Starr: Basketball’s Black Pioneers

Sixty-four years ago this month, on a Sunday morning in the basketball hotbed of Durham, N.C., a truly remarkable game was played. A team made up of students from Duke's medical school snuck across town to play a secret game—no spectators allowed in the gym—against a team from the North Carolina College for Negroes.

Of course, secret doesn't begin to do justice to the enormous effrontery this illegal contest represented to the segregationist standards of that era. Had news of the game reached the public, it might have provoked a dangerous response. Fortunately, only the egos of the young men from Duke wound up endangered. NCCN's basketball coach was John McLendon, an African-American who had learned the game at the University of Kansas from its inventor, Dr. James Naismith, and whose explosive, running style was a revolutionary counterpoint to the staid and relatively stationary game that prevailed in white America. And his team literally ran the Dukie doctors-in-training off the court, an 88-44 romp.

Next week America will engage in the annual ritual of college basketball and betting that has come to be known as "March Madness" or, always my favorite, "The Big Dance." But before that first dance step is taken, ESPN will devote four hours—Sunday and Monday nights at 9 p.m., without commercials—to a film titled "Black Magic" that celebrates the evolution of the game in black America, particularly at the historically black colleges and universities.

In 1961, after a long, successful college career, McLendon was hired to coach the Cleveland Pipers of the National Industrial League and won the league championship. But when the team got off to a slow start the next season, McLendon clashed with the team's young owner, a local businessman named George Steinbrenner, and was fired. Though he is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, McClendon never received the attention or acclaim that went to the game's successful white coaches, like Adolph Rupp of Kentucky and John Wooden of UCLA.

Filmmaker Dan Klores's "Black Magic" is an attempt to remedy that oversight by giving these coaches, players and schools their belated due. And there is much glory to be found in the stories of some of the basketball greats who emerged from obscurity at these schools to reach the game's highest rung and captivate a basketball nation: Earl (the Pearl) Monroe from Winston-Salem, Willis Reed from Grambling, Dick Barnett from Tennessee State, Bob Dandridge from Norfolk State, Al Attles from North Carolina A&T.

But, of course, it is ultimately a bittersweet tale. There are also tales of superstar talents who got derailed before they could grab the golden ring. In the case of Pee Wee Kirkland, it was the opportunities afforded him by a life of crime that was far more lucrative than the money offered him by the NBA. Kirkland relates his missteps—from hardwood hero to felon—rather matter-of-factly and takes tremendous pride in his basketball accomplishments, even if that meant scoring 135 points in a game playing for his prison team in a community league. John Chaney never got a shot at the NBA despite a starry career at Bethune-Cookman College. He wound up playing for pocket change, alongside a lot of talented black players, in the Eastern League. Chaney, of course, turned misfortune into triumph, becoming one of the most successful and respected college coaches in the nation at Temple. Cleo Hill did make it to the NBA, but not for long. Unfortunately, he arrived with the Hawks in St. Louis, a town with strong Southern overtones, at a time when a strict quota system limited the number of black players. The Hawks cut Hill despite his leading the team in scoring during the preseason, and his distress got him labeled a malcontent, effectively blackballing him from the league.

The very bitterest of the sweet is, of course, the irony that racial progress came at a huge price for the historically black schools that once were the only refuge for many of these young, black basketball stars. In the late '50s black superstars—Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor—emerged from major American universities to dominate the NBA. And what was a trickle of players became a flood wave after Texas Western, with an all-black lineup, beat Rupp's all-white Kentucky team for the 1966 NCAA title. A couple of months later Tennessee high school star Perry Wallace committed to play at Vanderbilt, the first breach of the color line in the Southeastern Conference. The next year, with Wallace on the freshman team, the University of Mississippi canceled both its games against Vandy. Mississippi State didn't cancel, and the footage of fans there screaming racial epithets at Wallace remains terrifying. As American society and its colleges opened the doors wider to black players, the basketball programs at the historically black schools foundered in the face of stiff recruiting competition. In recent decades only a few late bloomers or overlooked talents—Avery Johnson and Ben Wallace stand out—have emerged from the historically black schools to star in the NBA. The widow of Big House Gaines admits in the film that the sense of loss was so profound that part of them wished that integration had never taken place.

The backdrop for much of Klores's film is the civil rights era, and he casts his eye wide. As a result the film does not have the linear brilliance of his "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," which succinctly told how the former boxing champion struggled to cope with killing a rival in the ring. "Black Magic" is more of a hodgepodge, with almost anything that involves civil rights, black basketball players or the historically black colleges and universities making the cut. That's how a chapter comes to be devoted to the shootings at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg: the black Kent State, two years before the shootings on that predominantly white Ohio campus. When police fired on demonstrators protesting segregation at a local bowling alley, three were killed—including a basketball recruit—and 27 were injured.

But the stories, even the most familiar ones, are compelling. Having spent the '70s in Chicago, when Southern University star Bob Love was the Bulls No. 1 player, I was again moved by Love's saga. He was a stutterer who somehow went through college and established himself as an NBA star without ever overcoming his speech impediment. When an injury ended his career, his wife walked out and Love found himself broke and essentially speechless on his own behalf. He wound up working as a bus boy in a restaurant and resolved to do his job at the tables as well as he had on the court. The company he worked for was sufficiently impressed to help him treat his speech impediment. Today Love is a successful motivational speaker.

Because adversity is the common denominator, an occasional note of victimhood struck me as false. Al Attles, the first coach from a historically black school to win an NBA championship, recalls that when his Golden State team played Washington in the finals, fans were rooting against him and his team. I remember it exactly the opposite. Everyone I knew was rooting for his Warriors. Golden State was the upstart underdog playing a frenetic style, and, just incidentally, its biggest star, Rick Barry, was white. The Bullets were a team led by black stars, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, and by a black coach, K. C. Jones, to boot. There was no reason in the world that race or racism should have cut against Attles in that championship series, and I don't really believe it did.

But that is merely a quibble. There is much pleasure for aging fans in being reminded of (or for younger fans in being introduced to) some of these standouts. It is a teary moment, no matter your team allegiance, to watch Willis Reed emerge belatedly from the locker room and limp out onto the court for the seventh game of the 1970 NBA finals—he had injured his knee in game five and was considered out for the series—for a cameo appearance that spurred his New York Knicks over the Los Angeles Lakers. And for those who believe that Michael Jordan and LeBron James invented all the moves, it will be sheer pleasure to see Earl the Pearl, one of the film's co-producers, spin, twirl and work his singular magic on the court. There's Black Magic enough for every basketball fan.

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