The timing was bad. The visas for Nicholas's family arrived on Dec. 3—four days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The boat on which Masha and the children were traveling was detained by the Japanese in Manchuria's Mukden Harbor, and the refugees were taken to a prison camp in Tokyo, where they spent the rest of the war. Reunited at last in San Francisco in 1946, the Mescheriakoffs eventually changed their name to Meschery to avoid the stigma of being Russian during the escalating Cold War and the McCarthy era.
What little English the eight-year-old Tom spoke was heavily accented. "It's ironic that I wound up an English teacher," he says now. "I joke in class that I'm an English as a second language student. It helps other ESL students to hear that."
Tom threw himself into sports, sensing that in America the fastest way for a boy to gain acceptance was as an athlete. When he discovered basketball, his path was forged. "I was tall and I had good coordination," he says. "I was more than dedicated; I was obsessed. That's all I did—play basketball. By the time I got to high school, I was pretty good."
He was a high school All-America as a senior at Lowell High and went to St. Mary's College across San Francisco Bay in Moraga. There he majored in French and cultivated the love of literature that had been instilled in him by his father, who would read poetry aloud and weep over its beauty.
A two-time All-America at St. Mary's, Meschery was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors in the first round in 1961. He soon developed the style that would carry him through his career. "When I got to the pros, I was in over my head," he says. "I was a good shooter, but my one-on-one moves fooled nobody. I realized I had to be more tenacious, more aggressive than anyone else."
"Tommy was a very, very intense player—and that might be an understatement," says Al Attles, his teammate for six seasons with the Warriors. "He was totally focused on the game."
Meschery's philosophy was simple: "At the end of the game I had to have worn somebody out." This had repercussions, though, and Meschery often wound up brawling.
"As soon as that opening tip went up there were only two kinds of people for Tom—good guys and bad guys," says longtime radio broadcaster Bill King, who did play-by-play for the Warriors after they moved to San Francisco in 1962. "Tom protected his teammates; he was an enforcer. Unfortunately, he was a terrible fighter. We'd always kid him that he never landed a punch in all those confrontations."
"I lost most of my fights," Meschery admits, laughing. "I hated fighting, and I wasn't any good at it, but I went over the edge because I was so caught up in the game. But there were players I knew better than to take on."
Wayne Embry was one of them. "Cincinnati ran a lot of two-man games," says Attles. "Wayne would set the screen, and Oscar Robertson or Jack Twyman would go off the screen, and Wayne would nail you good. One time, Tommy was guarding Twyman, and Twyman takes him off the screen. Tommy goes headlong into the screen to knock Wayne down, and Wayne hammers him. Tommy gets spun around, and as he's spinning, he says, 'Don't ever do that again, or I'll....' And he sees it's Wayne, and Wayne says, 'Or you'll what?' Tommy looks at him—and you could see the wheels turning—and he takes his hands and slaps himself upside the head and says, 'Or I'll...nothing!' We just fell out. Everybody laughed. That took the edge off."