Scott Fowler

Dementia is stealing Carl Scheer’s memories, but not his all-star basketball legacy

Carl Scheer is 82 years old, and he is having a pretty good day.

Scheer has dementia. The man who invented the all-star dunk contest and who ran the Charlotte Hornets during their glorious first season now is a permanent resident in a Charlotte nursing facility.

For decades, Scheer boasted one of the sharpest minds in basketball. Now that mind is betraying him.

On some days, Scheer doesn’t talk a lot. On others, like this one, he talks more.

I greet him at the nursing facility, sit down by his wheelchair and ask how he’s doing.

“I’ve got two jobs,” he replies softly. “I worked 2-12 yesterday, so I’m exhausted.”

He doesn’t really have two jobs. But sometimes, his family tells me, Scheer still believes he runs the Charlotte Checkers minor-league hockey team. Scheer always valued others’ opinions, so he will ask some of the facility’s other residents to help him make decisions about the team.

Sometimes, he also still believes there are some basketball contracts he needs to negotiate. Scheer loves seeing Bailey, the family dog that his wife occasionally brings in for a visit, although he doesn’t always remember the dog’s name.

But he’s still Carl Scheer.

At the nursing facility, I talk with Scheer and his wife, Marsha. She lives alone in a nearby apartment complex and visits her husband of 59 years nearly every day. She and the Scheers’ son, Bob, gave me permission to write about Carl Scheer’s health and encouraged me to visit him.

Scheer’s gaze is elsewhere, but then he suddenly looks at me with intensity.

“What kind of contract do you have?” he asks me.

“A handshake agreement,” I say.

Scheer grimaces slightly. He looks a bit sorry for me.

“Not enough?” I ask.

He smiles. “No,” he says. “Not enough.”

‘A debt of gratitude’

Contracts. They were always a big thing with Scheer, who was a lawyer by training. Scheer signed N.C. State’s David Thompson to a five-year contract back in 1975.

At the time, Scheer ran the upstart American Basketball Association’s Denver Nuggets, outbidding the establishment — in this case the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association — for Thompson’s services. It was a huge deal, as Thompson was the biggest star in the college game and so dazzling that he was the idol of a young Michael Jordan.

Former Denver Nuggets executive Carl Scheer waves to fans as he is honored before the start of an NBA basketball game in Denver in 2014. Scheer ran both the Nuggets and the Charlotte Hornets during his career, and both those teams have honored him. Scheer, 82, lives in Charlotte and has dementia. Jack Dempsey AP

“Carl was a marketing genius,” said Thompson, “and he was great at making everyone feel special. When I went out to Denver for the first time, he wined and dined me — gave me a real red-carpet treatment. When I went to see the Hawks, it wasn’t like that. I met them in a McDonald’s. The money was about the same in both places, but Carl had a way of making you feel wanted.”

It also helped that Scheer signed Thompson’s friend and point guard at N.C. State, Monte Towe, to a contract with the Nuggets.

A little more than a decade later, Scheer was running the Hornets. He actually did have two jobs back then — he directed both the team’s basketball operations and its business side. He told the Observer in 1988, just before the Hornets’ first game: “My greatest fear is that somehow or another we’ll not be able to sustain great enthusiasm for the NBA in Charlotte.”

After the Hornets succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams in their first season, selling out almost every game in a 24,000-seat arena, Scheer wanted a multi-year, guaranteed contract to stay in Charlotte. Hornets owner George Shinn said “No.” Shinn had a rule at the time that he only offered guaranteed contracts to his players — although he would break that rule several times later in his career.

So Scheer left Charlotte in 1990 to go back to Denver, where the Nuggets had offered him a five-year guaranteed contract to return.

Scheer eventually came back to the Carolinas and to Charlotte, though. He ran two different minor-league hockey teams. He shepherded the building of a 14,000-seat arena in downtown Greenville, S.C. He eventually worked once more for the Charlotte Hornets, this time in community relations, repairing wounds that had opened during the team’s tumultuous years under owner Bob Johnson.

“Charlotte owes Carl Scheer a debt of gratitude,” said former NBA commissioner David Stern, a friend of Scheer’s for more than 40 years. “The All-Star weekend coming up there is very exciting. Carl Scheer provided a lot of the reason why a weekend like this can be in Charlotte at all.”

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Former Charlotte Hornets General Manager Carl Scheer, left, and team owner George Shinn answer questions in 1990. Scheer wanted a guaranteed contract to stay in Charlotte. Shinn refused to give it to him, which led to Scheer’s departure. The two men eventually made up. Jeff Siner

Shinn and Scheer made up after the contract dispute that broke them apart, and Shinn ultimately hired Scheer again to do some consulting work in New Orleans. Said Shinn, who convinced the NBA to expand into Charlotte in 1988 and then watched a streak of 364 straight sellouts at 23,698-seat Charlotte Coliseum begin during the Hornets’ first season: “A lot of the things that were done right, I got credit for them. But I’ll admit most of them weren’t my idea. … Once I got the team, it was all Carl.”

The dunk contest

Carl’s son, Bob Scheer, lives in Charlotte and works uptown at the McColl Center as the vice president of development. He calls his father his best friend. “I was his son, and then I became his business partner, and now his caregiver,” Bob Scheer said of his father. “So it’s sort of a full-circle thing.”

Bob Scheer had counseled me before my visit to the nursing facility to see Carl that I should “just go with it” — to let Carl dictate the conversation. His father often had trouble answering questions, Bob said, but Carl still enjoyed company. A good conversation starter, Bob Scheer said, would be to talk about the time the expansion Hornets upset the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 23, 1988, during their first season.

“He was the happiest I’d ever seen him that night,” Bob Scheer said, “because that was his little team, beating Michael Jordan the first time Michael Jordan came back to North Carolina as a professional. It was one of the greatest nights of my dad’s career.”

So as we sit together, along with his wife, I ask Carl Scheer about that night in 1988. I didn’t move to Charlotte until 1994, and this game remains one of the moments I wish badly to have seen. Does he recall it? His eyes gleam.

Michael Jordan
NBA legend and North Carolina basketball hero Michael Jordan scored 33 points in a Dec. 23, 1988 game against the Charlotte Hornets, his first game back in his home state. The Hornets ultimately beat Jordan’s Chicago Bulls 103-101 on a buzzer-beater, starting Charlotte’s 364-game consecutive sellout streak. Jim Gund - Observer File Photo

“Yeah, sure,” Scheer says, smiling. “That was a memorable occurrence.”

Encouraged, I ask him about the slam-dunk contest, a signature event of the NBA’s All-Star weekend once the league adopted it in 1984. It will be held this year in Charlotte on Feb. 16, with current Hornet Miles Bridges participating. The creation of the dunk contest in the wing-and-a-prayer ABA -- and its eventual migration to the NBA All-Star game -- was long a source of pride for Scheer.

But Carl Scheer looks blankly at me when I try to get him to talk about it.

“I don’t remember that,” he says.

I enlist a little help. A nice woman on staff at the nursing facility rolls over a computer. On YouTube, I find the ABA all-star game’s inaugural dunk contest. The end is a thrilling showdown between former Wolfpack star Thompson, then a rookie for Scheer’s Denver Nuggets, and high-flying veteran Julius “Dr. J” Erving.

The dunk contest was at halftime of the All-Star Game, after Thompson had guarded Erving for much of the first half. The five dunk contestants could have been the nucleus of an NBA championship team: George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and Larry Kenon were the other competitors. The total prize money was $1,200.

Scheer watches the screen and brightens. “That’s David Thompson!” Scheer says as Thompson slams home a 360-degree dunk. It was a move so new at the time that the announcer doesn’t know what to call it and twice labels it a “twist-around slam dunk.”

N.C. State’s David Thompson soars to the basket against Virginia in the 1974 ACC tournament. As Denver Nuggets general manager, Carl Scheer was able to lure Thompson to the ABA rather than the rival NBA. 1974 News & Observer archive pho

“He was on our team!” Scheer says of Thompson. “What year was that — 1977?”

He almost nailed it perfectly – the year was 1976. Scheer watches the action closely for a couple of minutes.

At one point, Erving takes off from the free-throw line and dunks — a move that Michael Jordan would famously repeat a decade later. (Thompson would later tell me about this moment: “When Dr. J took off from the free-throw line, with his Afro blowing in the wind, I knew it was over. I could have done that dunk, too — but I didn’t think of it.”)

Then Scheer loses interest in the screen as someone he knows walks by. He wants to shake hands.

Scheer has never lost the gentlemanly qualities that he carried throughout his life. He is always shaking somebody’s hand in the nursing home, or else giving them a high-five. He tells everyone “Thank you” for small kindnesses. He told me “Thank you” repeatedly for writing this story, even though at the time it wasn’t yet published, and he is no longer able to read.

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Carl Scheer and his wife, Marsha (left), have been married for 59 years. They met as counselors in a summer camp. Photo courtesy of Scheer family

Scheer looks away for awhile. A minute later, he looks at me again.

“Do you like baseball?” Scheer asks.

Although he grew up in Springfield, Mass., the place where James Naismith invented basketball in 1891, Scheer is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan. His family has told me that he particularly loved former Cardinal Stan Musial, a star of the St. Louis teams of Scheer’s youth. Scheer treasured a photo he had of Musial and hung it on various walls for years.

“I do. You like the St. Louis Cardinals, right?” I ask Scheer, and he nods. “Who was your favorite player?”

He doesn’t answer.

“Did you like Stan Musial?” I ask. “You know – Stan the Man?”

Scheer doesn’t respond to the mention of Musial, a legendary baseball hall of famer who died in 2013. I mention a couple more things about Musial to Scheer. Then his face lights up again.

“I think he’s stopping by later,” Scheer says.

‘He’d like to see you’

The World Health Organization estimates that around 50 million people worldwide are living with dementia. Scheer has dementia with Lewy bodies, which according to the Mayo Clinic website is the second-most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer’s disease.

In Scheer’s form of dementia, protein deposits (called Lewy bodies) develop in parts of the brain that are involved in thinking, memory and motor control. Besides the decline in mental abilities and occasional hallucinations, people with this form of dementia also can experience symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease, like tremors or slow movement.

Dr. Oleg Tcheremissine works for Atrium Health in Charlotte, where he is both a psychiatrist and an expert on dementia in all its forms. He doesn’t know Scheer and hasn’t treated him, but spoke to me generally about dementia.

“If we live long enough, most of us will get some form of dementia, and it’s usually Alzheimer’s,” Tcheremissine said. “Once we get to around 80 or 85 years old, at least 50 percent of us will have dementia. Most of the time it starts with forgetfulness – struggling with things that were no problem before.

“It’s a difficult journey for everyone involved. We can treat and manage some of the symptoms, yes. But it’s not technically curable.”

Scheer has been living in a nursing facility for about 18 months, moving out of his home once he required so much care that even his wife and a rotation of in-home nurses couldn’t do it all.

Although Marsha Scheer visits her husband nearly every day, as he has declined in health it has become harder for her to sit with him for hours and hours at a time. The moments when “Carl is Carl again” happen less often, and she doesn’t want to cry in front of him.

“I can’t stay as long as I used to because I get too emotional,” she says. “I come home, and I cry, and I holler. I have to get it out.”

The family hasn’t hidden Scheer’s health issues from close friends, but this story is the first time they have allowed them to be widely broadcast. One reason Marsha and Bob Scheer said they decided to cooperate with this story is to increase the awareness and understanding about dementia.

When old friends ask if they can visit her husband, Marsha said she tells them: “Absolutely. Go see him. He’d like that. It might break your heart a little bit. But go.”

Scheer was diagnosed with dementia about four years ago, according to his son Bob, and had some of the symptoms a couple of years before that. Once an avid runner who had completed several marathons, Scheer had begun to shuffle when he walked. The shuffling caused him to trip once, and the resulting fall put him in the hospital. A doctor there examined him and suggested he be checked for dementia.

It was around that time that Scheer retired from his parttime job with the Hornets. The Hornets held a fancy retirement party for him in the summer of 2015, and close to 200 people showed up. Shinn flew in for it.

At that party, Bob Scheer was going to give a speech. While writing it, he remembered that early in his father’s career, back in the 1970s in Denver, Carl Scheer was prone to fudging attendance numbers when they didn’t suit him.

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Bob Scheer is the son of former basketball executive Carl Scheer, who has dementia. “I was his son, and then I became his business partner, and now his caregiver,” Bob Scheer said. “So it’s sort of a full-circle thing.” Jeff Siner

“About the third quarter, somebody would always bring him a little piece of paper,” Bob Scheer said, chuckling. “And that was the attendance. And he would cross it out and put the new attendance on there — just a little higher, every time.”

At the party, Bob Scheer said: “I heard there were going to be a couple of hundred people here, which is awesome. So my Dad would like to announce the official attendance: 17,423.”

Carl Scheer laughed at this line harder than anybody. In fact, he loved it so much that he said he wanted Bob to tell that joke again, on one particular day.

So if sometime in the distant future you attend Carl Scheer’s funeral, Bob Scheer said the story about his Dad and the attendance numbers will be the first joke in his eulogy. After all, he promised his father.

NC State’s David Thompson (left) shoots over North Carolina’s Bobby Jones in 1974. Carl Scheer would employ both men with the Denver Nuggets. He would later say trading away Jones was one of the worst personnel moves he ever made. 1974 News & Observer archive photo

‘It changed my life’

What did Carl Scheer do besides invent the all-star dunk contest, help forge the NBA-ABA merger, build an arena in Greenville, S.C., and run the Charlotte Hornets during Year One — still considered the most spectacular season in team history?

OK, take a deep breath. Carl Scheer was also:

A basketball broadcaster for Guilford College in Greensboro.

An assistant to then-NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy, who at first refused to hire him in 1968 because Scheer didn’t know how to type.

The general manager of the ABA’s Carolina Cougars, from 1970-74, where he first hired Larry Brown as a head coach.

The general manager of the ABA’s Buffalo Braves.

The man who traded Charlotte’s Bobby Jones away from Denver (he would later rue this decision).

The general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association.

The director of two minor-league hockey teams — the Charlotte Checkers and the Greenville Growl.

Scheer was also the man who picked Dell Curry – who would eventually set the Hornets’ all-time scoring record — in the expansion draft for the Hornets in 1988.

In that same draft, Shinn said, the owner wanted to make sure the Hornets also drafted 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues.

“The key guy that Carl wanted was Dell Curry,” Shinn said, “and the key guy I wanted was Muggsy — just to be brutally honest, for marketing. I had never met Muggsy. But I liked him. There was something about him that built enthusiasm and built confidence in kids. I told Carl: ‘You get who you want, but I want Muggsy Bogues.’”

Both would become standouts in Charlotte. Recalled Dell Curry recently: “Carl’s the reason I’m doing this interview. He brought me to Charlotte. ... I will forever be indebted to Carl for bringing me here. Obviously, it changed my life.”

Former Charlotte Hornets shooting guard Dell Curry was selected in the expansion draft by Carl Scheer. “I will forever be indebted to Carl for bringing me here,” said Curry, who retired as Charlotte’s all-time leading scorer. “Obviously, it changed my life.” Observer file photo

All those jobs Scheer had, though, only give you a partial sense of who the man was. Marilynn Bowler, who worked in community relations for the Hornets for years and always brings Scheer one of his beloved Hershey’s chocolate bars when she visits him now: “In a meeting, Carl would say ‘That will work.’ He never said: ‘That won’t work.’ He’d say: ‘You have the germ of an idea there. Work on it.’ He treated us like we were gold – but gold in training.”

Scheer never could bear to pass up a phone call. If the phone rang, Scheer answered it, no matter the circumstances.

“He was obsessed with the telephone,” Bob Scheer said. “If he wasn’t getting calls, he was making them.”

Said Harold Kaufman, who was the Hornets’ public relations director during the early years: “Anyone talking to Carl thought they were the most important person in the world. He made you feel good about yourself. He motivated through positive reinforcement. You just didn’t want to let him down.”

The first edition of the 1988-89 Charlotte Hornets lost 62 of 82 games, but the team entranced the city under general manager Carl Scheer (seated, fourth from left). Charlotte Hornets handout photo

Not that Scheer was perfect. He yelled at agents over the phone so loudly that you could hear him in Gastonia. And everyone agrees that he was a notoriously bad driver. Larry Brown told the Los Angeles Times in 1985 about Scheer’s driving: “You’ve heard the commercial where you’re supposed to watch out for the other guy? Carl is the other guy.”

Late-night ice cream

Oh, how Scheer wanted to win. Scheer never did win an NBA or ABA championship, but he did get a championship ring in minor-league hockey in 2002 with the Greenville Growl. He and his son directed the business side of the hockey teams together in Charlotte and Greenville, occasionally butting heads about finances.

“When I was running his hockey teams, in Greenville and then the Checkers, I ran them as a business,” Bob Scheer said. “I wanted to make money. But in minor-league hockey, you don’t make money and win. He wanted to win. I wanted to make money. And so — we lost money. But for him, it was all about the winning – he was a sports guy for sports’ sake.”

Back when few ABA or NBA road games were televised, Scheer couldn’t stand to listen to them on the radio. He would pace outside by the family pool, back and forth, too nervous to hear the live coverage. His family was responsible for occasional game reports, opening the door to call out to him. “We’re up by three points,” Marsha would say.

“Now we’re down by two,” Bob would say a few minutes later.

Both with the Nuggets and then with the Hornets, Scheer developed a favorite place to watch home games. He would stand just inside the tunnel where the visiting team would run on and off the court.

In Denver, the banister that Scheer liked to lean on was painted orange. This had the side effect of making many of his shirtsleeves turn orange, until the Nuggets wrapped the banister with white towels for him.

There were also large curtains that could be pulled open or closed. In both Denver and Charlotte, Scheer once spun around so hard after an officiating call he didn’t like that he tangled himself up in the curtain and couldn’t get out.

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During the 1988-89 NBA season, Charlotte Hornets general manager Carl Scheer (left) and team owner George Shinn had lots to smile about as their team began a streak of 364 straight sellouts. Jeff Siner

“There was a drape that hung there, and it was completely around him,” Bowler said of the incident in Charlotte. “He spun himself right into it. One of the ushers went and helped. And he never took his eyes off the game.”

If the team Scheer worked for at the time lost a home game, the family knew how to console him.

“If they lost a home game, the kids would go into the freezer and get a container of ice cream,” Marsha Scheer said. “It didn’t matter what kind. They’d put it out in the kitchen, stick a spoon in it, and we’d all go to bed.”

“Ice cream was a weakness,” Bob Scheer said, “but it was also his coping mechanism…. And losing any home game was sacrilege. So Dad would take it out on some ice cream. Usually something exotic, like Rocky Road.”

‘He embraced it’

Scheer wasn’t a hands-on father, his son said, mostly because he worked so much. But he was gentle with his two children — Bob and his younger sister, Lauren.

In the 1980s, Bob Scheer was in his early 20s and living in Los Angeles, where his father was running the L.A. Clippers. Bob Scheer had known he was gay for some time, but he had kept it quiet.

“I didn’t really come out,” Bob Scheer said, “but my dad found a letter in my room. And he was 100 percent supportive. This was in Los Angeles. AIDS was rampant.... I got a note from him the next day that’s still in my scrapbook, telling me what a special day it was. And that he loved me… He not only accepted it, he embraced it.”

Carl Scheer’s return to the Hornets was also motivated out of love. Stern, who had originally recommended to George Shinn that he hire Scheer as his GM in the 1980s, in 2010 recommended Scheer to new Hornets owner Michael Jordan and team president Fred Whitfield as someone who could help them.

Whitfield, who had once been a ball boy for the Carolina Cougars when Scheer ran the team, was thrilled with the idea. “We needed to focus on getting re-connected with our community, and Carl was a huge asset,” Whitfield said. “So that’s where we put him.”

Whitfield said Scheer led the Hornets’ initiative to donate $250,000 to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2010 to keep middle school sports in the CMS district from implementing “pay-to-play” sports participation fees.

As Scheer became forgetful and had a harder time getting around, the Hornets continued to employ him, according to his family. Said Stern: “Fred Whitfield and Michael Jordan were so kind and generous as Carl’s health deteriorated. That was deserved, but that doesn’t mean it was automatic. They stepped up.”

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Fred Whitfield, the president of the Charlotte Hornets, brought Carl Scheer back to work for his old team in 2010. Whitfield still regularly visits Scheer in his nursing facility. Scheer knows that Whitfield’s first name is “Fred,” but sometimes is hazy as to what Whitfield’s job is these days. David T. Foster III

Once Scheer retired, Whitfield gave him lifetime season tickets. Whitfield also started allowing the Scheers to park under the building, where only the players usually parked, to aid in his transport to and from games.

Scheer isn’t well enough to go to Hornets games anymore. But Whitfield periodically still goes to visit the man who long ago had his job (and, at the same time, general manager Mitch Kupchak’s job).

“I like to bring Carl new Hornets gear, to keep him fresh,” Whitfield said. “Because every time I come — and these are unannounced visits — he’s wearing something with a Hornets logo.”

Scheer still recognizes Whitfield and calls him “Fred,” but he often no longer knows what Whitfield does. Whitfield understands. Whitfield’s own father had dementia and passed away less than a year ago.

“Carl lights up when he sees me,” Whitfield said. “He’ll say my name and then say: ‘Are you playing tonight? Is Michael (Jordan) playing tonight?’ It’s a tough situation. Everyone is trying to manage it the best that they can.”

‘A pretty good day’

I am talking to Marsha again at the nursing facility when she gets a call from the Scheers’ daughter, Lauren. Marsha holds the phone up to Carl’s ear and he lights up, hearing his daughter’s voice.

“Terrific!” he says. “OK, thanks, honey.”

Marsha takes the phone back after a little while.

“Yes, he’s having a pretty good day,” she tells her daughter before they hang up.

Carl busies himself eating his lunch. He was always slim due to jogging dozens of miles per week, and now he has lost more weight, but his appetite is still good.

We are all silent for a bit. Then Carl looks at me again with a sudden clarity.

“You can’t win ‘em all,” he says.

For some reason, this makes a lump come to my throat. My own father said that sometimes.

My dad was 81, a year younger than Carl Scheer, when he died in December. An image of Dad toward the end — our family gathered around his bed, knowing someone we all loved was fading away no matter how hard we tried to hold onto him — flashes through my mind.

I blink back tears.

“No, you can’t win ‘em all,” I say. “But you sure won a bunch of them, Carl.”

He smiles.

“Thank you,” Carl Scheer says. “Thank you.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.