Tommy is my favorite athlete of all time. Not Julius Erving, whom I played against for four years in high school, and later had the good fortune to encounter professionally. Not Tom Glavine, the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame pitcher who is the best athlete, in every sense, I’ve ever dealt with as a sportswriter. No, not Dr. J or Glav. My favorite athlete ever is Tom Wilkinson.
Even with an eight-year age difference, we were very close from the start. The three words I heard most often at 14 Farnum Street were “Pitch to me!” When Tommy, the youngest of three kids, was born, our Dad, who worked nights, was understandably less inclined to wake up on three hours sleep and play ball with his little boy. Instead … ”Jackie, pitch to me!”
In the driveway. That’s where I pitched to Tommy, sometimes for what seemed like hours. And if not? He would run into the house and shout, “Mom! Jackie won’t pitch to me!” To which Fitz would reply, “Jack! Pitch to your brother!” But honestly, I almost always did so without being told to.
I loved being around Tom, from the time he was a little guy. He had the same effect on me, and Kathy, as he did on all of you: You felt better, felt good when you were in his company.
Driving out here, I recalled being on the Southern State Parkway one day, with Tommy sitting in the passenger seat and the two of us singing Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour.” Years later, Tom was still singing behind the wheel. Tom and Leonard Smith, Barbara’s Dad and God’s gift to me during this terrible month. Leonard, 88, a World War II pilot and a POW, is a great man and a big ABBA fan. Tom and Leonard would drive in his truck, pop in a tape and sing along to ABBA: “Waterloo.” “Mamma Mia.” The two of them, kings of the road, singing “Dancing Queen.” When I go up to “The Hill” in western North Carolina, where Leonard lives, I’ll bring a cassette of “ABBA’s Greatest Hits,” and we’ll sing and toast Tom.
When I was in college, Tom came to Hofstra one winter’s weekend to spend it with me and my friends. It snowed like crazy. A real blizzard. They shut down school for two or three days. One night, a group of us guys and girls went to Joe’s Bar. We took Tommy along and tucked him in one corner of the table, to hide him whenever the waitress came back with more beer. The girls loved Tommy. Even at age 11, he was already a chick magnet. For which his older brother was very grateful.
Basketball, of course, was Tommy’s game, and his great love. He worked at it, with real joy. He dribbled in the driveway, and walked around Lynbrook with a ball in his hand, as if boy and ball were joined at the hip. He dribbled out in the street, adding another move to a sequence he’d already mastered – a crossover dribble, or going between his legs, to choreograph a way to beat his defender and go to the basket. Or, just as often, to pass off. And then he’d come running in the house and shout, “I made a new move! Come outside and watch me!”
And we’d all go outside and watch him.
Tom knew how to play the game. Basketball is a team game. He learned that from our Dad, a great player and shooter at Far Rockaway High.
“Tom the Bomb,” Dad called Tommy, using the nickname of an old pro football player named Tom “The Bomb” Tracy. Or, simply, Dad called
Ron Lacey and I had another nickname for Tom, thanks to Tom’s love of Pistol Pete Maravich and his own skinny frame. Which was due, in part, to his eating habits. “The Bird,” we called Tommy, who ate like a bird, was skinny as a bird. Ron and I began calling him, “Pistol Pigeon.” Ron, now an artist, drew up a mock Lynbrook newspaper; he sketched a caricature of an emaciated bird in a uniform, dribbling a ball, and I wrote a story full of bad bird puns.
As a boy, Tommy was known as “Jackie Wilkinson’s little brother.” He was a water boy for the high school football team, a ball boy for the Owls basketball team, sometimes a baseball bat boy. But after I’d graduated high school, and once Tom got there, I quickly became “Tommy Wilkinson’s older brother.” Which is as it should be.
Tom was a sensational player, a spectacular player. He was blessed to play for Bill Metkiff. In Tom’s junior year, I was, uh, between newspaper jobs that winter. So I saw nearly every one of Tom’s games.
I still remember the near-riot at Roosevelt High, after Tommy led the Owls to an upset and angry fans poured out on the court. Dad ran down on the floor, backed Tommy into a corner of the gym, and stood there to protect him.
During Tom’s senior year, I was working for the Chicago Daily News and only got to see a few games. I flew in for what turned out to be his last one: against Freeport in the county semifinals at Nassau Coliseum. Entering the fourth quarter, Tommy had just nine points and Lynbrook was trailing. But he’d saved his best for last. Tom scored 23 points in the fourth quarter, many from long range. There was no 3-point shot back then, no shot clock either. Still, Tom scored 23 points and finished with 32, only to see Lynbrook fall to Freeport by two points. To this day, it remains the greatest individual performance I’ve ever seen.
Tom was named All-Long Island, and he went to Penn State on a scholarship. At the end of his senior season, Tom sat down and spoke to a teammate, Joe Lores. Now a teacher and the very successful basketball coach at East Rockaway High, Joe was a backup guard for Lynbrook. At the funeral home last night, Joe told me how Tommy had thanked him in high school, saying, “I’m going to Penn State on a scholarship because you guarded me so well in practice for four years.” It’s one thing to realize that when you’re 40 and a grown man. It’s another to not only understand it at 17 but to express it. That’s maturity and grace. But then, that was Tom.
At Penn State, Tommy had the good fortune to play for John Bach his first two years, and also to fall into the fellowship and friendship of a rare group of friends who love him to this day – many of whom were in Knoxville last weekend, many who are here today.
Tom started at point guard all four years. In his very first game, at UMass, he scored his only basket on a length-of-the-court, behind-the-back-dribble drive to win it at the buzzer. Our mother, Fitz, cried for joy, and Dad and I roared. But in Tom’s freshmen and sophomore seasons, Penn State lost more often than not.
I was living and working in Manhattan then, and would regularly drive to games in State College, usually to watch Penn State lose. Then I’d take Tom out afterwards to a Roy Rogers, load him up with food, talk him down off the ledge, give him $10 or $20 and either crash on his dorm room floor or drive back to New York City. At home, on many nights, I’d get a late phone call from Tom, especially after a win, or distraught after yet another tough loss. Those calls were either stratospheric highs or subterranean lows.
In our den back in Atlanta, where Janet and I keep all our sports stuff, there’s a framed photo of Tommy and John Bach. It’s from the last game of the 1977-78 season, when Penn State lost to Villanova in the first round of the old Eastern Eight tournament. Bach, a wonderful man and fine coach, had resigned under pressure. When the game ended, he was walking off the court, all alone. Only one of his player’s came to Bach’s side: Tommy, who didn’t want his coach to walk off the floor alone in his final game, and who put his arm around Bach.
The coach’s inscription on the copy of that photo in Tom and Barbara’s house reads: “Tom Wilkinson, 6 feet, 165, of which 100 lbs. is heart. It has been my pleasure to coach you.”
In his last two seasons at Penn State, Tommy played for an abusive coach. The Nittany Lions finally had a winning season in Tom’s senior year, and he finished with every assists record in the Penn State record book. Then, he took the same intensity, intelligence and tenacity with which he played into the business world, where Alcoa took him all over the world.
Tom was my best man, and did such a good job that I asked him to do it twice. He was also the greatest uncle in the history of uncledom.
Kathy and John’s boys, Kyle and Ian, knew that. And so did our daughters. Katharine and Ali used to go wild when they heard Uncle Tommy was coming to town. He treated them royally, like the princesses they were. Business spiked at several places around town, especially the candy store in Underground Atlanta.
Tom was the ultimate uncle to Ali and Katharine, at every stage of their lives. Especially when they were young, and Lucy and I had separated, and the girls were fragile. And to me, Tommy, once my constant shadow, become one helluva landlord. After separating, I found an apartment and Tom helped me move in. As basement apartments go, well, it was … ok. But Tom told me, “Once my tenant’s lease is up, I want you to move into my condo.” Tom, living out of town, owned a three-bedroom condo that he rented. I told him, “Tom, I can’t afford to pay that rent.” He said, “Jack, you pay me what you’re paying now.” So Katharine and Ali, just 7 and 4, had a nice place to live when they stayed with me, and I had a place to write a book.
That’s just one of several examples of Tom, at times, becoming an older brother to me. But then, he was like that to everyone he encountered, and touched. Not even Sinatra worked a room as well as Tommy. Any room. But it was sincere, not slick; he was warm and kind, funny and genuinely interested. He cared about you, whoever you were.
He was extraordinarily successful in business and, at last, lucky in love. And deeply in love with Barbara to the very end. And all of us here today loved him in return, especially our entire family.
It says something about a man when people come to say their goodbyes, and they include all his beloved Lynbrook boys and Penn State friends; a former Lynbrook Little League teammate who just happened to be on the Island visiting from Arizona, heard about Tom and came to pay his respects; the cream of Alcoa; and the Penn State folks who flew into Knoxville on a school plane and are here again today.
Tommy had impeccable style and social graces, but also a real sense of grace about him. And he had a very strong sense of family. His farewell tour? Aunt Maureen’s 85th birthday dinner in Rockaway. A Yankee Sunday matinee with Kathy and the boys. Then one last night in Atlanta at, of course, Manuel’s Tavern, with Janet and me.
I have very few regrets about my brother. I no longer have anyone to sing our grammar school alma mater with. “We Pledge Our Honor to Thee
O’ Marion Street” always brought down the house, or an immediate “Last call!” The greatest regret, of course, is that we’re not roasting Tommy here, but rather toasting him.
And for me, there’s also his last game at Penn State. Senior Night in Rec Hall, in 1980. Mom and Dad were there, of course. And for once, I did things in advance, and actually planned something. Flush with cash for a change, and instead of driving four hours from Manhattan, I flew into Harrisburg, with a rental car awaiting me for the drive to State College.
But there were problems with the flight, delays. By the time I landed, raced to the Avis counter and sped to Happy Valley, the game was about to tip off. The introductions on Senior Night were over. I’d missed them. “Oh,” Dad said, “you should have heard the roar!”
So now, please forgive me, and indulge me. And if you’d all please join me in one last ovation for the good life of Tom Wilkinson.
Editor’s note: July 16 was the first anniversary of Tom Wilkinson’s death. Jack Wilkinson delivered this eulogy at a luncheon on Long Island, following the funeral and burial in the old Catholic cemetery where other family members are buried.