What’s in a name, anyway?
A lot, according to Bob Eckert as he recalled Jeff Roberts, one of his teammates on the undefeated 1974 Class AA state champion Manchester High School boys basketball team.
"Jeff was the king of nicknames. He had a nickname for everybody," the longtime Manchester Middle School physical education teacher/athletic director said with a laugh.
In looking back on Roberts’ life, perhaps his most appropriate moniker would be "The Happy Man."
"He was a happy guy, a funny guy," said Eckert, a senior point guard and the sixth man on that title team. "He was very good-natured and had a great laugh."
Added Green resident Joe Schler, a senior guard for the Panthers that year, "He was extremely generous. He lived in Tuscon (Ariz.), and when we’d go out there to visit him and went out to eat, he always insisted on picking up the check. He never let us pay for anything."
Roberts insisted on something else, too.
"He never complained – not once -- about his illness. He just accepted it and took it in stride," Schler said. ""He had a beautiful place up on a big hill that overlooked the whole city of Tuscon. We’d sit out on his porch and talk about the Cavaliers, the Indians or whatever, but we never talked about his health. He refused to dwell on it."
Roberts, a senior starting shooting guard for Manchester, passed away Oct. 16 after a long illness. He was 63.
Roberts had been battling complications from scleroderma, an autoimmune disease whose symptoms include a tightening of the skin, joint pain and exaggerated response to cold. Though he desperately wanted to come and see all of his former teammates, the last symptom kept Roberts from returning to Manchester for a 40-year reunion of the championship team in February 2014.
"I just can’t chance it in the winter," Roberts told the event organizer. "If it were in the summer, I’d be there."
It was a bit too much to ask of him. Roberts didn’t give in very much to his condition, but he had to do so that time.
"When he was diagnosed 10 years ago, the doctors didn’t give him much time," Schler said. "So he fully realized what he was up against. But he battled really hard and lasted all this time. He lived way longer than anybody thought he would."
Roberts is the second starter on that championship team to pass away in the last 2½ years. Senior center Mike Phillips, a prep All-American and the Class AA Player of the Year in Ohio that season, died in April 2015 after a fall at his home.
In addition, the senior manager of the team, Paul Rush, passed away in a motorcycle accident in July 2012.
"All that was the first thing I thought of when I heard about Jeff," said Larry Simmons, a senior forward on the Panthers who now lives in Jupiter, Fla. "It’s weird."
"It’s a reminder that we’re not 30 anymore," Schler said.
The six-foot Roberts was a three-year starter for the Panthers and a first-team All-Suburban League choice after averaging 12 points as a senior. Eckert said Roberts "was very deserving" of that honor.
"Everybody knew that the first option on our team was to throw it inside to big Mike," Green resident Gary Edwards, a senior guard on the team, said of the 6-foot-10, 260-pounder who averaged 35 points a game that year. "But if Mike wasn’t open, we had no problem using Jeff as a second option. Jeff really wanted the ball, especially in crunch time. He never got flustered at all. He wasn’t affected by pressure."
Roberts was an outstanding jump-shooter, being deadly from intermediate range, the area of the court 12 to 15 feet away from the basket that’s not used much anymore with the advent of the three-point line.
"When Jeff was on, he could really hurt teams," Simmons said.
And Roberts would look good dong it.
"His shooting form was picture-perfect," Eckert said. "He worked all summer on his shooting."
Praised Edwards, "If you wanted to teach someone how to shoot, you would say, ‘Just watch that blond-haired guy over there.’ "
There weren’t many organized team workouts during the summers in Ohio high school basketball in the 1970s. Players honed their skills on their own on playgrounds – or elsewhere.
"Jeff, Jack (Sliger, senior starting point guard) and some of the other guys would come over all the time and we’d play in my driveway," Simmons recalled.
Things like that, and the fact that the nine seniors on that 12-man title team had been playing together since the seventh grade, made for a close-knit squad.
"When you go through a year like we had and you win the state championship, it really bonds you together for life," Schler said. "I talk to guys from other schools and they say, ‘Oh, I never go back for any reunions,’ but we all have attended ours and kept in touch with one another over the years."
"That team really bonded together," he said. "Jeff was a good teammate, and a good man."
Schler put it simply, "Make sure that you put into your story that we all loved the guy."