John Shumate Comes Back, 1976

[After missing a full season receiving treatment for blood clots, John Shumate finally debuted with the Phoenix Suns during the 1975-76 rookie season. Shumate, the team’s top draft choice in 1974, filled his now-secondary role admirably, and 43 games into the season, the Buffalo Braves orchestrated a trade to add his “toughness” inside. Shumate again filled his role admirably, as a lockdown defender and banging inside for rebounds, and the Braves, behind the high-scoring Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, and Jim McMillian, finished the season in second place in the NBA’s Atlantic Division. Good enough for a ticket to the NBA playoffs, starting with a best-of-three series with the reemerging Philadelphia 76ers, led by George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Billy Cunningham, and Fred Carter.

The Braves took Game One in Philadelphia, 95-89, then got clobbered at home, 131-106. With 5:46 to go in the fourth quarter and all hope of a Braves’ closeout victory vanished, Shumate jostled for a rebound and, his teammate McMillian accidently undercut him. Shumate landed with a loud, head-first thud that left him with a concussion and four-stitch gash over his left eye. Buffalo fans, believing 76ers forward Joe Bryant had done the dirty deed, then pelted the court with cups of ice and an even-chillier chorus of boos at all the no-calls.

The close-out Game Three was in two days on Easter Sunday, and Shumate was in the hospital still clearing the cobwebs. Buffalo coach Jack Ramsay listed Shumate as doubtful for Game Three. Don’t ever underestimate Shumate’s resilience. What follows is a brief column from Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Stan Hochman on what happened next.]


A fighter gets knocked out, he’s automatically banned for 30 days in most states. John Shumate got knocked out Friday night in Buffalo. Got the side of his face split open. They lugged him off the court and plopped him in a hospital bed. 

Forty hours later, he was back in action, swapping elbows and knees and hips in the hugger-mugger that fills the pit under NBA backboards. Sure, Shumate is a basketball player, not a fighter. But a naked elbow can do more damage than a padded fist. And a concussion is not your everyday, take-two-aspirin-and-call-me-in-the-morning malady. 

“Ah, this is do-or-die,” Shumate said yesterday in the clamor of the Buffalo locker room. “We win, we keep going. We lose, it’s all over. A fighter who’s been knocked out so many times he becomes sensitive to certain blows, I don’t think mine was that bad.”

“He looked terrible Friday,” said 76ers’ trainer Al Domenico, offering another opinion. “He looked like he was gonna die. Concussion. No way he shoulda played today. But ,they figure, there’s no tomorrow. If they’d lost, he’d have six months to get well.”

Shumate played 43 minutes. Buffalo didn’t lose, beat the 76ers, 124-123, in a screeching, squawling overtime game. Never would have done it without Shumate. 

Should not have surprised anybody. They keep counting 10 over Shumate, and he keeps getting up. Sometimes when he gets up, his legs wobble like tapioca pudding. Like the time he lost 40 pounds his sophomore year at Notre Dame. Went from heavyweight to welterweight, but beat the count. Blood clots got him then, plus a virus that snatched at the area around his heart. 

Got knocked to his knees again his rookie year with Phoenix. Blood clots again in the lungs. Beat the count. Jack Ramsay needed somebody that tough, if he was going to beat Philly or hope to beat Boston. “John gave us strength,” Ramsay said of the trade that brought Shumate in return for Gar Heard. “John gives us toughness.”

Ramsay visited Shumate in the hospital Saturday. Bob McAdoo had already been there. “I spent an hour with him,” McAdoo said. “By the end of the hour, I wanted to take him home. We needed him.”

“He came to the hospital,” Shumate said, grinning wide enough to wrinkle the patch near his left eye. “He kept telling me, ‘We need you.’ He got me psyched up about getting out of the hospital.”

First, they had to locate a neurologist. “I’m an orthopedic man,” Dr. Steve Joyce explained. “I wanted him checked by a neurologist. They gave him a sophisticated X-ray. Something called “The Cat,” but it’s C-A-T-T. 

“You’re talking about a device that costs three-quarters of a million dollars. It will detect something the thickness of a millimeter. If he’d had subdural hemorrhaging, it would have picked that up. He was disoriented Friday night, but clear Saturday. Released him around 11.”

“People kept telling me not to risk my career for one game,” Shumate admitted. “I played on faith. My father called me this morning. He said, ‘Let’s have a prayer.’ We’ve done that ever since I can remember. My mother said, ‘John, I feel confident. I’ve been praying, and He’s going to take care of you.’ I asked God to let me do my job, to have mercy on me. And He carried me through.” 

On Easter Sunday, with the message board clogged, somehow John Shumate’s plea got through. He was not exactly seeking the strength to go for a walk in the park. He was listed to muscle up against George McGinnis. 

“In the warmups, I felt dizzy, light,” Shumate said. “I thought about telling Jack I couldn’t play. But I looked at my teammates, and I just prayed that God would carry me through. 

“McGinnis is a great person. As a person, he came up and offered me his sympathy before the game. As a player, he’s tough. He made a believer out of me. There may be some players as good, but none better. 

“I’ve made the transition from center to forward. George is a superstar. People expected me to go out and try and stop him. If I’d been playing 10 years, I couldn’t stop him. Nobody can stop him one-on-one. The only way to play him is to get help. Like trying to play Kareem, he’ll throw in 15 hook shots on you. Or guys playing McAdoo, and he scores 40.”

Ramsay sent Shumate, then Jim McMillian, then McAdoo, then Don Adams at McGinnis, badgering him through a long afternoon. Shumate, meanwhile, was making 10-of-12 shots and grabbing 10 rebounds. 

When it was over, Shumate staggered up the ramp and groped along the cinderblocks, stopping to steal the whirring in his head, resting it on a shelf that juts out into the corridor. “I still got courage,” he said afterwards, as if any doubters remained. “You know this game meant more to me than anything that’s ever happened to me in my life.”

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