Monday, December 21, 2020

Tall Sol was a goliath among Davids on Jewish basketball team

By Tom Hawthorn

Special to The Globe and Mail

December 22, 2020

Sol Tolchinsky was a goliath among Davids on his Young Men’s Hebrew Association basketball team.

Standing 6-foot-4, Tall Sol, as he was called, played centre and forward for the YMHA Blues when the Montreal team won the Dominion basketball championship in 1950. The triumph was celebrated by Jewish communities across Canada.

Two years earlier, he had represented Canada at the Olympics in a basketball tournament remembered for the duplicity of European officials and the disunity of the Canadian team.

Mr. Tolchinsky, who has died at 91, was known for his sharp passes and an accurate hook shot.

“We depended on him to help out with rebounding,” said Murray Waxman, who, at 95, is the last living member of the championship Blues team.

The centre also was a specialist in layups, driving to the net before pushing the ball up and in. Another of his skills was wisecracking for his teammates and trash talking his opponents. He fouled out often and engaged in fisticuffs in more than one game, perhaps inspired by his city’s fondness for such shenanigans on the ice.

After the trauma of the Second World War and the euphoria surrounding the founding of Israel, the Blues emerged as a team representing Jewish pride. Their team jerseys included a crest with a Star of David inside a maple leaf. 

“We were an all-Jewish team,” Mr. Waxman said. “We were all born in Montreal. Everybody knew us. We were well supported by the community.”

Two years earlier, in 1948, the Blues narrowly lost the Canadian title to the Vancouver Clover Leafs in a grueling, physical best-of-five series played at a packed Sir Arthur Currie Memorial gymnasium in Montreal.

The two teams met again two days later in the Olympic trials, a two-day knockout tournament at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. The Blues got their revenge by defeating the Clover Leafs, only to lose to the upstart University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, a student team with fresh legs.

The Canadian Olympic basketball team ended up consisting of six Blues, seven Thunderbirds and Ole Bakken, the Norwegian-born star of the Clover Leafs.

The original plan was to play each group as a unit. In the end, the coaches mixed the players, but the teams had different styles and never performed smoothly together. The passing decades have not eased antipathy among the players.

“We had quite a good team,” Dr. Patrick McGeer, formerly of the Thunderbirds, said in 2012, “and a not-so-good team.”

“We were the lead team,” Mr. Tolchinsky insisted at that time.

The 1948 Olympics are remembered as the Austerity Games, as postwar London barely could supply the basics let alone luxuries. After a week-long sail across the Atlantic aboard the Aquatania, a Cunard liner stripped down for war service as a troopship, players settled into spare quarters at an air-force base in Uxbridge. Those players who neglected to bring a towel had to rent one from organizers. The spartan lifestyle was familiar to Mr. Tolchinsky, a 19-year-old student who held a low-paying job in the schmatta (clothing) business as a shipper. He was so tall his feet dangled off the end of the bunk bed.

The team managed to hold two practices in a church basement where both nets were blocked by posts.

The shared misery of the journey did not ease tensions in the squad. The Vancouver players were honoured at a luncheon at British Columbia House. The Montreal players did not attend. The Montreal players were feted at a luncheon at Maccabi House. The Vancouver players did not attend.

In the preliminary round of the Olympic tournament, Canada won three games and lost two, one of those by a single point. Though they finished in a three-way for second place, Canada was relegated to a consolation round because of points differential. They had deliberately not run the score up against an outclassed host British team, while others in the group had. Uruguay, also 3-2, advanced to the medal round even though Canada had beaten the South Americans by 52-50.

The Canadians then defeated Iran, Belgium and Peru to win the consolation bracket and finish ninth in the tournament, a bittersweet achievement.

One of Mr. Tolchinsky’s strongest memories was of scrimping to save $75 in spending money for the six-week trip. “There was nothing to buy,” he said of a London still struggling with rationing and shortages. “Nothing to spend it on. Nothing.” He returned home with $16 still in his pocket.

Two years later, the Blues again challenged for the national title. Mr. Tolchinsky scored 28 points in a 65-45 victory over the Ottawa Valley champion Glengarry (Ont.) Cameron Highlanders, whose top scorer was Pete Finlay, who also played professional football with the Ottawa Rough Riders. The second game ended 53-34 for a total points victory of 118-79.

The Blues then eliminated the Toronto Tri-Bells to claim the Eastern Canada title before defeating the University of Manitoba Bisons in four games in a best-of-five series. For the first time since it had been donated by a sporting club in 1926, the national Montreal Cup was awarded to a team from the city in which it originated.

The victory was hailed by Jewish fans across the country.

That summer, Mr. Tolchinsky joined four Montreal teammates and three Toronto players on the Canadian team attending the third annual Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv. The United States defeated Canada 56-34 in the championship game that culminated the 18-nation Jewish Olympics.

Solly Tolchinsky, as his full name was officially registered by Rabbi J.L. Colton, was born in Montreal on Jan. 2, 1929. He was one of three children born to the former Nessie Cartman and Mendel (Max) Tolchinsky, a labourer and door-to-door salesman. The family, Ukrainian Jews from Odessa, immigrated to Canada in 1926.

An older brother, Shmuel, known as Sam, arrived in the new country at age 13 without knowing a word of English or French. A few years later, he was elected president of his high-school class, served in the Canadian army during the war by playing glockenspiel in a military band, then moved to New York where he became the head writer of Sid Caesar’s famous Your Show of Shows alongside Mel Brooks and Neil Simon. He also wrote for Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope, and was story editor for the trailblazing 1970s sitcom All in the Family. “I’ve lived under the czar, Lenin, Stalin and Ronald Reagan,” he once quipped.

Sol Tolchinsky followed his brother by attending Commercial High, where he played on the school basketball team. He was still a teenager when named to the Canadian Olympic team.

In the fall of 1950, Mr. Tolchinsky registered at McGill University, where he played for the basketball team. He was also a writer for the McGill Daily student newspaper, although his most creative work was writing musical comedy for the Red and White Revue theatre group.

He befriended an aspiring actor by the name of William Shatner and was smitten by a chorus girl named Margot Blatt. They were married for 67 years. She survives Mr. Tolchinsky, who died in Montreal on Dec. 1 of complications related to Covid-19. He also leaves a son, two daughters, and five grandchildren. He was predeceased by his brother, known as Mel Tolkin, who died in 2007, and his sister, Rae Frank, who died in 1966.

Away from the sporting arena, Mr. Tolchinsky, who was also known as Sol Tolkin, operated Exposervice Standard Inc., a trade-show contractor. In 1980, he became the first Canadian to serve as president of the Exhibition Services and Contractors Association, which is based in Dallas, Tex.

Though he displayed panache on the basketball court in his youth, Mr. Tochinsky was something of a klutz in civilian life, a big man in a small world who regularly knocked over wine glasses or scraped fenders in parking garages.