Breaking down barriers with basketball

Jan 24 2011 - 6:08pm

SEATTLE -- I grew up in a white-bread world. There was only one African-American family in my neighborhood. My elementary, junior and senior high schools were predominantly white.

If it hadn't been for basketball, I would have had no understanding of diversity, outside of the few pages devoted to black leaders in my history books.

Without basketball, I wouldn't have had any shared experiences with the black community. My life wouldn't have been nearly as rich.

I thought about that as I spent much of last week at Edmundson Pavilion, watching some of the city's best high-school players and teams compete in the Martin Luther King Hoopfest and later watching Washington play the Arizona schools in important Pac-10 Conference games.

Last week was a celebration of the game in Seattle, but it also was a celebration of civil rights and equality and a celebration of the transformative power of hoops.

For me, the transformation began in the early 1960s, when I was just entering my teens and my father came home to tell me he had invested in a basketball team.

Now, my father wasn't a wealthy man and my mother was, um, skeptical when he told us he was going to be one of 11 owners of the expansion Wilmington Blue Bombers of the Eastern Basketball League.

Needless to say, as doubtful as my mother was about the intelligence of such an investment, I was equally ecstatic.

The quality of basketball in the EBL, which later became the Continental Basketball Association, was remarkable. Every team played up-tempo. The league was a run-and-gun thrill ride.

Back then, there only were nine teams in the pre-expansion NBA, which meant the players in the EBL were NBA-quality.

Paul Silas played there briefly. Bob Love spent a year in the league. NBA Hall of Famer Paul Arizin played on the weekends after he retired. And George Raveling was a veteran.

Many players still had dreams of playing in the NBA. And many players realized those dreams.

The league was loaded with former college players I had watched regularly in person and on television. I couldn't wait to see them play every weekend. I couldn't wait to see their practices.

The players of the Blue Bombers, almost all of them African-American, also became family friends.

My father invited many of them to the house for dinner. They shot hoops with me in my backyard. Some of them came to my junior high school games.

They were remarkably generous with their time. Almost 50 years later, I remember many of their names. Will Johns, Waite Bellamy, John Savage, Maurice McHartley, who always played with a toothpick in his mouth.

These players were regulars in my home and they told me stories about their basketball careers and stories about growing up black in America.

Bellamy, a fourth-round pick of the St. Louis Hawks who grew up in Florida, told me about the restaurants in his hometown that barred him from entering and the white-only restrooms that he couldn't use.

I remember asking him why he wasn't mad all of the time, and he told me he saw progress and that progress gave him hope. And he said people like my father made him feel welcome in communities that once were unwelcoming.

My favorite Bomber was a player named Cleveland "Swish" McKinney, one of the league's legendary shooters. Swish spent hours helping me--unsuccessfully--with my jumper. He shot a jumper that moved through the air without rotation, like a knuckleball. I never learned the trick.

As his name suggests, Swish was a player without a conscience and he sometimes would confront me after my games and tell me to shoot more. I would look around to make sure my coach wasn't listening.

He also told me about his days in the Army and the names he used to be called. He told me he was a shooter, not a fighter, and he would try as hard as he could to ignore the taunts. Playing basketball always was a way to escape for him.

Because it was a weekend league, players, even for home games, stayed at local motels. We'd meet them for breakfast on Sundays, and often the players would be the only black people in the restaurants.

Basketball broke down barriers.

Even though these players became friends, I never talked with black kids my age until I started hooping with them. In the summers in the mid- and-late-1960s, when American cities were torn because of race, buildings were burning and the rage was intense, we played basketball together, black and white, without incident.

The courts were an oasis from the anger, the game was our common ground. Basketball removed all the stigmas, all the stereotypes, all the suspicions. It's too simple to say there was no tension. Of course there was. But when the games began, race never was an issue.

I've always loved the game and still believe there is no sweeter sound than the swish of a jump shot soft as down. But I'm also grateful to the game.

It freed me from my white-bread world. It opened my eyes and my mind and my world. It taught me that there were no differences between black and white.

And, all these years later, it still has that magical power to bring all of us together.

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