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Remembering My Friend, Bill Franklin
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — As I write this column, my heart is extremely heavy with sadness. The news of my friend Bill Franklin’s death has left me shocked and numb. Bill has spent nearly the last quarter of a century as the voice of Winston-Salem State University sports.
When I first met Bill Franklin almost eight years ago, I never realized that he would have such a profound influence in my professional career. He could be cantankerous one minute and then make you laugh like Richard Pryor the next.
At the time we met, my former roommate and current BASN colleague L.A. Batchelor had just gotten a job in Florida and I was trying to find an apartment. L.A. had just left WSNC FM, the university’s radio station, and he told the station manager, Joe Watson, that I was looking for a radio gig as well.
After talking with Joe, he hired me as a sort of a all-around person for the station. Doing some production, putting together some voice overs, filling in for jocks, etc. “Have you had a chance to meet Frank?”, Joe would say. “Since you’re a sports guy, he’ll have someone to talk sports with so he won’t bother me”.
“That’s sounds cool”, I told him. Few minutes later, I then went down the hall to meet “Frank”. Much like the many times I’ve walked into his office before and since, he was on the phone with someone. I introduced myself to him and he gave me a puzzled sort of look. “You’re a little old to be a student aren’t ya?”, he said.
“Nah, I’m just here to work at the station doing some shows and hopefully some sports.” I replied. “Oh, you’re the guy that’s here to take my job!!!”, Bill said. I tried to assure him that I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. “Whoa, I’m just here to help, I don’t want your job”, he said.
“I know, I’m just testing you, big fella”, said Bill, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. I didn’t know that Joe had told him about me the previous day. Needless to say, me and Bill connected real early.
His sports tastes were a little off-kilter. He was a die-hard Washington Redskins fan, but just despised LaVar Arrington. He was a long time baseball fan, but after the 1994 strike he like many others turned his back on the game. “I’d rather go see the (Winston-Salem) Warthogs (a Carolina League afilliate for the White Sox) then these ‘Generation X’ guys”, he said.
But his one true love was black college sports. Even though he attended North Carolina A&T and briefly did the Aggies’ football games for one season, he was a WSSU Ram supporter all the way. Like Phil Rizzuto and Harry Carey were to their teams, Bill carried the same passion for the Rams.
I had always known of black college sports and the rich history that Winston-Salem State has played in it. But at WSNC, I got the chance to see it and experience it up close and personal working with Bill.
While working at the station, I got a chance to meet two of greatest college basketball coaches of all-time, Clarence “Big House” Gaines and John McClendon. All because of the relationship I had with Bill.
I met Coach Mack at the 1999 CIAA Tournament briefly while working with Bill. When Mr. McClendon passed away a year later, I did a tribute of his career that ran on our radio station. Bill liked it so much he played it for the McClendon family just before the tournament began that year. I was walking by the radio booth just as it was on the air and heard just how moved his wife was about the tribute.
“Alright, Tony…you can stay another week”, Bill would say later.
A few years later, Bill, myself and another colleague of ours, Tolly Carr would be part of a TV sports talk show called “Sportsbeat”. It ran on cable access in Winston-Salem for about two years. Tolly had previous worked with Bill at WSNC and was serving as a sportscaster for WXII, the local NBC affiliate.
The thing I enjoyed the most about the show was that here were three black journalists, doing their thing, with an decent audience and just enjoying it every minute. Even after I left town and got hired at ESPN, we all stayed close either through phone calls or the Internet.
To let you know just how beloved Bill was, I remember a brief, but memorable incident at a CIAA tournament game a few years back. The WSSU team was losing very early in a men’s contest.
During the timeout, Bill yells something at one the WSSU players about grabbing rebound and letting him know you’re there. He added some other colorful words to it, but you get the gist of the conversation.
Out of the timeout, the Rams have the ball and following a miss, this same player got the rebound an followed up with one of the most thunderous dunks you’ll ever see in either college or pro ball. “Was that cool, Mr. Bill?”, said the now beaming player as he ran back down court. Bill and the rest of us at the press row just laughed and he gave the kid a thumbs up.
That was Bill. In your face one minute, patting you on the back the next.
Goodbye, my friend. You’ll be missed by us all.