I ran into Walt Clyde Frazier the other day. Well…maybe it was the other way around. Walt (for those of you who don’t follow basketball) was an all-star guard for the New York Knicks during the late sixties and seventies. Now, he does Knick color commentary on cable TV alongside veteran play-by-play man, Marv Albert.
I was inhaling a beer at Old Town Bar on 18th Street while Walt ever-so-gracefully pranced out of the men’s room, sauntered past my stool, then tripped over my bag which I had carelessly thrown on the grimy floor. “Clyde!” I shouted in surprise. “The ankles, watch the ankles, I hollered.” By this time, I had already tossed back a few pints of frothy Guinness Stout.
“Hey, what’s your bag doing in the middle…yo man, is that you Glen?” Clyde announced, his tone smooth as ever. “How’s it shakin’ n’ bakin’ my friend?”
“Not bad Walt, yourself? Good to see you!” I quickly shook his hand. Clyde’s near tumble stirred some attention from the day-time regulars sitting at the dark oak bar of one of Manhattan’s oldest pubs.
“What’s with the dome, Glen? You trying to look like you can compete with the real men on the court?”
“Ah, no way Clyde. I won’t be shooting any jumpers for a while. I just finished doing some time, you know. What about you? Are you off for the summer?”
“Doing time? Throwing up Hail Marys in the big house of detention? C’mon, what are you talkin’ about?”
“Clyde, let me get you a beer. You got time for one?” Before he answered I yelled over the guy sitting next to me, whose cigarette smoke was drifting into my face. Can I get another Guinness here?”
“Listen, I only have a few minutes. I’m waiting for my lady friend. She’s talking back there with some friends…never stops talkin’….” Clyde kind of bopped his head around to find her. “So what happened to you?”
“I just did six months at Memorial Sloan-Kettering up on 67th,” I said with a smirk. “The Big C. In fact, it all started one Friday in January when the Knicks were playing the Nets. I think those overpaid primadonnas lost to the Nets that night too.”
Clyde’s eyes widened as he searched for something to say. “That’s when you found out you had this?”
“That’s when all of the tests started. I was supposed to go to that game with three buddies of mine, but I ended up spending the weekend in the hospital on Staten Island. After a CT Scan showed something in my chest, I had more tests, more doctor’s appointments, and then a lymph node taken from my neck. (I pulled my shirt collar down to show him the scar). So I got the word that I had Hodgkin’s Disease—a cancer of the lymph system.”
“Wow, that must have been some devastatin’ and contemplatin’ news to take. But you look pretty good now. What do the doctors say?”
“You always got the rhymes Clyde…on and off the court. Yeah, I was shiverin’ and quiverin’ in my Nikes for a while, you know. How’s that one?” I nudged his arm. “I bet Marv can’t come up with those rhymes.”
“No way man,” Clyde assured me. “That’s my forte, my style. Just like I dress for success off the court, I got to talk with finesse when it’s game time. But c’mon man. How do you feel?”
“Well, I just finished 20 treatments of radiation so I’m a little wiped out from that. I never got the two-week sore throat they promised but it left me tired as hell, and kind of sunburnt. Before that I had three months of chemotherapy.”
“I have an Aunt (’ah-nt” he pronounced it) who had radiation for breast cancer about six years ago,” Clyde remarked. “I remember it made her really tired too. What about chemo, was it horrifying and demoralizing?” Clyde probed with seemingly genuine interest.
“Haha,” I chuckled. “It was no party man, but I got through it. I don’t think I would have passed a drug test for the NBA, though. They had me on steroids…and I was shooting myself up with some potent stuff. My blood counts were really low too. Now, my hands, arms, and legs are really weak, numb and cramped. But my CT Scans are clear so I’m doing alright.”
I paused. “You never got into any steroids in your day, right?”
“No, no, we were all-natural in the sixties and seventies. Now you see guards dominatin’ and creatin’ at 6′7″ 220 wielding their omnipotence all over the court.”
“How would you match up against these guys today, Clyde?”
“You know, I think I would still hold my own. I’d still be quick on D and scintillate the jay from the perimeter,” Clyde assured me, his attention diverting to the back of the bar.
I finished my Guinness and looked to get the bartender’s attention for another. “One more Clyde?”
“My lady’s making her way up here. I’m good.”
“Always a lady’s man with style Clyde. You still wear the white Fedora?”
“I retired that thing years ago, but you know, Red Holtzman used to tell me if you keep something long enough, it’ll always come back in style.”
“Hey so maybe the players will go back to wearing shorts that fit, instead of those oversized bermuda shorts they run around in now, huh? Then, maybe you can make a comeback Clyde,” I joked.
“Yeah right,” Clyde laughed. “You might see the Fedora before you see that….”
Clyde introduced me to his lady friend, finished his beer and shook my hand firmly, then wished me well.
“Are you working now?” he said as he began to turn towards the door.
“Not yet Clyde. They’ve been cool about it. I’m on the 180 day DL. I wanna go back soon after I get back some energy, and my hands feel better.”
He turned back. “Well stop in at the Foundation office. You know it’s only a few blocks from here on Park. We can always use volunteers. And maybe a few of the kids can teach you how to light up a jumper again, you never know.”
“Gotta give something back, right? You know, now I know what Lou Gehrig meant when he said he was the luckiest man, etc., even though he was sick. I’ve had so much great support from family and friends, a guy couldn’t be any luckier. Look at this, I actually have this huge list of people to thank that I have in my bag. You think maybe you could announce a few names for me on the air this season?”
“Hey, who do you think I am—Phil Rizzuto?” Marv would be beratin’ and subjugatin’ me for doin’ that,” Clyde quipped, then smiled.
“Hey, lay off Marv, if he wasn’t caught wearing pink panties over his head, you’d still be in the radio booth!”
“Alright, I’m outta here man.” Clyde shook his head and smiled. “Feel good. Why don’t you just call those people up and tell them you’re doing okay.”
“Oh instead I usually send everyone an email update, you know. But now that treatment is done, I don’t know what I’ll write about. I might be stuck—I’ll think of something.”
“Anyway good seeing you Clyde. Take it easy.”
Walt and his friend slipped through the big old double doors of the Old Town Bar. Someone outside had already opened the outer door for them and waited to shake hands with the one and only, inimitable Walt Clyde Frazier.
(This fictional account was published in the Staten Island Advance, August 19, 2002)