In deze flashback kijken we met de Amerikaan Tom Chestnut onder anderen terug op zijn Nederlandse jaren bij Fiat Stars. Hij behoort tot het selecte groepje “legendarische Amerikanen”, die in ons land hebben gespeeld en daarbij een onuitwisbare indruk hebben achtergelaten.
Hij kreeg al snel de bijnaam “The Beast”, mede door zijn agressieve speelstijl. Chestnut werd twee jaar achtereen topscorer van de eredivisie, maar kon geen titel op zijn erelijst bijtekenen daar aartsrivaal Levi’s steeds iets te sterk was voor zijn team Fiat Stars.
Na zijn terugkeer naar Amerika begon hij te werken aan zijn maatschappelijke loopbaan. Tom kwam dankzij SportChannel NY in 1983 terug in de sportwereld, waarbij hij later hoge functies beklede bij de NBA-teams van de Cleveland Caveliers en de Philadelphia 76ers.
Tom is altijd basketball blijven spelen op een hoog recreatief niveau. Afgelopen zomer won hij met zijn team een gouden medaille op World Masters Games in de 65+ divisie.
Sinds kort is hij met pensioen en geniet volop van het leven en zijn gezin.
His childhood in Schenectady
In many ways, I had a very idyllic childhood. America, in the 1950’s and early 60’s, was a wonderful place to grow up. My father was an engineer at General Electric, which was headquartered in Schenectady at the time, and my mother stayed at home to raise my two brothers and me. My parents were very big on education, so my getting good grades in school was very important to them. I was always into sports, starting with baseball, which I played almost every day from about age 6 to 13.
Early basketball experiences and coach Walt Przybylo
My first significant exposure to basketball came when I was about ten years old, when I attended a summer sports school. It was run by Walt Pryzbylo, who was the basketball coach at Linton High school, which consistently turned out the best teams in the area. While I played a lot of sports that summer, I was greatly influenced by Coach Pryzbylo’s love of basketball, and the goal of someday playing for Coach Pryzbylo at Linton began to form in my mind. A few years later, when I got to junior high school (grades 7-9); basketball was the only sport with a school team, so I started to concentrate on basketball exclusively.
Linton High School
Linton had been a real high school basketball powerhouse for many years before I got there, turning out such players as Barry Kramer, who was an All American at New York University, and later a first round draft choice who played in the NBA. When I was in 10th grade, the star of our team was Pat Riley, who went on to be a great college player at Kentucky, and had a long career as a player in the NBA. His real fame, of course, came as the coach of the Lakers and the Knicks, and now as the president of the Miami Heat.
I was a bit of a late bloomer, and it wasn’t until my senior year that I became a starter and a significant contributor to the team.
Princeton University… The legendary coaches Butch von Breda Kolff and Pete Carril … Winning two Ivy League titles … The Tigers team of 1966-67 was ranked as high as third in the country.
My sophomore year, we had an incredible team
When I was deciding on where to go to college, Bill Bradley was finishing his spectacular career at Princeton, which is considered one of the most prestigious universities in America. Since I wanted to go to a school with both a strong academic environment and a big-time basketball program, Princeton was a natural choice.
My sophomore year, we had an incredible team, that won many games by wide margins. The team was mostly made up of seniors who had played with Bradley two years earlier, so I did not get much playing time. At the end of the year, our coach, Butch Van Breda Kolff (of Dutch ancestry, by the way), was hired to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. At the time, it was very unusual for a college coach to move to the NBA, especially to such a high profile team as the Lakers, who were led by Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West.
Our new coach for my junior year was Pete Carril, a short, intense, no-nonsense guy from the coal mining region of Pennsylvania. He inherited a team that was loaded with talent, including two players, Geoff Petrie and John Hummer, who went on to be first-round NBA draft picks. Again, I didn’t start until my senior year, and because we had so many great scorers on the team, my job was to focus on defense and rebounding. I think my best games were a couple of 22 point, 13 rebound efforts against Harvard.
My favorite memory from that time is playing in the Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden in New York, which was then, as now, the mecca of American basketball. We played against both U.C.L.A., the number one team in the country, and North Carolina, who was ranked number two. We lost both games, but for a college basketball player it doesn’t get any better than playing in front of 20,000 fans in Madison Square Garden. The star of the U.C.L.A. team was 7’1″ Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
A pro try-out with the ABA’s Texas Chaparrals (became later the San Antonio Spurs)
I was not drafted by either the NBA or the ABA, but I wanted to give pro basketball a try, so I wrote to every team in both leagues, requesting a try-out. The only team to respond was the Texas Chaparrals, who invited me to their rookie camp. I was one of about 40 guys there, all of whom were pretty good players, including several of their top draft choices. The rookie camp took place in late summer in Dallas, where the temperatures in the gym (before air conditioning) were well over 100 degrees. At the end of the week-long rookie camp, I was one of the few players who were invited back to the Chaparrals real training camp, where we were joined by the guys who were actually on the team.
I got a chance to play in several pre-season games, which was a real thrill, and I got to experience up close just how good so many of these players were. When the team got down to 13 players, it looked like it was between me and another guy for the last spot on the 12-man roster, but it turned out they traded for a big name player and cut us both. While I was naturally disappointed, I was realistic enough to know that at the time I probably wasn’t good enough to play a major role on the team.
In the summer of 1969, I was invited by the Italian team Ignis Varese to play with them in a series of summer tournaments. Ignis was one of the very best teams, not only in Italy, but in all of Europe. At the time, the Italian League allowed teams to have only one foreign player for league games, but they were allowed two foreigners for European Cup games, which Ignis had qualified to play for in the upcoming season. One of the teams we played against in a few of the tournaments was Gillette, which was coached by Jim McGregor and made up of a bunch of former American college players. When I finished playing with Ignis, I was asked to play with the Gillette team in some more tournaments, which I was happy to do.
At the end of the summer of 1969, I went back to America in time to attend the Woodstock music festival, which was quite the experience. Amazingly, my picture appears very clearly on the crowd shot picture on the both the Woodstock movie poster and the European edition of the original record album cover.
After finishing college, I came back to Europe in both the summers of 1970 and 1971 to play again with Gillette against some of the best teams in Europe, including the national teams of Russia, Yugoslavia, and Italy. As the 1971 summer tour was winding down, I was told that the Fiat Stars team in the Netherlands was interested in my playing with them, so I went to Amsterdam to check it out.
Holland, Amsterdam and Fiat Stars
The canals, the buildings, the food, and the people — it was all magical to me
The first thing I did when I arrived in Holland was to go to Vondel Park, which was right behind the hostel that I was staying in. It was full of music and young people from all over the world, and I knew immediately that Amsterdam and Holland were very special places.
With Amsterdam, it was love at first sight. The canals, the buildings, the food, and the people — it was all magical to me. Now part of that was because it was late summer in 1971, when the sun was shining every day, and Amsterdam was filled with young people from all over the world. After I signed my contract, I went back to the States for a few weeks to see my family and pack. When I got back to Amsterdam, it was late September, and both the sun and most of the young people were gone. The party, it seemed, was over, and it was time to get down to my job of playing basketball.
The weather in the winter was very difficult to get used to. It seemed to be gray and drizzling every day, which tended to affect everybody’s mood. I remember that whenever there would be a rare sunny day, people would go around with smiles on their faces and saying “hello” to one another, and it made everything better.
The Fiat Stars, at the time, had several very good veteran players, in Ton Boot, who was our captain, and Cees Smit, who was a terrific shooter. We also had some other good players in Bernard van der Molen, Vespa Emanuelson, and Gerrit van Buuren. But clearly, the two Americans, Mike Rowland and myself, were expected to carry the bulk of the scoring load. There were three or four other teams which had some high quality players, but our main rival was Levi’s from Haarlem, who we challenged for the league championship in both years I played in Holland.
I was very disappointed that we couldn’t get by Levi’s and win the league championship. Our games with them were always very close and hotly contested, and realistically, they probably had a bit more talent than we did. Not only did they have two solid American players in Bill More and Gerhard Schreur, but they had a steady veteran in Frank Kales, and two very good big men, in the young Kees Akerboom and Harry Kip.
I enjoyed the competitiveness of the Dutch league games, especially against the really good teams like Levi’s, Raak Punch, and Rotterdam. I liked the food, in particular the chinese-indonesian restaurants. Nobody in the United States knows how to make a good loempia, let alone a riijstaffel. And I liked the friendliness of the Dutch people, who are a lot calmer and more comfortable with their lives than many people in America. At one point, I even considered buying a houseboat and living part of the year in Amsterdam, but I ultimately decided against it.
Scored once 50 points against Donar Groningen
Actually, I was almost embarrassed to score 50 points that night. We were a far superior team, and I was able to get a lot of easy baskets that kept mounting up.. The only other time in my life where I scored fifty points was against the British National team, where we needed every one of those points to win the game
I spent a few days in Amsterdam about five years ago, and had a very nice dinner with Ton Boot and his wife Jenny. Although he was not a teammate, I also ran into Kees Akerboom at the World Masters’ Games in Turin this past summer.
I was always a very aggressive player, and my nickname with some fans and in the press became “The Beast.” While I never particularly liked the nickname, I guess I could have been called a lot worse things.
March ’73 decided to leave Holland
I played with the Gillette team every summer from 1969 to 1974, traveling around Europe and playing four or five games a week. In the summer of 1973 I received an offer to play with the team in Nice, France, which seemed like a new challenge and a very interesting place to play. It was also appealing because I had studied French in school, and would have a chance to use the language everyday and learn to speak it better. When I was in Amsterdam, I actually took a course to learn Dutch, but whenever I would speak to someone, they would immediately notice my accent and reply in English, “Oh, you’re an American.” So I never got a chance to practice my Dutch.
In December’73 Gerard de Lange Christmas tournament
Yes, it was great to be back in Holland, and to play in a very competitive tournament. I had to drive almost non-stop from Nice to get there in time, and got to the arena just a few minutes before the first game started. As I recall, we played against Ignis Varese in the final, and I was matched up against Dino Meneghin, who was considered one of the best players in Europe at that time. If you can find an article or box score of that game, I’d love to see it.
Nice and Mike Rowland
Our Nice team had a very good year, winning the championship of our league. I talked with the team about coming back for another year, but since I knew I wasn’t going to play basketball forever, I decided to go back to the States to begin a “real” job and begin my post-basketball career.
I didn’t have much contact with Mike that year, but we’ve gotten in touch with each other from time to time over the years, and we each came back to Holland in January, 1983, for a ten year reunion game between Fiat Stars and Levi’s.
Back to the States
Vice president and general manager of SportsChannel NY (now FOX Sports), president and chief operating officer of the Cleveland Cavaliers and chief operating officer of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Certainly my professional playing career was over then, but I have continued to play basketball recreationally at a high level ever since. Even now, at 65, I still play full-court basketball twice a week , as well as another two or three days of tennis. This past summer, I played with an American team that won the gold medal in the 65+ division of the World Masters’ Games, that was played over an eight day period in Turin, Italy.
My jobs for my first ten years back in the States had nothing to do with sports. I worked in marketing for several major consumer products companies, like Procter & Gamble. In 1983, I got the chance to go to work in the emerging cable TV industry, for a company named SportsChannel, which was in the business of creating regional sports networks in major cities around the United States. It got me back into the sports world again, and I then got the further opportunity to serve as the President of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers from 1990-1995. We had great teams during that period, led by such players as Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, and Larry Nance, but every year we would lose in the playoffs to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
In 1994, we completed building a state-of-the-art arena in downtown Cleveland for the Cavs to play in, which was a exciting project that did a lot for the city of Cleveland. I was subsequently asked by the owner of the Philadelphia 76ers to become chief operating officer of that team, which I did for a year, but then he surprised me by selling the team, and my time as an executive in the NBA came to an end.
Tom Chestnut now …..
Life has treated me very kindly. I recently retired after serving as CEO and president of AAA Western and Central New York, which is a company in the road service, travel, and insurance businesses, I currently am doing a lot of traveling all over the world. My new goal is to travel to 100 countries by time I’m 75. Over Christmas this year, my wife Laura and my two daughters, Whitney, who’s 27 and Taylor, who’s 25, will be taking a trip to Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam, which will put me at 65 countries visited. So I’ve still got a long way to go.