Ernie Vandeweghe: Player, Doctor, Patriarch

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Ex-New York Knick player Ernie Vandeweghe passed away on Nov. 8 at 86 years old. Sports fans knew him mostly as the father of NBA star Kiki Vandeweghe. Ernie’s own accomplishments, however, and the sports family dynasty he spawned went way beyond that.

The Vandeweghe clan appears unmatched for the depth and variety of its sustained athletic excellence.

Ernie began the family reign with an All-America basketball career at Colgate. He also played soccer at Colgate and received an invitation to the 1948 United States Olympic Soccer Trials. After graduation in 1949, Vandeweghe played in the NBA for six seasons. 

Younger brother Gary played basketball at Dartmouth and led the team in scoring in the 1959-1960 season. Ernie’s son Kiki became the most famous Vandeweghe, scoring 29.4 points per game one season with the Denver Nuggets and making four NBA All-Star teams. Kiki also set a national age-group record in the butterfly as a youth swimmer.

Ernie had three other children who all excelled at sports: Tauna won the United States national championship in the backstroke and reached the semifinals of the 1976 Olympics. Heather captained a United States national water polo team. Son Bruk medaled in beach volleyball player in the 1994 Goodwill Games and subsequently played professional volleyball. 

The third generation continued the excellence. Tauna’s daughter CoCo won a junior national tennis title in 2008 and currently ranks No. 40 on the women’s professional tour. Another daughter, Honnie, achieved All-American age-group status in water polo. Tauna’s son Beau played with the beach volleyball junior national team and made all-tournament at the 2008 Junior Olympics.

In sum: Three generations, both male and female stars, nine individuals with national or world-class ability at six different sports.

Yet Ernie accomplished even more. When he retired from the NBA he began a long career as a physician. Initially, he served as a doctor for NATO. Then he returned to private practice in Los Angeles, became a professor of pediatrics at UCLA and the Los Angeles Lakers’ team physician. He also chaired the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and served on an Olympics Sports Commission.

That leads to the most unusual aspect of Vandeweghe’s life. Other athletes have also gone on to greater things. (For example, quarterback Frank Ryan earned a Ph.D. in mathematics.) But Vandeweghe did not earn his medical degree after retirement from the NBA or even during off-seasons. Vandeweghe attended medical school DURING his NBA seasons — and apparently graduated in the usual time frame; no part-time or deferred schooling for Ernie.

I went to medical school, so I know this: You can keep a hobby from time to time but you cannot play professional sports and go to medical school at the same time. Seems impossible, especially at the elite places Vandeweghe attended (Columbia Medical School with internship at Bellevue Hospital). After a day spent dissecting cadavers or plating petri dishes or reviewing pathophysiology, medical students typically go home exhausted, and need to rest and then prepare for the next day.

After the first two years of rigorous academic study they move on to in-hospital duty, which in Vandeweghe’s day meant 80 or more hour work-weeks, sometimes staying overnight in the hospital (for 36-hour shifts) every other night for sustained periods of time. Even granting that Vandeweghe missed some NBA road games (he topped out at 57 and 61 games played in a season) and changed into uniform in airplane bathrooms, I cannot fathom finding the energy or time to play NBA basketball while taking a full load of medical school courses, passing difficult exams, and then assuming patient-care responsibilities. Not to mention staying in professional- athlete condition and meeting NBA performance standards.

One of the most unsung achievements in the history of sport: Playing in the NBA as a full-time student in medical school.

Sheldon Hirsch is author of the forthcoming book "Hot Hands, Draft Hype, and DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths" from the University Press of New England.

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