A Second Look at ‘Black Magic’

By Fred Whitted
Updated: July 31, 2008

Black Magic

NORTH CAROLINA — Most of America has had a chance to see the ESPN documentary “Black Magic”. Somehow, some of them did not see it until it aired during June.

One such person recognized me at the library and wanted to discuss certain points of the presentation. It did not take long to understand that even though they seemed to have watched it in its entirety, they missed most of the points that it made.

It was like reading some of the early reviews six months ago. While everything was great, reviewers complained about how the presentation dragged and other opinions that had nothing to do with the real quality of the documentary.

This person failed to understand the parallel between basketball and civil rights. Basketball is a sport which has nothing to do with something as important as personal liberties.

Surely Dr. King did not march so that people could play basketball. Basketball is only a game. Well, basketball, like any other aspect of life, has everything to do with civil rights.

It is beyond me how people have watched the story of the secret game or the fact that there were NO BLACKS in the NBA during the first seasons. Looking back, it is hard to comprehend why the NBA had to be prompted to draft Black players.

What has to be understood is that the NBA today, with ninety percent of its players being Black is not the NBA which ended its 1950 season with no Black players or coaches.

At the same time, we have to consider that basketball directly reflected society. In the south, Blacks were excluded from everything that whites participated in.

Basketball was no exception. There were strict rules against mingling in any form. The punishments were harsh, especially for Blacks. That is why the Secret Game was so significant. None of the players for Duke’s team were from the south.

Blacks were not allowed in most mainstream schools. There was a fear that southern schools would not play schools from areas with Blacks on their teams. It did not stop there.

Neither of the two governing bodies for college basketball would accept Black colleges. While they did not ban Black players, it was understood that schools with Black players would not play them when they met southern schools.

To put this in proper perspective, the University of North Carolina would not have recruited Michael Jordan when he was born in 1963. Earl Monroe entered Winston Salem State the same year.

While he went on to average 42 points per game as a senior and led Winston Salem to a national championship, he never appeared on their recruiting list. In essence, Michael would have had to go to Winston Salem or N.C. A&T to have gone to one of the best basketball programs in North Carolina during that era.

It goes deeper than that.

While the game that is most popular today is based on a style that prevailed in Black college gyms, none of the coaches who developed that style get credit for their innovations. As Coach Jobe stated, “When white teams ran the fast break, it was genius. When we did it years ago, they called it “jungle ball.”

This pointed to one of the key subjects of the documentary. Blacks were deemed to be second class citizens in society. Basketball was no exception. We saw highly skilled players, John Chaney and Cleo Hill, ignored by northern schools. The same applied to Willis Reed and Bob Love. LSU ignored Reed, who is in the Hall of Fame because he was Black.

Finally, with the coming of integration, the schools that once rejected Blacks began to pursue the very people they once disdained. It was not just that they wanted to recruit Black players.

Once white fans began to hear about what was going on at Black colleges, they began to follow the excitement. As early as the late 1950s, white began to attend games to see Tennessee State play. Dick Barnett was averaging 30 points per game and the team was averaging nearly 100 points per game over a three year span.

A few years later, whites began following Winston Salem to watch Earl Monroe. He averaged 30 and 42 points per game over his junior and senior years. They were forced to move games to the coliseum to fit the crowds they were drawing.

After several Wake Forest games were moved to host Winston Salem State, members of the ACC began to take notice.When Monroe graduated in 1967, there were less than a dozen Blacks in the ACC.

That fall, there came a sprinkling of Black players on ACC campuses. There were no Blacks on the All ACC Team at the end of the 1968 season. By the end of the 1978 season, there were no whites.

This occurred because white schools began to pursue the Monroes and Reeds of coming eras in the form of Michael Jordan and David Thompson.

All of this came about due to some of the things that are overlooked when viewing “Black Magic”. Several of the athletes talked about their participation in sit-ins and marches. “Big House” Gaines often said he never permitted his players to participate in marches.

In truth, he never gave them permission, but, he never punished those who did. He did warn them against such activities. This was especially true for the bigger players because he knew they would be targeted because of their size.

It can be said that “Black Magic” has opened the doors for discussion of issues that have been ignored in America. Race is still an issue in America. It is not going away. It has given us a starting point to begin to look at things that have plagued us as a nation long enough.

An even greater contribution to our society is the airing of the pain that exist among those who were deprived of opportunities to shine. I had told the Cleo Hill story numerous times.

Most people felt it was my way of glorifying a fellow Winston Salem State grad. It was great to have him tell his story to the nation. What happened to him happened to many others.

The pain on his face spoke volumes to those with an open mind. The same applied to John Chaney. They spoke for millions of Blacks who could not play basketball or any other sport.

They spoke for those who were denied education so they could gather cotton and other crops. They spoke for all of those people who were marginalized to become cheap labor for others to get rich.

“Black Magic” was about much more than basketball.

It was about the ills of American life.