‘We’d Give The Ball To Prince’

The 1971 Bryant Junior High basketball team included (front row, right-to-left) Russell Gary, Herb Wilburn, Joey Wilburn, Prince Rogers Nelson, and (back row) Greg Boone, Calvin Anderson, Duane Nelson and Paul Mitchell. Credit:

When Gene Andersen saw the photo of Prince’s junior high school basketball team flying around the Internet last week, he said, “I’ve had that photo for 40 years. I might’ve even taken it, I can’t remember for sure.”

What Andersen does remember for sure is his days as basketball coach at Bryant Junior High, the feeder school for the former Central High School that, in the early- and mid-‘70s, was located at the current Sabathani Community Center at 310 E. 38th Street. No school basketball team existed at Bryant at the time, until Andersen helped launch an after-school intramural program.

“In 1968 they were having some trouble at Central High School as a result of some of the crap that was going on in this country,” said Andersen, 73, a grandfather of three who taught for 32 years in the Minneapolis school system and now lives in Taylors Falls with his wife Marian, who once upon a time ran Guse Hardware and wrote and published The Guse News, a lively and informative one-sheet straight outta the corner store on 46th and Bryant.

“I started teaching social studies and geography in 1969, and we had all these little boys in this school and the principal was looking for someone to run the intramural program after school and I volunteered. That’s how I got to know these kids,” said Andersen. “Some nights we’d have a hundred kids show up. It grew and grew and grew and so I started putting them all on teams and gave ‘em all NBA team names and my classroom was right next to the boy’s gym. I put the schedules on the gym door and all these kids would just be looking at it and looking at it, and we’d have games three nights a week after school.

“What was happening in the Minneapolis public schools then was that all the athletics money went to the senior highs, and the junior highs didn’t get anything. But yet, 13- and 14-year-olds have all that energy and they needed something to do. We came up with a play-off situation and all that, and the kids just loved it.”

Eventually, Andersen and crew outgrew intramural play and wanted to play other schools in Minneapolis – though no money existed to support a team.

“Somehow we came up with the money and I contacted Folwell and Sanford and some of those other schools, and they all had similar experiences going on. So we all put together traveling basketball teams and that’s what you see in this picture,” said Andersen.

“We had to come up with money to buy the uniforms, but nobody had any money. So the principal chipped in a few bucks, I chipped in some, the kids might’ve even chipped in, and I went over to St. Mane [Sporting Goods] over by Roosevelt High School and got the cheapest things I could get. They were green and white and we were able to give ‘em a little pair of shorts and a shirt with a number on the back and those kids were so happy. It was really fun.”

The picture’s most famous ballplayer is Prince, which is why it went viral last week, and why members of Prince nation are undoubtedly lusting after Bryant #3 throwback jerseys right about now. For added clickbait, the Deadspin article that blew up the Jon Bream-penned StarTribune clip came with the headline, “Prince was once an afro-rocking, coach-hating high school basketball player.”

Coach-hating?

“I don’t know who said that, but I never saw that. I never felt that at all,” said Andersen. “He had a little bit of an attitude, but what junior high kid doesn’t? In my estimation, he was a normal junior high kid and he was with a bunch of guys who were really good guys.

“I told him to study, and you know how a 13- and 14-year-old kid can be. He was already getting accolades for his music from people, about how good he was. And I was always trying to keep him on the ball and off the streets and I’d just goof with him, ‘Man, you’re smart, you can make it wherever you go.’ I did tell him I didn’t think he could live off of his music; ‘Do something you can live off of.’

“But on my little basketball team, when we needed to kill something, we’d give the ball to Prince. He could dribble like crazy. He’s a real good athlete. He just didn’t have the size that some of those other kids did, but he was quick, and he was really smart. He didn’t have to study too hard to do junior high work; he’d do it once and he had it. I always said, ‘Make sure you put your education before music,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’”

In addition to being one of the first photos of Prince, the yearbook photo is historic for the fact that it includes future members of Central’s 1975-76 basketball team, long regarded as one of the best high school basketball teams in the state: Greg Boone, who was runner-up to Kevin McHale for Mr. Basketball in 1976; Prince’s late half-brother Duane Nelson, a smooth Puma-wearing shooting guard; the equally smooth Wilburn brothers; Russell Gary, who played football for Nebraska and was an all-pro defensive back in the NFL with New Orleans and Pittsburgh, and others – Larry Travis, Matt Bolden, Kenny Trawick, Gary Fisher – whose names roll off Anderson’s tongue like he coached them yesterday.

“We had some kids on that team that were some of the best athletes to ever go through the Minneapolis school system,” he said. “Calvin Anderson was a man-child, he was our center. He was an offensive guard at the University of Nebraska. Robbie Robertson, who was the football coach at North, where I was towards the end of my career, said that Calvin Anderson was maybe the best athlete he’s seen in 30 years.

“I was a teacher for 32 years in the Minneapolis school district, and this team happened in the first couple years I was teaching. This may have been the best group of boys I’ve ever seen, as a group, and not only were they good athletes, they were good students. They were good people, and somehow or another, through all the chaos those kids went through, they were there on that team.

“They all hung together, and Prince hung with those kids all the time, but he was kind of his own guy. He was already starting a little band, and [Time member and Flyte Time and Jam and Lewis co-founder] Terry Lewis from North High School – he won the 100-yard-dash in the state tournament – he and Prince and all those guys were starting to form up and getting together to jam, even in junior high.”

In terms of a budding genius’s initial inspiration, it’s hard to beat the combination of a high school basketball powerhouse made up of peers and the music of the day (Parliament-Funkadelic, Ohio Players, Al Green, Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Wild Cherry, Stevie Wonder), all of which led to a career as Minneapolis’s most well-known and influential musician – the fruits of which Prince’s old coach has never partaken in.

“I’ve heard his music but I’ve never seen one of his performances,” said Andersen. “The only other time I’ve ever talked about this is one night when ‘Purple Rain’ was about to come out, some guy from the New York Times called me at home and said ‘I heard you had Prince in school, what was he like?’ I said, ‘If you’re looking for dirt, you’ve come to the wrong place because he was a good kid.’ He was a smart kid. He was a very smart kid and he pretty much paid attention to business in school.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at jimwalsh086@gmail.com

(Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Gene and Marian Andersen’s names.)