Heinrich); Menaker wasn’t much better. “One day after a game this recruiter comes up to me and says, ‘Do you want to go to Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa?'” says Menaker. “Like a wise guy, I said, ‘Upper Iowa? Is there a lower one?’ The thing is I was sort of scared to go. My father didn’t want me to go–he figured I’d have a better future being a sign painter or bus driver.”
Menaker went anyway on an athletic scholarship, before graduating from Southern Illinois with a degree in education.
As for Berkow, he got over his distaste for books and found his gift for writing. He graduated from Miami University in Ohio and got a sportswriting job at the Minneapolis Tribune and then the Times. He’s traveled around the world covering championship fights, Olympics, and World Series, interviewing and profiling great jocks from Ali to Jordan.
Though he moved to New York City in the 60s, he never completely left Chicago, at least not in his subject matter; he wrote a book about Maxwell Street and another about the DuSable High School city champs of 1954. Every now and then he came home to visit his parents (who still live in Rogers Park).
“I love Chicago,” says Berkow. “It’s changed, of course. The Granada’s gone, that hurt me. The Ashkenaz’s gone, that almost killed me. Sullivan has a closed campus–I read that some kid was shot there. These things change. It’s sad. But I still have a strong memory of Chicago. If someone tells me they live on Keeler, I can say, ‘That’s 4200 west.’ I remember coming back to New York after covering the Sox playoff game in 1983 and I’m walking with another writer down the corridor at LaGuardia and I said, ‘You know, it’s a funny thing. I just came home and I just left home.’ I’ve lived in New York longer than anyplace else, but the experiences of growing up in Chicago never leave me.”
Menaker, by contrast, came back after college and never left Chicago. He taught gym at Schurz High School and became one of the city’s great basketball coaches, a ranting and raving, sideline-pacing tactician whose teams won several conference titles and more than 400 games.
One day in 1993 he got into a fight with one of his players. It was in the parking lot at Taft, after a heart-breaking one-point loss. The player threw a brick at Menaker; Menaker hit the kid in the head with a golf club he had in the trunk of his car. The coach was charged with assault.
Menaker professed his innocence, contending he was only trying to defend himself (eventually, he was acquitted). But for a while he became something of an outcast; he had to give up his coaching and teaching job at Schurz and transfer to Lane Tech, where he’s a guidance counselor; he operates out of a second-floor office, its walls covered with proverbs and snappy sayings, like the wisecrack attributed to Groucho Marx: “You got to get up early in the morning, if you want to get out of bed.” Earlier this year he was elected to the Illinois High School Coaches Hall of Fame.
“There’s probably a reason for what happened to me; maybe I was wound up too tight, maybe it was time to get away,” says Menaker. “I couldn’t be happier. I love it here. I love my job. It worked out fine. I loved coaching kids; it’s all I wanted to do once I got to college. But I had a great run.”
Until recently he and Berkow had gone their separate ways. “We never had a fight, but he’s there, I’m here,” says Menaker. “I followed his career, I bought his books. When he heard about my problems he called to see if I needed support. But you know how it goes–as you get older it’s hard to keep up with old friends.”
Then last year Berkow’s younger brother, Steve, died of cancer, and Menaker came to the widow’s house to pay respects. “We started talking about old times,” says Menaker. “And I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me and we can see the changes that time brings. And we realize you have to do better with old friends–you have to stay in touch.”
A few weeks later Berkow called to see if Menaker would get together for a game of one-on-one, just like old times. Menaker agreed and in August they met at Paschen Playground. “It was a good court with a firm basket, and Stuart had wisely chosen a place that had some shade,” Berkow writes in To the Hoop. “The leaves of a large, lush maple tree covered half the court from the sun that on this late morning was already hot.”
Berkow hit his first few shots and then went cold, and Menaker couldn’t miss. “I won the first two games and then I said, ‘That’s it,’ like it’s over,” says Menaker. “But Ira said, ‘No, let’s play another.’ That’s when I figured, this guy’s serious–we’re going three out of five.”
Berkow won the next two games, and the stage was set for game five. It would be stealing from the book to give away too many details of that final game; suffice it to say, Berkow made a tactical error. Instead of following Menaker beyond the three-point line, he sagged on defense to cut off his drive. But Menaker had the stroke and knocked down six straight long-range jumpers. By the time Berkow jumped back to cover him the game was lost. All told, they spent two hours broiling in the sun, banging and hacking and dripping sweat. When it ended they went to the Walgreens at Howard and Western, bought some orange juice, sat in the shade, and rested. “I wanted to beat him for the sake of the book, but in the end it’s just as well,” says Berkow. “Next time I’ll cover him outside of the line.”
“We’re good, you know, we’re not some pikers–we go back to the days when Jewish kids were among the best in the city,” says Menaker. “Hell, it was a great game. People who read the book say, ‘You can tell he really loves you.’ But you know, Ira doesn’t love me anymore than I love him.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Stuart Menaker and Ira Berkow by Jon Randolph.