Arizona is Full of Convalescents, But Not Many Look as Healthy as John Shumate, 1976

[Several months ago, From Way Downtown ran a story from 1976 about John Shumate, his battle with blood clots, and his difficult transition to the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. Well, here’s another look back at Shumate, and this one is really good, too. It’s from Bob Wischnia, who wrote for the Arizona Republic and is best known for his excellent articles in the magazine Runner’s World. This story didn’t run there, pardon the pun. It appeared in SPORT Magazine in March 1976. What a first-rate profile, enjoy!]

****

John Shumate muscled past the big man with the long red ponytail, outfought him for the rebound and gently laid the ball back up and in. It was a familiar matchup: Shumate versus Bill Walton. Two seasons earlier, their rivalry had attracted national acclaim; each had performed memorably as Notre Dame, led by Shumate, ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. But here, early in the 1975-76 season, they were battling simply to avoid regional notoriety; the loser of this Phoenix-Portland game would hold undisputed possession of last place in the National Basketball Association’s Pacific Division. 

Both men had been No. 1 draft choices in 1974. Walton had gone on to star at press conferences and even made an occasional guest appearance on the basketball court as a rookie. Shumate had been subjected to physical torment and unfair ridicule, then had become completely inconspicuous. In his first season, he had not played even a minute of an NBA game. 

Now, though, Shumate was playing, grabbing 10 rebounds in 15 minutes. It wasn’t the most important contribution to the Phoenix victory, but it was a contribution. And for a very long while, it had seemed as if John Shumate’s only contribution to the Phoenix Suns would be as their color announcer on radio broadcasts. 

****

John Shumate came to pro basketball with a reputation for drive, power, and spirit. He was remembered best for the game that broke UCLA’s winning streak—for the two baskets he scored at the end, for the strength he demonstrated when, with Notre Dame ahead by one point, UCLA missed a shot and he outfought Walton and Dave Meyers for the climactic rebound. He was remembered, too, for the way he then joyously flung the ball to the rafters. An All-American who had flair as well as skill, he was the fourth player selected in the NBA draft. Phoenix signed him to a million-dollar, multi-year contract. 

Anxious to display their top draft choice, the Suns flew Shumate to Phoenix in late spring of 1974 and asked him to participate in a rookie camp. There, his professional career got off to a roaring stop. When he moved, he moved with the grace and speed of a dinosaur. On fast breaks, he trailed the trailer. 

At first, he blamed his lethargy on the heat. But he soon realized that the weather wasn’t troubling other players. Then he thought he was “just homesick, that everything would be better once I got home and I had some of my mother’s cooking.” He quickly realized that wouldn’t be the answer either. “I could hardly make it through the drills,” he remembers, “and during the games, I had a tough time just breathing. Then I started having real sharp pains in my chest, and every time I’d breathe deeply or even just laugh, there’d be a catch in my chest.”

Following one workout, Shumate asked trainer Joe Proski for another pair of basketball shoes. Proski recalls, “I looked him up and down and told him I couldn’t figure out what he was doing with the other shoes we were giving him. He couldn’t have been wearing them out the way he was moving. I figured he must have been selling them or giving them away to kids.”

Proski was only needling, but Shumate was well aware of what “everybody was saying behind his back.” He was “feeling worse and worse, but nobody would believe there was anything wrong with me. That really hurt. I’ve never loafed a day in my life.”

The Suns dispatched him to play in the rugged Southern California Summer Pro League. He made the All-Rookie team there and led his club in scoring, but he wasn’t playing as he had at Notre Dame. He was timid. He rarely fought to the basket when he had the ball. Instead, the 6-foot-9, 235-pounder was content to throw up 20-foot jump shots. 

The Phoenix coach, John MacLeod, was understandably worried. He telephoned Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps. “All Digger could tell me,” MacLeod says, “was that John Shumate was the hardest-working kid he had ever coached. If Shu wasn’t making a total effort, something had to be wrong with him.”

But the doctors could find nothing wrong. So, even though the chest pains persisted, Shumate  was up at dawn each day to run four miles on a golf course. Then he’d go to morning basketball scrimmages and, in the evening, he’d play tennis.

In late August, the pains increased, and Shumate went to the hospital for a lung scan. It showed nothing unusual. Two days later, there was another lung scan. This one revealed that he had blood clots on his lung: blood was getting blocked up in the veins there instead of circulating freely through the body. With training camp scheduled to start in a week, John Shumate was hospitalized. It was feared he might never play a game of pro basketball. 

****

In 1971, while at Notre Dame, Shumate had been bothered by leg pains. The problem was diagnosed and treated as a muscle pull in the calf, but it actually was phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins. Improperly treated, the phlebitis developed into a blood clot and traveled up Shumate’s left leg, through his groin and eventually lodged in his lungs. By the time the illness was correctly diagnosed back then, he had lost 45 pounds and nearly died. And now, at age 22, in late August of 1974, he was suffering from blood clots in the lung again. 

All during his first summer as a Phoenix Sun, all through the weeks that people had charged him with loafing, Shumate had feared he might once more have blood clots. Now, learning he was correct, he felt, in his words, “like a big black cloud came and covered me up.” Doctors told him it was not “a recurrence, but another separate episode.” And they said that this time, while the problem was serious, his life was not in danger. 

It was natural for Shumate to think back to the last time he had blood clots. That time, he had been rushed to intensive care, where the doctors, though very worried about his physical state, “were even more worried about my mental state. I had given up. I’d gone through so much, and nobody was giving me any answers. My mind just kept saying the hell with it. They had to force me to take blood. 

“Then, after a couple of days in intensive care, I was asleep one morning and just dreaming, when I opened an eye and thought I saw an angel. I said, ‘Oh no. I’m gone. I really am.’ I opened the other eye, and it was my father. I jumped out of bed, and all the wires and electrodes just ripped off my body. I felt no pain. Immediately, my father and I began to communicate on a spiritual level. The vibrations were very intense; he was my intermediary between me and God. I was instructed to think of myself as a leaf floating on a current. Just flow. Don’t rebel. Don’t retaliate. Just flow.”

Now, in August, 1974, in Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, there was no epiphany. Just an uncertain future and a long, slow recuperation. Shumate remained in the hospital until mid-September. And when he was released, it was with orders to return regularly over the next few months for treatment. It would be a long while before the clots were fully dissolved.

With his parents and sisters living thousands of miles away in New Jersey, Shumate settled in alone at his plush Phoenix apartment. He fought off the impulse to feel sorry for himself. His attitude at the time, he recalls, was: “How could I cry? I knew I might not play basketball again, but I was still getting paid. I had a nice apartment with a great stereo. I had a Cadillac, a college degree, good lawyers, and good friends and teammates.

“You have got to have patience and find inner peace with yourself or you’ll go crazy. I just lay on the floor listening to my music and wondering why all this was happening to me. I thought that maybe because I do have inner strength, God was using me as an example to show other people His powers, authority, gracefulness, and mercifulness.”

Digger Phelps called and offered Shumate a job as a graduate assistant coach at Notre Dame. Shumate declined, but traveled to South Bend to watch his old team play and then accompanied the Notre Dame squad on a one-game roadtrip. 

Back in Phoenix, he soon began running up telephone bills in excess of $200 a month, the price of his continual calls to friends and relatives in the East. For nearly four months, the doctors would not permit him to exercise. Finally, in January, they said he could begin a walking program. Day after day, Shumate and his Doberman pinscher, Pax, walked through the parks of Phoenix and, he remembers, “I hated it. It was so boring, and I thought that I could at least start shooting a basketball, maybe run a little with the team. The doctors were afraid I might go too hard. They were trying to keep my blood balanced, and they didn’t want me screwing it up.”

With only a few games left on the Suns’ 1974-75 schedule, Shumate went through a week of medical tests. The results were put into a computer and analyzed. And the verdict was that Shumate could begin running and could participate in the remaining Phoenix practices. It had been more than half a year since the Notre Dame strongman, the Suns’ No. 1 draft choice, had done any exercise more strenuous than walking his dog. 

****

When the basketball season ended, with Shumate barely started on his reconditioning, he moved to his parents’ home in New Jersey. He had grown up in Jersey, as the only son in a family of five children, a family presided over by restrictive parents. With a Pentecostal minister for a father, Shumate attended all-day church services Saturdays and Sundays during his boyhood, and Bible classes four other days a week. 

“There wasn’t any time left or any freedom to do anything else,” he says. “I wasn’t allowed to play sports. My parents were very strict with their daughters, and they raised me more or less like them. If they had to be in at five, I had to be in at five. If they couldn’t go to the playgrounds, I couldn’t go to the playgrounds either.”

The summer preceding his sophomore year of high school, Shumate sprouted six inches—and suddenly stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 200 pounds. Invited to try out for JV basketball, Shumate had to confess that, at 15, he had never touched a basketball and doubted that his parents would permit him to play. 

But with the help of an uncle, he convinced his father to let him try out. Then, for the remainder of the summer, Shumate physically exerted himself every day, all day—learning basketball, riding his bike, working with weights. Not only did he eventually play for his high school varsity, but by his senior year, he was its star, earning a scholarship to Notre Dame. There, among his other feats, he hit 20 straight field goals in the 1973 NIT, led the team in scoring and rebounding two seasons, was elected an All-American by the press, and captain by his teammates. 

Now, in 1975, Shumate was back in New Jersey, living with his parents again and working as hard to get into condition as he had at the age of 15. It was not only difficult work, but slow, as he discovered in June when he played a summer league basketball game in Philadelphia. During a timeout in that game, a low, deep ripple of boos streamed down at him from the bleachers, not loud but persistent. Shumate had been the target of boos years before, but knew they really had been directed at his team, Notre Dame, not him personally. These were meant for him. 

It was a meaningless summer league game, but the spectators began jeering him, yelling for him to quit dogging it. Shumate had not played in a game for nine months and—as he would recall later—”I was trying as hard as I could. But I just wasn’t able to do it like I used to. I had no reflexes, no spring, no quickness. I had nothing. I started to wonder if I’d ever be the player I once was.”

He drove home to Roselle, N.J., shaken. “It was the first time in my entire life that I personally was ever booed. I made the decision that I never wanted to hear that again, that I would work harder than I ever had in my life.”

He went on to play 40 games in 40 nights in four different summer leagues. In Philadelphia, in the Baker League, Shumate moved on from that dreadful start to average 26 points and 14 rebounds per game. In New York, he led the Rucker League in scoring, averaging 36 points per game. He also made the all-star teams in Washington, D.C. and Flushing, N.Y.

The schedule was grueling and hectic. “It was difficult living at home,” he says. “My mother thought I was still momma’s boy, but I’m a man now. I didn’t have the privacy that I need, and my parents wanted me to come home every night. That put a little pressure on me. For the games in Washington, D.C., I’d leave early in the morning and have to drive all the way home late at night by myself. That’s all I did all summer. Drive, play in games, drive home, wake up, and play some more.” 

****

When the Phoenix Suns opened training camp for the 1975-76 season, John Shumate was in shape—decent enough shape, that is, to be able to help. It had been expected a year earlier, that Shumate would be the man to lead the Suns to the playoffs. Now, the expectations were lowered. 

Shumate began the season on the bench. A center at Notre Dame, he was now the Suns’ backup power forward, behind Curtis Perry. And while his potential remained large, Shumate demonstrated through the first months of the season how much he needed playing experience against top pros. He was erratic. The first game the Suns played in Philadelphia, he had 14 points and nine rebounds in 19 minutes. Against the Knicks in November, he had 19 points in 23 minutes. But all too often he looked awkward and confused. 

“Pro basketball has been much harder than I thought it would be,” Shumate said one night in December, as he and a reporter talked in the Suns’ locker room after a game. “The year layoff really hurt me more than I thought it would. I knew it’d be rough, but just now I’m starting to get used to the physical aspects of the game. Some nights, I get killed out there, they don’t call anything. I’m used to being the main man, but with the Suns the only time I touch the ball is when I get it off the boards. I’ve gone from the big-time scorer and Mister Everything to the guy who’s just supposed to get the rebounds. I’m not gonna complain . . . It’s just different.”

He paused. “It’s been strange for me. It’s a totally different game coming off the bench. I’ve had a hard time adjusting to just sitting there, but the man playing ahead of me is a super player so I can’t complain. The way things have been going, I go in if Curtis gets in foul trouble or if he gets tired. But he never gets tired. My job is to rebound and play defense, and when the coach sits me down, I’m supposed to sit down with a smile.” 

But was Shumate in good enough physical condition to take on more work?

“Sometimes I do get a little tired out there,” he said, “but that’s only because I’m not out there long enough to get my second wind. I’m a very strong person and, if I stay in good shape and watch myself, I’ll do okay. The doctors don’t really know what effect the lung damage will have, but I am not worried about it. I’ve already gone through so much at a young age—I’ve been taken through experiences on a divine level—which puts me in the position of knowing at any time my life can go just like that. Zap. So, I’m not afraid of death.”

Philosophical now, he said that what he missed more than stardom were the relationships he had with his Notre Dame teammates; there isn’t the same kind of unity in professional basketball, where as soon as a game or practice ends, the players usually leave in separate cars for different destinations.

“My fondest memory was just being close to the guys like Adrian Dantley, Gary Brokaw, Ray Martin, and Dwight Clay. I grew up without any brothers, and the relationship we had there was the closest I’ve ever had outside my family. We were one. I really miss that closeness.”

Shumate and the reporter had been sitting together a long time. Most of the other Phoenix players had left the locker room. “Just one more thing,” Shumate said. “I want to thank a few people who’ve helped me in my life, if that’s okay.  Just stick this in some place in the story. I don’t care where.”

For the next 20 minutes, Shumate thanked individually his sisters (four), parents (two), coaches (seven), uncles (six), doctors and their wives (four sets). He thanked his favorite schoolteachers (two), his God, his girlfriend, her father, and her family. He thanked his agent, his Black teammates at Notre Dame, the president of Notre Dame, the vice president, the athletic director and assistant, a janitor, and the security guard at the college gym who used to let him in at night so he could shoot baskets. It was a serious recitation by a serious man. 

But John Shumate, praise be, is not entirely without a sense of whimsy. “I think that’s about it,” he said, but then, as the trainer expressed interest in turning out the lights: “Oh yeah, I got one more. I’d like to thank Ara [Notre Dame’s football coach].”

Ara? Ara Parseghian?

“Yeah, him,” said John Shumate, who has suffered enough physical disorder without ever playing football. “I’d like to thank Ara for not trying to make me into a defensive end.” 

2 thoughts on “Arizona is Full of Convalescents, But Not Many Look as Healthy as John Shumate, 1976

    1. Not true. I just reread the story, and it’s clean. The text, as transcribed, ran in SPORT Magazine nearly 50 years ago. In places, I have imposed AP style for numbers, etc. But your “someone” is an editor at SPORT Magazine.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: