Mike Tharp: Basketball friends for a lifetime

July 23, 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.

He and Ed Tucker were our co-captains. Tucker was our 6-foot-5 center and still holds school records. The summer between junior and senior year, he went out to L.A., got into pickup games with UCLA's Fred Slaughter (who went to Topeka High), Walt Hazzard and others. When he came back, it was as if he'd been touched by a basketball wand. He was a stud.

Ed went to Hutchinson Junior College after high school and wound up playing at Long Beach State. He worked for nearly 30 years for Southern California Edison before retiring 15 years ago. He and wife, Paula, have five sons between them and 15 grandkids. For the past four years, Ed has volunteered as an elementary school teacher in Bakersfield.

Lonnie, like Don, came to Hayden, a Catholic school, as a junior -- and neither knew when to genuflect at Mass. That led to decades of allegations that coach Ken Bueltel "recruited" those two guys. Coach, who was just named to the Shawnee County Sports Hall of Fame, died in 1989, so we'll never know.

Lonnie went to Butler Junior College after he graduated, then followed Ed to Long Beach State. But he got drafted -- not by the NBA -- in 1967. In 1968 (the year before I got there), he was airlifted from Vietnam with major burns and wounds. He spent six months in rehab on Okinawa and then Walter Reed. He gets VA disability today.

After he got out of the service, he spent decades working with troubled and lawless boys and young men in Topeka. He'd been our team enforcer, so he put up with no BS from what were then still called juvenile delinquents. He helped a lot of them make a 180 but admits some of his hardest cases wound up behind bars.

In 1987, he founded his own cleaning and janitorial service firm in Topeka. Today it operates in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Tennessee and North Carolina. He's won a wall full of local, regional and national business awards. He's giving his son a year to learn the business (www.ljcleanbuildings.com), then plans to retire.

Don followed Ed and Lonnie out here and worked for decades at SoCal Edison. A few years back, he and a partner, Patricia Watts, started their own energy consulting company in Long Beach. Don is vice president and chief operating officer of FCI (www.fcimgt.com). Its clients include SoCal Edison, ConEd of New York, L.A. Department of Water & Power, AEG and The Gas Co. His house in Long Beach and mine in San Pedro were less than 10 miles apart, and his son Don Jr. and my son Nao became friends as well.

Not too bad for a band of basketball vagabonds a half-century ago.

We all look back at that year of playing together for the ties that bind us. "We clicked as a group of young men," Greg says. "Being the city champions after beating Topeka High -- that brought us together," Ed recalls. "It seems like it all came naturally." Don had come back from a broken hip playing football and "what pushed me was this team coming together. We were determined to give it our best effort." Lonnie came from one of the poor sides of town, but "everybody made me feel welcome," he remembers. "We (Don and he) probably never would have made it without you guys."

The other common denominator was our coach, Ken Bueltel. Don and Lonnie looked on him as a father figure. Ed responded to the pressure Coach applied and pushed himself beyond his limits. Greg, our point guard, marveled at Bueltel's skill in devising new plays on the fly. (Topeka High had beaten us twice earlier that season, so Coach came up with a completely new game plan, with Tucker bringing the ball up the floor.) Everybody recalls Coach's quick and quirky sense of humor, which made him a quote machine for local sportswriters.

I remember that when I was a freshman, the junior varsity coach planned to cut me after tryouts. Coach Bueltel told him to hold off, he saw something there. Over the holidays I played all day long and into the night. In January, I began starting on the freshman team, then the JV. Coach let me start two varsity games my junior year before our epic senior season.

When he retired in 1973, I drove up from Dallas, and my dad came to the ceremony, too. Afterward, Coach told my dad that in the state tournament game, "Mike was the best player on the floor."

But we still lost.

In the end, though, we won. As that photo and our post-basketball lives show.

As usual, Greg comes through in the clutch: "The great thing about this is we've remained friends almost 50 years. I doubt if that happens very often. I'd encourage every member of a high school team now to enjoy their teammates and get to know them even better than they do. They can look forward to possibly remaining friends for a lifetime."

And you won't know how special that feels till you do it.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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