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At Home With 'Papa G'--Basketball Stars, Estranged Sons

April 23, 1990|GLENN F. BUNTING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sam Gilbert seemed to derive his greatest pleasure in life from his association with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Jamaal Wilkes, Sidney Wicks, Marques Johnson and other UCLA basketball stars.

The gates to his luxurious Pacific Palisades estate were always open to UCLA athletes, who would gather on weekends for a "Jewish soul food buffet" and a dip in the 50-foot swimming pool. At their home away from home, the players would get counseling from the godfather they called "Papa G" and tutoring from "Mama G," high school English teacher Rose Gilbert.

Former UCLA star Lucius Allen, in a 1982 interview, recalled Gilbert's influence on him.

"There were two people I listened to," Allen said. "Coach (John) Wooden as long as we were between the lines. Outside the court--Sam Gilbert."

While Gilbert loved his UCLA basketball players like family, relations with his two sons were not so affectionate.

One son, Robert, rebelled against his father and the other, Michael, was so fearful of him that as an adult he would hide in the stairwell of their office building, said Hubert R. Sommers, Sam Gilbert's friend and attorney for 20 years. He said the Gilbert family was not close because Sam, the self-made millionaire, spent most of his time at the office concentrating on business.

"Sam just browbeat Michael," said Michael Pasano, the Florida attorney who represents Michael Gilbert. "Theirs wasn't a normal father-son relationship. It was more like master-slave. Sam seemed to dote more on his basketball players than any of his two sons."

It was only toward the end of Gilbert's life that he and Michael grew close while Robert "tolerated" his father, Sommers said. Michael is president of Sam Gilbert & Associates and Robert served as director of operations at the Bicycle Club casino in Bell Gardens.

Gilbert died in 1987 at age 74.

Born to Lithuanian immigrants, Gilbert was a multitalented man who claimed to speak French, Russian and German fluently and served in the OSS during World War II. In one interview, he admitted to being a "mediocre" middleweight boxer as a youth.

He worked in a film lab and developed inventions, including metal studs and a door lock that made him wealthy. The door-lock business introduced him to the construction industry, and he began building homes and then multistory commercial offices in the San Fernando Valley.

Perhaps Gilbert's greatest skill was his ability to make a deal, whether it was negotiating Abdul-Jabbar's first professional contract or completing the financial details to build the world's largest card casino in Bell Gardens.

He had a violent temper and frequently told adversaries "not to cross me." He threatened more than one sportswriter with bodily harm.

"If he liked you, he would do anything for you," Sommers said. "If you didn't have dreams, he would create them and then make them come true. If he didn't like you, he would drown you right into the gutter. It had to be Sam's way. I think that is what made him successful."

Gilbert attended UCLA before dropping out for economic reasons. His wife, Rose, was a Phi Beta Kappa at the university and his daughter, Margaret, attended law school there.

His extraordinary support of UCLA athletes was praised in the mid-1970s by school officials. Wooden once called Gilbert a "good Samaritan" and athletic director J. D. Morgan referred to him as "a humanitarian."

But some UCLA basketball coaches privately resented Gilbert's involvement with the players.

"I had no fear of Sam, but I didn't like the dealings with him," former coach Gene Bartow said in a recent interview. "I didn't agree with what he was doing with players in the program."

Neither did the NCAA. When the UCLA basketball program was put on probation for two years in 1981, the NCAA ordered the university to disassociate Gilbert from recruiting practices. Gilbert, who openly defied the NCAA at times, denied any wrongdoing.

At his funeral, Sommers noted that Gilbert always attracted controversy.

"There were many of us who loved Sam, some who scorned him and some who hated him," Sommers said. "But no one could ignore him."

Times staff writers Tina Griego and Mal Florence contributed to this article.

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