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

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.

"A black guy going to Vanderbilt?" wondered former Bullet Bob Dandridge. "Little things like that made you take notice."

Amid burning crosses and waving Confederate flags and all the bile and hate of the 1960s, Wallace became the Southeastern Conference's first prominent African American basketball player.

The cheerleaders at more than one SEC school led a racist chant specifically targeted at him. "There was so much," Wallace said. "I just tried to ignore everything when I was playing."

He wasn't immune to racism in Nashville, either. Wallace attended a church while at Vanderbilt, until several deacons and elders ushered the young student athlete into a side room.

"They said, 'Some of the older members of the congregation will write us out of their will if you keep coming to this church,' " he said in the film.

At his office yesterday morning, he added: "I just understood those were the times. I was conscious of the idea I was a pioneer. You dealt with racial epithets. This is where slavery and cotton were once king."

And yet, there is no lingering resentment in Wallace today, not even for the white teenager zooming by in a car with friends, the kid who pointed a handgun at a 10-year-old who thought he was going to die.

"Not letting go of that will eventually destroy you," he said. "My father had an interesting way of putting it. He said, 'If you hate anyone, I'll kill you,' " Wallace said, laughing.

Drafted by the 76ers in 1970, Wallace never made the opening day roster. But while in Philadelphia, he met Jack Ramsay, the Hall of Fame coach, who was honest enough to tell Wallace he could be an NBA journeyman but that he would rather recommend a purposeful and bright man like Wallace go to law school.

He earned his degree at Columbia, came to the District in the mid-1970s, worked as a lawyer for the Justice Department and eventually ended up at American, where he quietly taught law until a socially conscious filmmaker from New York wanted to tell his story and others, so no one would forget.

And one night last week, during Black History Month, he walked into that small reception room and took his rightful place alongside Monroe, Love and Dorothy Height, the 95-year-old civil rights activist, who wore her signature bonnet.

And Joanna McLendon, the widow of John McLendon, the legendary coach who once played for James Naismith at Kansas and later organized "The Secret Game" in Durham, N.C., in 1944 -- at the time an illegal, interracial scrimmage between an all-white Duke medical team which prided itself as the best in the state and McLendon's all-black YMCA crew. (Duke went down hard, 88-44.)

And Ben Jobe, the best coach almost nobody knows, who once beat Bobby Cremins while at Southern.

Howie Evans, the longtime sports editor of the Amsterdam News, one of the nation's oldest black newspapers, said it best as he entered the reception room last week.

"If the stories don't come out of this room, they're going under," he said.

By the end of the film, we learned Wallace's Pearl High School team in North Nashville competed in the state playoffs the first year they were desegregated in Tennessee. Pearl won it all, "on the exact same night Texas Western beat Kentucky in 1966," he said.

Change had come, in basketball and society, and they had all played a part in it.

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