Two weeks after the tragedies of September 11, Jim Spanarkel ’79 says, he was having problems focusing on his job, his past, or much of anything else. His office, a Merrill Lynch branch in Paramus, New Jersey, is a mere twenty-five miles from the World Trade Center site. His wedding pictures were taken from Windows of the World, the restaurant that once existed atop Tower One.
In the incident’s aftermath, the markets plummeted before bouncing back and the economy was recognized as being in a recession, but Spanarkel—a forty-six-year-old certified financial planner who helps manage millions of dollars for the firm’s wealth management group—wasn’t panicking. “There couldn’t be a more horrible event, but long-term financial success isn’t event-driven. Investing is about discipline, not emotions,” he says. “Still, this is the kind of event that makes one re-evaluate practically everything.”
One might consider Spanarkel’s life fodder for a corny Hollywood script. He’s a kid from the streets of Jersey City who won a scholarship to Duke and became an All–American, then played in the NBA and became a successful basketball broadcaster and financial planner. Growing up between two sisters and three brothers, he married his high-school sweetheart. They have two boys and two girls. “I count my blessings, but right now I’m more focused on the people who are missing and their families,” he says.
Sports came easy to Spanarkel. Most of his spare time was filled playing touch football and baseball on rutted fields or shooting hoops in the park. “My dad was a sales rep for Kellogg’s, so the joke was that we must have eaten more cereal than any other kids in the neighborhood,” he says. “Dad had a big influence on my athletic development—he was a master at offering advice in a quiet, unassuming way.”
At Hudson Catholic High School, Spanarkel starred in both baseball and basketball. A year behind him was teammate Mike O’Koren, who would go on to become a rival and an All-American at the University of North Carolina. “I couldn’t talk Mike into Duke; he wanted to do his own thing,” says Spanarkel. Duke was especially attractive, he says, because it offered him the opportunity to play both baseball and basketball.
By his junior year, however, Duke’s basketball season was lasting into late March and he didn’t have time to prepare for baseball anymore. A six-foot-five shooting guard, he was ACC Freshman of the Year in 1976 and the first Blue Devil to score 2,000 points. He helped lead Duke to the national championship game against Kentucky in 1978 as a junior under coach Bill Foster.
Many credit that team—the first Duke team to make the tournament in more than a decade—with setting the program’s tone for years to come. Spanarkel and teammates Mike Gminski ’80 and Gene Banks ’81 played the game with flair and intelligence, and their squad was a reason many blue-chips-to-be dreamed of someday becoming Blue Devils.
Spanarkel, who wore number 34 at Duke, claims to have made up for unexceptional athletic skills by gaining experience in playing more games than most teenagers. At Duke, he was inspired to work hard by Tate Armstrong ’77, M.B.A. ’85, a team leader. After averaging eighteen points per game over his Blue Devil career, he was drafted as the sixteenth pick in the first round by the Philadelphia 76ers and was selected in the NBA expansion draft the following year by the Dallas Mavericks. He played in Dallas for another three seasons.
“I loved playing for Dick Motta, and was there when they acquired Mark Aguire and Rolando Blackman and had some success,” says Spanarkel. “But college and pro were vastly different in the sense that I went from playing ball for fun to having to survive training camps. Still, how many people can say that they competed with and against people such as Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird?”
Spanarkel sensed his NBA career was winding down and, with his history degree under his belt, considered law school. He decided to make the most out of sitting around the airports and hotels, so much a part of NBA life, by studying for and earning his securities and real-estate licenses. “By the end, I was a little discouraged by basketball, and that might have been why I didn’t look to coach,” he says. “Playing time wasn’t always doled out on merit; I felt there were times when I played behind guys because they had a guaranteed contract or a big reputation.”
In 1982, he married his high-school sweetheart, Janet, and settled in northern New Jersey. A year after starting with Merrill Lynch, he landed a part–time color analyst position with the New Jersey Nets. Today, he still works for the Nets, and also works Big East Conference games for ESPN and NCAA tournament games for CBS.
“I don’t get back to Duke as much as I’d like to, but I’ll always cherish those memories,” he says. Coincidentally, his old teammate and rival O’Koren is now an assistant coach with the Nets. Says Spanarkel, “Mike has grown tired of hearing me say, there’s nothing like Cameron.”
“This is the kind of event that makes one re-evaluate practically everything.”
—Jim Spanarkel, on the events of September 11
“How many people can say that they competed with and against people such as Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird?”
—Jim Spanarkel, reflecting on his NBA career