Why would a former professional basketball player choose to settle in a town he previously knew nothing about for his retirement?
In Johnny Macknowsky’s case, it was his escape from the big city culture he had known most of his life.
Macknowsky just happened to stumble upon Dandridge when he retired as a schoolteacher from New Jersey’s Parsippany-Troy Hills Board of Education in 1980 and admitted he wished he had known about the town sooner.
“Had I known about these southern schools and known more about the south, my three girls would have been directed here to go to college,” the 94-year-old resident of Regency Retirement Village in Morristown said.
The author of “Dynamics of Basketball: The Dawn of a New Era is Breaking Through,” Macknowsky was also heavily featured in Neil D. Isaacs’ book “Vintage NBA: The Pioneer Era” which discusses the league from 1946-56.
Johnny Mack isn’t his only nickname, as many still call him by the one given to him in childhood: Whitey.
Playing on a basketball team known as the Young Demons, Macknowsky’s “completely” blonde hair earned him the moniker.
“I’m still blonde I suppose,” he laughed.
Still regarded as arguably best hoopster in the history of Lincoln High School in Jersey City, N.J., where he earned All-City, All-County and All-State honors while winning the Hudson County scoring title his senior year in 1941, Macknowsky had more after-school hobbies than just basketball.
His mother came home one day his freshman year and instructed him to help Ms. Ragozine, a family neighbor who, like Johnny’s parents was in the poultry busin,ess.
After three days of assisting Ms. Ragozine, she hugged Macknowsky and teared up, saying she couldn’t pay him but could teach him Russian — the language of his forefathers.
“I was with her for three or four hours every day for four years while I was in high school, and I got to like the language,” Macknowsky recalled. “I became quite fluent in Russian.”
Though he admitted it was the “most difficult language in the world to learn,” he eventually received a scholarship to study Russian at Northwestern University.
Heavily recruited out of high school for his basketball skills, Macknowsky initially chose to attend George Washington University.
In fact, he was all dressed and ready to attend the school when it wired a telegram to his home saying his scholarship no longer existed and was filled by somebody else.
“They only had so many scholarships. I would imagine some politician got his kid in there,” Macknowsky said.
Without notice, Whitey went to Seton Hall University the next day. Unfortunately, the scholarships had already been filled due to his announced intent to attend GWU, thus leaving him without one.
A commuter student who rode the bus to college daily, the school initially wanted to charge him $600 to eat on campus since he wasn’t a boarding student.
Upon hearing this, Macknowsky’s friend Joe told him they were going to Seton Hall “to correct this thing.”
Not knowing what to expect, Macknowsky cleaned out his locker as instructed by Joe, who accompanied him to the admissions office and said, “Whitey isn’t coming here anymore.”
Realizing it was a major deal since Macknowsky and teammates routinely beat the Pirates’ varsity squad which at one time won 41 straight games, the director of admissions tried desperately to contact coach John ‘Honey’ Russell in addition to the athletic director and superintendent to no avail.
After stating to admissions that Whitey can go “to any school in this country if he wants to,” Joe took a visibly upset Macknowsky home and assured him things would work out.
And they did, as Whitey suddenly had a private room on campus the next morning.
With the United States entering World War II at the time, Macknowsky enlisted in the United States Navy after his sophomore season in which he started for the Pirates.
He starred for the powerful Sampson Naval Base team and not surprisingly needed money to spend while he was on liberty.
He received money from home until his father stopped sending it, wanting money to be there in a savings account for Johnny when he left the Navy.
While on liberty in New York City, Macknowsky would participate in three-round fights for spending money. He recalled one match in which he was bloodied and beaten badly in the ring, but Macknowsky remembered his manager encouraging him to pursue a boxing career.
But Whitey already had that on the hardwood.
“I was a tough nut when I played ball,” he said. “If I had to fight a guy, I fought him.”
After serving from 1942-45 and earning the rank of First Class Petty Officer, Macknowsky had the right to attend school at any institution he desired per the G.I. Bill. But feeling comfortable at Seton Hall, he chose to stay and finish his collegiate career with the Pirates and guided them to a 24-3 record in 1946-47 and an 18-4 record his senior year — in which he received the honor “King of the Campus.”
Interestingly, Macknowsky appeared in four games for the Scranton Miners, a professional team in the American Basketball League, that same year.
Playing under the name Johnny Mack, Whitey received $50 per game from the Miners. Macknowsky remembered after one game that he and his teammates were told they would receive just $25 due to lack of attendance, after which the players demanded to be paid between quarters or they would not return to the court. Not wanting to anger the crowd who had paid admission, the Miners obliged and on occasion gave players $75 for a good night.
But it didn’t last for Macknowsky, as a fan who recognized him and several Seton Hall teammates called the university with the knowledge that playing pro ball makes them ineligible at the collegiate level.
“Why didn’t you tell us you needed money?” a school official asked Macknowsky and his teammates after questioning “what the heck” they were thinking.
Whitey earned extra money his senior year by working in the school library performing simple tasks from arranging books to sweeping floors, and not often being required to stay the full four hours he’d been assigned there.
Initially planning to sign with the Rochester Royals upon graduating Seton Hall in 1948 due to his familiarity with the players and the money being offered, Macknowsky had scheduled a meeting with the owner at the Paramount Hotel in New York. But the owner never showed. Angry, Macknowsky signed with the Syracuse Nationals.
As he found out, Syracuse had told the Royals owner that Macknowsky played for the Scranton Miners, who in reality had nothing to do with the situation as Whitey never signed a contract with the Miners and played under an assumed name.
Joining a Nats team which consisted of Hall of Famers Dolph Schayes and player-coach Al Cervi, Macknowsky scored a total of 1,243 points, an average of 6.9 per game, during his three-year NBA career at Syracuse which saw him earn second-team All-Rookie honors. He averaged 7.5 per game in the playoffs including a 10.6 average in 11 games during Syracuse’s run to the 1950 NBA Finals. Not too shabby for an era with no 10-second rule, no shot clock, no 3-point shot and 10-minute quarters.
Reaching the Finals with playoff series wins over the Philadelphia Warriors and the New York Knicks before a semifinal bye, Syracuse lost in six games to the Minneapolis Lakers, highlighted by Bob Harrison’s buzzer beater to beat the Nats on the road 68-66 in Game 1 which was the first known Finals buzzer beater according to reports.
Macknowsky laughed as he recalled a heated exchange between himself and Cervi due to limited playing time at one point despite the home fans clamoring for him. Knowing he’d have to score quickly at home, road games were a different story as Whitey played more often particularly if he had the hot hand.
But during one game, Cervi substituted Macknowsky in at the last minute, and Johnny Mack wasn’t having it.
“I’d never cursed,” Macknowsky said as he remembered this instance as the only time he had ever done so with Cervi as he uttered “(expletive) you.”
Cervi confronted Macknowsky in the locker room saying, “I’m the coach. When I tell you to go in, you go in.”
“I grabbed him by the neck and was ready to clock him. (Paul) Seymour was near me, and Dolph Schayes jumped in front of him or I would have hit him, would’ve plastered one good one in his face,” Whitey laughed.
Despite the exchange, Macknowsky remained with the Nationals until a wrist injury cut his pro career short in 1951.
On Whitey’s pinky finger is a ring he received after the 1950 NBA Finals, a ring which is not for sale as Macknowsky intends to pass it on to his family’s future generations.
There’s a story behind the ring, as Nats owner Daniel Biasone had initially announced to the players he would give them each $1,000 in addition to their $5,000 salary if they reached the Finals.
Instead, Biasone presented the team with inscribed gold rings.
“Some of the guys threw the rings back at them, but I’ve kept mine,” Macknowsky said.
The players’ yearly salary of $5,000 — a respectable amount at the time but a far cry from the millions NBA players earn today — had to last them the entire offseason as Macknowsky recalled, not to mention the “six to eight” exhibition games for which the players weren’t compensated and the fact that the NBA Finals ended in April as opposed to June, making for a longer offseason than now.
Macknowsky admitted he doesn’t watch the NBA today for various reasons, but mainly because of how much the game has changed since his playing days.
“The big guys today they go out and lay a physical block on the guys outside. That was a foul. If I got rid of the ball and I just touched a guy, that was a foul,” he said. “Now, I guess the fans like all that to happen because the refs don’t call it. It’s a different game entirely.”
He went on to earn his Master’s degree from Montclair State and become a schoolteacher and coach at the Parsippany-Troy Hills School District in New Jersey while also coaching basketball for seven seasons at Drew University.
Having taught in the aforementioned school district from 1954 until his retirement in 1980, Macknowsky’s teaching style differs from most.
In short, he was against giving formal grades with the belief that no letter or symbol should define how intelligent a student is.
This method goes back to an experience Whitey encountered during a book report his eighth grade year.
Nervous about speaking in front of the class but having gotten well acquainted with the book, Macknowsky eventually felt comfortable the further along he went in his report.
That is, until the teacher interjected, “You didn’t read that book.”
Trying to convince her that he had read the book further infuriated the teacher, who then told him, “Don’t lie to me. I know that book and you did not read that book. If you lie to me again, I’ll give you an F.”
For the assignment, Macknowsky received a D.
“It just floored me,” he said while stating this experience caused him to not want to speak in front of a group again. “When I taught school, I made sure to get these kids in an auditorium, and I had them speak in front of an empty auditorium for two minutes on any subject. These kids did a good job, and that’s one of the things they liked about my whole program because we don’t get to speak in front of group often.”
Against giving the students letter grades and asking the administration if there was a way around it, Macknowsky learned the state required him to give letter grades.
So he tried something different: allow the students to decide what they should make.
“Ninety percent of them will give themselves a lower grade,” he said of the students’ integrity. “I was giving them a higher grade, so now they determine their own grade because they worked to get that.”
Macknowsky didn’t object to the 10 percent who felt they deserved higher than what he had in mind, but he also informed those students they would need to hold up their end of the bargain in the future if they want to maintain those high grades.
The former teacher knows as well as anyone that a student will be positively or negatively affected with a grade he or she receives potentially for a long time, the main reason he’s against it.
“A kid lives with that symbol because he believes that (the teacher) knows what she’s doing. That’s an evaluation he received from a professional who knows. That’s not right. The kids should be grading themselves,” he said. “Education is making favorable changes in yourself. If you’re not making favorable changes in yourself, you’re not being educated. That is in your language, in your attitude, in your dress, in your eating habits, in your relationships, if you’re not making favorable changes in yourself as an individual, then you’re not being educated. That was my philosophy.”
Macknowsky used a very similar philosophy when coaching hoops, mainly because he didn’t initially know the players’ abilities or what they liked to do.
With this in mind, he always tried to do his best to allow the players to find their strengths and then put them in a position where they could use them to the fullest — what Macknowsky called a “free-wheeling” game.
“If you put a kid in position in a pattern of play that’s not his strong point, then he’s not exposing himself to what he can do,” he said. “Eventually I could find out what the kids like to play and I’d put them in the game where they would be fortified by their own strengths.”
So much did Macknowsky enjoy teaching that he served as a substitute teacher at nearby Jefferson County High School after moving to Dandridge upon retirement in 1980.
Olga, Macknowsky’s wife of 66 years who made her mark in the garment industry as the assistant fashion designer to Anne Klein prior to marriage, helped inspire her husband to make the move from Chester, N.J., to Dandridge because of her “love for country life.”
Their three daughters Chrissie, Carole and Eva all attended college in the state of Ohio.
Macknowsky lived in Dandridge for more than 30 years until Olga was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, after which the family mutually agreed she should move into an apartment at Regency Retirement Village in Morristown. Olga would do so under one condition: that Johnny came with her.
He did, and even after Olga moved into a nursing home when her condition worsened, Johnny was there by her side on a daily basis until she passed away in December 2016.
Johnny did in fact reveal the secret which among other things ensured the marriage would last until death parted them.
“You do that by not majoring in minor things,” Macknowsky said. “I’m a firm believer in people. Material things have no emotional value. It’s nothing. It’s to be used when you need it to enhance your position or your life.”
In other words, don’t sweat the small things when there’s so much to be happy about.
Macknowsky, who at age 94 is a grandfather to six and a great-grandfather to three, can be found on the links in his spare time. Within arm’s reach of his bed lies a schedule listing tee times and locations where his group of fellow golfers plans to meet next.
He does have his favorite courses in the Lakeway Area — a list which includes Dandridge Golf & Country Club, Patriot Hills, Lost Creek, Clinchview and Millstone.
Macknowsky did consider moving from Regency Retirement Village into a house, but the nurses and fellow residents didn’t want to see him go. He moved into his current apartment roughly a month ago.
“All these people wanted me here. I don’t know why, whether it was good public relations or what, but I do get along with everybody here,” Whitey said. “I’ve developed a great relationship with the nurses and with the tenants here. They’re beautiful people. That’s what makes this facility so great is the great employees.”
In addition to all of the pictures in his apartment, Macknowsky can also be seen pictured in the front hallway of Regency Retirement Village, honoring him for his service in the Navy.
Macknowsky, who stated very clearly that he is a resident — not a patient — at Regency, doesn’t seek perfection but rather to make the most of situations.
“Life is not perfect. Life is to do the best you can, not to be perfect,” he stated.
On the wall in his apartment hangs a picture of Macknowsky during his Seton Hall career which he has autographed with a message: “To my grandchildren: work hard, play hard and you’ll succeed.”
Johnny ‘Whitey’ Macknowsky certainly has.