Correction to This Article
This column misspelled the name of pioneering African American basketball coach John McLendon.

Basketball's African American Pioneers

Amid burning crosses and Confederate flags of the 1960s, Perry Wallace, currently a professor at American University, became the SEC's first prominent African-American basketball player.
Amid burning crosses and Confederate flags of the 1960s, Perry Wallace, currently a professor at American University, became the SEC's first prominent African-American basketball player. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Mike Wise
Friday, February 15, 2008

A forgotten ballplayer walked into a small reception room last week at the Reagan Building, had the privilege of meeting the famous Earl Monroe -- and promptly told the Pearl a story.

While Monroe was becoming NBA royalty in New York, Perry Wallace played for a pittance in the Eastern League, a basketball minor league, and moonlighted as a math teacher at the Pearl's alma mater, Philadelphia's John Bartram High School.

"And at the same time, Joe Bryant -- Kobe's father -- attended that school," Wallace said. "Isn't that something?"

From the Pearl to Perry, to Jellybean Bryant and on to his son, the entire evening became a game of human H-O-R-S-E. They bonded over coincidences and zero degrees of separation, of events of 30, 40 and 50 years ago, all told by living historians before the screening of "Black Magic."

The documentary is filmmaker Dan Klores's four-hour ode to the players and coaches who attended historically black colleges and universities during the civil rights movement. It's as poignant as it is educational. "Black Magic" fuses sports and societal upheaval in a way Bud Greenspan or Ken Burns might. It airs, amazingly, commercial-free on ESPN next month in two parts. A condensed screening will take place in New Orleans on Saturday during All-Star Weekend.

Here's hoping Kobe and his contemporaries get a chance to see an engrossing piece of the game's past. It should be required viewing.

The film leaves you with a broader appreciation for legends such as Monroe and Bob Love, the old Bull who goes from destitute -- a former player who could not get a job after his playing days because of his pronounced stutter -- to the motivational speaker to whom the audience gave a standing ovation after the credits rolled.

But even more gripping are the events and people forgotten by time, LeBron or both.

Like Harold Hunter, who became the first African American to sign an NBA contract in 1950, with the Washington Capitols (yes, before Earl Lloyd, who laments Hunter being cut before the regular season and maintains an NBA team was not yet ready for two black players on the same team.)

And E.B. Henderson, the Harvard-educated civil rights activist who, besides being the principal organizer of the first rural branch of the NAACP, also introduced basketball to African Americans in the District in 1907. He personally financed the Interscholastic Athletic Association and came up with the model for the Public Schools Athletic League that eventually flourished in New York. His grandson Ed, who lives in the same Falls Church two-story home that E.B. purchased via mail order from Sears nearly 100 years ago, still has a document from the Spalding Sporting Goods Co. from 1907 that chronicles the first participation by black youths in interscholastic athletics.

"I've seen a document from 1906 chronicling white players on teams," Ed Henderson said. "But never black players. There are teams from New York on it. Washington. All over. It's incredible."

And Wallace, the American University law professor, whose commendations in his book-lined office on Massachusetts Avenue belie the sacrifice he made some 40 years ago.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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