It wasn't just about points or rebounds for John Shumate, who was driven to dominate
Growing up in a strict household and in a sketchy part of Elizabeth, New Jersey, John Shumate never played basketball. Or any sports. He could step outside the front door of his home in the shadows of Newark Liberty International Airport, and see stuff that kids his age should never see. There were drugs and violence and sirens in every direction, day or night.
For Shumate, life was about school and church, and sometimes not in that order. He wasn’t allowed to do much or see much when his parents — his father, Eugene, was a Pentacostal minister — were at work. When they were gone, Shumate and his five sisters were to stay inside with the doors locked and the windows closed. In summer, the home with no air conditioning would become sauna hot. A television with only three channels offered only so much diversion.
Shumate never dared break his parents’ rule.
“My older sister, Barbara, they left her in charge,” he said. “We could not make a move without her consent. If you were outside where you weren’t supposed to be, she was coming to get you.”
Shumate stayed inside and dreamed about where life might one day take him. Away from the crime. Away from the drugs. Away from the danger and the depression. He often dreamed about becoming a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he would wear sun glasses and suits to work.
He wound up wearing shorts and sneakers. He became one of the best basketball players ever at Notre Dame. Come Sunday, Shumate will be the 11th individual (10 players, one head coach) inducted into the program's Ring of Honor during halftime of the home game against Marquette.
He became good at the game by accident.
Heading into his sophomore year of high school, the 15-year-old Shumate stood taller than his classmates. At 6-foot-5, he seemed more like 7-2. One day, a buddy coaxed him to step outside the comfort zone of his bubble-like home life and join the YMCA’s basketball team. The squad needed a center. Shumate could be that center.
He knew the family rule, but he wanted that day to run.
“You know, dumb me, I was like, ‘Oh, OK, here I come,’” Shumate said. “I’m going to go play with them in a basketball tournament, and I had no idea how to play. I had never played before in my life.”
The outcome was about what you’d expect for someone who didn’t know how to pass or shoot or even chew gum and dribble at the same time. Shumate was awful that day, so much so that the players on the other team laughed at him. He sneaked out of the gym before the game ended and ran home, tears streaming down his cheeks the entire way.
“I was so upset,” Shumate said. “I was humiliated. It wasn’t anything anyone did to me, but I was just so bad.”
Shumate was coaxed back to the YMCA, then eventually out for his high school team, but his father balked after he saw some of the places where basketball was being played. Too dangerous. Shumate’s uncle, Leroy, convinced Eugene that he had to let his only son go and explore the world outside the four walls of the family home and what it could offer. If that meant playing basketball, so be it.
“He said, ‘All right, you go play, but you stay out of trouble, you hear? You go on and do well.’” Shumate said of his father. “He took my sisters and went to church and I went to basketball.”
Basketball took Shumate to gyms around New Jersey, and across the river and into the boroughs of New York. It took him to summer camps in rural areas that he’d never seen. It took him to Philadelphia, where he starred in the prestigious Sonny Hill League. If there was a game somewhere, Shumate would be in it.
Basketball’s door had opened, and Shumate burst through.
“I worked my butt off and played every opportunity that I had,” he said. “I was blessed by the Gods.”
A college career at a crossroads
Basketball shuttled Shumate out to Indiana to play at Notre Dame. Freshmen then were ineligible, so he had to sit out that 1970-71 season. His second season meant he could finally play, but he’d do so for a new coach, Digger Phelps, who had replaced Johnny Dee.
It took one practice for the new coach to see that he had something special in the new power forward, who was a sturdy 6-9 and 235 pounds. Shumate had only picked up the game four years prior, but it looked like he’d played it all his life. He was that talented. That skilled. That focused. That driven.
“First day we scrimmaged, he was scoring,” Phelps said. “He had a lot of natural moves. He could dominate.”
The fall before the 1971-72 season, Shumate felt shortness of breath and persistent pain in his left calf. It felt like a cramp that wouldn’t go away. It was there when he sat, when he walked, when he tried to run. Something wasn’t right.
Doctors discovered a blood clot had developed in the calf, which put his season in jeopardy. Further tests revealed that Shumate had suffered a viral infection near his heart, which put his life in jeopardy.
Basketball suddenly didn’t seem to matter. Living did.
“That was scary,” Phelps said. “It was really serious.”
How serious? Shumate lay in intensive care for nine days. He lost 45 pounds. There were nights when Shumate feared he might lose more than that. There also were nights where he’d hear doctors discussing his condition out in in the hallway.
His basketball career, just as it was getting started, seemed to be ending. It was determined that he not play. Ever. Feeling sorry for himself, Shumate would sob himself to sleep.
Dr. Howard Engel, a local internist who often treated Notre Dame athletes, wound up treating Shumate. It wasn’t so much what he did, but what he said. Anytime Shumate needed a kick to his backside, Engel was there to deliver one.
One day, Shumate refused to let nurses draw his blood. He was tired of being sick, tired of that bed, tired of that hospital. Tired of his illness. Engel exploded into the room and called Shumate some not-suitable-for-print names. Shumate eventually allowed the nurses to do their job, because Engel had done his.
“He did not allow me to feel sorry for myself or give up,” Shumate said. “He kept telling me, you’re going to play again so get off your (butt) and do what I tell you to do and do it to the best of your ability.
“I was like, what’s up with this crazy man? Having him as my doctor helped me make my comeback.”
Now 92 years old and still a resident of South Bend, Engel considers Shumate one of his adopted sons. He meant that much to him. Still does. He was hard on Shumate because he knew what basketball meant to him. It was a risk for Shumate to step back on the court, but it was a greater risk if he’d given up and left the game for good.
“Somebody might say we were taking a chance and I can’t deny that,” Engel said. “You sort of weigh the things that are there. It was fairly important for John given where he came from to play in the big time and grow. To take that away from him, it impacted him a great deal.”
Shumate recovered, returned to the court and flourished. As a junior, he averaged 21.0 points and 12.2 rebounds to help Notre Dame, 6-20 the previous year, go 18-12 with an appearance in the National Invitation Tournament. As a senior, he averaged 24.2 points and 11.0 rebounds as Notre Dame went 26-3 record with a trip to the NCAA tournament.
He also grabbed the final rebound in that game. You know the one. In January, 1974. Against UCLA. At home. He had the ball in his hands as the game went final.
Shumate was a two-time team captain and two-time All-American. He’s one of six Irish in program history to average a double double — 22.6 points, 11.6 rebounds — for his career. His field goal percentage (.610) still ranks first in program history.
He was the fourth pick in the 1974 NBA draft (Phoenix Suns) and played professionally for seven seasons. He spent time as a college assistant (including four at Notre Dame) and a college head coach. He was a WNBA head coach and an NBA scout. He now works in community relations for the Suns.
Indiana disappeared long ago in his rear-view mirror, but Shumate never forgot it.
“South Bend was the perfect place for me; Notre Dame was the perfect place for me,” he said. “All I wanted to do was excel in basketball and be the best that I could be and be a good person.”
At last, that one phone call
The call that Shumate feared might never come did in May. That’s when Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey dialed the number of the 70-year-old Shumate, who lives in Phoenix, and revealed that he was next for the school’s Ring of Honor.
It was a phone call that Brey couldn’t wait to make.
“I feel like it’s an enormous responsibility, and it’s life changing,” he said. “It’s an honor for him to go up while I’m here. For John, from his heart, I know how much it meant to him. I know how much he loved the place.”
Listening to Brey, Shumate became emotional. He thought back to those early years in New Jersey, those tough years at Notre Dame. Then he smiled.
“I had wanted for so long to be inducted (but) I figured it wasn’t going to happen,” Shumate said. “Was I disappointed? Yeah, I was disappointed because I wanted to have that recognition from my alma mater.”
Shumate’s love for Notre Dame rarely wavered, even every fall when the school would announce that season’s Ring of Honor selection. Former teammates were quick to text — how can so-and-so be in and not you? They’d be more disappointed than Shumate, who served as a voice of reason.
“Everything will work out, just be cool and let the process run its course,” he said. “It did.”
Once word leaked about the Ring honor, the calls and texts and correspondences started, and seldom ceased. Former teammates offering their congratulations — the first text came from former Irish guard John Paxson — and wanting to come back. Friends wanting to make the trip. Family. When’s the pre-game reception? The ceremony? Where’s Shumate staying? What’s on his lengthy itinerary?
Shumate turned everything over to his wife, Mary, who has experience in the hotel/hospitality industry. She coordinated everything from tickets and travel to meals and meetings. Shumate decided to settle in and enjoy the ride. Where’s he going next? Who’s he seeing? OK, let’s do it.
“I said to my wife, I’m glad it didn’t happen until now,” he said. “At my age, what else do you have going on in your life? It is such a blessing. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”
Several of Shumate’s former teammates like Paxson, Ray Martin and Billy Varner planned to be there. His family planned to be there. His friends planned to be there. Phelps will be there. The two were scheduled Saturday to have breakfast at the Morris Inn. Engel will be there. The two were scheduled to meet for dinner during the weekend.
However many minutes Shumate has the microphone at center court Sunday won’t be enough. There are so many people to thank, so many memories to share and, likely, some tears to shed. This is his moment. It’s overwhelming. It’s humbling. It’s time.
“He deserves it,” Phelps said.
“I’m proud of him,” Engel said. “He left New Jersey, came to Notre Dame and became a man.”
Seeing his name and No. 34 hang from the blue and gold and white banner in the Purcell Pavilion rafters — it was rolled up and waiting to fall into place on Friday afternoon — means everything to Shumate. His game wasn’t about the wins and the losses and the points and the rebounds. It was about the sacrifice. The discipline. The drive. The love. The game.
He’s forever thankful that he sneaked out of the house that day decades ago and discovered basketball. A relationship between him and a ball and a basket commenced that day, one that continues today.
“Man, when I started playing, I was like, ‘God, I love this game,’” Shumate said. “It was like meeting a pretty girl and you fell in love with her overnight.
“Basketball was my pretty girl. It changed the entire direction of my life.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.