Right away, as an incoming freshman at Bloomington High School South, I noticed the guy with the locker two doors down from mine. He was a skinny kid with a pug nose, buckteeth, and freckles. I doubt he knew my name, and I don’t think we ever communicated, beyond perhaps the clipped nod that one teenager gives another to acknowledge just his existence and nothing more.
I had no good reason to dislike the kid, but did just the same. He was a class ahead of me and therefore older, and I disliked that about him. He was taller, and I disliked that as well. He was always horsing around good-naturedly with a buddy; it bothered me. And he played basketball, a more popular sport than my soccer. I had a freshman friend who disliked him as well, and we’d stand by my locker with our backs to him, muttering insults under our breath.
Also, there were these two girls in my class. Each was pretty, blond, and vivacious, and each had a flirty smile. Of course I had aching crushes on both. But the two of them, friends, were always hanging around the locker of the basketball player with the buckteeth and freckles. I couldn’t understand why. I thought he looked goofy.
Then I went to a basketball game and saw the kid play. His moves were fluid and deliberate, like a cat’s. The ball stuck to his hands. And he had a sweet, silky jumper. Somehow, on the court, he seemed different than he did when he was goofing around at his locker. The freckles were fainter, the buckteeth—well, less bucked. In jersey and shorts, cutting to the hoop then pulling up on a dime to splash the net, his skinny frame looked lean. He was relaxed and confident. If only grudgingly, I had to hand it to the kid: He looked good playing basketball. I began to understand what those giggling freshman girls saw in Neil Reed.
He was gone the following year—moved off to Louisiana, I think—and I doubt if I gave him another thought until my senior year, when he retuned to Bloomington to play for my beloved Indiana Hoosiers. Allegiance to IU basketball trumped any lingering adolescent resentment, and, having seen Reed in action, I was excited to have him back and playing for my team—especially since I wasn’t in position to pursue the college girls who now giggled over him.
Reed was a good player at IU but never became the star I hoped he’d be. He was scrappy, and he could still shoot it. But at least from my vantage point in front of the TV, he didn’t seem relaxed on the court like he once had—and indeed he wasn’t, as we discovered later, because his coach, Bob Knight, was making him miserable. And at 6-feet-nothing—adequate for high school ball—in the college game Reed seemed short, much shorter than I’d remembered him seeming when we walked the same halls.
Reed never looked smaller than he did in that now-infamous video of Knight, a massive, hulking man, charging at the young player’s neck like an angry gorilla. It is an unfortunate epitaph for Reed, a father and husband who died on July 26, 2012, that he is best remembered for having fallen prey to Knight’s ugly, brutish temper. Because that’s not how I remember him at all. To me, he’ll always be that goofy kid who earned my respect by playing good basketball—which, sadly, was not enough to win Knight’s.
Image via insidethehall.com