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Bear column: True heroes hold themselves to a higher standard

I stood on the sideline of Denver’s Auditorium Arena in January 1970, pen and note pad in my sweaty hands, and gazed out at the court where my hero, Spencer Haywood, was warming up before the Denver Rockets game against the Washington Capitols.

In those days, kids were allowed to be on the court to ask for autographs from their favorite players during warm-ups, and I had clearly targeted Haywood.

In the 1969-70 season, Haywood was the king of the American Basketball Association. His 6 feet, 8 inches of high-flying, slamming, jamming, glass-eating athleticism was awesome to behold. At the age of 19 he led the ABA that year in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 30 points and nearly 20 rebounds per game.

As I stood watching, he chased down a loose ball near me, and for a fleeting moment seemed to look in my direction.

I froze.

In my 11-year-old mind he’d become too big — a demigod of sorts, and you can’t approach demigods.

Feeling humiliated by my lack of courage, I turned to walk back to my seat when I heard a voice that said, “I’ll sign that for you, kid.”

I turned to see a Washington Capitols player smiling at me. At 5 feet, 10 inches and about 160 pounds with a Beatle haircut, he didn’t look like a basketball player, but he was nice, got down on one knee and looked me in the eye.

“Are you a basketball player?” he asked while signing my note pad. I nodded and said, “yeah, but I’m not very good.” He stood up and smiled. “Well keep practicing,” he said, and then walked away to join his team.

The Rockets won that night, and Haywood put on a show, but the nice young man was good too. He ran the Capitols’ offense, making crisp passes to teammates for easy scores, and hitting a few jump shots of his own.

When I went home that night I threw the notepad in a drawer and forgot about it.

Six years later I came across that notepad buried deep in a box of stuff. I looked at the autograph and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was legendary coach Larry Brown’s.

By then, the Rockets had changed their name to the Nuggets, and Brown was the head coach.

From that moment on, Larry Brown became my hero.

My dad was my first hero, though. When I was young, he seemed like a superhero to me. He was quite handy around the house, and I was convinced that he could fix anything. He could also build anything, and when our family moved into a new house with a huge unfinished basement in Greeley, he built out the entire basement, in one winter, mostly by himself.

He’d grown up poor on an Indiana farm during The Great Depression. But he was a smart farm boy and went to college, earning his Bachelor’s degree before serving four years in the Navy. After his service, he went back to college, eventually earning his Doctorate from Indiana University. He became a college professor at IU and then at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

He was the epitome of a super-achiever, but most heroes are like that, aren’t they? They set standards that are seemingly too high to reach, while daring the rest of us mere mortals to try.

The fact is, though, heroes come in all shapes and sizes. They can be 6 foot, 8 inch power forwards, 5 foot, 10 inch coaches, or just somebody’s mom or dad.

Armed service members who defend our country are clearly heroes, as are first responders who make a living putting themselves in harm’s way.

But some heroes are less obvious in their heroism. Health care workers have always been heroic, and that quality has come to the forefront recently as they fight against the unseen enemy we’ve come to know as coronavirus. Teachers are the heroes of our educational system, and journalists are heroes in the fight for truth.

The qualities that make a hero vary from one to another, but one thing that all true heroes seem to have in common is that they hold themselves to a higher standard than most everyone else.

They are as human as the rest of us, and as humans they make mistakes, just like the rest of us. But when heroes are at their best, they set the bar for what can be achieved, whether that is dunking a basketball, coaching a team, or saving a life.

Thank God for heroes.

Jeff Bear is a reporter and copy editor for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. You may reach him at jbear@postindependent.com.


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