Remembering Neil Reed
Yesterday, former Indiana and Southern Mississippi guard Neil Reed died after heart complications at just 36 years old. Below, Reed’s childhood friend David Hill remembers a different side of the man.
My papaw sang in the Stamps Baxter Quartet, a group that belongs to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. His group sang with a lot of talented singers through the years, one of whom was Floyd Hunter. Floyd could sing quite a bit and they often sang together at Mt. Tabor church in Glenwood, Arkansas. Floyd ended up writing and composing his own gospel songs, eventually becoming a singing teacher. Floyd and my papaw, Norman, remained friends. Floyd’s sister had a son named Terry the same year my mom was born. The two of them graduated high school together and were lifelong friends.
Terry’s best friend in high school was a badass dude named Burgess Brown. People either loved him or feared him. He was an immense athlete, a fierce basketball player. He won a basketball scholarship to the University of Arkansas. During their senior year Burgess found a lump on his right arm. It turned out to be cancer. They amputated his arm. He never played college ball but he never gave up on life. He learned to drive a car with his knees and shift with his left hand. He traveled the country. Within a couple of years he was dead.
Terry had a son a few years before my mom had me. She adored his tight blond curls. Terry named him Burgess Neil Reed. Despite everyone choosing to call the baby Neil, when he was a boy he asked if he could be called Burgess. It just didn’t feel right.
Neil and I knew each other growing up despite the fact that his family moved to New Orleans and mine stayed in Arkansas. He was just close enough to my age for us to have things in common, but just old enough for me to still idolize him. He was a high school basketball phenom, an All-American. When our families would get together we’d play 21 in the driveway. I’d foul the shit out of him and he’d never call it, choosing instead to win without leaving me excuses. He always won, of course. He told me that his dad never let him win, and that was part of learning the game. The assumption, I suppose, was that he was teaching me those same lessons.
When we both went off to college, Neil’s star shone even brighter. I remember we all got together in New Orleans one summer and everyone wanted to talk about Neil. Sneaker companies were wooing him, he was working out for NBA teams. Everyone had an opinion about which NBA team he should play for. I lobbied hard for the Knicks. Neil looked at me and smiled. “The Knicks, now that would be nice.”
He kept us all in stitches with stories about hanging out with John Mellencamp and all sorts of basketball stars. He introduced us to Pistol Pete’s brother, who owned his favorite bar in the French Quarter. He took me around town in his fancy new car and told me about how easy it was to meet women in Indiana and how hard it was to fit in on Bobby Knight’s squad. He showed me scratches from where his teammates dug into him with their grown-out fingernails. “They file them down so they can get the eyes of the guys they’re defending. It’s dirty, man. You have no idea.”
When he dropped me off at my hotel, he asked me what size shoe I wore. I told him I was eleven-and-a-half. He frowned. “Well, these are size 10.” He threw me a box of brand new adidas basketball sneakers. I had never seen them before. “These haven’t come out yet. Adidas says maybe they’ll name these after me if I sign with them.” Who knows if he was fronting just to impress me or if he really believed it. It didn’t matter. As cool as it must have felt for him to be idolized by me, it felt even better to know a guy who might play for the Knicks. The point is, that shit works both ways.
Everybody knows how this part of the story ends by now. I won’t rehash it. None of it ever changed the way anyone back home felt about Neil. He was still a shining star and Bobby Knight was a pathetic person who took his frustrations out on kids with his hands — there was nothing inspired about that. In the part of Arkansas that I’m from, maybe we were biased, but we felt like it was obvious who was being a leader by speaking truth to power and who was failing his duty to lead by acting like an impetuous child and defending his fits and tantrums as some kind of coaching genius.
I played pickup basketball every weekend when I was in college in Austin, Texas. Every time I headed out the door to the courts I strapped on those goddamn size 10s. In the beginning they got ooohs and aaahs from the guys at the playground. Over time, as I wore them out and as they fell out of style, they were less interesting. They ate up my toes and fucked up my feet. Whenever I came off the court I’d kick them off immediately. Guys would ask what was up with my shoes, why didn’t I just buy a pair that fit me, and did I need to borrow some money. I told them about Neil. If they knew him, they thought that was pretty cool. If they didn’t, I always delighted in telling them who Neil Reed was.
Floyd Hunter wrote more than 130 gospel songs, many that are sung in church pews today: “Deep Down in My Soul,” “I’ll Be Happy,” “Road to Glory.” Hank Williams recorded one song he penned, “Are You Walkin’ and Talkin’ For the Lord.”
If your heart said testify
Would the world hear your reply?
Are you walking and a talking with the Lord?
Would you stand and shout his name
Or bow your head in shame?
Are you walking and a talking with the Lord?
I used to tell anyone who would listen who gave me those beat-up kicks. A kid who stood up to the most powerful man he ever knew. A kid who could have played in the NBA but instead was made notorious — forced into seclusion by scores of irate college basketball fanatics, none of whom had ever walked a mile, let alone played a game in his shoes. Neil became a high school teacher, a coach, a husband, and a father to two lovely girls. Back home we couldn’t have been prouder. Say hello to Burgess, Floyd, and Papaw, Neil. Rest in peace.
Dave Hill is a writer in New York. He has written for McSweeney’s and writes sketch comedy for The Charlies.