Leaning across the table and staring me directly in the eye, Dan Reid said, “you know we were absolutely crazy in those days.”
Knowing exactly what he was referring to, I agreed, “Yes, we were truly nuts.”
What the two of us were reminiscing about took place in the late 1960s — a time Dan and I were teachers at two of the poorest ghetto schools in South Phoenix.
Although we taught in different districts, he in Wilson and I in Roosevelt, we became buddies mostly because we shared a passion — basketball.
Not the type of professional and collegiate basketball games played in state-of-the-art arenas and seen on the TNT network but rather pickup 3-on-3 and full court “street” games enthusiastically played on asphalt outdoor courts and small multipurpose gyms around America.
It was spring in Phoenix and the weather was turning dreadfully hot, prompting pickup players around the city to scramble to find gymnasiums — preferably those with swamp coolers. Very few in those days were air-conditioned.
The school in which Dan taught, Wilson, was located adjacent to Sky Harbor Airport, almost at the end of a runway, and had a multipurpose gymnasium with a full-length basketball court.
Actually it was the school’s cafeteria, but for those of us bent on playing basketball, it was the equivalent of Madison Square Garden.
Best of all, the superintendent of the district, Jack Null, enjoyed basketball almost as much as Dan and I did, and gave us permission to use the gym whenever we wished.
So Dan and I hooked up to play whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Our game of choice was 5-on-5 full court, so we were always in search of other players to join us.
I lived in Tempe at the time, only about a mile from the ASU campus where I often played basketball on the Goodwin Stadium outdoor courts or inside old Sun Devil gymnasium.
At those two sites, I often found myself in pickup games against professional football players — mostly wide receivers, defensive backs and running backs — all of whom had once played at ASU for then coach Frank Kush.
They were all superb, world-class athletes, playing basketball mostly to stay in off-season shape.
During one of those games at ASU, I casually mentioned to one of the football players that we often played at Wilson School.
The word of those games spread like wildfire, and before you could say “jump shot,” a cadre of professional players joined Dan and I in the school gym.
Those games, I’m sure, are what Dan was alluding to when he said, “We were crazy in those days.”
I suppose the two of us, if we’d had any wit or wisdom, should have been intimidated by the elite athletic talent we played with and against in those games. We, however, weren’t the least bit in awe.
There we were, two lily white amigos decked out in well-worn Chuck Taylor low-cuts, sagging mismatched socks and fraying tee shirts, taking on the National Football League in games in which the governing rule was “No blood, no foul.”
If the games were 3-on-3 half court, our sub-culture of etiquette was to play “makers-takers,” which meant the team that scored kept possession of the ball. That rule kept the games moving quickly, hearts pounding and perspiration flowing as if someone had failed to turn off the water spigot.
As the spring and summer wore on, the games became more intense — pro players battled to get in shape for the upcoming football season and Dan and I warred to simply walk off the court unscathed.
We were both much leaner and meaner in those young days, maybe 180 pounds each, but were playing against 230-pound behemoths accustomed to bowling over the orneriest of middle linebackers.
The pros also had what we called “hops” or vertical leaps of 40-plus inches.
As a young player, I lacked that attribute — in fact, when Ron Shelton wrote “White Men Can’t Jump,” I’m certain he was talking about me.
Some describe basketball as a non-contact sport. Whoever said that, hadn’t witnessed any of our games in tiny Wilson School gym.
Checkers and golf are non-contact sports — our pickup games were full contact.
I remember one young guy, I believe a Wilson teacher, showing up for a weekend game proclaiming, “I’m just here to break a sweat.”
None of us wanted to hear such drivel about our games.
The stranger played one game with all the precision of Dick Cheney and left the gym — never to be seen again — probably without much of his ego intact.
Today, we know Dan as a fine Christian man who wouldn’t harm a fly. But in those days, while on the court, he could throw elbows with the best of enforcers and didn’t mind unleashing them on anyone battling him for a rebound.
I remember comparing being hit by one of his elbows to being struck on the cheekbone by a thrown ball peen hammer.
His blows stung and, to this day, I believe he thoroughly enjoyed inflicting damage on those who dared try to root him out of the paint.
Thankfully, the pros seemed to thrive on that type of physical play, and we went through the summer without any nasty incidents.
Oh, there were some pleasantries exchanged, but never anything more.
At the close of the summer, the pros returned to their teams and I readied myself for a second year of teaching.
Dan, on the other hand, made a decision I thought even more brainless than the one that prompted two slightly better-than-average Joes to take on the NFL’s finest.
He joined — and I emphasize the word “joined” — the Marines, at a time the war in Vietnam was escalating.
After he was inducted into the USMC, we went our separate ways and didn’t meet again until 1985 as assistant Payson High School football coaches.
Every once in a while, we reminisce about that memorable summer in Wilson gym where, in our youth, we put all common sense aside to play the game we loved.
On Sunday, April 25, my wife Kay and I will join Dan, his wife Donna, family and friends at a ceremony in Phoenix where he will be inducted into the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
He’s being honored for his 25-plus years of coaching football and track and field at both Payson and Mayer High Schools.
It’s probably good he never coached high school basketball. If he had, he might have asked his team to square off against Kobe and the Lakers or maybe Shaq and the Cavaliers.
That’s just his competitive spirit.