'Black Magic': A Slam Dunk
Saturday, March 15, 2008
From one angle, the excellent ESPN documentary "Black Magic" is about the three degrees of separation between James Naismith, who invented basketball in the 1890s, and Avery Johnson, coach of the Dallas Mavericks more than a century later. If you find such an apostolic succession intriguing, you will revel in the four-hour film that airs in two parts tomorrow and Monday.
The two halves flow together like a basketball game, telling the parallel stories of the American civil rights movement and the rise of African American basketball players.
From another angle, this is a lively account of Earliest Things. The first spin-moves, fadeaway jumpers from the corners, gangsta-looking players and trash talking. It engages the senses with intimate interviews, live-action shots, powerful black-and-white news footage and lots and lots of up-tempo, fast-break music, such as "Green Onions" by Booker T. and the MGs and "Sweet Soul Music" by Arthur Conley.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and Wynton Marsalis -- with additional commentary by historians Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cleveland Sellers -- the film highlights such pioneers of the hardwood as:
• John Chaney, the retired Temple University wizard-coach, who was a legendary player at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and in the Eastern Professional Basketball League.
• Richard "Pee Wee" Kirkland, one of the first gangster-athletes who, when he was offered a contract by the Chicago Bulls in the late 1960s, sneered and said, "I've got more money than that in my pocket." Kirkland went on to play for a prison league team, on which he scored 135 points in one game. Today, he is a motivational speaker.
• Perry Wallace, the first African American varsity basketballer to play for Vanderbilt University and the Southeastern Conference. Wallace now teaches at American University's Washington College of Law.
There are tangential pursuits -- such as the story of the tragic death of Delano Middleton, killed in a riot at South Carolina State University in 1968 -- but they are fascinating and well told.
The heart of the documentary is the story of John McLendon, considered to be the godfather of black college basketball. A genius of the sport, McLendon studied at the feet of Naismith at the University of Kansas in the 1930s, but he was not permitted to play for Naismith because of his race. McLendon would coach at the North Carolina College for Negroes, among other schools.
In the early days, basketball was a staid, slow-moving game of set offenses and defenses. McLendon believed in a scram-and-slam, baseline-to-baseline style. McLendon spurred other men, such as Clarence "Big House" Gaines at Winston Salem State University, to become teachers of the game. McLendon told Gaines to head north for skill players and to the Midwest for players who know the fundamentals. Gaines coached for 47 years. One of his players was Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, who co-produced this film.
Because of segregation, black youngsters who wanted to play basketball went to black colleges. Eventually, they longed to test their skills against the best white teams. In 1948, McLendon formed a committee that petitioned the NCAA to allow black colleges to participate in the year-end tournament; the organization replied that black colleges just couldn't compete. The secret, of course, was that some of the black teams were every bit as good as, if not better than, the elite white teams.
One of the first tales told in the film is of a secret game between McLendon's North Carolina College for Negroes and an all-white Duke University team in 1944. McLendon's team won.
In the film -- directed and produced by Dan Klores -- we learn how McLendon advised the Washington Capitols to draft Harold Hunter, the first African American to sign a contract with the NBA, as well as Earl Lloyd, the first African American to play in an NBA game. We also see how he became the first African American to coach an integrated pro team, the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League. The team's owner, a young George Steinbrenner, began meddling with McLendon's successful strategies. Steinbrenner withheld the players' salaries when the Pipers hit a losing streak. During a game against the Hawaiian Chiefs, Steinbrenner even traded one of the Pipers to the opposing team at halftime; the player changed uniforms and kept playing.
As schools began to integrate in the 1950s, fewer and fewer black high school stars chose historically black colleges, and their basketball programs began to falter. Such blue-chip prospects (and eventual NBA stars) as Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Washington's own Elgin Baylor played on college teams that were predominantly white.
There were exceptions. Avery Johnson, for instance, was a superstar at Southern University, whose coach, Ben Jobe -- a first-rate storyteller in the film -- had been a disciple of John McLendon.
Black Magic (four hours) premieres tomorrow night at 9 on ESPN; Part 2 airs Monday night at 9.