Vidakovich column: One day at our college basketball practice

Mike Vidakovich

My freshman year at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, we had three black players on the basketball team. Victor Nevins was from Denver East High School and Jerry Bouldin hailed from Inglewood HS in Los Angeles, CA. Bill Hudson was our 6’10” center, but I can’t for the life of me remember where he was from.

They were good players and good people who treated me and everyone on the team with respect, and the rest of us did the same in return.

Nevins was a big-time player who I believe had been recruited by larger schools, but I had heard he failed to qualify for admission based on some academic deficiencies. At 6’4”, and the leaping ability of a kangaroo, Nevins made jaw-dropping plays each day in practice that at times would make the rest of us look like silly little earth-bound boys. Victor had an easygoing personality and a way of making you feel at ease with his welcoming conversation.

How Bouldin ever landed in Greeley from the bright lights of LA, I will never know. I don’t believe I ever asked him how or why he had made the trek to a smallish town in eastern Colorado where, when the wind was blowing just right, the smell of the Monfort stock yards could set you back on your heels.

Bouldin was a couple inches taller than Nevins and a whole lot wider and stronger. Jerry was on the quiet side and introspective, but he was very friendly and supportive of everyone.

Most everyone on the team that year, including the coaches, shortened my last name and called me “Vidak.” It came natural, since all of my friends around Glenwood had referred to me that way since boyhood. It suited me just fine. In high school at GSHS, one of my teachers even called me “Yidikovich, the Bulgarian Refugee.” I kind of enjoyed it.

For some odd reason, Nevins and Bouldin took to calling me “Zak.” Maybe they heard my nickname incorrectly and just shortened things a bit and put the letter Z at the beginning. I never corrected them, because I didn’t really care. Zak was new and unusual, and more than OK with me.

Though it was almost 40 years ago, there was a day in practice that year at UNC that popped back into my mind recently. None of us gave a second thought to some of the harmless remarks that were made that day, because every comment was said in fun and the good-natured ribbing was pretty commonplace. Every player on that team was mature enough to have a good laugh together, and then get back to business.

It was nice to hear a little comical jabbing at us players to provide some levity to what were often way-too-serious college practices.

I had just dropped a jump shot through the net in a full court drill, and as I was running down the court, I believe it was Nevins who yelled “Nice, Zak.” As the drill continued, one of the assistant coaches, knowing full well that Nevins and Bouldin called me Zak, quipped that they had purposely shortened my name because they had trouble stringing together words with two syllables like Vidak.

Victor and Jerry just laughed, as did the few of us who overheard the remark. The coaches often poked fun at us when the opportunity arose, and the players, more often than not, gave it right back to them.

When practice resumed, a few of us, including myself, were having trouble getting up as high as Nevins during a rebounding drill. As we all grew visibly more frustrated, one of the other coaches, barely able to contain his amusement, told us not to worry because we were all too white to ever get the best of Nevins on this particular drill. Those of us who were involved with that portion of practice couldn’t stop grinning.

I really hadn’t paid much mind to that day until recently, with all of the social unrest in our country. Many of the changes that have taken place in the last eight weeks since the terrible tragedy in Minnesota have been needed and a long time coming. Some of the senseless and destructive vandalism that continues on to this day, though, is serving no purpose other than to make a mockery of the difference between right and wrong.

I think it’s funny how an athletic gathering of so long ago, and the words that were spoken, really meant nothing offensive or harmful to any of us. We knew some things were real and some were just silly, and that our coaches were good people who cared about us all. They were just trying to get us to loosen up a little and have fun.

It’s unfortunate, but if that same practice had taken place in the year 2020, who knows what our reactions would have been. The laughter and camaraderie we experienced then more than likely would be replaced by emotions or thoughts that could have easily taken us in opposite directions.

I guess none of us really had anything big to worry about back then. We were happy to be young, getting an education, and playing the beautiful game of basketball. I could not have cared less if Nevins, Bouldin, and Hudson were pink and I was purple. I liked them and they liked Zak. We were all equal, and that was good enough for me. I still believe that the majority of the people in this country, regardless of color, share the same feelings.

Personally, I have nothing to protest other than getting old, slow, forgetful, and a bit cranky on occasion. Maybe I’ll round up a group of my graying friends and we’ll paint a few signs and organize a march against senility.

Why not? What else would you expect from an aging Bulgarian refugee?

Mike Vidakovich grew up in Glenwood Springs, is a longtime youth sports coach and is a regular sports contributor for the Post Independent.

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