By Wil Haygood ’76
There was something sublime and rather glorious about being a member of the Miami University junior varsity basketball team during the 1973-1974 basketball season. I made the team as a walk-on, having handwritten a letter to Darrell Hedric ’55, the varsity coach at the time, letting him know I would soon be arriving on campus. I now chuckle at the chutzpah. My high school basketball career at Franklin Heights High School in Columbus was undistinguished. I wasn’t a starter, although I did score 12 points in one quarter against Dublin High School, a fact which I shared with Hedric. I was surprised when Coach Hedric wrote me back on Miami University athletic department stationery and told me I was welcome to try out for the basketball team. I propped the letter atop my homemade desk in my bedroom. It made me feel 10 feet tall. I was actually 5 feet 10 inches and skinny as heck. I was just a fool for the sport.
This sweet foolishness began in grade school. I’d play basketball in rain and in cold weather. I played on sweltering playgrounds; I’d play in the dark under lamplight. It was the quintessential city game, a bunch of us urban kids playing a game which required no fancy equipment, just desire and some skills. I never associated basketball with social activism, that is, until the basketball season of 1968-1969. Dwight “Bo-Pete” Lamar had attended North High School, where high schoolers from my neighborhood attended. But as the 1968 school year opened, Lamar had transferred across town to all-Black East High School. And the reason why was known to the whole neighborhood: The white coach at North High had told Lamar that his Afro hairstyle was viewed as radical, that white parents had complained about it, and that he must cut it to play the following year.
He refused. At the time, the repercussions could be dire for Black athletes standing up to white authority. But Lamar’s move was seen as a political statement, and even those of us in junior high school at the time applauded him. That was also the year of the summer Olympics – actually played that fall – which became quite notable for the moment when track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their Black fists to bring attention to American racism. They were subsequently reviled.
Here’s what happened with the Afro-wearing Dwight Lamar at East High School: He was one of the cogs – along with Ed Ratleff and Nick Conner – in the team’s celebrated undefeated season and state championship, a story I wrote about in a recent book. Both Lamar and Ratleff went on to play in the NBA.
When all the NBA players recently shut down during their playoffs as protests against the shooting of unarmed Blacks by law enforcement across America, it became the boldest statement of social activism mingled with sports in the history of this nation. Other pro sports teams – the WNBA, MLB, NHL – followed the example. In this season of terror against Black Americans, professional athletes rose up. The cumulative killings of Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin – and the recent videotaped shooting in the back (seven shots) of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police – have put the powerful and mighty of this nation on notice: The protesting athletes – whites and Blacks – have vowed that their activism will not cease until the killing of unarmed Blacks stops and the depthless woes of systemic racism that haunts America are tackled.
I personally wasn’t destined for the NBA, but instead found a career in journalism, book writing and teaching. As a foreign correspondent, I traveled the world, reporting on wars, famine, political corruption and economic policies. But no matter which nation I landed in – a mostly white country, a mostly Black country, a multiracial country – the people I met so often wanted to question me about American racism. They wondered why America would point its fingers at other countries while practicing racism at home. In recent months, many of those friends I met abroad and have stayed in touch with have wanted to talk about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, now Jacob Blake. I can hear the anguish in their voices through telephone wires.
This season has become a great moment of reflection for former NBA players, who are suddenly lifted up and excited with the activist direction ignited by their league. “If you look at the racial balance in the league,” says Jim Cleamons, who played and became a head coach with the NBA, “then the NBA should have taken the lead. The question is: What do you stand for? There comes a point in time you have to show up. If whites don’t understand this moment, they need to ask themselves if all they care about is their 401k.”
Fred Saunders played in the mid-1970s for two NBA teams, the Boston Celtics and the Phoenix Suns. After his playing career, he became a high school basketball coach. “When I was in the NBA,” Saunders says, “we were going through a spiritual renaissance. Some players were changing their names. Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.” He believes the current moment will resonate more deeply than ever. “Based upon most of the current NBA players, and their ages, they can look to both the past and the future. It is all going to be effective now because these NBA players can relate to the younger players and activists.”
After his NBA career with the Sacramento Kings, Lawrence Funderburke went on to create an organization for marginalized youth. He has also written and lectured about ways in which former NBA players can play a larger role in the arena of social justice. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Funderburke says about social engagements. “You’ve got to get out in the community.” While he is impressed with the role taken by current NBA players, Funderburke says he will be watching to see what transpires from the protests. “Athletes will need to do more to promote economic justice. I’ve also challenged churches as well. They’ve dropped the ball.”
Whoever wins the championship with the current NBA and WNBA seasons, it will become notable for the moment these players laid the basketball down and the game took its place in the pantheon of civil rights moments and movements.