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Originally published Friday, February 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

This old Sonics enforcer once picked a fight with Chamberlain

Tom Meschery always thought of himself as a baller, not a brawler. He never went into a game spoiling for a fight. Never classified himself as...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Tom Meschery always thought of himself as a baller, not a brawler. He never went into a game spoiling for a fight. Never classified himself as an enforcer.

He was proud of his underrated 20-foot jumper, not his right uppercut. He was an irrepressible rebounder, not an incorrigible bully.

Meschery was a force. An NBA starter with Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. A 10-year veteran who averaged 12.7 points and 8.6 rebounds. An All-Star in 1963 who played in two NBA Finals.

But he also was a fighter, a 6-foot-6 power forward from the era when the roundhouse right was almost as much a part of the game as the pick and roll. When ballgames were turf wars and an ill-intentioned elbow was a defender's best friend.

"Elgin Baylor used to say that the game hadn't really started until Rudy LaRusso and I fought," Meschery said Thursday from his home in Truckee, Calif. "And Rudy was a good friend of mine."

A Russian immigrant, Meschery learned English by watching American movies. Even at an early age he related to the tough guys. His heroes were John Wayne, Robert Ryan, James Cagney.

"Tough guys were the meat of my growing up," Meschery said. "They made some kind of indelible imprint on my subconscious that if you were a tough guy that meant you were a good American. I guess I took that to heart and took it to the basketball court."

When Meschery played, from 1961 to 1971, the league was much different. Basketball was ruled by a kind of frontier justice. Players policed themselves. They didn't need a league office handing out whopping fines and lengthy suspensions. Players fought. They got stitched up. And they went back on the floor.

"Back then the enforcers were usually guys who weren't necessarily very good basketball players," Meschery said.

"Maybe a game would be getting out of hand and a tough guy like Jim Loscutoff or Andy Johnson would come off the bench and straighten things out. When they came in things usually calmed down."

A celebrated poet, a philosopher, a gentle soul as comfortable reading William Faulkner as he was guarding Zelmo Beaty, even Meschery isn't sure why he fought.

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"Sometimes," he said, "I just went into Mr. Hyde mode."

Meschery, who came to the Sonics in the expansion draft in 1967, recently completed the first draft of his memoir. The exercise of writing forced him to seriously think about the violent side of his personality.

"It was very interesting to me that I was pretty violent and got into a lot of fights," he said. "Fighting was an extremely spontaneous thing to me. I never felt that I had to be an enforcer.

"For me it was just action and reaction. I took everything personally. You step on my toe, or you step on my turf, and I kind of went off my rocker. I would become completely insane."

So insane that Meschery, then with the Sonics, did what no NBA player before or after him dared. He picked a fight with his former teammate, Wilt Chamberlain.

"I threw all the punches," Meschery said. "And Wilt just held my head at arm's length, while I was throwing all these punches. I was totally enraged and Wilt was laughing at me. I think I grazed him on the shoulder with one punch. Really, it was pretty hilarious."

And then there was Meschery's favorite punching bag, longtime NBA center Bob Ferry.

"It was always a pleasure to fight Bob Ferry," Meschery said. "I liked the idea of fighting Bob Ferry. I always thought I was doing the league a favor. He was the greatest cheap-shot artist of our time.

"Now, of course, nobody fights — unless you're Carmelo Anthony and you throw one punch and then backpedal as fast as you can for about 30 feet. The guys are too big and fast and strong."

I called Meschery to talk about his days as a tough guy. Late in the interview he told me he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Recently he underwent a stem-cell transplant.

"When I got the diagnosis I was really ticked off," he said. "The downside is that it's incurable. I know now what's going to kill me. But the upside is that it's treatable. The doctors at UC Davis tell me there's a very good chance I have 10 good years ahead of me and at age 68, what the hell?"

During his convalescence, Meschery was given the NBA cable package by his son. It reunited the ex-player with the game.

"There was a period where I didn't watch much NBA basketball. I didn't find it very interesting," he said. "But the last two years I've become a huge NBA watcher. I think there was a period where the game just seemed to be in flux.

"But now it's very spectacular. Much faster. And there's a great blend now of the European style with the tough-minded, penetrating, slashing style of the U.S. players. Together, they're forming a new NBA that I find very entertaining."

Even if Tom Meschery and Rudy LaRusso aren't around anymore to throw out the first punches.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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