One Of The Greatest Stories Ever Told

By Fred Whitted
Updated: March 17, 2008

Black Magic

NORTH CAROLINA — A few hours ago, I watched “Black Magic”, an ESPN documentary centered on Black college basketball. It explored much of the untold story of the great coaches, players, and games at some of the greatest educational institutions in the world.

I saw a lot of faces of people I had heard of for the first time. I saw game film of players in action in the prime of their lives at HBCUs. In my humble opinion, this is one of the greatest stories ever told. Dan Klores and co-producer Earl Monroe are to be commended for this great work.

“Black Magic” is a great foundation for future explorations of this rich history. It introduced a lot of coaches and players that most people outside the HBCU family have never heard of. It also explores a side of live that most people would prefer to forget.

If America would embrace this documentary as they did “Roots” and the recent movie, “The Great Debaters”, about the Wiley College debate team, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to fix some things that have plagued us for years.

One of the resounding themes that the producers were trying to get across hear was that this is about much more than basketball. Because most HBCUs are located in the old Confederacy, racism and civil rights had to be addressed.

Both are well addressed without slowing the pace, or, pulling punches. It could be said that for some of those who appear in the documentary, it provided their first real outlet to express themselves on these matters.

If nothing else, it laid the cards on the table for all to see.

While “Black Magic” does a great job, the time limitations forced the production staff to leave a lot of this story of the cutting room floor. From the video that I saw, and, knowing the basic questions that were posed to each person, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Again, there is much more to this than just basketball.

The greatest thing this documentary does is reveal the warts that have been hidden for years. Having worked on various aspects of HBCU history for nearly 20 years, I am more than aware of some of the obstacles faced by the production team.

Some schools have poor records while others have no records. Some schools have more red tape than necessary, making it hard to obtain or review information. To be nice, I generally say “I understand why there are not more books about Black people.”

To look at the impending March Madness, it is hard to believe that Blacks were once rejected by the NCAA. While it is argued that there were no written rules, it is well known that there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” with southern schools that Black schools would not be allowed in the NCAA.

Most southern states had Jim Crow Laws that prevented Blacks from playing. The NCAA readily honored such laws. Little is known about the NAIA and its relationship with HBCUs.

Today, less than a dozen HBCUs have membership in this organization, which was the first to allow HBCUs to participate in their national championship tournament.

HBCUs were winning the NAIA before they were allowed to participate in the NCAA. Yes, this is the same NCAA that still relegates HBCUs to the play-in game each year.

Several of the players and coaches spoke of the necessity of HBCUs in Black life during their early lives. They talked about players who were marginal who obtained an education in just four years.

They talked about the way coaches molded young men into teams as well as productive citizens. They talked about how various people helped them meet the high standards that all schools had in those days.

“Black Magic” is a must see for all of America. It is one of those historic events that give America a chance to look at itself and say we can do better. It gives HBCU alumni a chance to be proud of where they come from, and, to give back to those institutions that helped make them who and what they are today.

While there are many things exposed in this documentary that white’s need to correct in their perceptions of Blacks, there are also things Blacks must do to help the process. They must change their perspective on athletics. Athletics is the greatest window to the world for academic institutions.

Grambling, Florida A & M and a few other HBCUs discovered this years ago. Grambling was built around a good athletic program. They produced great teams, great athletes, and great people without sacrificing academic integrity.

That is why their football team had a graduation rate that rivaled the service academies and the Ivy League.

The greater issue is that HBCUs must build infrastructure to preserve all of their history, not just academics. They must expand their sports information offices and provide storage for records.

They must equip these offices with state of the art tools. They must allow students to explore this area as a career choice.

My greatest regret about this is that so many great people had passed on before this was done. Two of the key figures, Coach John B. McLendon, Jr. and Clarence “Big House” Gaines, talked about things like this for years.

Both reviewed early editions of the Black College Sports Encyclopedia when I first published in and helped me to dig deeper and include much more information than I began with. Coach McLendon worked hard to develop the HBCU Heritage Hall of Fame and Museum.

This is one of the things he always wanted to see happen.

Maybe this is the spark needed to produce the flame.