Sometime during my mid-20s I began to get fed up with being referred to as "the first black player to do this" and "the first black player to do that." I was annoyed, although I realized such firsts were newsworthy. Somebody had to be the first.
Tonight at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion Larry Farmer will debut as basketball coach of UCLA against Brigham Young. This is a UCLA first to be lauded.
Farmer, a black, is eminently qualified to lead the basketball program at a university that perennially expects NCAA playoff berths.
The new head coach says he is "suddenly aware of everything . . . things I thought I would never have to be aware of. My first day of practice was very, very exciting. I got goose pimples. But I am ready and everybody here knows it -- from (UCLA) Chancellor (Charles) Young down to the players."
Farmer and I share many common experiences. We both are UCLA graduates; we both played on NCAA championship teams (Larry lost only one game in three years while playing varsity basketball). And both of us were very much influenced by our respective coaches at UCLA -- the late tennis coach and athletic director J.D. Morgan for me and former coach John Wooden for Farmer.
But there is another man who Farmer admitted "has been very helpful to me in ways Coach Wooden couldn't help. And that is John Thompson, basketball coach at Georgetown."
Thompson, too, was a black first. At Georgetown.
Perhaps a bit more cynical than Farmer, Thompson recently was asked whether he thought being black had helped him to land his star 7-foot center, Pat Ewing. Thompson intoned sternly, "I don't know, but it's about time I got something because I'm black."
Farmer had good reason to be more sanguine than Thompson, who begins his 10th season at Georgetown. "In 1979, J.D. (Morgan) interviewed only Larry Brown for the job to replace (Gary) Cunningham," Farmer said. "I felt I was on my way."
Since his graduation in 1973 Farmer had served as assistant junior varsity coach under Frank Arnold (his BYU adversary tonight) and later JV coach and assistant varsity coach under Wooden, Gene Bartow, Cunningham and Brown.
I was called into Morgan's office 16 years ago to talk about an offer for me to play on the Davis Cup team in the middle of the school year. Years apart UCLA coaches gave us both the same message. "You're almost ready. Your time will certainly come. Meantime, get the fundamentals down pat." He was right, of course. Farmer, who once got the same message from Wooden, gets his chance starting tonight.
Even David Halberstam in his new book "The Breaks of the Game" has taken note of the seemingly special relationship between UCLA and the black athlete. Few major predominantly white colleges can match UCLA's list of black superstars: Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington in football (yes Robinson attended UCLA on a football scholarship) and baseball; Rafer Johnson in track and field; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willie Naulls and Marques Johnson in basketball.
"John Thompson and I both agree that neither of us is running a democracy on court," Farmer said. "Kids are here to get a degree, play basketball and mature." He already has disciplined his star junior guard, Rod Foster, for missing an appointment with a tutor. "If you miss tutorial duties or are let off practice then you don't practice."
Did Farmer think that as a black coach he'll have an edge in recruiting the better black players?
"No, not necessarily," he replied. "The only edge, if you want to call it that, may be a better initial rapport with their parents. I obviously would have an intuitive feel for that, but I will have to work my butt off like every other coach."