Commentary: Basketball and life-long friends

The Merced Sun-StarJuly 25, 2011 

We didn't ever want to come out of those showers.

We knew when we did our high school basketball careers would be over.

March 1963. Wichita, Kan. Class AA state basketball tournament. Our team, the Hayden Wildcats, had just lost to Salina, which went on to win the trophy. The three seniors on our team -- Greg Bien, Ed Tucker and I -- didn't want to leave the locker room. We didn't want to face the fact that four years of playing ball together were history.

But then we got dressed and Greg carried me on his back to our hotel. I'd sprained my ankle in the third quarter.

That 1962-63 team went 18-3, won the Centennial League in its first year (undefeated in 12 games) and beat our much bigger rival, Topeka High, in two overtimes to win the regional and advance to state. We were the first Hayden team to go to state in the big-school classification.

As it turned out, the three of us and the other two starters -- Lonnie Williams and Don Gregg-Jacobs -- would stay friends the rest of our lives. Forty-eight years after we played together, we hooked up again last month at my son Nao's wedding in L.A.

The photo that Greg's wife, Marlene, (whom I've known since second grade) took of the five of us moved me to tell you the story of my teammates.

Our last year of high school was weird. We opened a new building in west Topeka where seniors and juniors went. Freshmen and sophomores stayed downtown at the old school -- and so did the 800-seat brick-and-tile gym. To practice, we had to drive five miles every day after class. We didn't have a home court advantage anymore because we played our games in the Municipal Auditorium or Whiting Fieldhouse, Washburn University's gym.

On those cold, dark trips after class and practice, when Greg and I took turns driving, the five of us grew close. We'd take Ed, Don and Lonnie home after practice. As a vagabond team, we had to stick together.

Three of us were Catholic, two Protestant. Three of us were black, two white. Two of us were honor students, three weren't. Four of us could leap, one couldn't (his initials are Greg Bien).

In short, we looked more like a Foreign Legion squad than the four fingers and a thumb you need to make a fist -- or a team. But we meshed. On a two-on-one fast break or a three-man weave or full-court press, we were tight.

Greg is my best friend. Nao's godfather. I'm godfather to their daughter Stacey. After high school, he played at Washburn in Topeka and lettered three years. Then he got a Ph.D at Kansas University and was associate dean for special instruction at Washburn.

He went to law school there, got his juris doctor and practiced law with a prominent Topeka firm till he retired seven years ago to the bluestem grass farm he and Marlene had designed west of Lawrence.

To read the complete column, visit www.mercedsunstar.com.

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