Somehow, though Donnie Walsh still isn’t exactly sure how, he’s been plopped in the middle of America’s most famous infectious disease doctor’s basketball claim to fame.
“I said, ‘How did that happen?'” Walsh said in a phone interview Wednesday. “This has been one of the most out-of-the-blue things I’ve ever been involved in.”.
Sixty-two years ago, Anthony Fauci took his high school’s 1-16 team onto Walsh’s court — and won.
Walsh, a former NBA coach, former president of the Indiana Pacers and now a front office adviser to the team, made his career out of orange balls and hardwood courts.
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, made his career in immunology, most recently fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
And yet the two were reunited after a Wall Street Journal article delved into Fauci’s years as a high school basketball captain at Regis High in New York City.
And it’s not exactly becoming to Walsh’s basketball resume.
“Nobody gave us a chance,” Regis alumnus John Zeman said in the Wall Street Journal story. “Everyone figured it was going to be a blowout.”.
It wasn’t. Instead, Walsh’s Fordham Preparatory High team lost 64-51, according to the box score.
On Wednesday at his daily coronavirus briefing, President Trump made reference to Walsh’s team’s defeat — though he didn’t call him out by name.
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A reporter asked whether Fauci had been the target of any threats and if he had security. Fauci deferred the question to another department, and it was later reported that he has indeed been the target of threats.
Then Trump stepped in.
“He doesn’t need security. Everybody loves him. You know he was a great basketball player. Did anybody know that? He was a little on the short side for the NBA but he was talented,” Trump said. “He won a game, I read this story, he won a game that was unwinnable against a great team and his whole team said, ‘We can’t beat this team’ and he went in and they won the game.”.
‘How could we lose the game?’
Walsh wishes he could recall that game in 1958, what with all the hullabaloo surrounding Fauci now. But he doesn’t.
“I don’t remember this game at all. I don’t remember Fauci,” Walsh said. “I’d like to say ‘I remember him and he’s a tough little guy,’ but I just don’t.”.
Walsh had been watching Fauci on TV without having any idea he played against him. When it was called to his attention, it got him a bit frustrated — with himself.
“How could we lose the game?” Walsh said. “The team was 1-16. We were better than that. And then I thought, ‘It was on our home court?’ I was mystified. Then I said, ‘Well, I must have had a s— game.'”.
Walsh was the leader of his Fordham Prep high school team, by far its best player and maybe the best player in New York at the time, Larry Brown told IndyStar in 2018.
“He was almost a legend in New York City,” said Brown, a former Pacers coach who grew up playing against Walsh.
At Fordham Prep, the 6-foot-tall Walsh made all-city and player of the year and earned a scholarship to North Carolina to play for Frank McGuire and then the legendary Dean Smith.
Fauci, a 5-7 point guard for Regis, a Jesuit High School in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was known as a leader on the court. But once high school was over, he set basketball aside. Now he jogs and power walks for exercise, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Out of Regis, Fauci went to College of the Holy Cross, where he received a bachelor of science degree. Then, he attended Cornell University Medical College where he graduated first in his 1966 medical class. He then completed an internship and residency at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.
In his 36 years with NIAID, Fauci has advised six U.S. Presidents on HIV/AIDS and other domestic and global health issues. His department sits at the helm of a massive budget, estimated to be $5.9 billion for fiscal year 2020, according to the NIAID.
He has led research to prevent, diagnose and treat established infectious diseases such as respiratory infections, tuberculosis and malaria as well as emerging diseases such as Ebola, Zika and now coronavirus.
Millions now know Fauci’s face, as he stands next to Trump each evening to update America on COVID-19.
But his face wasn’t recognizable, at first, to Walsh.
“Look, I see this guy now (on TV) and I think his school should be really proud of him,” Walsh said. “He’s articulate and smart and everybody in America has been watching him.”.
Now, Walsh said, if only America could forget about that dreadful game of his.
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: [email protected].