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Meineke led UD basketball into national spotlight

University of Dayton basketball great Don “Monk” Meineke was always quick with a quip.

When people would see him walking for exercise in his Centerville neighborhood, he’d say, “You can’t take a perfect body for granted.”

Needling the other core players in coach Tom Blackburn’s first recruiting class at UD, his standard line for years was, “I was four players short of winning a national championship.”

But Meineke and three other stalwarts in that class — Chuck Grigsby, Junior Norris and Pete Boyle — forged a special bond while becoming the backbone of a team that would lead the program to national prominence in the early 1950s.

“Those four guys, that was a band of brothers,” said former UD player and coach Don Donoher, who was a sophomore sub when those four were seniors. “As much as Monk took pride and was driven for his individual greatness, he took more pride in being part of that foursome.

“That bunch — and Monk was the catalyst — they set the table for this thing we have today.”

Meineke, a two-time All-American and the NBA’s first rookie of the year, died Tuesday after a three-month ordeal with health issues. After accompanying his youngest grandchild to her first day of preschool, he returned to Heartland of Centerville and died peacefully in his room that night. He was 83.

From a start-up program in 1947, the Flyers quickly became a top-20 team behind the 6-foot-7 center, finishing as the NIT runner-up in 1951 and ’52 when that Madison Square Garden event was on equal footing with the NCAA tournament.

Meineke averaged 20.6 and 21.1 points those two seasons and is still sixth on the all-time UD scoring list. The Flyers averaged 26.3 wins during his three years, the most for any class in program history.

Meineke was a homegrown product from the East end, toiling in Dayton industrial leagues along with Grigsby, his childhood friend. Norris, who spent a couple of weeks at Ohio University before dropping out, also was a rec league star.

None of them planned to attend college until being discovered by Blackburn.

At the time, the Flyers played in the Fairgrounds Coliseum, and UD officials were working on raising money for a campus gym. When Blackburn pulled off a 16-14 record in his second season and backers got a glimpse of the Meineke-led freshman class coming up the ranks (freshmen weren’t eligible then), the fundraising took off.

“Tom Blackburn believed in building his team around a center, and he probably had a recruiting budget to match the salary they paid him,” Donoher said, meaning not much. “He went to the Coliseum (to see industrial league games), and that’s where they found Monk.

“He was our Babe Ruth. In fact, up in the dorm, we used to refer to the Fieldhouse as the house that Monk built — just like the Babe.”

Meineke, Norris and Grigsby all became UD Hall of Famers, while Boyle, who came from Long Island, N.Y., was known as a defensive stopper. Razor Campbell, an Ohio State transfer, was the fifth starter during their junior year, and John Horan moved into the lineup when Campbell graduated.

Meineke was the last living starter from that era.

“They were the toughest five guys you’d ever want to see,” said Chris Harris, another future Hall of Famer who was a young back-up on those squads. “They wouldn’t lose, they couldn’t lose. Someone would always come through for those guys. They had fight in them like you can’t believe.”

That team took its cues from Meineke.

“He was such an unbelievable competitor,” Donoher said. “It was hard to find his equal in that regard. He just scratched and clawed every practice and every drill. He was just obsessed with being as good as he could be.”

Meineke held the single-game scoring record at UD with 49 points in 1951 until it was broken by Donald Smith 21 years later with 52.

He was often teased by teammates — all of whom remained close through the years — for not being shy about shooting. And he’d laugh at the digs just as hard as anyone else.

“Blackburn had five plays — one, two, three, four and five,” Donoher said. “One, two, three and four went into the post. And on the fifth, the center vacated the post, and a forward would slip in. Well, when Monk was there, there wasn’t any five play. It was just one, two, three and four.”

The only player from his class to reach the NBA, Meineke was named the league’s top rookie with the Fort Wayne Pistons and played five seasons before beginning a career in business.

Former Dayton Daily News sports reporter Bucky Albers, a longtime UD beat writer, visited Meineke just hours before his death.

The old center was doing a light workout at Heartland.

“I didn’t think he was close to death, and I don’t think he thought he was close to death,” Albers said. “We just had the nicest visit. And he was cracking one-liners like he always does.”

Meineke’s wife, Mary Jane, died Sept. 9, 2011. He is survived by four children, Don, Greg, Jennifer and Jeff, and eight grandchildren, Emily, Quinn, Jack, JoJo, Jacob, Danielle, Nicole and Jacqueline.

Jeff Meineke remembers a heart-to-heart talk with his father when his mother died.

“After the funeral, I said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to give me a year’ — because he had had some heart problems for a while — ‘I can’t go through this again for at least year,’ ” Jeff said. “He said, ‘I’ll guarantee you a year, but I don’t know if I can guarantee much longer.’ I said, ‘Why would you say that?’ He said, ‘I just know how my body feels.’

“He lived through his grandkids, and he stuck around for Jacqueline’s first day of preschool. He died quietly. He just fell asleep.”

Jeff Meineke said the visitation and funeral probably will be held at the end of next week. And he’s got some work to do between now and then.

His dad’s longtime wish was to have a three-piece jazz band at his wake.

“I said to him the other day, ‘Hey dad, do you still want that three-piece jazz band?’ He’s been talking about it our whole lives. He said, ‘Yeah, I do. Actually, make it a five-piece,’ ” Jeff said.

“I’ve got to find a five-piece jazz band somewhere in town.”

Even in his passing, Meineke wanted to make sure he left those he loved with a smile on their face.

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