Chris Bowling cannot avert his gaze when his grandfather regales guests with tales from the past.
The 15-year-old Gilbert High School sophomore has heard most of them by now, yet he sits spellbound on the couch, listening intently as the stories are re-told.
Big Mike Bowling was an Arizona high school legend at Avondale Agua Fria in the 1960s, a record-breaking receiver in football and a rebounding menace in basketball. He played two years of hoops at Southern California and two more at Arizona State before a professional stint in Austria.
He helped USC knock off UCLA on March 8, 1969, which ended the Bruins’ 41-game winning streak and dealt them their first home loss at Pauley Pavilion. That day, Bowling guarded a towering center who would one day be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Mike Bowling wasn’t the most fluid player, but he had springs for legs. He could dunk from the free throw line and hit his head on the rim.
“I was one white man who could jump,” he said.
Chris does not yet have the same name cachet as his grandfather, but may eventually become one of the East Valley’s more recognizable hoopsters. He was recently ranked as the No. 14 overall player in Arizona’s Class of 2016 by recruiting service Rivals.com.
And while Mike Bowling has an illustrious past and Chris has a promising future, both are soaking in every present moment.
Health problems have dogged Mike, 64, for more than a decade, and congestive heart failure is threatening to cut his life short. So each day, Chris returns home after practice and races to be with his grandfather.
“Chris spends every waking moment he has with my dad,” said Sarah Richardson, Mike’s daughter and Chris’ mother. “If he’s not at the gym, he’s at home in the room with him. They’re almost inseparable. Sometimes we don’t know if (Mike) is going to make it through the night. Chris just lays on the floor in his room. He says, ‘I want to stay in there with Papa.’ They have that relationship. I just see it and feel it. Chris is my dad’s boy.’”
Richardson, a star basketball player herself, became pregnant with Chris when she was still a senior at Highland High School in Gilbert in the late 1990s.
At the time, she was the one hoping to continue the family’s basketball-playing legacy. She had the talent to play at a four-year college, but motherhood relegated her to two years at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.
The pregnancy was a shock, and at first, Mike was taken aback with anger.
“You know what my first reaction was,” he said. “I wanted to kill ‘em.”
But it didn’t take long for the emotions to flip 180 degrees.
“I was so nervous (to share the news of the pregnancy),” Richardson said. “You just fear that disappointment. My dad, he was the person I was scared the most to tell, but he hugged me when I told him and said, ‘I will love this baby,’ and he has since Day 1.”
Sarah lived with her dad for the first three years of Chris’ life. She played junior college basketball and Mike was an assistant coach.
Chris was there, too, riding a tricycle around the gym and blowing a coach-issued whistle throughout practice.
It turned out to be one of the best times of their life.
“We’re definitely a family of faith, and I feel that Chris is absolutely here for a reason,” Richardson said. “That wasn’t the plan for me to go on and play at a big school because then I wouldn’t have Chris. Who knows where I would be? I have no idea.”
Chris showed off his preternatural basketball ability from an early age, making shot after shot into a plastic hoop on the floor in his grandfather’s living room.
Neither Sarah nor Mike pushed Chris towards the sport, but he gravitated to the hardwood much like they did.
Mike had a heart attack when Chris was only 2 years old, which ended any thoughts of them playing 1-on-1 as Chris grew up. Instead, Mike imparts his wisdom from the stands.
Even though basketball is a huge part of their lives, the relationship does not revolve completely around it. Mike encourages Chris to play other sports — he joined the boys volleyball team last season — and is more worried about grades than athletics.
Mike Bowling is even the love doctor.
“For Homecoming, he came up with the idea of how I could ask my date,” Chris Bowling said. “He’s always there if I need some advice.”
Chris Bowling’s goal this year is to make the varsity basketball team as a sophomore.
Mike Bowling’s goal is to live to see it.
He’s confined to the house nearly 24-7 these days, but Chris keeps him going.
“In my head, I’m not saying, ‘I want to live to be 70,’” Mike said. “I think, ‘I want to live one more season.’ That’s how I get by.”
His heart may be failing him, but Mike is alert and upbeat. He’s humble yet engaging, and it’s no surprise the impact he’s made on the Arizona basketball scene.
When Mike originally got sick, former Arizona coach Lute Olson sent him a hand-written get-well note. The two had never met before.
“That’s the thing,” Richardson said. “Everyone knows my dad. He doesn’t even realize the legend he is. They know Big Mike Bowling.”
Chris could one day make a similar impact. He’s 6-foot-5 already with a feathery touch on his jumpshot, and it seems likely he will follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and play in college.
Realistically, the heart problems will prevent Mike from seeing the majority of Chris’ career.
But one more season might not be too much to ask.
“He just told me that last night,” Richardson said. “I was walking out of his room saying goodnight and he said, “Sarah, I’m going to be here this season.’ I said, ‘I know you are, Dad.’”