It is third-period advanced-placement English at Reno High, and Tom Meschery is teaching. "Whereas the Victorian poets thought of themselves as classicists or romanticists," Meschery says, "the modern writers referred to their style of writing as...." He stops.
The students wait for the pearl of wisdom to drop from the master's lips, but Meschery is not here to think for them. His mission is to challenge them, and he would like someone to complete the sentence. "Anybody have an idea?" he asks.
"Existentialism," offers one student. Meschery shakes his head no.
"Transcendentalism," tries another. Silence.
The tension builds. Suddenly one young man blurts out, "I know." All heads turn to him. "Mescheryism."
The class breaks up.
Judging by Meschery's deep, rolling laugh, it seems nobody enjoys the wisecrack more than the teacher himself. Still, when the merriment subsides, he returns to his point: "The modern writers referred to their style of writing as realism."
Finding Meschery in this benevolent role might surprise some who remember him from his 10 years as a forward with the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors (1961-67) and the Seattle SuperSonics ('67-71). Because of his ferocity and intensity in those days, he was known as the Mad Russian.
But to those who know him personally, there is nothing inconsistent in Meschery's having become an outstanding teacher. This is the same guy, after all, who was called Renaissance Man by his Warrior teammates: a person of great dignity, sincerity, compassion and learning whose on-court behavior was as far from his off-court demeanor as Reno is from the place of his birth.
He was born Tomislav Mescheriakoff in Harbin, Manchuria, in 1938, the son of Russian refugees who had fled their country five years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, met in China in 1933 and married within a year. Tom's father, Nicholas, who had been an officer in the White Russian army, was studying to be a dental technician in China. Tom's mother, Masha, came from an influential and aristocratic family and, because she was fluent in English, worked for the U.S. consulate in Harbin. In 1938 the Mescheriakoffs decided to move to the U.S., but Masha was able to get only one visa, so Nicholas left his wife, son, and Tom's older sister, Ann, for San Francisco. He got a job as a longshoreman, and by late 1941 he had the necessary sponsorship of a local family for his wife and two children to join him.