A life too short

By Marc Katz


I spoke to Elijah Chatman the morning he died 43 years ago.

He wasn’t sick and I can’t remember a word he said, except it probably was entertaining.

I was gathering preview material for the Dayton Public League basketball season, about to begin, just a week after Thanksgiving.

It’s the only part of the morning I remember because in the late afternoon, when I called Dunbar’s George Galloway, he informed me in chilling words, “Did you hear? Chat’s dead.”

At least it was something like that. After all, it has been 43 years.

Chatman was 32-years old and had played with Nate Thurmond and Howard Komives at Bowling Green in the early 1960s.

One place you do not expect to be confronted with youthful death is in sports.

I’m not talking about car wrecks or boat wrecks or drug overdoses.

I’m talking about Lou Gehrig’s life, cut short by disease. We’ve had too much of that at the University of Dayton, where basketball players Chris Daniels, two decades ago, and Steve McElvene, recently, both succumbed to health issues.

Sure, we lost Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, and Arnold Palmer this year, but they had played out their careers, living well into retirement. They were able to celebrate older lives.

In 1973, I really hadn’t experienced any of that. I had lost grandparents and knew friends who had died in accidents, but Chatman’s death was really something new to me.

I remember I spoke with him. I remember I spoke with Galloway. I remember I called Chatman’s house—this was before cell phones and computers—and clumsily asked if Chatman was there. I just wasn’t ready to believe Galloway.

There was crying on the other end, and someone else came to the phone. I think it was Chatman’s wife.

She didn’t know how or why, but at that afternoon’s practice, her husband collapsed. Medics could not save him. I didn’t have any more questions to ask.

The other day, I called Ronnie Manuel, a senior guard on that team, whose heartache would renew itself a few years later.

“We had just finished practice,” said Manuel, a longtime employee of Good Samaritan Hospital. “He [Chatman] ran our butts off. I was worn out and laying across my bed.”

That’s when a call came that something happened at school. Chatman’s habit was to run varsity practice—and he’d be in the layup drills along with his players—then stay to help out with the freshman team.

It was during drills with the freshman team Chatman took a fall. He didn’t get up. There was talk of an aneurism and of something in his lungs from working in a factory as a youth.

It really didn’t, and doesn’t, matter.

When Manuel arrived back at the school, “all the doors were open in the front. All the [cheerleader and other student] girls were crying. [Principal] Mr. [James] Caldwell called all the varsity basketball players up to the counselor’s office.”

Assistant coaches Dave Henderson and Jim Zepernick were said to be in the pool to take over, but each of them said they didn’t want the job.

Mike Haley, who later gained coaching fame at Dunbar, had been an assistant to Chatman and was a favorite of the players. Now, he was taking over the program at Roosevelt.

“We all went out to Roosevelt and asked Mr. Haley to come back,” Manuel said, remembering. “We went to his room. He had doughnuts and juice for us to eat and drink. He said he just got to Roosevelt and couldn’t leave.”

A few days later, Zepernick was named Roth coach—a tough position for a white man at a mostly black school, but the players accepted Zepernick, and he accepted them. They played their first game Dec. 7, the third in one of those memorable triple-headers at UD Arena.

Roth’s players dedicated the game—the season—to Chatman. They beat Colonel White 86-79. They finished the season in a three-way tie for the Public League championship with Dunbar and Roosevelt.

All the particulars have faded from my memory, but I never forgot Chatman. That night went on for me as usual, except for the fact I never went home after finding out about Chatman’s death.

I covered a hockey game involving the old Dayton Gems at Hara Arena that night. I wrote a preview of a Wright State Division II game. I wrote the Public League preview.

All of it appeared in the Thursday, Nov. 29 edition of the Dayton Daily News.

By 8 a.m., I drove over to Roth. I had yet to write Chatman’s sports obit, which included mention of his wife and two young daughters.

Oh, Manuel’s additional heartache? C.W. Haskins, a star on that Roth team and Manuel’s best friend, convinced him to take up tennis, which Ronnie did, becoming a fine amateur player.

Haskins played, too, but not for long. In 1979, he was diagnosed with leukemia and, like Elijah Chatman, was quickly gone in his prime. He wasn’t even 25.

You don’t expect things like that to happen to young, healthy players and coaches in sports.

I cannot tell you I’m living with this the way the families of Chatman and Haskins have all these years, or the way their friends and teammates have. I can tell you I wish this story ended in a different way.

The views and opinions expressed in On Your Marc are the views and/or opinions of the author and do not reflect the views and/or opinions of the Dayton City Paper or Dayton City Media and are published strictly for entertainment purposes.

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Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at KatzCopsNSports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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