After my reunion with Jim Paige last May, I said I hoped to visit him again. “Better hurry,” said his wife, Cheryl. Not long before, she said, she thought he was about to die. That was ten months ago, further proof of what a strong soul Paige had, even as his body betrayed him in ways no one should ever suffer. We recently spoke very briefly by phone one last time, when in a weak voice Paige wished my family and myself well, as always.
I told Paige to always remember how much he’s loved, and what he has meant to me and so many. This past Sunday he finally succumbed to the awful disease that cut his life short. Not however, until giving it a far tougher and longer fight than most in his condition. That’s how I’ll always think of Paige. Anyone that knew him will say the same thing: he was a good man. Is there any better way to be remembered?
Originally published: May 12, 2018
Did you ever know that you’re my hero?
That’s what I recently asked Jim Paige. I grew up in Brooklyn with no sports interest until age 10 and Paige was the first great athlete I saw. I became sports obsessed, drawn toward sports broadcasting. Two motivating factors were hearing Marv Albert as Knicks radio voice and watching Paige play hoops.
I’m fortunate for having called the NCAA Basketball Tournament on Westwood One, anchoring for New York City’s all-sports radio station, WFAN, and receiving Emmy Award nominations at News 12 New Jersey. Without Paige, there’s no telling what career I’d have pursued.
Built like a six-foot, African-American Adonis, several years after playing basketball at Division II Virginia State University, Paige remained an explosive, effortless athlete. Shirtless pickup games revealed Paige’s black college fraternity emblem from Kappa Alpha Psi branded into his powerful right arm. While shooting around, ball still in mid-air, the Philadelphia native often unleashed a familiar bellow.
“Good!” Paige barked, laughing as his shot dropped, with kids like me laughing too.
Baseball cap worn sideward, Paige’s super cool, signature gait, part strutting, part gliding, arm swinging, seemed to say, “Coming through!” As his wife Cheryl said, “Had that Philly stroll.” Kids admired this gifted Pied Piper who made us feel safe. Indeed, Paige worked as a devoted youth counselor in Westchester County, N.Y. for over two decades. On days after Muhammad Ali, then a fading heavyweight champion fought, Paige strolled around, fist in the air, yelling, “Ali! Ali!”
After no contact with Paige since childhood, I recently learned that at age 70 he’s suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. It causes gradual paralysis with no known cure. After soaring above the rim, for three years Paige has been paralyzed from the neck down. Shaken, I became determined to tell him I’ve been a sports broadcaster over 20 years, thanks largely to him.
How good an athlete was Paige?
“As good as it gets,” said Paige’s former co-worker, Dave Rosenthal, 67, a picturesque, 6’4” shooter whose one-on-one matchups with Paige fascinated kids. “He could shut guys down 6’5. He had a jumping ability like you couldn’t believe. He really turned me on to jazz too in a big way. That’s when Jimmy and I became really close friends.”
The pair once drove to a Carnegie Hall jazz concert. “I cut through Harlem,” recalled Rosenthal, who is white. “Here’s Jimmy, a black muscular guy, turning to me and saying, ‘David, we’re in Harlem. Lock the damn doors!’” Rosenthal said, chuckling.
I visited Paige last week at his home in southern New Jersey. Though relegated to a living room easy chair, voice sometimes weak, the twinkle in his eyes, gift of gab, hearty laugh and sharp mind remain “Jimbo.” Despite needing around-the-clock care, Paige maintains his zest for life, often surrounded by family and friends.
“I’m a little slower than I used to be, but I’m still moving,” Paige said. That’s a far cry from a Met game when he recalled catching a foul ball at Shea Stadium while holding a beer. Paige asks that I turn his motionless left hand over, so that his palm is up, indicating he caught the ball in his bare hand. Most impressive, “I didn’t spill none of my drink,” he remembered, laughing.
He still follows sports closely, and Paige loved watching Willie Mays, Jim Brown and fellow Philly native Wilt Chamberlin, and listening to Vin Scully. Paige’s eyes brightened upon hearing I once interviewed Scully. His face lit up when I told him that I knew the late Art Rust Jr., the popular African-American, New York sports radio host of the 1970’s and 80’s. We were both big fans of Rust.
During our visit, Paige takes a call from a man who was troubled some 40 years ago and for whom he then cared. The man checks in on Jimmy often. “The kids adored Jimmy, I adore Jimmy,” Rosenthal said.
The ALS Association says those stricken with the disease have an average life expectancy of two to five years after diagnosis.
Since Lou Gehrig was diagnosed in 1939, among those afflicted with ALS are fellow Baseball Hall of Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter and ex-San Francisco 49ers receiver Dwight Clark. The ALS Association estimates that 20,000 people have the disease, typically surviving two to five years after diagnosis.
Paige was diagnosed four years ago. “Being I believe in the Lord, it’s a part of life,” Paige said. “It’s just one of those things. My time.” ALS often eventually halts speech and swallowing. “Jimmy is very blessed that it has not gotten there,” his wife Cheryl said.
Turns out, I’m just one of many thanking Paige these days. A coffee table album contains notes of affection, providing inspiration. “He can smell his flowers now,” Cheryl said. “Because everybody in his life that he has impacted has been past here to see him, or call him, and show him how much they love him. It’s truly remarkable.”
“Try and be as happy as I can each and every day,” Paige said. “And maybe I can inspire people who might be inflicted with some type of horrible, horrible disease to look ahead. Because it’s not like I’m looking back and giving up. I’m never going to give up. But I do feel good because I can smile every day.”
When I told Paige about a dream broadcasting job I recently pursued but failed to get, he encouraged me too to never give up. Asked what he misses most in his condition, without hesitation Paige said, “Being able to help people. I always liked to help people. I love helping, and right now I just can’t help as I used to.”
A Virginia State basketball recap of the 1969-70 season, Paige’s senior year, says he “no doubt has the springiest legs in the CIAA (Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association), stuffed shots, out-rebounded superstars.” Paige says that what he now misses most physically is “just being able to take that one step!
“Every day my mind goes back to a positive space. And that’s one of the greatest things I can say that the Lord still affords me. He didn’t take my memory, he didn’t take my spirit. I love people, I love relationships.” Smiling, he added, “I love to run my mouth.”
After asking when he could next hear me on the radio, Paige had me jot it down inside a nearby jazz book for safekeeping. For him, it still comes back to sports and music. Finally, it was time to pose my biggest question.
Did you ever know that you’re my hero?
“Oh God, oh my goodness,” Paige said. “You never know if you’re a role model or not in somebody’s life. I just never knew that you were looking at me like that. It makes me feel so good just to know that we could communicate, without you even saying anything about me. Life is wonderful.
“Love,” Paige called it. “That’s beautiful. I couldn’t ask for no more than that. Man, I felt like a million dollars when you told me that.”
Just before parting, Paige asks to bump fists, and I gently tap my knuckles against his left hand, resting flat on an arm of the chair. “Send me a picture if you see one you like,” Paige urges me, explaining that it keeps him engaged. As I reach the door, Paige yells, “Be cool, Joe, Joe!” Despite his condition, my lasting image of him remains forever frozen: leaping, shooting, laughing, and that familiar cry.