Sandy Koufax’s sports odyssey took him from a muscular, leaping center for the Lafayette High School basketball team in Brooklyn to left-handed bonus baby for the Brooklyn Dodgers to the Hall of Fame as one of the most dynamic pitchers in baseball history.
His path from basketball to baseball was the reverse of Brooklyn’s better known but tortured major league history: losing the Dodgers in 1957 and, 55 years later, gaining the Nets, whose first season in the borough is to start Nov. 1.
Regardless, Koufax now stands as a link between the two sports. He is, after all, one of Brooklyn’s most famous athletes, and the fact that he was a talented basketball player first and foremost gives the Nets’ arrival just a little more heft, as if it had all been preordained all those years ago.
When the 6-foot 2-inch Koufax graduated from Lafayette High School in 1953, his yearbook declared that he “has been scouted and will most likely be a professional basketball player.” The NBA was a backwater in the mid-1950s, but Koufax’s friend, the talk-show host Larry King, class of ’51 and team manager from an earlier Lafayette class, said that Koufax aspired to play for the Knicks.
Yes, Koufax also played baseball at the time, manning first base for the school team, but he was not much of a hitter. And no one had any premonition that he would become the pitcher that he did.
Instead, it was mostly basketball. In a Lafayette team photo, Koufax, No. 16, his biceps rippling, stands smiling beside his pal Fred Wilpon, No. 5, the future owner of the Mets and star pitcher on the baseball team. The Frenchies at the time were nearly all Jewish: Abramowitz, Weiss, Levine, Stolzenberg, Horwitz, Lichtman, Lichtenstein. And Koufax, whose yearbook entry featured these rather modest goals: “To be successful and make my family proud of me.”
Koufax and his friends played in the school gymnasium, with protective padding on the walls that were just a few feet behind the baskets; in Bensonhurst at the nearby Jewish Community House, “the J”; or in schoolyards. Jerry Doren, one of the Frenchies, said, “You practically slept with the basketball.” He paused, then added, “They were the best years of my life.”
Joel Comiteau, whose surname was originally Comito, said: “It was like Princeton basketball. Nice teamwork, give-and-gos and back doors.”
Lafayette had a decent team in the early 1950s. It competed against Brooklyn public high schools like Lincoln, Madison, Jefferson, New Utrecht and Erasmus. Koufax, now 76, was not the best high school basketball player in Brooklyn at the time but he set himself apart on his team as its star. And as he and his teammates head toward 80, and the Nets’ era in Brooklyn nears, they relish talking about him.
“Sandy was an incredible athlete,” said Burt Abramowitz, a real estate broker in Maryland. “When he was 14 he had these muscles. He didn’t lift weights. No one did back then. We lifted radiators. And he could jump like a kangaroo.
“We called him the Jewish Li’l Abner,” said another teammate, Martin Stolzenberg.
Asher Jagoda, who later changed his surname to Dann when he became an actor, said: “He could leap, boy, and you know the size of his hands. He’s the only one who could hold the ball in one hand.”
Doren remembered that Koufax “looked like a David even when he wasn’t working out.”
More prosaically, Comiteau said: “He was a regular guy. A mensch. Always a mensch.”
In February 1953, a Koufax legend was born, not one as grand as his perfect game at Dodger Stadium in 1965 against the Chicago Cubs but one that came alive inside Lafayette High School on a winter’s night when a group of Knicks, including Harry Gallatin, staged a clinic at the school, in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn. Jane Leavy, in her book “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” described a scene that featured a packed gymnasium and Lafayette’s cheerleaders “in full pompomed confection.”
Said Comiteau: “That was one of the highlights of my life.”
Sometime that evening, during drills or the scrimmage – depending on who is telling the story – the 6-foot-6 Gallatin, nicknamed the Horse, tried to dunk. Twice, he failed.
“Well, I needed a step stool to dunk the ball,” Gallatin said by telephone from Edwardsville, Ill. “That wasn’t in my repertoire.” According to Leavy, Lafayette Coach Frank Rabinowitz, apparently eager to show off the 17-year-old Koufax, gestured to him to demonstrate just how a dunk was done.
Koufax threw it down once, left-handed, then Rabinowitz asked for an encore. Koufax obliged.
“He surprised the heck out of me, and I said, ‘Who is this kid?“’ Gallatin said. “I thought the kid had some special skills. He had real big hands, but he had stumps for legs, which I think is probably one of the reasons he pitched so well.”