Los Angeles Times


Plaschke's honorable mention's
From Russian with glove
Hitting high notes
Cohen didn't act the part, so of course she didn't get the part

The name is in giant cardinal letters, stripped across two sides of the new basketball court in this city's new basketball treasure, the signature on USC's signature arena.

It will be stepped upon by generations of Trojans basketball players.

It will be seen by millions of Galen Center fans.

Yet it is cloaked in mystery.

Jim Sterkel Court.

"Are you sure?" asks his wife, Joanne Sterkel. "His name is on what?"

It's on the hardwood, scripted there forever, officially scuffed for the first time on Nov. 16, when the Trojans open the season against South Carolina.

It honors a former Trojan who played only two seasons in the mid-1950s. He never averaged more than 10 points a game. His teams never won more than 16 games. He never graduated.

Jim Sterkel Court.

"You're kidding me," asks his daughter Jill. "Are you sure you have the right man?"

He spent a lifetime working as a Johnson Wax salesman. He died of cancer in 1997. He left behind a wife of 38 years and three children and a modest Hacienda Heights home.

Outside that home today there hangs a college banner.

A UCLA banner.

He wasn't a Trojans donor, he never had Trojans season tickets, and if he had any Trojans memories, he kept them to himself.

Jim Sterkel Court.

"I have no idea who put his name on there," says his wife. "And I have no idea why."

A most amazing story in this city of stars, a sports centerpiece decorated in average, laced in ordinary, painted in a nobody.

Or was he?


This tale, like many Hollywood tales, starts quietly, in the suburbs, in adolescence.

Two boys meet at Mark Keppel High in Alhambra.

One likes to play sports, the other likes to watch sports, and together they become as one, chasing fun and fear and dreams.

They attend separate junior colleges, but remain close. When they both enroll in USC in the fall of 1955, they become roommates.

One is a 6-foot-7, 230-pound center named Jim Sterkel.

The other, for reasons you will understand later, is Anonymous.

Anonymous was the businessman, Sterkel was the jock, and it was through sports that Anonymous best understood his friend.

"Jim came home from a game at USF one time with two black eyes," Anonymous said. "It took him a while to admit that he had taken just two shots, and that Bill Russell had blocked both of them right back in his face."

It was then that Anonymous realized Sterkel's honesty and lack of ego, something his teammates already knew.

"The thing everyone remembers most about Jim was, he was just a real good-natured guy," said former Trojans guard Ken Walker. "There was not a mean bone in his body."

After scoring all of nine baskets in his junior year, Sterkel was voted the team's most improved player in his senior year, averaging 9.6 points and 8.6 rebounds.

"He was never a great player, no," said Anonymous. "But he was the kind that kept showing up."

After their senior years, the roommates set upon vastly different courses of life, but never strayed too far.

Anonymous became a business tycoon, while Sterkel became a suburban salesman and church leader, yet they still met for family dinners, fishing trips and pep talks on the phone.

Sterkel was the kind of guy who didn't smoke, didn't swear, and would lead his church in services and on its basketball courts.

He was the kind of guy neighbors phoned if they needed a television fixed or pipe unclogged. Giant and bespectacled and always smiling, he was the kind of guy who hugged everyone.

Anonymous was the kind of guy who, while leading a faster-paced life, gained strength from Sterkel's daily consistency.

"It's hard to find friends who last a lifetime," Anonymous recalled. "For me, Jim was that guy."

When Sterkel retired from Johnson Wax, Anonymous hired him for a job at his company.

When Sterkel first noticed a lump in his testicles, he told Anonymous, who immediately drove him to the doctor for the beginning of his long and fatal relationship with cancer.

While Sterkel was dying, Anonymous' young son also contracted cancer. Sterkel wrote Anonymous a poem, sealed it, and ordered it only to be read if Anonymous' son died.

Less than two years after Sterkel's death, Anonymous' son died of leukemia. He unsealed and read the poem. He said he still feels its imprint today.

"I'll never forget that he took the time out of his own life during his final days to do this for me, to try to inspire my life even when he was losing his own life," Anonymous said.

It was this inspiration that Anonymous remembered when he was approached by USC with an offer to make a donation to put his name on the new court.

He could have given the school his son's name. Most people would have given their own name.

Instead, he wrote a check for about $5 million and gave the name of Jim Sterkel.

"Some people don't deserve to be forgotten," Anonymous said. "Maybe this will keep him around a little longer."

At first, USC officials were stunned. Then, they were moved.

"A great example of the Trojan family," said Mike Garrett, athletic director.

Anonymous had only one request, that the donation be forever nameless, so USC refused to provide me with his name.

Even once I figured it out, Anonymous did not answer repeated interview requests for this story until he was finally promised that it would not include his name.

"The joy I have in remembering Jim would be significantly reduced if people knew who I was,'' he said.

When he finally agreed to the interview, my first question had been rolling around in my gut for a week.

"So what exactly did Jim Sterkel do for you to warrant this incredible honor?" I asked. "Did he give you a kidney? Did he pull you out of a burning car?"

Anonymous sighed.

"He did much more than that," he said. "He was my friend."


Some might think that Jim Sterkel's name was placed on the court not only for his memory, but for his family.

Well, Anonymous still hasn't told the family.

When I contacted them about the court, they had no idea. They had not read about it in the newspapers, or seen it on the USC website, or heard the buzz on the blogs.

Jill, a former Olympic gold medal swimmer, began crying. She politely excused herself, hung up the phone, and we talked later.

"My dad was never famous, he never cared about that," she said. "He was just a good guy and a great parent."

Upon hearing the news, Joanne also wept in disbelief.

After her initial shock, she figured out that there could be only one possible donor, and she correctly identified him, but she remained puzzled.

"He was such a good husband, such a good man, but do people really notice those things anymore?" she said of Jim.

Anonymous knew the family well -- photos of him and Jim are on the several walls of the house -- but he said he just didn't want to call attention to the gift.

In fact, he hasn't even spoken to the family since Jim's death.

Noting that Joanne attended UCLA, he said, "I thought it might be neat if she first saw the name when she was watching the Bruins play at Galen Center on television."

Actually, the family has not yet made any plans to see the court.

And USC, honoring the donor's anonymity, has no plans to contact them in this regard.

"We're just happy that a good person like Jim Sterkel can be remembered on our campus in perpetuity," said Don Winston, the university's associate athletic director and fund-raising whiz. "We've heard a lot of folks saying, 'Who's Jim Sterkel?' Now they will know."

Some folks are asking that question angrily.

There is talk in some USC circles that the naming of the court should not have been sold, but rather given to a former Trojans basketball hero like Bill Sharman, Tex Winter or Paul Westphal.

After all, John Wooden's name is on the UCLA court, and Lute Olson's name is on the Arizona court.

To which Anonymous says, "If you have a friend for 50 years, isn't that big enough?"

And it is. Of course it is.

In a town where sidewalks are filled with the names of people famous for acting like someone else, what is wrong with celebrating the name of someone who was great at just being himself?

In a town where five percent of the people are stars and the rest of them are like us, what's wrong with celebrating us?

A most amazing story in this city of stars, a sports centerpiece decorated in average, laced in ordinary, painted in a nobody.

Gosh, it's beautiful.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times