Syracuse, N.Y. — Joe Reddick and Gus Harrison recently had one last chance to reminisce with their life-long friend, Jimmy Collins.
In separate phone calls to Collins, they talked about all the fun they had growing up together in Syracuse’s 15th Ward and how much their relationships meant.
“We spoke about the old days,” Harrison said Monday. “You just think of the good times that you folks have had together.”
Both Harrison and Reddick knew the chats would be one-sided. Collins was in a coma at a hospital in Chicago, about to succumb to complications from heart surgery. Collins’ daughter, Erica, told both of them to call because it was possible Collins could hear them. But any kind of reaction at all seemed out of the question.
Then during Harrison’s call, he heard Erica’s voice surge with emotion in the background. There was an ever-so-slight twitch of Collins’ mouth and legs.
“Oh my God. Oh my God. He’s moving,” Harrison recalled Erica saying.
The spirit in Collins’ final moments was telling. Reddick, 71, and Henderson, 74, described him as someone whose greatness extended beyond his talents as a basketball player, as a good friend who was always engaging and inspiring.
But ultimately, while Collins’ will fought, his body gave out. He died Sunday morning at the age of 74.
Many remember Collins as one of the greatest basketball players Central New York ever produced, a former star at Vocational Tech and Corcoran who went on to become a college standout at New Mexico State. Collins was picked No. 11 overall by the Chicago Bulls in the NBA draft and later became an assistant coach at Illinois and a head coach at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Reddick and Harrison, though, were his running mates well before those days. They played together growing up, frequently jumping into random pickup games at local parks. They would challenge each other to tests of courage, leaping from rooftops of low houses across the neighborhood as a preferred shortcut to wherever they were headed.
“There was a group of us, we all went to junior high and high school together. We all went to the boys club together,” said Reddick, who was a high school basketball teammate of Collins. “We were pretty close.”
Collins was the standard for reaching your potential. Harrison described himself as a bit of a troublemaker as a youth. One day, he got hauled into the police station for trying to break into parking meters.
Harrison’s mom came to get him, and on the way home they stopped and bought a paper. An article describing Collins’ athletic exploits caught Harrison’s eye, and Harrison decided sports was a good outlet for him. He went on to compete in football, wrestling and track in high school.
“I was going down the wrong path. He turned me around,” Harrison said. “He was a big influence on me.”
Reddick remembers his older friend returning home from college during a break while he was still in high school. Collins implored Reddick to do well in the classroom and stressed the importance of going to college. Reddick wound up attending Albany State in Georgia.
That was the type of empathy that Reddick said Collins tried to show everyone.
“Every kid that I know that he coached in college he treated with dignity and respect,” Reddick said. “Whether you made the pros or not, if you needed James he was there.”
Ryan Blackwell felt that support. The former Syracuse basketball player grew up in Champagne, Ill., and was a ball boy for Illinois when Collins coached there. He later played one year under Collins at that school before transferring to SU.
“He just had a magnetic personality. Whether you had a bad game or practice, he always had that caring demeanor and he loved to be around you,” Blackwell said.
The friends said Collins was far more interested in talking about others than recounting his own athletic accomplishments. He was a once-in-a-generation type of player, but never flaunted his success.
“He didn’t talk about himself. He always talked about other athletes,” Reddick said.
At the end, Harrison was thankful he had one last chance to talk to Collins about their own memories.
“He was one of a kind,” Harrison said. “It was an honor and a privilege to grow up with someone like that.”
Lindsay Kramer is a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard and syracuse.com. Got a comment or idea for a story? He can be reached via email at LKramer@Syracuse.com.
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