While the wound still ached, Leslie Schlegel-Danowski was accommodating when a reporter called recently to talk about her late brother, Mike Schlegel. She dusted off memories of tagging along with her big brother to neighborhood sandlot games and of the family’s basketball hoop at the end of the driveway that her dad built. She was happy to reminisce, but afterwards, Leslie had a request.
She’d been alerted to an online post by a man claiming to own a game-worn Mike Schlegel uniform. She wanted to find out if the post was legitimate, and she wanted to talk to him. The family didn’t own many reminders of Mike’s playing career, and Leslie wanted to know what it would take for the man to part with the uniform.
The son of a construction worker, Bay Shore, N.Y. native Mike Schlegel was a quiet, blue-collar presence on three VCU NCAA Tournament teams at VCU from 1981-85.
A rugged rebounder with a soft shooter’s touch, Schlegel scored 1,173 points and grabbed 743 boards in four seasons. He averaged 12.9 points and 8.1 rebounds on VCU’s 1984-85 team that finished the year ranked 11th nationally and was MVP of the Sun Belt Championship. In the Sun Belt semifinals that year, Schlegel tied a school record by connecting on all 10 of his field goal attempts in a win over Jacksonville.
“Mike wasn’t scared of nobody,” said former teammate Calvin Duncan.” Mike set picks to get you open. Mike would hit the 15-footer, the jump hook. Mike was awesome.”
Schlegel was later selected in the fifth round of 1985 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks, but did not make the team. He eventually carved out a 12-year professional career overseas, mostly in Spain, before returning to the United States. Following his retirement from basketball, he settled down in Cocoa Beach, Fla., where he opened a bar with a friend.
In 2007, he began feeling pain in one leg following a minor traffic accident. What began as a precautionary doctor’s visit quickly became serious. Doctors found a mass that was later diagnosed as sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. In 2009, after an 18-month battle with the disease, Schlegel died. He was 45 and left behind a fiancée and three daughters.
As a teenager, lifelong VCU fan Jim Gossip wandered into the types of daydreams shared by nearly every red-blooded fan. As his mind drifted, he imagined he was Schlegel, his favorite player, as he stood in front of the mirror and mimicked sinking free throws.
But Gossip’s daydream was rooted closer to reality than most. Sometimes, he’d retrieve from his parents’ closet a prized family heirloom, a game-worn Mike Schlegel home uniform from the 1984-85 season. The uniform didn’t necessarily fit, since it was made for the 6-foot-7 Schlegel, but that didn’t bother teenage Jim. For a moment, the experience felt authentic. That uniform allowed him to step into, almost literally, Schlegel’s shoes.
The uniform was a gift from VCU Coach J.D. Barnett to Gossip’s father, also named Jim. A 1975 VCU graduate, the elder Gossip was an early member of the Rams Club and became close with Barnett during his VCU tenure from 1981-85. Although he got to know many Rams from those Barnett-coached teams, the elder Gossip took a special liking to Schlegel. He couldn’t help but revel in Schlegel’s nightly battles in the paint with players two, three, four inches taller, and his ability to get the best of his larger adversaries. Even on a team noted for its toughness, Schlegel stood out as the roughneck.
“It was hard for Mike not to be a favorite,” Gossip says. “Whether it was practice or a ballgame, he was always bright red afterwards. That was all that contact. Mike relished contact. He was a hard working, strong determined guy, and you root for a guy like that.”
The Gossips cherished that uniform. Formerly residents of the Tidewater area, Jim, 61, and his wife now live in Jackson, N.C., just across the Virginia-North Carolina border, where he serves as mayor and is president and CEO of a bank. For decades, he preserved the Schlegel uniform inside a clear plastic bag, which he hung neatly inside his closet.
The Gossips are not memorabilia collectors, per se. But that uniform became a priceless piece of lore, an irreplaceable artifact from an era in which VCU Basketball grew into a family tradition.
“My father and I had the exact same mentality,” says the younger Jim, who resides in the Richmond area, of the uniform. “We wouldn’t get rid of it for anything in the world.”
Shortly after the reporter located and contacted the Gossips on Leslie’s behalf, they made up their mind. The uniform belonged with the Schlegel family.
“I told her my family would be honored and very privileged to get you these things,” the elder Gossip said recently. “Believe it or not, it’s easy to let go of it for this reason. If anyone else had asked me, there‘s no way. But for the Schlegel family it was easy. This is where it needs to be. Probably if the school wanted it, that would be the only other way. If somebody had offered me $50,000, they wouldn’t get it.”
In early February, the package arrived at the childhood home of Mike Schlegel, where Leslie Schlegel-Danowski now lives with her husband and two sons.
She opened the box and removed from inside a white, mesh jersey, framed by gold and black trim, and shorts from its protective soft plastic case. Despite its age, Leslie says it was in outstanding condition. For 30 years, it had been handled delicately. She turned the jersey over to the back to reveal Mike’s No. 43, displayed in black, trimmed with gold. Her sons, who are 10 and 8 years old, tried on the shorts and expressed shock at their length, or lack thereof.
Later, Schlegel-Danowski surprised her parents with the uniform, which she says left them both “a little misty-eyed.”
“They were just blown away,” she said.
Schlegel-Danowski says it will be soon be framed and displayed in the house in which Mike grew up. She expressed graciousness and amazement at the Gossips’ willingness to hand over the uniform. The younger Gossip also later dug out two Mike Schlegel-signed game programs from the 80s and mailed them to Bay Shore.
“There was not even the blink of an eye,” she said of the Gossips, who refused payment for the uniform. “And I would hope I would be that way. I think it just showed, we always think there’s so much bad in the world, but there’s so much good too.”
Schlegel-Danowski hopes the uniform will allow her sons, Will, 10, and Andrew, 8, to connect with the memory of their uncle. They were just toddlers when Mike passed away.
Shortly before the uniform arrived, Schlegel-Danowski was reliving memories of her brother with her sons. Will and Andrew are both avid lacrosse players, but are starting to develop a basketball itch as well. After discussing the uncle he barely knew, Andrew told his mom he’d made a decision. He’s planning on changing his jersey to No. 43 next season.