Thursday, November 20th
Unfortunately in life, friends leave us. No matter when it is, its never easy. A legendary Chicago sports figure that a lot of fans might not know passed this week. One of the best things, no make that, the best thing about what I do for a living, is the vast array of people I get to meet because Im behind the bar at Harry Carays. Im always asked by people, Who have you met at the bar? Im always perplexed, and amused, by this question, because the inference is, who would they know? Like having someone famous at the bar validates it as the place to be. Or, because its not a name your familiar with, its not that exciting. For me, I get a kick out of anyone thats interesting, and few were more so than Nick Kladis. Nick was 81, and like anyone his age he had a long list of accomplishments.
A star on the Tilden Technical High School basketball team in the late 1940s, he has been described by his long-time friend Marv Levy as one of the best basketball players I ever saw. In 2005, he was inducted in to the Chicago Public League Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. His left his basketball mark though as a collegian as a star for the Loyola Ramblers in the early 1950s. Nicknamed Nifty Nick, his signature moves on the court were a one-handed jump shot, and a gravity defying left-handed hook that he was known to launch from anywhere. He perfected these to the point that he was an All-American in the 1952 season. His honors from the university were many: Named to Loyolas All-Decade Team of the 1950s, inducted into the Loyola Athletics Hall of Fame, and my favorite, having his 3 retired and hanging from the rafters of the Gentile Center overlooking the current generation of Ramblers hoopsters. Something he was very proud of was being a volunteer assistant coach for the 1963 Loyola team that won the NCAA National Title. In fact, I remember not too long ago, him having a meal with some of the players from that team in the restaurant, the twinkle in his eye that night was unmistakable. He loved his school. So much so that he is one of the forces behind the construction of a new Intercollegiate Athletics Center adjacent to the Gentile Center. I know he will be missed at the groundbreaking in January, but upon completion Im sure his presence will be immortalized in its Hall of Fame Room.
After his senior year he was drafted by the NBA, but unlike todays climate of millionaire status, the NBA was not the path for many to instant riches. At an early age, his business acumen was spot on. It would continue for the rest of his life. He started with working with the family grocery business, but his love of sports was always there. This led him to, among other things: Being a part owner of the White Sox from 1975 1980. An original investor in the East Bank Club. A co-owner, along with former New York Knicks star, Dave DeBusschere, of boxing bible, The Ring magazine. And currently, a minority owner of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Life has many ironies, and among them is that, a minority owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, was one of the original investors in the Home plate of the Cubs and what many fans think of as the ultimate Cubs bar, Harry Carays in downtown Chicago.
Invariably during the last 3 years, when Nick would be at the bar and get into conversations with Cubbie fans seated near him, I would make sure to tease (No, not me!) by saying to them, You cant be nice to him! Dont you see that ring hes wearing? At this point, Nick would let them see, or hold if they like, his World Series ring from the 2006 Championship. I used to get the biggest kick out of that, and I know he did too. Not in a malicious way, the thing that we had in common was, we were fans of our teams, and there was nothing wrong with having fun with fans of others. Nick loved his Cardinals. When they played any game, he was into it, but playing the Cubs was something altogether different. He loved going to the games and coming to the restaurant afterward with players or manger Tony LaRussa or others associated with the team. Often he would bring one of his dinner guests up to the bar to meet me.
I remember meeting former Cardinals second baseman Fernando Vina and being very impressed. Go figure, hes now a baseball analyst for ESPN. Another introduction from Nick that Im very fond of is when he introduced me to former Tribune columnist Mike Downey and his wife Gail. What nice people. I remember one night Nick and Dutchie Caray having a group of friends they were dining with in the bar for cocktails. As many milled around, I found myself in a conversation with Dutchie and Gail in the front corner of the bar about gambling on NFL football games. (I have a very boring job!) When I told Gail I surprised by her incredible knowledge on the subject, she told me she learned all about it from her father. Her father's name was Dean Martin. Yes, that Dean Martin! I could only imagine the conversations at dinner, but you know that table was never boring.
A favorite table, for me, was when Nick and Dutchie would be having dinner. They frequently had dinner in the restaurant, or an occasional lunch at the bar on Friday, when I work my only day shift, over the last 10 years. I dont know what it was, well maybe you can guess, but often I would visit their table, get engrossed in conversation, then realize: Wait! I was just going to say hello. I have a bar full of people waiting for me! Gotta go! I often thought after my sometimes sudden departures that they thought I was a crazed, caffeinated mad-man. But I digress.
Theyre two of the nicest people Ive ever met and Im sad that I wont be able to accost their table anymore. The last time I saw Nick, they were in with a friend, and it was the first time I had seen him since the Cardinals were, to me anyway, shockingly beaten in the playoffs by the L.A. Dodgers. I told him that I felt bad for him, but that I knew that the World Series ring that he was wearing would keep him good company during the long off-season. Well, it just got a lot longer for me, but I feel so fortunate that I got to share that moment with him.
The thing that we shared the most, was a passion for sports and our teams, but at the same time realizing that there are more important thing in life. Family, friends and helping others should be ones priorities and they were certainly his. I know this for a fact. Im only one of many, many people who have experienced his generosity. Being able to have shared life experiences with him is something Ill never forget. One of those experiences he shared and a reason that I know that many of us feel regret about, is that he wont be able to see his grand-son, Nick, play basketball again. Nicks a sharp-shooter, doesnt fall far, for Hinsdale Central and was the apple of his grandfathers eye. I would look forward to the updates of his games or tournaments. I know young Nick would do right by following in his grandfathers footsteps. Using athletics for all of the good they can represent, and keeping them a part of your life forever.
For Nicks family and friends these next few days are going to be difficult as we mourn his loss and lay him to rest. But there will be a warm feeling in all of us, that wont go away. Thats the many memories we share and the privilege of knowing our departed friend.
Oh, and who was that team that drafted Nick into the NBA, the one he turned down? The Philadelphia Warriors! Nick was supposed to play his pro career in Philadelphia, no wonder I liked him so much.