IT IS third-period advanced-placement English at Reno High, and
Tom Meschery is teaching. "Whereas the Victorian poets thought
of themselves as classicists or romanticists," Meschery says,
"the modern writers referred to their style of writing as...."
The students wait for the pearl of wisdom to drop from the
master's lips, but Meschery is not here to think for them. His
mission is to challenge them, and he would like someone to
complete the sentence. "Anybody have an idea?" he asks.
"Existentialism," offers one student. Meschery shakes his head no.
"Transcendentalism," tries another. Silence.
The tension builds. Suddenly one young man blurts out, "I know."
All heads turn to him. "Mescheryism."
The class breaks up.
Judging by Meschery's deep, rolling laugh, it seems nobody
enjoys the wisecrack more than the teacher himself. Still, when
the merriment subsides, he returns to his point: "The modern
writers referred to their style of writing as realism."
Finding Meschery in this benevolent role might surprise some who
remember him from his 10 years as a forward with the
Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors (1961-67) and the
Seattle SuperSonics ('67-71). Because of his ferocity and
intensity in those days, he was known as the Mad Russian.
But to those who know him personally, there is nothing
inconsistent in Meschery's having become an outstanding teacher.
This is the same guy, after all, who was called Renaissance Man
by his Warrior teammates: a person of great dignity, sincerity,
compassion and learning whose on-court behavior was as far from
his off-court demeanor as Reno is from the place of his birth.
He was born Tomislav Mescheriakoff in Harbin, Manchuria, in
1938, the son of Russian refugees who had fled their country
five years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, met in China in
1933 and married within a year. Tom's father, Nicholas, who had
been an officer in the White Russian army, was studying to be a
dental technician in China. Tom's mother, Masha, came from an
influential and aristocratic family and, because she was fluent
in English, worked for the U.S. consulate in Harbin. In 1938 the
Mescheriakoffs decided to move to the U.S., but Masha was able
to get only one visa, so Nicholas left his wife, son, and Tom's
older sister, Ann, for San Francisco. He got a job as a
longshoreman, and by late 1941 he had the necessary sponsorship
of a local family for his wife and two children to join him.
The timing was bad. The visas for Nicholas's family arrived on
Dec. 3--four days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The boat on
which Masha and the children were traveling was detained by the
Japanese in Manchuria's Mukden Harbor, and the refugees were
taken to a prison camp in Tokyo, where they spent the rest of
the war. Reunited at last in San Francisco in 1946, the
Mescheriakoffs eventually changed their name to Meschery to
avoid the stigma of being Russian during the escalating Cold War
and the McCarthy era.
What little English the eight-year-old Tom spoke was heavily
accented. "It's ironic that I wound up an English teacher," he
says now. "I joke in class that I'm an English as a second
language student. It helps other ESL students to hear that."
Tom threw himself into sports, sensing that in America the
fastest way for a boy to gain acceptance was as an athlete. When
he discovered basketball, his path was forged. "I was tall and I
had good coordination," he says. "I was more than dedicated; I
was obsessed. That's all I did--play basketball. By the time I
got to high school, I was pretty good."
He was a high school All-America as a senior at Lowell High and
went to St. Mary's College across San Francisco Bay in Moraga.
There he majored in French and cultivated the love of literature
that had been instilled in him by his father, who would read
poetry aloud and weep over its beauty.
A two-time All-America at St. Mary's, Meschery was drafted by
the Philadelphia Warriors in the first round in 1961. He soon
developed the style that would carry him through his career.
"When I got to the pros, I was in over my head," he says. "I was
a good shooter, but my one-on-one moves fooled nobody. I
realized I had to be more tenacious, more aggressive than anyone
"Tommy was a very, very intense player--and that might be an
understatement," says Al Attles, his teammate for six seasons
with the Warriors. "He was totally focused on the game."
Meschery's philosophy was simple: "At the end of the game I had
to have worn somebody out." This had repercussions, though, and
Meschery often wound up brawling.
"As soon as that opening tip went up there were only two kinds
of people for Tom--good guys and bad guys," says longtime radio
broadcaster Bill King, who did play-by-play for the Warriors
after they moved to San Francisco in 1962. "Tom protected his
teammates; he was an enforcer. Unfortunately, he was a terrible
fighter. We'd always kid him that he never landed a punch in all
"I lost most of my fights," Meschery admits, laughing. "I hated
fighting, and I wasn't any good at it, but I went over the edge
because I was so caught up in the game. But there were players I
knew better than to take on."
Wayne Embry was one of them. "Cincinnati ran a lot of two-man
games," says Attles. "Wayne would set the screen, and Oscar
Robertson or Jack Twyman would go off the screen, and Wayne
would nail you good. One time, Tommy was guarding Twyman, and
Twyman takes him off the screen. Tommy goes headlong into the
screen to knock Wayne down, and Wayne hammers him. Tommy gets
spun around, and as he's spinning, he says, 'Don't ever do that
again, or I'll....' And he sees it's Wayne, and Wayne says, 'Or
you'll what?' Tommy looks at him--and you could see the wheels
turning--and he takes his hands and slaps himself upside the head
and says, 'Or I'll ... nothing!' We just fell out. Everybody
laughed. That took the edge off."
Meschery never carried his battles off the court. After a game
he would sit down for a beer with teammates and opponents alike
and discuss French literature, Russian history, international
politics--even basketball. "When you talked to Tom, there were
lots of serious thoughts," says King.
Meschery is one of only four Warriors whose jerseys hang from
the rafters of Oakland Coliseum; his 14 is alongside the numbers
of Attles, Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond. Meschery retired in
1967, but he was soon drafted by the expansion SuperSonics and
ended up playing another four seasons, finishing with career
averages of 12.7 points and 8.6 rebounds. In 1971-72 he coached
the Carolina Cougars of the ABA and hated it. "I was a lousy
coach," he says. "I wasn't a good strategist, and I was a
While in Seattle he had published Over the Rim, a book of poems
about basketball. "It wasn't really poetry," he says. "It was in
verse, but it wasn't poetry." Meschery had also begun studying
poetry with Mark Strand at the University of Washington. "The
basketball stuff wasn't any good," says Strand, the U.S. poet
laureate in 1990-91. "But Tom went way beyond that. He
translated some good poets from Russian into English, and he
educated himself as he became a poet." When Meschery mentioned
his dissatisfaction with coaching, Strand suggested he apply to
get his master's in English at Iowa. Meschery was accepted, and
got his degree in '74.
After that he spent two years as an assistant coach for the
Portland Trail Blazers and then moved with his wife, Joanne, a
novelist, to Truckee, Calif., near the Nevada border. Tom owned
a bookstore-tea shop for four years, but by his own admission he
wasn't a good businessman. By the time he sold the store in '79,
he was in a midlife crisis. "I didn't know what to do," he says.
"I just bounced around. I taught poetry in the schools for the
Nevada Arts Council. Then I went to West Africa for the U.S.
Information Agency to coach basketball for six months."
When he returned, he decided he wanted to teach, and he got his
credentials from the University of Nevada at Reno in '81. Except
for coaching the Reno Bighorns in the CBA in '82-83, he has been
a teacher ever since. "I'm crazy about it," he says. "I'm very
positive about young people; I love their energy."
And they love him. "He's one of our top teachers," Reno
principal Pat Rogan said last summer. "He really cares about
kids and how they do. He has a sense of calm and friendliness
about him, as well as an understated confidence. And he rarely
talks about basketball; he doesn't play up his past."
Meschery does attend school basketball games, but in general he
limits his teaching to the classroom. His courses, say his
students, are an adventure. "If you have a different idea from
his, you can discuss it with him," says Eryka Raines, a freshman
at Nevada-Reno who last year was editor of the Reno High
literary magazine (Meschery is the faculty adviser). "He's
incredible. Once, he was describing a poem and got on his desk
and curled up in a little ball to explain what he meant. Not
every teacher would have the courage to do that."
For Meschery, teaching is not so different from basketball. "It
is tremendously rewarding because every day you risk your
emotions to get something accomplished, and you can see it
happen," he says. "As an athlete, I'm used to that. You play a
game, and you can produce right there on the spot; it's
immediately gratifying. The same thing can happen in teaching.
If you have a bad day, you know there's another day coming, and
you can make up for it. Teaching is a high-intensity profession,
and I like high-intensity things."
Jay Feldman, who has written several stories for Sports
Illustrated, lives in Davis, Calif.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Today Meschery's mission is to challenge not basketball teams but his students at Reno High. [Tom Meschery teaching English class] B/W PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS Few NBA players were as intense as Meschery (with ball). [Tom Meschery playing basketball]