For about four hours on Sunday, I was one of the biggest Philadelphia Eagles fans in Arizona.
That was the day the Eagles were playing the New York Giants for the right to advance to the NFC championship game against Arizona.
My zeal for the City of Brotherly Love’s football team was because I didn’t want the Arizona Cardinals to play New York in the NFC finale.
My reasons for not wanting our Red Birds to be pitted against the Big Apple’s 11 didn’t have to do with the Giants being the defending world champions or because the Cards would have had lost the home field advantage if New York had won.
Nope, my motivations were much more genuine than that — I have a genuine disdain for New York sports teams that dates back to 1983.
That year I was coach of the Show Low Junior High School basketball team that posted a 25-0 record and won the Arizona J.H. championship.
By March, we had won the White Mountain League eighth-grade championship, three tournaments and were riding the crest of an undefeated season. Among the team’s most accomplished players was Rusty Nikolaus, one of the finest junior high athletes I have ever seen play.
Because we were the state champs, we were eligible to play in the Basketball Congress International (BCI) national championships, which were to be held that year in Phoenix.
Of course, my overly enthusiastic players somehow learned of that prestigious invitation.
Giving into their pleas, appeals and urgings, I entered our team into the BCI showdown knowing we’d not be playing pure school teams but rather all-star assemblies from various youth leagues around the country.
Nevertheless, we continued to practice after school, convinced we were on the edge of accomplishing something really big in our town.
About a week before the tournament tipped off, I opened a mail envelope that contained a tournament bracket sent by BCI officials.
Scanning our first game pairing, I stood in total disbelief.
It read, “Show Low vs. New York City.”
With that shocking news in hand, I gathered the players to tell them about our upcoming opponent. As I expected, they were as stunned as I.
Townspeople and parents were equally taken back wondering how a team from a small, rural school of 500 students could square off against an all-star team from the basketball hotbed of New York City.
A few days later, I did a bit of checking and found out the N.Y. team we were playing was sponsored by Riverside Church, an interdenominational church with over 2,400 members.
It was also the tallest church in the United States, a historical site and was known as a stronghold of activism and political debate.
“Great,” I told my wife, “maybe these players are great thinkers rather than really good basketball players.”
I learned the church was reaching out to disadvantaged teenagers by sponsoring youth sports leagues for those playing pickup games on the legendary asphalt courts of the city. Many of colleges’ and the NBA’s finest players grew up building their skills on those courts.
The Riverside-sponsored all-star team we were to play came from the church’s teenage league.
Game day finally arrived and, we were the first to show up in Phoenix Union High School gymnasium. After shaking off the effects of a long bus ride from the White Mountains, we took to the court for a quick shoot around, and free throw practice.
Not long later, PU gym’s doors swung opened and in hip-hopped our opponents — about 15 African American players, most well over 6 feet in height, and wearing flashy basketball warm-ups and trendy Nikes that would be the envy of the Phoenix Suns.
I remember well the N.Y. players — donned with more bling than most of today’s cash money millionaires and rap stars tote — strolling on to the historic floor as cocky as they were probably good.
Their back and forth vernacular also contained cultured slang, colloquialisms and word speak that had my players wondering, “What’d they say?”
So there we were — my lily-white country players, most with farmer’s tans and of the LDS faith — standing toe-to-toe against urban America’s finest.
Staring at their impressive warm-ups, one of my players whispered, “they’d probably only use our uniforms to shine their jewelry.”
While waiting for my team to dress out, I scanned the stands to see who was in attendance. I’d heard some big-name college recruiters and former playing greats show up for BCI national tournaments.
Sure enough, former NBA star and Olympic gold medalist Joe Caldwell who was known during his playing days at Arizona State University as “Jumpin’ Joe” Caldwell was in the stands.
Soon tipoff arrived and it quickly yielded a sports memory I shall never forget — Rusty making a steal and driving the length of the floor to make an uncontested lay up. The basket gave Show Low a 2-0 lead.
“Take a picture of the scoreboard,” I told my high school-age son who was on the bench with us.
Sure enough, that was the last lead Show Low had as New York parlayed their talent, playground moxie and height to carve out a 68-42 victory.
Looking back at that BCI tournament, common sense says we should probably have never entered it.
But if we hadn’t, 12 small town, ragtag players led by a country bumpkin coach with more faith in his team than brains, wouldn’t now relish in the memories of “Show Low vs. New York City.”