Fate derailed James Speed’s sensational talent

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

The best local basketball player you’ve never heard of was the first in Louisiana to make the first orSBJ BHM logo 250 second team Parade All-America roster, the most significant recognition of its time for high school basketball.

The best local basketball player you’ve never heard of didn’t play a single minute of Division I college basketball.

The best local basketball player you’ve never of died 10 years ago with hardly any notice in his hometown.

You probably don’t know the story of James Speed.

You should.

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The late 1960s was an interesting time for high school basketball in Shreveport. Integration was still in place and there were great teams in both the LHSAA and the LIALO (for African-American schools).

Woodlawn and Captain Shreve (LHSAA) and Union (LIALO) were among the state’s best programs. (NBA great Robert Parish played as a freshman and sophomore at Union, then finished at Woodlawn.)

But at Valencia High School in Shreveport, the 6-foot-6 James Speed was the show. In 1967-68, he averaged 31.2 points and 19 rebounds per game for the Vikings. “In terms of what he can do,” coach John Crockett said during Speed’s senior year, “he’s the best in the area.”

“He could do it all,” remembers Billy Grisham, who has been around local basketball since the mid 1960s. “He could shoot it, he could put it on the floor, run, jump, everything. He was a complete player.”

Remember, this was the late 1960s and Southern schools, for the most part, did not recruit black athletes. Speed entertained 85 offers from all over and enrolled at Imperial Valley Junior College in California, where he starred for two years. He was then signed by the University of Iowa and enrolled in the fall of 1970.

A promising career awaited.

“There is no doubt,” said Dick Schultz, Iowa’s coach, in a 1984 interview, “that he would have been a first-round draft choice after two years.”

But on the day after Thanksgiving, with the season opener a few days away, Speed began to complain of a headache and toothache and went to Iowa’s University Hospital. Two teeth were extracted, but the pain persisted and he came back the next day. He was given a prescription for painkillers and released.

Remember, this was Thanksgiving weekend, so a scaled-down crew of physicians were available. These were on-call residents at Iowa’s medical school.

By Monday, Speed was admitted to the hospital as the pain and swelling continued. What had been an undiagnosed sinus infection had made its way back behind his eyes and developed into a condition known cavernous sinus thrombosis. The infection was shutting off the blood supply to the optic nerve.

“He was begging them to help him with his eyes,” said Jim Hayes, now 83, who was a friend of Speed’s (they lived in the same residential complex) and later, his lawyer.

With his eyesight worsening, Speed asked the nurse to take him to the bathroom so he could see the swelling he was now feeling. He looked in the mirror and saw the halo of the bathroom light above the sink.

It was the last vision he ever had.

“The nurse put him back in bed and told the doctor that Speed had sore eyes,” Hayes said.

By the end of that Tuesday, James Speed was permanently blind.

* * *

What do you do when you are forced to come to grips with the fact that the rest of your life is changed forever? This wasn’t a random event or an act of God, as was later argued in the courts.

Weeks before that Thanksgiving weekend, Hayes said Speed had been treated poorly by the Iowa team physician with over-the-counter medication for his sinus condition “when he should have been given antibiotic therapy.” In fact, Hayes was with Speed on Thanksgiving night and saw the basketball star holding his head in pain.

No one could imagine what would happen within a few days’ time.

“As long as James could see light of any kind, it could have been reversed with proper antibiotics,” Hayes said. “Right up until the time he saw that light in the bathroom.”

In early 1971, Speed entered the Iowa Commission for the Blind, learning to cope with his blindness. One day, he had a conversation with Hayes. “Why didn’t they help me?” Speed said.

“That’s when I knew we had to look into this,” Hayes said.

Speed filed suit against the state of Iowa in 1972 seeking $3.5 million for negligence on the part of University Hospital. In a landmark decision, Speed won a $750,000 judgment – at the time, the largest ever against the state. It was upheld by the state’s Supreme Court as Hayes had argued against the “Locality Rule” in Iowa (and many other states) at the time.

“In medical malpractice cases at that time, you had to get a local doctor to testify against another local doctor,” Hayes said. “Our belief was that we would expand that rule and be entitled to similarly trained and experienced doctors across the nation from similar research institutions as the University of Iowa.”

The Locality Rule is no longer on the books in almost every state.

“With little doubt, this is the most impactful case I’ve had in my law career,” said Hayes, who is in his sixth decade practicing law. “This was the thing that changed by professional life. And my personal life as well.”

Speed persevered. He went back to college, earned his degree and later a masters in counseling. He was actually an assistant coach at the College of the Ozarks under Jack Holley, a former high school coach in northwest Louisiana who had been Speed’s coach at Imperial Valley.

Speed moved to Las Vegas where he specialized in counseling. He would often come back to Iowa City and Hayes would visit him in Nevada.

“He never complained. Ever,” Hayes said. “He was never bitter about what happened to him. Never bitter toward the university or the doctors.”

On Sept. 14, 2011, James Speed died of liver and pancreatic cancer under hospice care. The disease came on very quickly. He was 61 years old and had been blind for almost 40 years.

“It was a life of courage and determination,” Hayes said. “Such a generous soul. What a guy. What a talent. We went through a lot together … he’s always been such a big part of my life.

Photos: courtesy IOWA ATHLETICS