Before baseball left Brooklyn, Koufax left game of hoops

With basketball set to return to the borough, a look back at the iconic pitcher's hardcourt career

Richard Sandomir / New York Times News Service /

Published Aug 16, 2012 at 05:00AM

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 now gaining the Nets, whose first season in the borough is to start Nov. 1.

For more than five decades, Koufax has been a symbol of Brooklyn’s lost sports history. It turns out he was something more — a heck of a basketball player whose exploits way back when take on new meaning with the Nets’ arrival.

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.

Baskets win

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.

NBA future?

“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. I’d play on the second team and we’d guard each other and he said, ‘If I could shoot like you, I’d be in the NBA.’ I’d say: ‘Give me your legs. I’d start in the NBA.’ ”

Abramowitz added: “We used to say he was the white Sihugo Green,” who years before had been an African-American star at Boys High School in Brooklyn.

“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.”

A story about Sandy

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.”

Comiteau said: “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.”

Abramowitz believed that during the scrimmage another Knick, maybe Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton, teased Gallatin that Koufax was outrebounding him during the scrimmage and showing him up.

The New York Post, which covered the clinic, reported that Gallatin was so impressed by Koufax that he told Rabinowitz: “We’ll be coming back for this kid some day.” Gallatin never saw Koufax again but he said, “I read that he called me his favorite player.”

Off to Cinci

Koufax ended up going to the University of Cincinnati, where he walked on to the basketball team and got a partial scholarship, Leavy wrote. Back home in Brooklyn on Christmas break, Koufax surprised Stolzenberg when he told him that baseball was now his focus. (Koufax was 3-1, with a 2.81 earned run average, for the Bearcats in 1954.)

“I saw him on 86th Street in Bensonhurst,” Stolzenberg said, “and I asked him, ‘How are you doing at school, Sandy?’ and he said, ‘I’ve been playing fall baseball, and Cincinnati, the Dodgers and Pittsburgh are interested in me.’ I nodded my head, said uh-huh, and I went around the neighborhood saying, ‘Sandy is out of his mind; he thinks he’s going to be a baseball player.’ ”

Through the years, some of his high school teammates have stayed in touch with him, although a recent reunion in Delray Beach, Fla., went on without him, Comiteau said.

Koufax did not respond to requests for an interview for this article, but it is hard to imagine that he is not tickled by the idea that the first major league franchise to return to Brooklyn plays basketball, his original sports passion.

Sid Young, one of Koufax’s closest friends, and King are trying to establish a more tangible connection between the Lafayette High School of old and the Nets. The two are stockholders in the Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. chain and partners in an outlet in Beverly Hills, Calif., and have been negotiating to have a store at the Nets’ new home, Barclays Center.

What better than a bagel to help things come full circle?

“When we have breakfast,” Young said, “Larry and I watch ESPN, and they keep saying, ‘Brooklyn Nets.’ We say: ‘Brooklyn Nets? It sounds good. We like it.’ The Brooklyn never goes out of us.”