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From Drilling Shots To Drilling Teeth

Former Post Avenue dentist, basketball star played in 1959 NCAA Final Four

If you have an appointment at Dental Arts of Garden City and are fortunate enough to draw Dr. Donald Goldstein, who started his dental career on Post Avenue in Westbury, the first thing you notice about the genial dental practitioner is his lanky, 6’ 5” frame and large hands. If you were to guess that he knew his way around a basketball court, you’d be right. But what might surprise you was his involvement in the 1959 NCAA Final Four, a tournament that found him playing against college superstars and future NBA Hall of Famers, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Far from being a mere bench player, the All-American helped lead Louisville to its first Final Four appearance, averaging 21.4 points and 10 rebounds during the 1959 tournament. In the process, Louisville also dethroned the legendary Adolph Rupp and his University of Kentucky squad, the reigning barons of the state and a college basketball force in its own right.

While most of the past four-plus decades Goldstein has been better known for dental drilling than for driving to the net, his accomplishments as a basketball player have not gone unnoticed. In 1980, he was inducted into the Louisville Hall of Fame and last year, the Brooklyn-based Basketball Old-Timers of America inducted him into its hall of fame alongside scribe Jim O’Connell, Syracuse University legend Dwayne “Pearl” Washington and high school coaches Herb Hess and Chuck Granby. On September 20, Donald “Red” Goldstein was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame alongside fellow players Big Apple ballers Ray Felix, Connie Simmons, Ricky Sobers and Charles Yelverton along with Granby. It’s a distinction Goldstein is honored and bemused by.

“When I received the letter from the committee, they were calling me a legend but if I was such a legend, why did it take 55 years for me to get in?,” he said shaking his head. “I don’t know what the hell their problem is because two of the guys I know very well, [Simmons and Felix], who were sensational players are dead. I don’t know why they waited this long to take them in.”

Humble Beginnings

Goldstein’s story is a classic immigrant story with a strong vein of sadness and tragedy running through it. The son of two parents who were deaf and mute, he and his two-year-old brother lost their mother when he was four. The boys and their father wound up moving in with the latter’s then 60-year-old mother-in-law, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who only spoke Yiddish. Living in the Brooklyn ghetto of Brownsville, the future college basketball great grew up in a state of poverty, eventually attending Flatbush’s Samuel J. Tilden High School.

“We didn’t have a television or a telephone in 1955 by the time I went away to college, so I really grew up with nothing,” he explained. “My most embarrassing memory is that the clothes I wore were hand-me-downs from a guy who was about six inches shorter than me so the heel of my socks were in my instep and didn’t reach my ankle. I have a thing now where all my socks are as high as they can possibly be. I went away to Tilden High School and I was way out of my social economic group. I didn’t have the clothes and never had a date in high school. I didn’t have the wardrobe for it and couldn’t afford to take out a girl.”

Goldstein may not have had much in his pockets, but he showed plenty on the high school hardwood; enough to merit around 50 scholarship offers. Despite wanting to go to Dartmouth, the $400 he needed to pony up wound up being a deal-breaker. His hometown school of New York University, then a college basketball powerhouse, ended up coming through with a scholarship. The Tilden senior was all set to start going to school in Manhattan before a University of Louisville basketball recruit named Alex Mantel came calling. “I think what happened was the small, but very strong Jewish community in Louisville that totally supported the basketball program told the coaches they wanted a couple of Jewish guys [on the team]. Well, you can never bring one of any minority because you’ve to room them with a hillbilly at one point or another,” he explained. “So this guy Alex came to my house and said he had two tickets to Louisville. We flew down there and it was the only place I visited. I thought it was fabulous even though it was nothing special. We played in an armory and the dormitories were navy barracks. It smelled so good. I swear to G-d, I think it was honeysuckle because it was during Derby time.”

When the Brooklyn native changed his commitment to Louisville, NYU lashed out by accusing the Kentucky school of paying off Goldstein on the side to switch schools, a clear violation of N.C.A.A. rules. As a result, the University of Louisville was put on probation based on allegations versus clear-cut proof.

“All I got was a scholarship that paid for room, board and books. I didn’t get any money,” the Cardinal alum explained. “I remember they had an article in the paper where they called me, ‘the man with the hands.’ Milton Gross wrote the article and I’ll never forget it. What are hands for? Taking money; and Louisville was put on probation and I got nothing.

Southbound And The Final Four

The Deep South in the 1950s was a simmering scene of racial tension that would eventually boil over in the 1960s. Segregation was in full swing and while the situation made Goldstein uncomfortable, he only experienced anti-Semitism three times on the road but never at home. For his teammates and new neighbors, curious ignorance versus vindictiveness was what the transplanted Brooklynite experienced.

“I used to wear a prayer shawl and these guys never saw a Jew. They once asked me once with no malice how old I was when they cut off my horns,” he recalled. “I never had a bad day [with my teammates]. I never heard one anti-Semitic remark in Louisville. If you could play, that was it.”

Such was not the case on the road playing in Ohio at Xavier Univeristy and the University of Toledo. But the biggest shock for Goldstein came when he played at hallowed Notre Dame.

“I never thought I would hear that crap at Notre Dame,” he winced in recollection. “When you walk in that place, there’s an aura. I felt it. Right when you walk into the stadium, there’s a Heisman Trophy and one whole massive bunch of black and white collars. And I heard them yelling out ‘You Jew bastard’ from the student section. Nobody on the floor but from the stands and I was appalled.”

Despite incidents like these, Goldstein’s perseverance on and off the court not only found him pulling a B-minus cumulative average as a biology/pre-dental major, but helping pave the way towards Louisville’s eventual showdown with Adolph Rupp’s rival University of Kentucky in 1959. It was a game that proved to be the biggest in Louisville history. And despite being 15-point underdogs, the Cardinals upset the Wildcats 76-61 at this historic game that was played at the Evanston, Illinois campus of Northwestern University.

The Final Four featured Oscar Robertson’s University of Cincinnati, Jerry West’s West Virginia Mountaineers and Darrall Imhoff’s eventual champion University of California Golden Bears. Played on Louisville’s home court, it proved to be an anti-climactic finale to a magical run.

“We could have won the thing if we didn’t come home,” Goldstein explained. “We could have won it but once we came home, all day and all night the phones were ringing. People in the dormitory wouldn’t let you sleep. Once [Coach Peck] Hickman beat Kentucky, I don’t think he gave a damn. He wanted to win the whole thing, but that wasn’t his goal.”

Life After Hoops

Don Goldstein was a second-round pick for the Pistons, newly moved from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Detroit. The first pick in the second round, Goldstein was offered an annual salary of $7500 and a $500 signing bonus to buy a car. There was also the offer of a four-year dental degree at a Detroit-area school that rubber-stamped his acceptance. But for enticing an offer as it may have been, the future dentist knew the commitment needed to earn his degree.

“What [Detroit] offered me I knew was b.s.,” Goldstein pointed out. “I knew I wouldn’t have lasted one year [in dental school]. I asked if I could only play home games and not travel. They said no and I said fine. I’m not doing it.”

Basketball became a sideline as he attended dental school. Aside from playing some semi-pro ball to pay for his meals, the former college star started his practice in Westbury in 1967 on Post Avenue before moving to Old Country Road. For the past 20 years he’s been based at Dental Arts of Garden City, spending six months in New York and six months down in Del Ray, Florida working two days a week. Down south, he donates dental care to a Catholic mission that services poor migrant workers. In December, the 74-year-old dentist will be celebrating his 50th year of marriage to wife Roberta. He has no qualms about the path his life has taken.

“I have no regrets about not playing pro ball. I still have a lot to be grateful for. I really made a life and was able to do things. I haven’t picked up a ball in 20 years. Dentistry is my game now,” he said. “Now I just want to stay busy and try to be productive. I’m not a guy who’s going to play golf every day. I can’t do that. If I see one patient, I don’t care. As long as I come in here, I feel like I’m still useful.”