Vidakovich column: A night in Shelby, N.C.

Mike Vidakovich
Mike Vidakovich

In the late summer of 1975, following my eighth grade year at Glenwood Junior High School, I was fortunate enough to attend the Denver Nuggets basketball camp with my good buddy Glenn Samuelson. The weeklong fundamental skills session was held at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, and Glenn and I, along with the other campers, were lucky to be able to watch the Nuggets’ rookie players who were at Mines for a tryout camp that week also.

Each evening, following our day of basketball activities, all of us youngsters got to pile into the Mines gym to watch Denver’s rookie players and free agents go through high level drills and scrimmages, in the hopes of being invited back to the ABA team’s regular training camp in the fall.

Along with getting to be instructed by Nugget’s Coach Larry Brown and some of the top high school and college coaches in the area each day, there were some impressive names at the rookie camp that year. Of course, none of us realized what great heights in the basketball profession that some of these rookies would go on to achieve.

There were the two guards from national champion North Carolina State, Mo Rivers and the diminutive 5-foot-8-inch Monte Towe. They were fun to watch. A relatively obscure guard from Colorado State named Rudy Carey was on the court those summer evenings, scrapping and battling the big boys for a roster spot.

For those of you who follow Colorado high school hoops, Carey has gone on to win multiple boys’ basketball state championships at Manual and Denver East. He is currently the all-time winningest coach in state history.

Then there was the slow and outmanned guard from the Air Force Academy who we all wondered how he even got invited to the camp. Though he outworked everyone on the court, his skills were nowhere near the professional level. Hardly any of us even approached him after camp in the evenings for an autograph or a talk about improving our game. Maybe we should have, because his name was Gregg Popovich, and he went on to win NBA championships with the San Antonia Spurs as the head coach, and recently became the all-time leader in career coaching victories in the history of professional basketball.

But by far the headliner of the rookie group was NC State’s David Thompson, who was fresh off being named the national player of the year in college basketball.

A unanimous first round draft pick, Thompson shocked the pro basketball world by choosing to sign with the Nuggets of the then American Basketball Association. Though lucky for Colorado basketball fans, Thompson’s choice to play in the league with the red, white and blue basketball, rather than the NBA, had hoops aficionados around the country scratching their heads.

All of us young campers were just thrilled to be in his presence, and one night following the rookie scrimmage, Thompson pulled up a spot in the bleachers and talked to us for probably half an hour. I was lucky enough to be sitting within an arm’s length of the man who would become known as “The Skywalker,” and I soaked in everything he said to us that evening.

What stuck with me most, and the main reason I began to wear out sneakers by the dozens on the asphalt courts at Sayre Park, is that Thompson told us he practiced two to three hours each evening on the outdoor courts at Crest High School in his hometown of Shelby, N.C. Of course he talked about the competition of playing in pickup games on those courts, but he said the thing he enjoyed the most was just dribbling and shooting by himself for hours to perfect his skills. Thompson told us his mom would have to come and retrieve him every night in Shelby, when he would stay long after the others had gone. He wanted to get in more shots when only the security light on the courts was still shining.

The day I got home from the camp is when I began my every evening pilgrimage to Sayre Park. I would shoot, shoot and shoot some more before the high school players took over the court, and then I would beg them at every turn to let me play. I was fortunate to have others with me who were as obsessed as I was with perfecting the skills of the beautiful game of basketball.

Kevin Flohr, Rick Eccher, Greg Piper, Bobby Barrows, Tyler McClain, Wes Pollock and countless others invaded the courts regardless of the weather conditions. We even wore thin gloves on our hands in the early spring and late fall so we could continue shooting. It really wasn’t work for us. We all enjoyed every minute of being there, playing and competing against each other. We made memories for a lifetime and won a state championship along the way.

In this day and age, there are many club teams and AAU tournaments for basketball players to be a part of. Many of the teams start with kids at the elementary school level. I think these teams are all great opportunities for young boys and girls, but when I go to high school games and watch the older players on the court, I just don’t see the consistent ball handlers and outside shooters that were prevalent in my day. There are so many opportunities for travel teams and games, that I believe the art of individual practice time has gone by the wayside. I don’t see many, if any, players at Sayre Park or other courts just out dribbling and shooting the way I used to. (Hopefully there will be some baskets put up at Sayre sometime soon.)

Two things that the great David Thompson said to us that summer evening of 1975 stayed with me for all the time I was a player, and shaped my philosophy as to what I tried to impart to my players as a coach. He told us all to think about how often we had the ball in our hands during a pickup game as opposed to how much we could improve skills by individual practice when we always have the ball. Thompson also stressed practicing outside where the surface was usually uneven, the wind may be blowing, the rims are tight, and the sun could be in your eyes from time to time. He felt this made him a much better player when he came indoors where those elements ceased to exist. I still agree with both of those points.

In fairness to the local young players, maybe I am just envious. We didn’t have any of the opportunities for summer games back when I was in high school. There were no travel teams, tournaments or team camps. There was no summer league for us to test our skills against other schools. We had, as it was known back then, Strawberry Park. That was plenty OK with us.

Of course, in those days, a little shoe goo to patch up some holes in the sneakers, and some thin gloves for cold weather shooting could take a youngster a long way.

All the way to a big trophy with a gold basketball.

Glenwood Springs native Mike Vidakovich is a freelance sports writer, teacher and youth sports coach. His column appears on occasion in the Post Independent and at

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