THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Private Peace : Chet Walker is still searching for his ‘place’ as a Hollywood producer. But the former NBA star and author of a new autobiography has found a deeper kind of acceptance.
The move Chet Walker makes in banking his Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra around street corners is reminiscent of the swooping big step he would take--first as an all-American at Bradley University and then as a fourth-quarter go-to guy in the NBA--as he cut to the baseline and swerved toward the hoop, as smooth as a deer. It was his signature, one of basketball’s prettiest sights.
Now, with knees shot and a scarred kidney permanently in need of medication, it’s something to ease the tedium of the daily drive from his Marina del Rey condo to movie production offices around town and in the Valley, where Walker, now a 55-year-old independent film producer, makes his pitch, shepherds his deals along.
“Every day I meet different people and try to sell a story,” he says. “The movie business is a business. It’s about selling. The kinds of films I want to make are difficult to sell, because I don’t want to do sex and violence. I haven’t been a great success.”
Walker doglegs up his standard route, Washington to Motor Avenue to Pico on into Beverly Hills for yet another meeting. It’s been a good and interesting year. He produced Charles Burnett’s critically acclaimed feature film “The Glass Shield,” inspired by the Ron Settles police brutality case in Signal Hill. He came out with an autobiography (with Chris Messenger) called “Long Time Coming: A Black Athlete’s Coming of Age in America” (Grove Press).
He saw a lifelong personal, historic and seemingly intractable dilemma--black and white America peering at each other across a racial divide--whiplash across public and media consciousness all over again. For many people, whites mostly, it was a shock to learn that gains in racial understanding achieved through desegregation and the civil rights movement had turned out to be an illusion. It’s not surprising to Walker, however, who is still mulling over the implications of last month’s Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
“This society has been in a lot of denial, refusing to believe that before all this such a big gap existed,” he says. “Now they know it’s there and we’re all going to have to deal with it. I don’t think it’ll ever be completely fixed, but I think we can learn how to better live with it. White people will have to accept blacks as equals.”
Walker is only saying what has been said and heard before; he’s neither weary of repeating it nor is he convinced he can make a great difference. As water-smooth as these words are, they seem drawn out of a deep storehouse of pain.
“Long Time Coming” begins with a meditation on place, and how one is set in it by accident of birth and race, and what it means when outer and inner place are at odds.
“Boy, you’d better learn to stay in your place,” is the book’s first line. “This growing awareness of ‘my place,’ ” Walker adds later, “of these outside limitations and constraints upon freedom of movement, came over me gradually, sadly, inevitably, as it would for most black children. In time, I became shrouded in it, paralyzed within place. But that young seeker was and is still me. Searching, hiding, looking for ‘my place.’ ”
Walker says he has always wanted people to understand him, explaining why he did the book. “I always feel that society never really understands the black male. We were always told to fit in, especially in the world of athletics. In our desire to fit into the system that will accept us, we have to adjust to someone else’s culture. There’s a price you pay for success.”
Walker has made six movies, won a 1988 Emmy as executive producer for “A Mother’s Courage: The Mary Thomas Story,” and has a number of projects pending, including a film biography of the late New York Congressman and preacher Adam Clayton Powell. But he’s still searching for his place in Hollywood.
“It’s a difficult transition from the athletic to the so-called normal world,” he says. “There’s an image that goes along with being an athlete, an image of not being intelligent, of being a dumb jock. Not dependable. It follows you out into the world. You have to prove yourself all over again. When you’re selling in a white market, it always helps to bring someone with you.
"[Movie producer] Zev Braun was my neighbor in Chicago,” Walker continues. “He was my mentor. I learned how to survive. ‘Freedom Road’ was my first movie, in 1979-80. It was adapted from Howard Fast’s book; it dealt with the Reconstruction period, when black Americans were heavily involved in politics, then squeezed out. A lot of my friends are saying we’re experiencing this again. In Reconstruction, our voting rights were taken away. Now, the Supreme Court is taking away a lot of our gains.”
Walker is friendly, but guarded. His comments veer away from himself toward the general political or social observation. In his book, he says he never married for fear that somewhere inside he might harbor his father’s rage. His last sight of John Walker was as a young boy on the day his mother, Regenia, herded her children onto a truck to take them out of the tiny hamlet of Bethlehem, Miss.
Chet was the youngest of 10 kids. He had just seen one of his sisters, turned away from a hospital, die of tuberculosis in her mother’s arms. “I will not lose another child to Mississippi,” Regenia vowed. Her husband, angry over the loss of heirs to his small farm, beat and kicked her, and threw her onto the truck’s hood. But he couldn’t stop her. She took the kids to Benton Harbor, Mich., where young Chester Walker first went to school with white kids and fell in love with basketball.
Walker says he forgave his father a long time ago, but they never patched things up. “I was able to understand the situation he was in. That’s the thing about being black. We are a forgiving people. We forgave George Wallace after he blocked the voting rights marchers and later helped him become governor of Alabama. Think of it: Of all the oppressed people over the past 400 years, except for demonstrations and a few riots, we never attempted to blow up bridges or planes as a means of gaining equality. We’re not assassins. Compare us to what goes on in Northern Ireland or the Middle East. Maybe we’re too forgiving.”
Why then has Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan become such a prominent figure?
“Farrakhan is saying a lot of things other black leaders are afraid to say for fear of the consequences,” Walker replies. “That’s why he has a strong following in the black middle class, because of his economic philosophy. I don’t think he’s a racist. He sometimes says things in a derogatory way. He frightens people. He doesn’t always choose his words wisely. Bloodsucker was a terrible choice of words [to describe Jews]. Black people have been exploited. I’ve been exploited as a black athlete. But I wouldn’t use that word. Blacks would like to be in the economic situation that Jews are in, because Jews have economic freedom. They control their own destiny.
“But I’m not into leaders. Why do blacks always need ‘leaders’? He’s a spokesperson. He has some brilliant ideas about how we can improve our lifestyle. But he’s not a leader. He comes in because nobody else is willing to address the issues.”
Walker grows a little heated; his voice sharpens querulously. A lot of Mississippi still shapes his vowels, but the stutter-step, up-tempo cadence is Philadelphian. Along with Wilt Chamberlain, Lucious Jackson, Hal Greer and Wali Jones, Walker was a key figure in the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers NBA Championship team, coached by Alex Hannum.
“I scouted him when he was at Bradley, and I coached him with the Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia 76ers,” Hannum recalls. (In 1962, Walker signed with Syracuse for $12,000 per year and a $2,000 bonus. In contrast, the Los Angeles Lakers recently contemplated a trade for the Charlotte Hornets’ Alonzo Mourning, who reportedly asked for $84 million.)
“He’s always been an easygoing, soft-spoken guy. A good player, a coach’s player,” Hannum continues. “He came along during a transition time when we were just getting black players into the NBA. I’d like to say we were forward-looking, but we weren’t. The owners at the time didn’t think black players would draw. I know he faced some resistance, but he was a no-trouble player. He was quiet, a thinker.”
Walker may have kept his thoughts to himself, but they were nonetheless brewing with discontent, like the decade itself. The war in Vietnam was coming to full riot. In 1967, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali refused to register for the draft, and before he was charged and tried for the offense, lost his license to box. On the day after a 76ers playoff victory against the Cincinnati Royals, civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was slain in Selma, Ala., shortly after a Martin Luther King march ended in Montgomery.
“The only time I ever saw him devastated was after the Martin Luther King assassination, when we didn’t have a discussion about whether we’d play that night,” Hannum says. “I blame myself for that. He wasn’t himself that night. His mind wasn’t there. In those days, teams were very close. We’d party together, go out after games together. I’ve always regretted not giving the guys a chance to vote.”
Billy Cunningham, who is white, was sixth man on that championship team. “He’s just a class act in the way he conducts himself,” Cunningham says of Walker.
“We were close. He called me before the book came out, worried that I might take it the wrong way. He did forget some things in it. One time, after a game in Memphis, Lucious Jackson, Chet and I were hungry and went over to a place called the Toddle House to get a sandwich. The lady very nicely informed us that she could serve me but she couldn’t serve them. I was livid. To this day I remember them getting up with a smile that was not really a smile.
“It’s difficult to express what the early black players faced,” he adds. “Not being able to stay with their teammates on the road. Things like that. I don’t think I could’ve handled myself as well as guys like Chet did.”
Finally easing into a parking space, Walker says, “I think integration is no longer a priority for black people in this country. When blacks talk about separation, it frightens people. But other people have their own cultures and nobody minds. In San Francisco, you have one of the largest Chinese populations in the world outside China; nobody feels threatened by it. The feeling now is, ‘Why try and force yourself onto other people? If someone doesn’t want to accept you in his house, you’ll never be accepted.’ What I’m talking about is not quite separatism, but it’s close.”
Walker gets out of the car and rises stiffly, in sections. By current NBA standards, 6-foot-7 isn’t tall; in the everyday world, it sure is. His stovepipe legs and arms rise in graceful lines and end abruptly in cramped, narrow shoulders and a short neck, as if the force that sculpted him ran out of patience. He has the tall man’s innate magisterial air of regarding people from a penthouse view.
Walker looks up to make sure that he has the right address. Some unsettling questions hang in the air. How can racial equality even get into the public discourse while people on all sides hoard paranoia and grievance? Isn’t this old stuff? What about Anna Deveare Smith’s contention that we need a new vocabulary to deal with race in America? And now that Walker has risen beyond hoop dreams to a privileged class, are his experiences even relevant?
But they must wait as Walker signs in with a security guard for his meeting with the president of a movie production company. The exec, an affable, stylishly slender young Brooklynite with a smooth gift of gab, invites Walker into his office. They’ve worked well together before and are in the feeling-out stage on new projects. They discuss schedules. Walker says he’s been invited to the season opener of the Chicago Bulls, where he ended his career in 1975.
“You better put some black shoe polish on your hair,” the exec says. “You don’t want them to see you looking old.”
Walker runs his hand over his graying head. “I’m not vain,” he says.
“I have something for you,” the exec continues. “It just occurred to me. I was gonna throw it out, but if we cast it with a strong black it could work.” He pulls a script out of a wastepaper basket and hands it to Walker. They discuss a prominent black entertainer, to whom Walker has access. The meeting breaks up.
Afterward, in a diner, Walker recalls the insult. At first he tries to laugh it off, then his expression hardens.
“One of the most satisfying things in my life was to be able to walk into a Walgreen and sit down at the counter and have a soda like everyone else,” he says. “But one of the reasons it’s been difficult for me is that even though I have a lot of white friends, I’ve never felt that they thought I was equal to them. That’s what Farrakhan touched on. He was talking about attitude. That could be an inferiority complex that lies with me. I don’t know.
“I know I’m blessed. The major flaw in my character is that I grew up not liking myself. I grew up not liking being tall and skinny, not liking it because I couldn’t find a girl tall enough to dance with, not liking it because I didn’t have clothes that fit, not liking it because I didn’t have money. I couldn’t eat in certain places. I couldn’t stay in certain places. That leads to self-hatred. When the day finally came when I was able to say, ‘There are things that happen that don’t personally pertain to me,’ I found peace.”
He grins warmly, still a shy man uncomfortable with self-revelation. But his point is made: His private peace has been found in a public war that knows no end.
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Background: Born in Bethlehem, Miss.; raised in Benton Harbor, Mich.; now lives in Marina del Rey.
On quitting the NBA (excerpted from “Long Time Coming”): "[Chicago Bulls owner] Arthur Wirtz told me, ‘Chet, you are legally the Bulls property. Play with us or nowhere.’ I sat there reflecting on the word property. I thought about my father, grandfather and great-grandfather and how they must have felt living in Mississippi where they were looked upon as property. Their experience had now become mine--the disgust at being in bondage and under the control of an owner. I decided not to play.”
On life after the NBA: “There was one time I thought I was special. But after I retired and the Bulls finally won the world championship, I couldn’t get into the championship party. Once you stop bouncing the ball, the privileges don’t exist anymore.”
On the recent Million Man March: “The thing that impressed me most about the Million Man March, it was not a march of celebrities. It was a gathering of ordinary men.”