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.

Wil Haygood ’76, No. 31 in the front row, on Miami University’s 1973-1974 junior varsity team.

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.”

“What do you stand for? There comes a point in time you have to show up.”

Jim Cleamons, former NBA player and head coach

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.

Wil Haygood ’76, who majored in urban and regional planning, is the Boadway Distinguished Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami. His most recent book is “TIGERLAND: 1968-1969: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing.”
Miami head basketball coach Jack Owens; former Miami basketball player Wil Haygood ’76; Jerry Pierson ’66, Haygood’s junior varsity basketball coach; and Miami Hall of Fame basketball coach Darrell Hedric ’55.
 Left to right: Miami men’s head basketball coach Jack Owens; former Miami basketball player Wil Haygood ’76; Jerry Pierson ’66, Haygood’s junior varsity basketball coach; and Miami Hall of Fame basketball coach Darrell Hedric ’55.

6 thoughts on “Historic moment pro players laid down the basketball

  1. Wil,
    This is Coach Marsh, your basketball coach at Monroe Junior High. We shared a lot—-good times and rough times— in a short period of time you were there including the tragic assassination of Dr. King and the aftermath surrounding our school. We have continued to share correspondence and the occasional visit in the last 52 years. I speak with a great fervor by saying “enough is enough!” It’s time for all, not just athletes who are showing us the way by utilizing their platforms, but for all justice loving people to STAND UP! There are no sidelines here. This is a fight for the equality of all people and the very soul of our nation. It’s got to be a “full court press” with no letup! No timeouts! Just relentless pressure until freedom rings for all—-once and for all. No overtimes. Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that silence is a form of complicity. He stated, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Speak out and VOTE this election like your lives and our country depend on it—-because they do.

  2. Enjoyed your article and celebrate your success and significant life accomplishments. I too was a walk on with Darrell Hedrick in 1964, and must say my high school career was substantially better than yours. At least that my story, and I sticking with it. Sorry about that clearly the older I get the better I was. When I think back on my life much of my success came from the hardwood lessons we both learned, I was able to take two companies public, retire early and raise a family which is clearly my most significant accomplishment. I was blessed to serve as the Chief of Tennessee’s Healthcare System and spent much of my life in causes of homelessness, prison reform, gay rights, minority sports opportunities, drug rehabilitation, education and healthcare among my primary focus. It was a blessing to be able to give my time and treasure to causes worthy of change and not my application for Sainthood. However, I do take issue with your characterization of the NBA’s stance and subsequent relationship with the BLM movement. I know you have read their charter and I find no effort more damaging to the American people and especially our Black brothers and sisters. As I read the BLM charter the elimination of the nuclear family, Marxist and anti Christian positions is totally counter productive to the human condition. If the NBA will be judged by the positions they support today I certainly hope this one will long be judged as a fools errand. I would however, applaud their honest appraisal of the conditions in China including imprisonment to millions of people solely due to the religious beliefs among other issues of human rights violations. Should my interpretation be flawed i would appreciate you expanded clarification. Best wishes and continued success. Rusty Siebert “67”

  3. Thoughts of a former Miami University Athlete on Today’s professional athletes stand for justice

  4. Wil,
    This is Ted Downing ’68 (Miami University All American ’67,’68), NCAA Champion 1967, MAC Champion ’67-’68, Hall of Famer 1982 in Track and Field). Just finished reading your piece in M/Slant Talk in the Alumni Association Blog. The recent events (The NBA, WNBA, MLB, NHL, MLS stance and focus on JUSTICE) were very inspiring. I participated in the 1968 United States Olympic Trials at Echo Summit (High Altitude training) in Lake Tahoe. A couple friends of mine (Tommie Smith and John Carlos) were the inspiration for the 60’s and had a significant impact on many Track and Field athletes that followed them. At the time, I supported their focus on JUSTICE (Black Glove salute for which they were banned from Mexico City) and I expressed that support during the trials and upon my return to my hometown of Evanston, Illinois. I was able to secure a teaching position at my old high school (Evanston Township High School) and took the opportunity to use my platform (At the time) to discuss the plight of the Black Athletes in America publicly for the young athletes in my home town. My hometown neighborhood newspaper published a piece titled, ” Downing Tells Black Athletes How It Really Is”. As the current professional athletes recently demonstrated, sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone to bring needed attention to societal ills that affect us all as human beings.

    Although I was unable to join them in Mexico, (Smith and Carlos) their perseverance, courage, righteous expression and visible illustration and focus on JUSTICE set the stage for future athletes to be able to do more than just dribble and jump. Today’s athletes are using their articulate, organized, thoughtful and effective positions/platforms to draw attention and influence “real” change in America. As I did with my fellow cohorts in 1968, I salute the professional athletes of this generation for spotlighting the changes that will make “America Great”…again, again….!!

  5. its time for all pro sports players to stand up and say something right is right and wrong is wrong.

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