Ron Agostini

Agostini: Staying close to 'Dad'

Jeanne Pollard and her mother cover far more than 3,000 miles when they travel each year to Springfield, Mass.

Their pilgrimage to the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame has become their own time capsule, a willing journey into the past. Because there, present for all eternity, stands the memory of inductee Jim Pollard, "The Kangaroo Kid," Arilee's husband and Jeanne's father.

The mother, 85, and the daughter, 58, willingly bathe themselves in sentiment as they enter Jim's world. They've done this for decades, since Jim's enshrinement in 1978 and his death in 1993. To them, not retracing these steps would result in the most offensive of fouls.

"My mom always said it's the closest she feels to Dad," said Jeanne, a sixth-grade teacher at Fremont Open Plan Elementary School. "She was his No. 1 cheerleader. She made every single home game except two, and that's when two kids were being born."

Jeanne, a slim 5-foot-11, has towered over her students for 35 years. Though she was born too soon to be liberated by Title IX, she still was a state swimming champion in Minnesota and also an accomplished synchronized swimmer and ice skater.

"I did part of breaking the groundwork for them (today's female athletes)," said Jeanne, a Manteca resident.

And no one can doubt her sports genes.

Jim Pollard has been called pro basketball's first power forward. He stood 6-5, a human pogo stick gifted with a 42-inch vertical leap. It's been said he could swipe quarters off the top of the backboard and slam-dunk from the free-throw line. Back then, dunking was considered poor sportsmanship, so Pollard reduced his throwdowns to a novelty act. Still, his arms were dotted by bruises from the rim. Experts believe he was one of the few players of his era who would have excelled in today's open-court game.

Raised in Oakland, he starred at Oakland Tech High and joined other Bay Area products at Stanford to win an NCAA championship (the Cardinal's only men's title) in 1942. Like many, however, World War II pinched his career after only two years on the Farm.

Pollard, after serving in the Coast Guard for three years, twice was named an AAU All-American before he joined the Minneapolis Lakers. Before he was through, he and his teams won six league championships. The front line of Pollard, George Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen easily was one of the best in NBA history.

In 1952, Pollard, who averaged 13.1 points per game for his career, was named the best player of his era by the Basketball Association of America. Yes, he was that good.

"He was so quick and agile, and that extra half-step made so much of a difference," remembered Arilee of her husband for more than 48 years. "They used to call him 'Mr. Clean' because he stayed out of people's way and just ran the floor and jumped."

Jim and Arilee raised three children -- two sons sandwiching Jeanne. Jeanne's memories of her dad's heyday consist of playing beneath the bleachers and the Laker cheerleaders.

"He loved the fast break and the Showtime Lakers," Jeanne said. "There was no question in his mind that Wilt Chamberlain was the best player in history."

Jeanne and Arilee returned last week from Springfield, where Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Pat Riley and Dick Vitale spiced the 2008 Hall of Fame inductees list. The affair usually blossoms into a family reunion for the Pollards, and this year the women welcomed Jeff, one of the sons, one granddaughter and two great grandchildren.

Together, they always renew acquaintances with basketball royalty: Marques Haynes, Julius Erving, Bob Cousy, Dave Bing, Arnie Risen, Harry Gallatin, Meadowlark Lemon and many others. Year after year, they bridge yesterday with today.

"My mom knows everybody. She's fearless," Jeanne said. "When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was enshrined, he refused to sign autographs until Mom asked him, and you have to know that Kareem seated is taller than her. Well, Kareem signed for her, 'Your husband was my hero.' "

Pollard's largest annual salary was $12,500. Don't laugh. It was second-highest in the NBA, trailing only Mikan. After his playing days, Pollard coached and eventually settled in as a teacher in Lodi, where Arilee still resides.

Predictably, traveling has grown more difficult for her. Staying home and missing the basketball fraternity, however, is out of the question. For mother and daughter, Jim's spirit is rekindled on each trip east.

"It's the closest I can get to him," Arilee says, "other than the photos on the wall."

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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