Did you ever know that you’re my hero?
That’s what I recently asked Jim Paige. Growing up in Brooklyn with no sports interest until age 10, Paige was the first great athlete I saw. I became sports obsessed, drawn toward sports broadcasting. Two motivating factors were hearing Marv Albert as Knicks radio voice and watching Paige play hoops.
I’m fortunate for having called the NCAA Basketball Tournament on Westwood One, anchoring for New York City’s all-sports radio station, WFAN, and receiving Emmy Award nominations at News 12 New Jersey. Without Paige, there’s no telling what career I’d have pursued.
Built like a six-foot, African-American Adonis, several years after playing basketball at Division II Virginia State University, Paige remained an explosive, effortless athlete. Shirtless pickup games revealed Paige’s black college fraternity emblem from Kappa Alpha Psi branded into his powerful right arm. While shooting around, ball still in mid-air, the Philadelphia native often unleashed a familiar bellow.
“Good!” Paige barked, laughing as his shot dropped, with kids like me laughing too.
Baseball cap worn sideward, Paige’s super cool, signature gait, part strutting, part gliding, arm swinging, seemed to say, “Coming through!” As his wife Cheryl said, “Had that Philly stroll.” Kids admired this gifted Pied Piper who made us feel safe. Indeed, Paige worked as a devoted youth
counselor in Westchester County, N.Y. for over two decades. On days after Muhammad Ali, then a fading heavyweight champion fought, Paige strolled around, fist in the air, yelling, “Ali! Ali!”
After no contact with Paige since childhood, I recently learned that at age 70 he’s suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. It causes gradual paralysis with no known cure. After soaring above the rim, for three years Paige has been paralyzed from the neck down. Shaken, I became determined to tell him I’ve been a sports broadcaster over 20 years, thanks largely to him.
How good an athlete was Paige?
“As good as it gets,” said Paige’s former co-worker, Dave Rosenthal, 67, a picturesque, 6’4” shooter whose one-on-one matchups with Paige fascinated kids. “He could shut guys down 6’5. He had a jumping ability like you couldn’t believe. He really turned me on to jazz too in a big way. That’s when Jimmy and I became really close friends.”
The pair once drove to a Carnegie Hall jazz concert. “I cut through Harlem,” recalled Rosenthal, who is white. “Here’s Jimmy, a black muscular guy, turning to me and saying, ‘David, we’re in Harlem. Lock the damn doors!’” Rosenthal said, chuckling.
I visited Paige last week at his home in southern New Jersey. Though relegated to a living room easy chair, voice sometimes weak, the twinkle in his eyes, gift of gab, hearty laugh and sharp mind remain “Jimbo.” Despite needing around-the-clock care, Paige maintains his zest for life, often surrounded by family and friends.
“I’m a little slower than I used to be, but I’m still moving,” Paige said. That’s a far cry from a Met game when he recalled catching a foul ball at Shea Stadium while holding a beer. Paige asks that I turn his motionless left hand over, so that his palm is up, indicating he caught the ball in his bare hand. Most impressive, “I didn’t spill none of my drink,” he remembered, laughing.
He still follows sports closely, and Paige loved watching Willie Mays, Jim Brown and fellow Philly native Wilt Chamberlin, and listening to Vin Scully. Paige’s eyes brightened upon hearing I once interviewed Scully. His face lit up when I told him that I knew the late Art Rust Jr., the popular African-American, New York sports radio host of the 1970’s and 80’s. We were both big fans of Rust.
During our visit, Paige takes a call from a man who was troubled some 40 years ago and for whom he then cared. The man checks in on Jimmy often. “The kids adored Jimmy, I adore Jimmy,” Rosenthal said.
The ALS Association says those stricken with the disease have an average life expectancy of two to five years after diagnosis.
Since Lou Gehrig was diagnosed in 1939, among those afflicted with ALS are fellow Baseball Hall of Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter and ex-San Francisco 49ers receiver Dwight Clark. The ALS Association estimates that 20,000 people have the disease, typically surviving two to five years after diagnosis.
Paige was diagnosed four years ago. “Being I believe in the Lord, it’s a part of life,” Paige said. “It’s just one of those things. My time.” ALS often eventually halts speech and swallowing. “Jimmy is very blessed that it has not gotten there,” his wife Cheryl said.
Turns out, I’m just one of many thanking Paige these days. A coffee table album contains notes of affection, providing inspiration. “He can smell his flowers now,” Cheryl said. “Because everybody in his life that he has impacted has been past here to see him, or call him, and show him how much they love him. It’s truly remarkable.”
“Try and be as happy as I can each and every day,” Paige said. “And maybe I can inspire people who might be inflicted with some type of horrible, horrible disease to look ahead. Because it’s not like I’m looking back and giving up. I’m never going to give up. But I do feel good because I can smile every day.”
When I told Paige about a dream broadcasting job I recently pursued but failed to get, he encouraged me too to never give up. Asked what he misses most in his condition, without hesitation Paige said, “Being able to help people. I always liked to help people. I love helping, and right now I just can’t help as I used to.”
A Virginia State basketball recap of the 1969-70 season, Paige’s senior year, says he “no doubt has the springiest legs in the CIAA (Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association), stuffed shots, out-rebounded superstars.” Paige says that what he now misses most physically is “just being able to take that one step!
“Every day my mind goes back to a positive space. And that’s one of the greatest things I can say that the Lord still affords me. He didn’t take my memory, he didn’t take my spirit. I love people, I love relationships.” Smiling, he added, “I love to run my mouth.”
After asking when he could next hear me on the radio, Paige had me jot it down inside a nearby jazz book for safekeeping. For him, it still comes back to sports and music. Finally, it was time to pose my biggest question.
Did you ever know that you’re my hero?
“Oh God, oh my goodness,” Paige said. “You never know if you’re a role model or not in somebody’s life. I just never knew that you were looking at me like that. It makes me feel so good just to know that we could communicate, without you even saying anything about me. Life is wonderful.
“Love,” Paige called it. “That’s beautiful. I couldn’t ask for no more than that. Man, I felt like a million dollars when you told me that.”
Just before parting, Paige asks to bump fists, and I gently tap my knuckles against his left hand, resting flat on an arm of the chair. “Send me a picture if you see one you like,” Paige urges me, explaining that it keeps him engaged. As I reach the door, Paige yells, “Be cool, Joe, Joe!” Despite his condition, my lasting image of him remains forever frozen: leaping, shooting, laughing, and that familiar cry.
To defray medical related expenses, Paige’s loved ones recently launched a fundraising campaign at https://www.gofundme.com/wysr7z-jimbo-love. Even a small donation is greatly appreciated.
Great article Joey.
Jim is a special guy who touched so many lives.
Fantastic article. Thanks for sharing your memories of Jimmy.
I was at State when Jimbo was there, I could see that walk and positive attitude he always displayed as Joe described him. Yo yo my Brother!
Thank you Joey for painting a literary picture of Jimbo as I knew him at VSU and as I know him now.
Be well and continue to do good work!
Thank you so much for your touching story about my cousin Jimmy. He has touched so many people up and down the east coast. Even now he continues to inspire, comfort, and entertain us with his brilliance and humanity. I’m glad you enjoyed your visit.
As long time friend of Cheryl then I met Jimmy your article brought back so many forgotten memories of Jimmy things he was so known for that hat to the side his stroll his humor thanks for the memories
Thank for writing such a beautiful article about my uncle and for helping to bring more awareness about this disease.
Jimmy and Cheryl Paige, have no idea how many people they continue to inspire daily. They are the living examples of fortitude, grace under pressure and love. Both demonstrate the indomitable spirit of champions.
Jimbo Paige, while I’m so saddened to know of your illness, I’m uplifted by your faith in The Lord and by your unquenchable Spirit! Man, do I remember your zest for life at State, and that great athletic ability that seemed so effortless, yet you didn’t to even seem to acknowledge it, since you were so busy living life to its fullest. You were I guy I great admired, and though we haven’t seen each other for a very long time, I remember with joy how you filled the room with your presence and you made everyone around you feel very special! Jimbo, my prayers for you and Cheryl will continue, and I ask The Lord to visit you in a Special Way, as only He can, and bring you a Revelation into The Knowledge of Him that will lift you into His Presence, even now, and grant you His Peace that passes all understanding! God Bless You Both My Friends!
Please accept my sincere appreciation for your wonderful story about my fellow classmate from Virginia State College, “Jimbo” Paige. We will never forget his personality, his smile, the way he wore his cap off to the side, his unique walk and of course his great basketball prowess! Jimbo was indeed the best. Thank you for sharing your memories of what others enjoyed as well. I will continue to thank God for Jimbo Paige and pray for his family and his wife Cheryl And all the best to you and your continuing successful career
Thank you for diplaying such a sincere appreciation for Jimbo the way most of his friend and fellow alumni felt about him .Jim was one of a kind always smiling and being his congenial self.His love of people will never be overshadowed by any disease.Thank you writing about Jimmy in away that showed that light and love we all saw in him.
I was a social worker at Hawthorne from 1973 to 1985. Thank you, Jimbo for all you did on the unit and in school to make us happy–so freely and so generously– to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts ! And Joey, cannot thank you enough for capturing all this and expressing it.
Joey, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Jim for over 15 years. In that time, we developed a friendship that continues to this day.
Jim had a way of calming down any situation, and is always fun to communicate with, as his mind is super quick, and his personality all encopassing.
Keep up the good work and thank you for your article about the dynamic Jim “Mafundi ” Paige.
Peace and love,
Thanks so much for the comments here. And Bert, I remember you teaching gym – you were a good guy too!
Asa (Peace) Jimbo Paige was my neighbor All my formative years growing up He would take me with him on Sundays All over the city to run ball . He is one of the greatest athletes
Germantown has Ever produced. He made All of us who grew up on the Block feel safe and gave us a sense of pride in being Black when it wasn’t popular to feel that way. He got it honestly for his Father was known as the sharif of Duval St (Big Jim) Your article was so on point from his laugh to his walk Jimbo is a HERO in every sense of the Word Next to my brothers Jazz collection His is legendary!!!
To know this Great man is to Love him and WE ALL Do!!!
Thank you for writing this lovely short memoir of your experiences with Jim. He and my late husband known as DUMBO were good friends. With all Jim’s health issues, Jim calls periodically to check on me and my two daughters. Jim is a loving and caring man. Loved by all, Jim will always have a special place in the hearts of those who know him. Jim and DUMBO loved each other dearly and always remained good friends.
God bless dear Jim and his family.