King Kaufman's Sports Daily

ESPN documentary on black-college basketball dribbles aimlessly at times, but scores.

By King Kaufman
Published March 14, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Earl Lloyd, the first black player in NBA history, is talking about his four years at West Virginia State, a historically black college.

"It's like, magical, man," he says. "At graduation everybody's crying. Sobbing, man, boo-hooing. They don't want to leave, man. They don't want to leave this place."

Lloyd is part of an amazing array of former players and coaches in the two-part, four-hour documentary "Black Magic," which ESPN is airing without commercials beginning Sunday night after the NCAA Tournament selection show. Part 2 runs Monday night. The sprawling movie is the story of basketball at historically black colleges and universities -- HBCUs -- which also makes it a story of racism and the civil-rights struggle of the mid-20th century.

"I lived right behind this white high school and of course never could go to it," says Perry Wallace of his Nashville childhood. Wallace became the first black varsity athlete in the Southeastern Conference when he joined the Vanderbilt basketball team in 1967. "And so us colored kids watched through some bushes. In effect, what we were watching was the mainstream. White America. It was everybody else, and then there was us."

"Black Magic" tells the story of pioneers such as Lloyd and Wallace, stars such as Willis Reed, Bob Dandridge, Dick Barnett and the incomparable Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, who co-produced the movie, and black-college basketball legends you might not have heard of.

One of those, and this column pleads guilty to not knowing him, is John McLendon, "the father of black-college basketball," who once had a secret meeting with legendary Kentucky coach -- and famed segregationist -- Adolph Rupp. Rupp had asked McLendon to talk to him. He wanted some basketball advice.

McLendon, who had apprenticed to the game's inventor, Dr. James Naismith, at Kansas, though of course he wasn't allowed to play there, ran a fast-break style that was a stark contrast to the plodding half-court game then popular at white schools. That up-tempo strategy became a hallmark of black-college ball as McLendon's disciples spread through the coaching ranks.

One of those disciples, Ben Jobe, is, along with Lloyd, the heart and soul of "Black Magic." A player at Fisk University in the early '50s and then a longtime coach at several schools and in the pros, Jobe, 75, is the movie's most memorable figure. He's the closest thing "Black Magic" has to the two giants at its center, McLendon and Clarence "Big House" Gaines, who won more than 800 games as a coach, mostly at Winston-Salem.

"Black Magic" was made by the prolific documentarian Dan Klores, who among other things made the excellent "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story" in 2005. Klores has said that he set out to make a Ken Burns-style overview history of basketball, but got bored with the idea of one more round of interviews with Michael Jordan and company and instead decided to focus on what he calls "an epic that has not been told."

It's a shame, as Monroe has acknowledged, that "Black Magic" wasn't made 10 years ago, when McLendon and Gaines were both still alive. Both men's widows appear.

But what's here is at times fantastic. Grainy clips of games from the '40s, '50s and '60s, from McLendon's early teams to Monroe's patented spin moves under Gaines' tutelage at Winston-Salem. Interviews with superstars such as Monroe and Reed as well as lesser figures such as Bob "Butterbean" Love, a sweet-shooting forward for the Chicago Bulls in the early '70s, and with a brilliant two-way guard from Bethune-Cookman named John Chaney.

Chaney, known today as the former longtime coach at Temple, found, like most black players in the early '50s, that he had almost no place to go as a player when his college career ended.

"He would have been in the pros easily," Jobe says, "but they weren't ready for too many of us in those days." The Harlem Globetrotters were pretty much the beginning and the end of professional opportunities at the time, Chaney says. The Globetrotters weren't looked upon as a joke by African-Americans, but Chaney says he just couldn't play the showman.

"I couldn't just go out and do tricks with the ball," he says. "My trick comes when you try to get the ball off me in a game. But I couldn't do it, and I got just a little bit upset over the fact that, my goodness, here I am out here, this is my skill going to waste."

The waste went both ways, depriving players of opportunities to play and teams with opportunities to field great players.

Lloyd, the pioneer who became a scout and coach with the Detroit Pistons in the '60s, recalls advising team management to take Monroe with the first pick of the 1967 draft. The Pistons balked, not believing that the competition Monroe faced in black-college basketball was legitimate. Detroit took Providence star Jimmy Walker instead.

"We passed up Earl Monroe," Lloyd says, still incredulous 40 years later. "Yup." He nods, then closes his eyes and shakes his head.

The civil-rights movement and the virulent brand of overt racism practiced in America for much of the 20th century are well-covered subjects in documentary filmdom. Klores includes footage of Klan rallies and such almost as if it's required. Yet the story of these things is so deep and varied that, done skillfully, a thousand movies could be made without much overlap.

All the time Chaney spent as a major media figure in this country: Did you know he was a star player who would likely have been an NBA star had he come along a little later? Or been white.

Wallace talks about playing road games in the SEC with Vanderbilt. "The bands playing 'Dixie,' always the Rebel flags," he says, "and the cheerleaders leading cheers -- against me in particular. 'Get the nigger, get the nigger, rah-rah-rah.'"

Klores takes time out from basketball to tell the story of the 1968 Orangeburg, S.C., massacre, an incident similar to the Kent State shooting two years later but not nearly as well known, for reasons that Dr. Oscar Butler, a one-time South Carolina State ballplayer, makes plain: "The only difference in Kent State and South Carolina State is that the kids at Kent State were white and the ones here black."

The basketball connection is a tenuous one, that one of the three killed that night was a promising high school player. The second half of the documentary, the two hours airing Monday, meanders a bit as it follows the careers of the men introduced in the first half. Viewers might have to remind themselves why so much loving attention is being paid to the 1970s New York Knicks in a movie about historically black college basketball. It's because Reed and Monroe -- the co-producer -- starred for that team.

"Black Magic" becomes a melancholy tale in a different way in those last two hours: As predominantly white schools integrated, many of the best black players were drawn away from the HCBUs. The late '50s are presented as a turning point, when a quartet of black future superstars -- Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson -- all went to mostly white schools.

With the world of HBCU basketball in decline, Gaines' decades-long run of success at Winston-Salem came to an end and he was forced out. His widow, Clara, says, smiling but her voice catching, "In the end, we just all wished that integration hadn't taken place, because it did change things."

Though it did exact a price, that change was of course a positive. "Black Magic" starts with Ben Jobe's mentor, McLendon, conducting a secret game between his players and a non-varsity team from Duke because it was illegal for whites and blacks to play together, then holding that secret meeting with Rupp, who wouldn't let himself be seen consulting a black man.

It continues through violence, insults and opportunities denied and lost. But it ends with one of Jobe's disciples, Avery Johnson, who played for Jobe at Southern University and was coaching the NBA's Dallas Mavericks before he turned 40.

"Black Magic" wanders a bit, but it's time well spent with a story that, like so much of African-American history, is both triumphant and tragic. And even if the story weren't half so compelling, it'd be worthwhile just for the old clips of Earl the Pearl.

Previous column: John Daly DQ'd

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    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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