Brooklyn Boro

Dennis Ozer: The man who beat all odds

August 23, 2021 Andy Furman
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The odds always seemed to be against Dennis Ozer.

At Erasmus Hall High School, the fledgling basketball player couldn’t make a roster on a team that won the PSAL City Championship in 1965 – and lost to DeWitt Clinton in the finals the following year.

Perhaps his five-foot-five and-a-quarter-inch height had something to do with that.

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“I loved basketball,” he told the Eagle from his now Boston home, “I started when I was at PS 241 and played in the Franklin Avenue Park.

That schoolyard had some notables as well.

“Connie Hawkins, the Boys High star, and Roger Brown who was a sensation at Wingate often stopped by,” he said.

But it was a former Erasmus ballplayer – Joel Yoselowitz – who mentored the diminutive guard into a basketball player.

Erasmus Hall High School has a glamorous facade. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Erasmus Hall High School. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

“He lived next door to me,” Ozer said, “and he made me work at my game. He made me dribble a basketball – with my left hand – down Washington Avenue and Carroll Street.”

Dennis Ozer lived next door to Ebbets Field. “Yeah, we once sneaked inside after the Dodgers left – in 1958 – and played a game there with my buddies.”

But basketball was always first and foremost. 

Enter Shelly Schneider, the former Brooklyn Tech High School basketball mentor.

Schneider did volunteer work – at night – coaching Consumers, a team sponsored by a meat-packing company.

“He literally took us off the street,” Ozer said. “There was no messing around. It was all business. And he (Schneider) was always concerned with family.”

Consumers played in East New York, Washington Heights, and YMHA’s all over the city.

“We even had a five-game trip to Montreal around Christmas time,” Ozer remembered. 

The odds were soon shifting in Ozer’s favor – as he played his junior and senior years of high school with Schneider and Consumers.

And he earned a berth on the Brooklyn College freshman team – while winning Freshman Athlete of the Year.

He was the Most Valuable Plyer in the CUNY (City University of New York) Tournament as a senior, despite Brooklyn logging a 2-24 won-loss record which included two upsets.

By the way, Ozer was still listed at five-feet-and-a-quarter inches.

He taught one term at the Midwood Annex, and one term at IS 320, Jackie Robinson School.

That was enough – basketball – despite his frame, was still on his radar.

A “blind” letter to Oregon State rewarded him with an assistantship for his MA degree, and he worked in Recreation and Intramurals.

“Meeting Dick Fosbury at Oregon State was a thrill,” he said. 

That Dick Fosbury, who is considered one of the most influential athletes in the history of track and field. Besides winning a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, he revolutionized the high jump event with a “back-first” technique, now known as the Fosbury Flop.

“Dick had some contacts in Europe, and that’s all I needed,” Ozer said.

Ozer played in Belgium, thanks to a meeting with former Lafayette High and later Cornell star, Rich Amato. Amato was a Belgium performer as well.

You’d need an atlas to follow Dennis Ozer and his trek over Europe the next several years, starting in 1973.

He was a player-coach in Holland for two years; head coach for a year in Italy, coach for the Swiss National Team, three years; and coach in Switzerland and LeMans, France.

“France was tough, real tough,” he remembers. “They just won the championship and were coached by the legendary Bob Purkhiser.”

Purkhiser played both basketball and baseball at Purdue, where he was the sixth player in Boilermaker history to surpass 1,000 career points with a total of 1,060. The six-foot-two guard averaged 15.1 points-per-game at Purdue, including 20.0 a-game his senior season in 1964-65 where he was named All-Big Ten and honorable mention All-American.

“Bob was on a trip, and must have dozed-off in his plane, it crashed and he died,” Ozer said, “all of a sudden I was the head coach.”

Again, not bad for an athlete more groomed to be a jockey than a basketball player.

The odds – again – turned on Dennis Ozer in 2004.

“I was diagnosed with   AML (leukemia), chemo followed by experimental transplant with two umbilical cords as my donor,” he said. 

“Life began for me,” he said, “when I got sick and all through my sickness. What I learned, the first day in the hospital was the major point. The only thing you’re left with is your attitude. I had to focus on healing.”

He did – and with the help of his wife – and business partner — they co-founded  www.hypstudio, a yoga and Pilates studio in 2006.

Another setback – this time in 2016 – a relapse, followed by another round of chemo and an experimental transplant.

“There are no donors in experimental transplantation,” he said. “There are no public donor banks in America. In Europe they have donor banks to find matches.”

This time the odds were in Dennis Ozer’s favor. His then 20-year-old son, Jake served as his donor.

Today, the 73-year-old from PS 241 to Lefferts Junior High School then Erasmus, volunteers for his wife Debra with their Pilates studio.

“Maybe it was the friendships and relationships by playing basketball that helped me through all of this,” he said. “People like Alfred Lipman who went to Prospect Heights Summer Day Camp with me as a kid. We met in third grade and friends to this very day.”

Dennis Ozer seemingly had the odds stacked against him from the very start.

But you’d never know it.

Andy Furman is a Fox Sports Radio national talk show host. Previously, he was a scholastic sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle. He may be reached at: [email protected] Twitter: @AndyFurmanFSR

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