When Al Lewis talks about his passion, basketball, it's easy to fall into the role of vaudeville straight man. One can almost see the garish footlights, the dancing girls, the rubes in the audience. Tell us about scouting high school kids, you say. "Scouting? I'll give you scouting." Lewis picks up the pace of his already staccato delivery. "My mother, God rest her soul, she never goes to a basketball game in her whole life, so I take her to a high school game, she sees this big black kid, and all she can say is 'Give him the ball! Give him the ball!' You know who that kid was?" Pause. "That was Wilt Chamberlain!" Lewis cackles. "Hell, anyone can scout him. Stevie Wonder could scout a Chamberlain. But the Wilts come along about as often as a chicken with teeth!"
Lewis is best known as a former denizen of 1313 Mockingbird Lane, home of that madcap assemblage of Halloween characters, the Munsters, from the mid-'60s sitcom of the same name. He played the loony Grandpa, a loud, lovable Dracula look-alike. After The Munsters ended in 1966, Lewis continued acting—in summer stock, dinner theater and vaudeville revues. But wherever he happens to be, he always has time for basketball. For more than 30 years Lewis has been connecting talented high school players with colleges in need of talent. He is quick to point out that he doesn't actually recruit, since only certain college officials are allowed to do so. He prefers to describe himself as "a bird dog—I flush out the kids." That involves a nonstop schedule of beating the bushes all over the country—at his own expense.
His knowledge and devotion have made him an authentic expert on the high school game. And having a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia evidently hasn't hurt. "Mostly," he says, "the college coaches call me. 'I need a big forward,' they'll say. I know what that coach likes, and I know the quality of his division." Gary Colson, head coach at New Mexico, describes Lewis as "a wise old fox who tries to do the best he can for the kids." He remembers Lewis as one of the few people willing to help him after he took over the scandal-ridden Lobo basketball program in 1980.
Oklahoma's Billy Tubbs also has praise for Lewis. "He's someone who really knows how to spot kids," says Tubbs. Invoking the privilege of player-scout confidentiality, Lewis is coy about revealing the names of active players with whom he's been associated, but he does cite Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted in the NBA, Solly Walker of St. John's and Scott May of Indiana as three players he steered to, in his word, the "right" school. Among current players Lewis counseled when it came time to select a school are Stuart Gray (UCLA) and Sidney Green (UNLV), now in the NBA, and Nigel Miguel and Brad Wright, starters on this year's UCLA squad.
Lewis has been preoccupied with basketball since childhood. "I tried to play," he recalls, "but I had white feet." So he resorted to the next-best thing: watching. In the late 1930s Honey Russell, Seton Hall's coach, was amazed at Lewis's expertise. Russell asked Lewis to help him find some talent, and Al Lewis, volunteer superscout, was born.
Perhaps the unattributed aphorism that punctuates Lewis's Who's Who entry best describes his air of unpretentious flexibility: " 'Life is like a river,' said the wise man. Asked the fool, 'What do you mean like a river?' Answered the wise man, 'So, it's not like a river.' " Like a river or not, Lewis keeps on flowing.