Black Magic: In & Out of Focus

Harold BellContributor IIIJune 9, 2009

ESPN’s airing of Black Magic, chronicling the rich history of black basketball in America was a buzzer-beating jump shot to win and a controversial foul call at the end the game to lose.  It was also the most watched documentary in the history of ESPN television.  The first segment aired in 1.2 million homes beating the old record of 1.1 million. 

The four hour two-part television show carried black basketball from the playgrounds, high schools, colleges and on to its final destination—the NBA.  This brought full circle the hopes and dreams of most black athletes, a life in the fast lane of professional sports.  For some, it was their only way out.

The show’s title, Black Magic was the footprints in the sand of the man who revolutionized offensive guard play in basketball—Earl Monroe.  He is also a part-time magician.  I found the show to be enlightening and educational even though I lived most of it. 

I was a student/athlete and played football and basketball for the legendary Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines at Winston-Salem State.  During my era ('59-'63) I was the only athlete under 6’5" he permitted to play two sports.

Tim Autry and Emit Gil my football teammates could not chew bubble gum and dribble at the same time but they were tall.  He called Tim and Emit “My Special Effects.”  

My freshman year I scored 27 points in a losing effort in the annual Alumni vs. Varsity basketball game.  My friend and mentor the legendary Jack DeFares had returned to Winston-Salem to finish work on his degree. 

He lobbied for me to play for the short-handed alumni.  It was easy to see why Jack was a New York playground legend and an All-Time great at Winston-Salem.  He simply said, “Keep your eyes on me and follow my lead.” 

His slick ball handling and moves to the basket was responsible for me leading both teams in scoring.  Bighouse knew I could do two things well, catch a football and score on a basketball court.  But he made it clear that he had only one basketball and it belonged to Cleo Hill. 

Like it or not, I had to wait my turn.  I satisfied my hunger for the game by playing at the local YMCA and on the Inter-Mural team.

I was in a unique position at Winston-Salem State I was there to compare three of the greatest players to ever play for “Bighouse,” Jack DeFares, Cleo Hill and Earl Monroe up close and personal. 

I was there for the return of Jack DeFares, I was there for the departure of Cleo Hill and I was there to witness the arrival of Black Jesus better known as Earl “The Pearl” Monroe among other names.

Hopefully, Mike Wise of the Washington Post was watching ESPN and received an education on who was the first and last word when it came to “The Improviser” of guard play in the NBA. 

Mike Wise and his colleagues at the Washington Post are the best examples on why we need to celebrate Black History 365 days of the year if we don’t our youth would believe that “Pistol Pete” Maravich revolutionize guard play in the NBA. 

He wrote those exact words in his column during the NBA All-Star Weekend last month.  Pete was a great player in his own right but he was no Pearl.  Black Americans must be careful of what we read and who we read.  Look for Mike’s column saying “I made a mistake” but don’t hold your breath.   

I was there also to encourage the late great legendary Red Auerbach to step in support Earl Lloyd’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.  The NBA had overlooked his career.  Thanks largely to Red the Basketball Hall of Fame finally inducted him in 2002 as a contributor. He was the first black to play in the NBA.  

The CIAA barely beat the NBA.  Fifty years after graduating from West Virginia State they finally pulled his number for induction into the CIAA Hall of Fame in 2000.

Black Magic participants Al Attles and Earl Lloyd were two dear friends and inspired me to be all that I could be.  I was in Landover, MD when Al and the Golden State Warriors upset and beat another close and dear friend K. C. Jones. 

The Warriors beat the Washington Bullets in four straight games to win the NBA Championship in 1975.  Al and K. C. made pro sports history by becoming the first two Black Americans to face-off in a championship final. 

The enlightening stories for me, started with Perry Wallace, Athletic Director at American University and the first black to play at Vanderbilt University, the perseverance of NBA player Bob “Butter Bean” Love and without a doubt the hidden story that Ben Jobes was one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. 

Coach Jobes’ accomplishments and basketball success stayed under the radar of major media for decades.  ESPN’s Black Magic made it perfectly clear he could have easily been a success on any level, but was denied recognition because he was black.

The real story of the NBA lynching of Cleo Hill by the St. Louis Hawks was long overdue.  In Black Magic, there was mention of Cleo being the greatest player of his era.   He could have been the greatest player of any area where he was allowed to play.     

Cleo had every shot imaginable.  He is the greatest offensive basketball player I have ever seen with the exception of Washington, DC’s Elgin Baylor.  He was “Michael Jordan” in North Carolina long before Michael Jordan.  Jordan didn’t really blossom into a great offensive ball player until the pros. 

Cleo was a basketball icon and legend on Tobacco Road long before his pro career.  To believe it you had to be there to see him.  When Cleo played you would have thought the ACC Tournament was being held on the campus of Winston-Salem State.  White folks traveled from all over the state to see him play. 

Cleo Hill was worth the travel time and price of admission.  There were times when our own students could not get into the games.  There was nothing Cleo could not do on a basketball court. 

His offensive arsenal consisted of left and right hand hook shots, set shots, a jump shot from any and everywhere, a great rebounder when he needed to be, he was fearless driving to the basket and he was a 80 percent foul shooter.

Cleo could dribble the ball up court to break the press.  He was no slough on defense either, when “Bighouse” needed someone to stop the other team’s hot shooter, he looked no further than Cleo or teammate Tommy Monterio.

Cleo was drafted No. 1 by the St. Louis Hawks in 1961 and everything was uphill from there.  When he arrived in St. Louis the KKK better known as “The Nest” was waiting for him.  

The “Nest” consisted of players Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellet.  They did everything but string him up by his neck.  When Coach Paul Seymour took a stand against “The Nest” the owner Ben Kerner fired him.  When Cleo returned to campus to finish up his classes to graduate after his rookie year he was a beaten man. 

He would come around to our room and sit and talk with Barney and me for hours about life with the St. Louis Hawks.  His story was something out of the 1800s. 

In 2008, little has changed. Black men are still having their ideas and goods stolen and are asked to go in the backdoor and side doors to re-claim them.  Spooks are still sitting by the door opening it for some and closing it for others.   

When we start to talk about the injustices of the sports establishment you have to look no further than Coach John McLendon.  White coaches led by the legendary Dean Smith stole his ideas and made them their own. 

The basketball establishment led by the white media had fans believing for years that Coach Smith invented “The Four Corners.”  A strategy devised by Coach Mac to take time off of the clock in the closing moments of a game while sitting on a lead.

How can you vote one of the greatest innovators of the game into the hall of fame as a contributor?  

Check the records and see if Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith have Contributor before or after their names.  In all fairness if Coach Mac is a Contributor than every coach who followed James Nasmith into the hall of fame is also a Contributor.   

The word “Contributor” needs to be changed, as it relates to Coach Mac and Earl Lloyd.  If history is the judge “Brothers and Sisters” in media will see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil.

Johnny McLendon was definitely “an officer and a gentleman” he was in a class by himself when it came to having a compassion for helping others.  Johnny Mac was a pleasure to be around.  He is one of the best examples on how one can be a class-act and black folks will Player Hate on you anyway.   

My roommate and teammate the late Barney Hood and I would often talk about Coach Mac and how he would always be uplifting when talking about his friends and former players.  Fairness is a lesson that never seemed to have rubbed off on some of his colleagues.

The man many of us called “Big Daddy” when others called him Bighouse would some times forget we were watching him.  He could be very selfish and self serving.  Bighouse had a big heart but he could also be heartless. 

He went ballistic when his friend and colleague Coach Tom “Tricky” Harris of Virginia Union hired a white coach, Dave Robbins (in-focus).  Coach Gaines and Harris were poker pals and shared a lot of basketball history. 

When his buddy hired a white coach he felt betrayed.  Bighouse slowly burned when CIAA Commissioner Leon Kerry (out of focus) and his cohorts hijacked the conference right before his eyes. 

Some of the things he said about his colleagues and student/athletes made many us wonder whether he really liked himself.  None of us escaped his wrath including me, Cleo and Black Jesus.

In many ways we have taken on the characteristics of the establishment.  When it comes to fairness it is becoming a lost art in the black community.   We have also become more exclusive instead of inclusive. 

Black Magic, for example: How were the contributions of icons Sam Jones (it is rumored he wanted to get paid), Spencer Haywood, Curly Neal and last but not least Red Auerbach and Walter Brown of the Boston Celtics overlooked?

Sam Jones is in the NBA Hall of Fame and voted as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest, he could have easily added more insight.  His mentors were two of the greatest coaches of all time, Johnny Mac and Red Auerbach. 

Without Red’s contributions, Black Magic would still be out of focus and a dream deferred.  Spencer Haywood’s contribution turned the plantation mentality of college basketball and the NBA into a “Pay Day Heaven” for today’s NBA players. 

In a landmark decision Spencer successfully challenged in court and won his case to enter the NBA draft before graduation.  He became the first ever NBA Hardship case.  Every NBA player making over $5,000 owes him a debt of gratitude. 

He should be in the NBA Hall of Fame and a member of The 50 Greatest Players ever, for his play on the court and his legal battles in court.

He was working in the community long before the NBA CARED and he put the POWER in Power Forward.   He is being Black Balled by the NBA for standing up to be a man in America and for his alleged drug use. 

If drug use is one of the measuring rods used for his induction, than the hall should be almost vacant. 

One of the show’s characters, drug dealer Pee Wee Kirkland is a New York Playground basketball legend and former Norfolk State player.  I saw some of his best customers in Black Magic

Curly Neal is a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University and his name is synonymous with the internationally known Harlem Globetrotters.  Curly is known by more basketball fans World wide then Michael Jordan.  Johnson C. Smith is one of our oldest black HBUC institutions in Black America. 

It was founded in 1867 as Biddle Memorial and named Johnson C. Smith in 1923.  The Queen City of Charlotte, NC is the home of the most famous black college basketball tournament in the country (CIAA), and they were also out of focus in Black Magic!

How could Black Magic forget New York basketball icons Pop Gates, Jack DeFares, and Carl Green?      

Sound bites we could have done without:  Some things are better left unsaid, playground and NBA Broadcast legend Sonny Hill describing former Tennessee State and New York Knicks’ guard Dick Barnett was definitely out of focus.  He said “Dick Barnett was a functional illiterate.”  Dr. Dick Barnett graduated from Tennessee State and now holds a PHD Degree.

ESPN NBA studio analyst and Winston-Salem State alumnus Stephen A. Smith and basketball scrub was blackballed from the show for stepping on “Superman’s Cape.”  “Bighouse” was having trouble winning games at the end of his career (828 wins) Smith writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer made the mistake of calling for his firing. 

He has been out of bounds and out of focus ever since.  What is my excuse for being out of focus!  I have never worn short skirts and carried Poms-Poms.  I walk and march to a different drum beat.


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