Dave Stallworth: ‘I’m One Lucky Man,’ 1970

[The writing life has been very good to Jay Neugeboren, now in his 80s. He’s won prizes for his  fiction, earned critical acclaim for his non-fiction, and received awards for his screenplays. He would also spend 30 years as a professor and writer in residence at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

But in the late 1960s, the Brooklyn-born Neugeboren was in his early 30s and just starting to get comfortable living that life of the mind. His novella, Corky’s Brother, has just won highly competitive literary award, and Neugeboren was taking on assignments as a freelance journalist. 

Among those assignments was one from SPORT Magazine. The editors wanted Neugeboren to profile the return of New York Knick forward Dave Stallworth from his heart attack at age 25. What follows is a unique piece of journalism from 1970 in which Neugeboren, feeling way self-conscious, struggles to get the words and tough questions out of his mouth. Interesting reading, and a nice profile of “Dave the Rave,” who passed away in 2017. Stallworth had a good NBA run spread over eight seasons, including some yeoman work later in this season for the Knicks during the 1970 NBA Finals “distracting” Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers.]

Knicks GM Eddie Donovan (right) welcomes Dave Stallworth back to the fold after recovering from his heart attack.

The last game of the exhibition season was over, and in the locker room Dave Stallworth was stuffing his New York Knick uniform into his travel bag. He nodded, more to himself than to anyone else, then shook his head sideways as if he didn’t believe what he was saying. “I’m one lucky man,” he said. His usually high-pitched voice was low, mature; in his rookie season five years before, his teammates had called it a “chipmunk” voice because of the way it squeaked. He spoke slowly now, repeating to himself: “I’m one very lucky man.” 

In three days, it would be official. The teams would be introduced at the start of the first game of the 1969-70 NBA season, and, at the sound of his name, 14,796 fans in Madison Square Garden would rise from their seats and give Dave Stallworth a standing ovation—the crescendo of applause and feeling and admiration which would last for over a minute. At that point, one of the most miraculous comebacks in all of sports history would become a fact. 

Two and a half years before, when he was 25 years old, after he’d had chest pains during the warmups for a game in Fresno, California, against the Warriors, Dave had been struck by what was diagnosed as a heart attack. He’d spent 27 straight days on his back in New York’s St. Clare’s hospital. “They tried to let me down easy,” he said, remembering. “But what they were saying was that my career was over.”

Tests and more tests, lots of rest, no exertion, no ball, thousands of letters from fans—and, during those 27 days, before he’d been allowed to even walk from his bed, no visitors. “That was the hardest part.”

The locker room was clearing out now. Dave was unwinding, talking about himself more than he usually did. Drops of sweat still glistened on his broad brown shoulders like bits of tinsel. He had his best game of the exhibition season—15 points, six rebounds, three steals, and four assists in 23 minutes of play; he had, in fact, started a game for the first time, replacing Dave DeBusschere. While the Bullets won, 119-108, Stallworth had played the best game of any Knick. 

On the opening play of the game, he’d almost stole the ball, and, when he missed, his face contorted slightly; a grimace—as if he were cursing himself, as if he’d bitten into a bitter lemon. “Come on, Dave,” you could hear him saying to himself. “Come on now. You’re okay . . .” A minute later, though, he’d scored the first Knick basket on a short jumper; a minute after that, he hit on a high, soft one from the corner. “That was Dave Stallworth,” Knick public address announcer John Condon said each time, and each time the crowd in the Westchester County Center cheered. 

Dave moved in streaks, looking as if he were still the most agile 6-foot-7 ½ —bringing the ball upcourt, crashing the boards, following his shots in, stealing the ball, moving into the pivot when Willis Reed moved out, hitting from the corners. Midway in the third quarter, he brought the crowd to its feet with two consecutive steals. On the first, he’d dribbled all the way down court, stopped at the foul line, faked, then taken the shot himself and scored. A second later, on a Knick miss, he’d gone so high in the air his fingers seemed to climb almost to the top of the backboard, and in mid-air he had plucked the ball out of the hands of a Baltimore Bullet player who’d got the rebound, and, while the two players seemed frozen at rim level, David stuffed the ball back into the Knick basket.  

I reminded him of the play. “It felt good,” he said, smiling. “But I played poor. It’s my legs. I asked the coach to take be out in the second half.  I was really bushed. The legs aren’t what they were. But I’m coming along—got things to learn. But coming along, coming along. I’ll be ready for the season.”

He laughed then, and his upper lip seemed to curl past his mustache. “I shouldn’t say things like this, I suppose, but I’ll tell you the truth—we played poor tonight. I mean, we played horrible. It’ll be different, though, when the season starts. All the guys relax some of these games, but when it’s for the real stuff, they’ll be okay. We have a superior club, a lot different from two years ago. We’re more of a real team now, you know what I mean? We only got one ball on the floor at a time, and we know it. When the season starts, we’ll be there . . .” 

Did he himself let down in the preseason games, the practices? He shook his head. “No, but I don’t just have to prove something to others—I’ve got to prove something to myself.”

We were the last ones out of the locker room and I remembered the first time, a few weeks before, when we’d talked. I had driven out to the Knicks’ training camp at Farmingdale, Long Island, where, in a gym set amid the cows and barns and silos of a state agricultural college, they were preparing for the 1969-70 season. I’d watched Dave for a couple of practices before we’d talked at any length, trying to imagine what it would be like to have a heart attack at 25, to think you could never again do the thing you loved most in the world, to be told two years later that you were 100 percent okay and could play again—but still to live with possibilities and fears that never entered the lives of others. 

Running along the sideline as the ball was brought upcourt after each basket, Dave would run the fingers of his right hand across his tongue, the way a football quarterback does. “Give it here, Clyde,” he’d yell to Walt Frazier when he was open, a pained look on his face when Frazier didn’t spot him. 

“Here now—”

He moved easily, his neck hunched over slightly, shoulders up, as if he were outside on a cold day. He seemed a bit slower than I remembered him from his first two seasons, when he’d been the Knicks’ sixth man—a wild, erratic streak player who’d averaged just under 13 points for the two seasons before he’d been struck. 

A silver medallion hung around his neck and flew in and out of his practice uniform. Dave fingered it as he moved around the court. There were sweatbands on each of his wrists. He seemed heavier than he’d been two years before—and more solid in the way he played, as if his experience had matured him as a ballplayer. He directed traffic on offense, stole the ball on defense, still wobbled his head when he faked, and—something I hadn’t remembered him for—he seemed to always see the open man, to hit him with bullet passes. He was the most aggressive player in the workouts—and one of the steadiest. 

If on the court, at 27 years old, Dave was living out a dream which he’d never thought possible during that first hospital stay—on the sidelines, sitting on a bench, I was living out, at 31 years old, one of the dreams I’d had when I was a schoolyard ballplayer growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, a dream to be nurtured by every boy for whom sports has for a time been the whole world. 

I was on my first assignment as a sports reporter—I was, that is, doing what I’d dreamed of doing when I’d been eight and 10 and 12 and 15 years old. I was getting into secret practices, I was getting to meet the players, to talk with them, to sit around the locker room after games. And, at 31, it still seemed a dream, and—as I soon found out—I was still a nervous high school kid. I remembered the many times I had been late for work after school because I’d sat too long in the balcony of the Erasmus gym, watching practice sessions.  

“They shouldn’t brand a guy for life when he’s so young,” Dave said to me after practice. We were eating dinner together, and we’ve been talking about Connie Hawkins, and about all the other players who had been banned from the NBA because they had been implicated in the point-fixing scandals. Dave was holding half a chicken in his hand, chewing from it. Once the doctors had given him the okay to play, his weight had dropped from a puffy 243 to a solid 218. 

“What about Roger Brown?” asked Nate Bowman, the Knick reserve center who’d played with Dave at Wichita State.

Dave nodded, smiled boyishly. “If we let Connie back, we got to do something for Roger too, right?” 

“And Doug Moe?” I asked—referring to another ABA star banned from the NBA, one who’d played  in my own Brooklyn schoolyard, who’d been a few years behind me when I had been a student at Erasmus. 

“All of them, all of them—” Dave said, grinning out from under the sleek cowboy hat he was wearing to dinner. His smile—light flashing from a front tooth capped with a five-pointed gold star—was infectious, and we all smiled with him.

“We got to let them all play, right? You shouldn’t brand a guy for life so young, that’s all.”

We’d been talking like this for a while—about the fixes, about the Rucker tournament in Harlem where Dave had played during previous summers, about the schoolyard. “There’s a lot of pride in the schoolyard,” Dave said. “A lot of pride—even after you make it in college and the pros. I mean, you give something extra in your schoolyard.” He laughed. “Got the weight off me last summer—it’s 110 degrees sometimes in Wichita—One-ten!”

He went across to get another pitcher of water—he’d already emptied two—then his face shifted, he became serious. “Okay,” he said to me. “You can give me the questions now—”

You shouldn’t brand a guy for life when he’s so young. Dave’s own words twirled around in my brain. Did he realize that he could have been talking about himself? I mumbled something back to him. “Come on, come on,” he said, trying to loosen me up. “It’s okay; let’s get on with it—” 

But, like a 12-year-old, I fumbled and bumbled. I couldn’t ask him anything. I shook my head, felt my hands get sweaty. How, I wondered, did you ask a man how he felt about having had a heart attack?

I shrugged and told him that it was okay, that the kind of talk we’d been having was fine, just fine. If I’d been his friend, I thought, and we’d been sitting around the schoolyard, resting against a fence between games, it would have been different. I could have said what I was feeling: I’m real happy you can play again, Dave—hope you have a good season. I could have asked him how he was feeling, how things have been. But as a “reporter,” I felt strange about asking such questions, and I asked myself questions about the right of men, such as myself, to invade other men’s private lives. I saw myself as the earnest reporter on TV who’s always there in the midst of tragedy—grotesquely so: “Could you tell us how you felt when you heard your boy had lost his leg, Mrs. Smith?”

Now, after the last preseason game, after I’d gotten to know Dave, I joked with him about how I’d frozen that time. “That’s okay, Jay,” he said, laughing. “I mean, if you could have just come on like an old pro your first time out, why that would have been—” he paused, “—that would have been a miracle.”

He smiled. “Like if I had felt just like my old self the very first time back on the court.” 

I told him that I still felt the same way—that there were certain things in a man’s life I thought should remain private, his own. He nodded. “I’ll tell you something, though—as long as I can live my private life the way I want to, everything’s okay. You ask your questions and, if I don’t want to answer, I’ll let you know, okay?”

And he began talking about March 7, 1967, and the night in which he first experienced the pains. “It was real sudden,” he said. “No warning at all. Nothing like it had ever happened before. We’d been laying around that afternoon in the hotel, the way you do before a game, not doing anything special—watching television, I think. I had a ham sandwich and a Coke for supper.” He nodded, affirming his memory.

“There were only four games to go in the season, you see. Anyway, we got to the gym, and it was real hot there. I remember that. We were playing in Fresno, playing against the Warriors, and a few of us asked them to turn the heat down. It was real hot. But when we came out to warm up it was still pretty hot. I took off my sweats. I felt okay, though, and I started warming up. I went to one end of the court and shot some jump shots—jump, jump, jump—” He moved his hands imitating himself. “Then I took this soft, easy hook shot, lefty, and—”

Dave’s hands fell on his chest now, palms spread wide. “—I felt this thing pulling. It surprised me. But somebody was sitting on my chest, you know what I mean? Real heavy.” He paused. I noticed a few grey hairs showing through the black ones in his beard. “Just like somebody sitting on my chest.” 

Dave sat out the game. “It didn’t feel any worse than bad indigestion, you know? But the pains stayed there, and the Warrior doctor, he had me take an EKG the next day just to be sure. It was negative, and I got the green light to play in Frisco that night. The doctor, though, he suggested I get somebody to check on me when I got to New York. To play it safe. I played in Frisco that second night, and I felt fine. I got hit in the leg, otherwise I would have played more.” Dave cringed slightly at the thought.

“Then, two days later in New York, I went to see a heart specialist the team sent me to, and he took another EKG on me; this time, it was positive, and, man, he didn’t even wait. They shipped me straight from his office to the hospital, to St. Clare’s. They ran all these tests on me. They told me I’d had a heart attack—very mild.” 

According to Knick doctor Kazuo Yanagisawa, Dave had suffered a posterior coronary infarction. How he had made it through the two games and back across the country was only one of the many miracles and mysteries in Dave’s young life. 

We were at the bottom of the stairs of the Westchester County Center, and Dave was suddenly cornered by a few dozen kids who’d been waiting for him. His face lit up. “Hey, one at a time, one at a time.” His mood shifted almost magically, from serious to playful. It was obvious that he loved the kids. “Lay off my valise there, or I don’t sign, you hear?” 

Some of his own friends were waiting for him, and they teased him. He smiled. After signing for about five minutes, he walked outside. A kid ran up to him and handed him a scorecard. Dave stopped, put his bag down, set his hands on his hips and joshed the kid. “Hey, what are you—blind? I’m the same guy who just signed your card in there! You blind, man? I’m the same guy.” Then he broke into a big grin and took the kid’s scorecard. “What team do you play for?” the kid asked. “The Bullets,” Dave answered, deadpan, and patted the kid on the head. 

The rest of Dave’s story makes the kind of history we all need more of. He went back to Wichita after he was let out of St. Clare’s, after he’d been told that his career was over. “That was hard,” he said, simply. “Real hard. That was the hardest.” 

In Wichita, he enrolled at Wichita State and took 12 hours (he still needs three more credits for his degree, something he kids himself about), played golf, did some scouting for the Knicks, and went for regular checkups and tests. He felt good, and so, without telling his doctors, he began sneaking in some schoolyard ball. He laughs about it now. “I’d be sure never to play on a day when I had a doctor’s visit, you know? Man, I was something—don’t know how I did it. But I’d sneak in as much as I could—going slow at first, then faster when nothing bad happened. The guys in the schoolyard, I think they were more scared than I was. They treated me like an invalid. They’d throw me a basketball and tell me to go shoot baskets by myself while they played halfcourt. They razzed me. Carl Williams, one of my closest friends, he’d say, ‘Here comes the man with no heart.’”

After a while his friends seemed to lose their fears, and, in the 110-degrees summer heat of Wichita, Dave started playing regularly with them. “I never really felt things were completely over. It was just one of those things—it happens. I feel no exception as far as people are concerned.”

During his second year after the attack, Dave coached the Wichita Builders of the National Amateur Basketball Association to a 28-0 record and the national finals, where they lost to Tacoma by one point. “I never really felt like I’d had an attack.” Dave says. “That was the crazy thing. They told me I should feel tired, and I never felt that. They said I should have dizzy spells and black out, and that never happened. Just that little bit of pulling that time. I guess I just wouldn’t get used to the idea that I could never play again—” His face set. “I mean, basketball was my whole life. You know?”

Then, about eight or nine months before the start of the ’69-70 season, during the playoffs, Dave got the word he’d been waiting for: his doctors told him he was completely healed and could play again. “I felt like I could jump over a building. It was a crazy feeling deep down inside.” Dave’s smile shifted. “They told me I had recovered 100 percent, and that I could give it a try again. I called Eddie Donovan, and he said come on down to New York.”

Dave did, and, after some medical checkups, the Knicks gave him a contract. “They were very generous,” Dave said, in his own typically generous way. “I wouldn’t have hired myself for more than that.” In the 10 exhibition games, Dave worked his way back into shape and into the new Knick patterns. He averaged an even 10 points a game, rebounded well, and worked his way back as a vital reserve forward. “From the day he got here,” Knick coach Red Holzman said, “he’s been treated like anyone else.”

But New York fans refused to agree. When the season opened—31 months since his hospitalization—and the name of Dave Stallworth was announced in the Garden, the moment was electric. During the ovation, Dave hung his head slightly while his teammates lined up to either side of him, wore grins that were almost as broad as the one Dave would wear after the game. He was a bit tight in the first half—he was the first Knick sub to enter the game—but in the second half, he hit on three beautiful jump shots, stole the ball three times, picked off six rebounds, went through the longest gasp of the night on a gorgeous left-side drive where he suddenly stopped, and—his body still moving toward the basket, the defender caught flatfooted—he swished in a wide, easy left-handed hook shot. 

The Knicks won easily, beating the Seattle SuperSonics, 126-101, and the locker room was a happy place after the game. Dave sat on his footstool, drinking from a can of orange soda, sweat dripping from him, reporters all around. He gave me a big hello when I came in. 

How did he feel when the crowd had stood for him, I asked when the other reporters were gone. He thought for a second, smiled, then furrowed his brow and thought some more. He stood up and threw out his hands. “I don’t know—” he said, as if surprised. “I just don’t know, Jay. You know what I mean?” It was crazy—and crazily delightful. He shrugged, smiled, sat down again. “I don’t know.” He fingered his medallion, a silver Mary and Jesus. I asked about it. “This? Oh, this goes way back—from a girlfriend. I’ve worn it ever since the seventh grade. It goes way back.” He laughed. 

When the locker room had pretty much cleared out, we talked some more. The ovation had been unprecedented; he’d expected one the first time he’d returned to the Garden, during the exhibition season, but he hadn’t been ready for this one. Did he feel any different? His playful mood shifted. His eyes were clear. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “I think I know now more about what’s important and what’s not important in life. I feel a lot older. A lot. I know more what I want. You know what I mean?” 

Did he have any wishes? He grinned. “I’d like to be the first man to cut down the nets at the end of the season; that would be sweet, you know?”

And what about the future, his own future? Dave Stallworth’s face seemed to grow darker, then lighter. He thought for a long time. “What I look forward to most is—well, I’d just like to be able to relax for a change. I just want to relax. You know what I mean? I just want to relax a little in this life.”

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