'You can play bingo any night.' 88-year-old former Rambler enjoying Loyola's run to Elite Eight
With his team down by 12 points early in Thursday's NCAA basketball tournament game, former Loyola Ramblers player Norm Buxbaum, 88, has an even bigger concern than the Nevada Wolf Pack.
"I don't want the headline to read, 'Loyola loses to bingo,'" Buxbaum groans as the women involved in the weekly bingo game refuse to yield the only room with a big-screen TV. Buxbaum argues that "you can play bingo any night," while his Ramblers were playing in their first NCAA Sweet 16 game in 33 years. But the forced switch to a smaller TV in the employee lunchroom at Mather Place, a senior living residence in Wilmette where Buxbaum lives, proves lucky for Loyola.
"That-a-boy!" Buxbaum cheers as Loyola hits a clutch 3-pointer with 6.2 seconds left to propel Loyola to a 69-68 victory and an Elite Eight matchup Saturday. "What a game!"
Sixty-nine years ago, Loyola University's basketball team didn't have a lovable, 98-year-old, superstar nun sitting courtside with her own bobblehead. And its tournament games weren't on prime-time national television. But Buxbaum and his fellow Ramblers did provide some drama in the 1949 National Invitational Tournament.
"We upset Kentucky," remembers Buxbaum. After beating Cincinnati, Kentucky and Bradley, the Ramblers lost the 1949 championship game by a single point to the University of San Francisco.
"March Madness. I'm going crazy," says Buxbaum, who watches Thursday's game between Loyola and Nevada while wearing a 1963 Loyola jersey from the year the Ramblers won the championship.
"Slow it down. Take your time. Play your game," Buxbaum yells to the TV.
An All-City basketball star for Crane High School, Buxbaum was the ninth of 10 kids in his family and the only one who made it to college. His father, a tailor named Charles, immigrated to Chicago from Galicia, which has been part of Poland, Hungary, Ukrania and other Eastern European empires. His mother, Anna, came to Chicago from Lithuania.
Buxbaum's father, who maintained a large Victory Garden in their yard during World War II, was working in a tree when he fell and suffered injuries that soon led to his death. Buxbaum says his older brother Sol, who coached basketball at the park district, served as his father and got him interested in basketball.
"My best game was 42 points," Buxbaum remembers. "Another game, I had 27 out of our 34 points."
At Loyola, where he adjusted to coming off the bench, Buxbaum, a member of the Chicago Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, says he showed respect to the Catholic faith of his teammates, coaches and the Rev. Richard Tischler, who was the team's spiritual leader. Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the nun with that role for this year's Ramblers, wasn't part of Loyola until 1991, when the all-female Mundelein College merged with the all-male Loyola.
"Before every game we prayed, and I use to say, 'What happens when we play Notre Dame?'" laughs Buxbaum, who was allowed dispensation from prayers and other Catholic rituals. "Many of them never knew what a Jew was."
The team also had two black players, and Buxbaum says hotels wouldn't let the black players in unless the entire team would threaten to leave. "When you've got a team, you play to win together," Buxbaum says.
A sergeant in the Army's 5th Regemental Combat Team during the Korean War, Buxbaum spent 11 months on the front line. After the war, he had a blind date with Elain Yarling at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, where the Ames Brothers sang "You You You." He proposed that night and every night until she said "yes" three days later. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary six months before she died from kidney issues on her 72nd birthday in 2006. Their son, Cary, lives in Northbrook, and daughter Andrea lives in Buffalo Grove. Buxbaum also has three grandsons and one granddaughter.
As much as he enjoys watching Loyola basketball, he also says his playing experience helped him build a chain of auto and muffler shops, teach at driving schools in Arlington Heights in Buffalo Grove, and take a job with the Cook County clerk's office, where he just retired at the end of last year.
"I've been working since I was 8," says Buxbaum, whose first job was delivering newspapers. "Sports taught me attitude and perseverance, and that's carried me through my life."