When Al Nuness learned from his wife of pop icon Prince’s death on Thursday at the age of 57, his thoughts went back to the gym at Minneapolis Central High School.
“My fondest memory of him was when he was in 8th grade,” Nuness, currently a vice president with the memorabilia manufacturer Jostens, recalled in a recent phone interview.
“He and his brother and one of their best friends, Paul Mitchell, would go into that gym at least three times a week and I’d have to chase them out,” Nuness said.
Nuness, who coached basketball at Central in the early 1970s, was just a young man himself. A native of nearby Maywood, he played basketball at Proviso East High School on teams that won the 1963 and 1964 Proviso West Holiday Tournaments.
After two years playing at a junior college, he went on to become a star player at the University of Minnesota, where he averaged more than 15 points a game in two seasons and was named team MVP in 1969. For two years, Nuness was an assistant coach at Minnesota — the first ever African-American to be hired in that position in the university’s history. From there, he landed the coaching job at Central High.
Back then, Prince Rogers Nelson was a small, speedy point guard on the freshman and sophomore teams — a mere footnote in a program that boasted a 25-1 record in 1976 and included some of the best players in Minnesota history, Nuness recalled.
“The group of kids Prince came up with were some of the best people to play in the state. It was just a time of unbelievable basketball,” he said. “Four of those starting five players went on to play Division 1 basketball. Even Prince’s brother [Duane Nelson] was good.”
As for Prince himself?
“I think what people either don’t know or forget is that in his bare feet he’s probably 5-foot-2,” Nuness said. “In high heels, he was like 5-6. He was small, but really quick. He could play defense on the ball, was a great passer, a great penetrator. He was really good.”
Prince stopped playing basketball his sophomore year to focus on his music, Nuness said, adding that the budding musical genius, while not as eccentric as he would later become, was “always a quiet, private kid.”
Nuness said he wasn’t entirely shocked by the celebrity his former player would grow into.
“I wasn’t surprised, because I think everybody knew he was a genius when it came to music, because, although he couldn’t read music, he could play like four or five instruments,” he said. “He and Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam and all those guys — they all grew up together. When Prince made it, he took everyone with him.”