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A ‘Magic’ before Kobe

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- In an era when posters of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James adorn the walls of young basketball fans across the country, it may surprise many Americans to learn that when the NBA was founded, in 1949, there were no black players. None.

There were the “Globies,” of course -- the Harlem Globetrotters -- but they could be seen as the equivalent of the old black-faced minstrel shows, playing to buffoonish stereotypes, and some of the greatest black players, including Bill Russell, wanted no part of them. On the other hand, perhaps their act was calculated to seduce the enemy, a strategy of “make your enemy laugh,” as Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues in the documentary “Black Magic,” which airs on ESPN in two parts, Sunday and Monday night.

In the classic basketball movie “Hoosiers,” Gene Hackman plays the wise Indiana high school coach who yanks a player from a game for violating his rule that the team patiently passes the ball at least four times before shooting. But in “Black Magic,” that’s the buffoonery, the plodding white guys passing around the rock, immediately contrasted with the shoot-in-8-seconds fastbreak, a style derided as “jungle ball” by certain whites but that may well be, the documentary argues, the way the inventor of basketball, James Naismith, intended it to be played.

“Black Magic” ostensibly is about basketball at all-black colleges in the days before major universities began their recruiting frenzy over the talent that would come to dominate the game. But the latest documentary by New York Dan Klores is just as much about such sensitive issues at the intersection of race and sports in America.

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Klores’ first documentary, 2003’s “The Boys of 2nd Street Park,” also began with basketball, but the sort he played in a Brooklyn playground with fellow Jewish baby boomers, whose lives he followed through the turbulent years of the Vietnam War and ‘70s drug culture. Though the film is not autobiographical, it does draw on the experiences of Klores, 58, as a student at the University of South Carolina, where he got into several fistfights after being called a “Jew bastard” and was reminded what it meant to be an outsider. Still, his experiences were trivial contrasted with those of blacks in the South, where he saw a group of whites celebrating after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., chanting “One less . . . !” -- well, the epithet is all too familiar. “I was right there,” Klores says.

If you’re making a film today, you know that a lot of viewers would rather you didn’t rub their noses in that ugly history. They’ll tell you we’re over all that. But it’s much like Denzel Washington’s recent “The Great Debaters ,” in which a lynching provides the context for a peek into all-black colleges, which early on had to teach some students how to use knives and forks while nurturing others to doctoral degrees.

“Black Magic” shows a cross burning in its opening moments and later Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s “Segregation forever!” speech, apt background for what happens to another Wallace -- Perry Wallace -- when he becomes the first African American to compete in the Southeastern Conference. When his Vanderbilt team went to play Mississippi State, they were greeted with a cheer, “Get the . . . ! Get the . . . ! Rah, rah, rah!”

Wallace, who is now a law professor at American University in Washington, says students today -- white and black alike -- find such episodes hard to believe. “I don’t know whether they think I’m making it up or they just have no basis for understanding it,” Wallace said this week.

Though ESPN has made an extraordinary commitment to the four-hour documentary, showing it without commercials, Klores and some of those featured admit that it is a daunting task to connect with younger viewers when, says Wallace, “they don’t see Kobe, they don’t see Allen Iverson.” Instead, “they see all that black-and-white social history stuff that goes pretty far away from basketball.”

There is, to be sure, much highlight-reel basketball, most notably of two players from Winston-Salem State in North Carolina: the well-known Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, a twirling, scoring machine who went on to win an NBA title with the New York Knicks and who is co-producer of the documentary, and an earlier student, the almost unknown Cleo Hill. Hill could make hook shots -- now the tool of a few big men, playing around the basket -- from out beyond today’s three-point line. But when he got his chance at the NBA, according to the documentary, he was frozen out of the action by white teammates on the St. Louis Hawks, then he was blackballed by the rest of the league.

Though the official stats show that Hill played one year in the NBA and averaged just 5.5 points (and made only 35% of his shots), another central figure in “Black Magic,” retired coach Ben Jobe, calls Hill “the best of them all,” at least as an offensive player, on a list that places Bryant second and Michael Jordan fifth.

Jobe is part of a story that revolves around another coach, John McLendon, who learned the game from its founder, Naismith, then passed his knowledge to others, including Jobe, who in turn mentored Avery Johnson, the speedy guard who now coaches the Dallas Mavericks. But more significant than their up- tempo approach to the game is their bearing as patrician-preacher types, unabashed old-values voices in the hip-hop age.

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We’re told how McLendon used to teach the Four Ws, “Who are you? What are you? Why are you here on this Earth? Where are you going?” And to this day, Jobe, at 75, refuses to be paid for giving clinics (“Why would you charge for something you were given for free?”) while warning about the dangers of teenage promiscuity and the insane worship of athletes and entertainers instead of, say, George Washington Carver, a onetime slave who became a great botanist.

When he finished making “Black Magic,” Klores thought Jobe, the son of a sharecropper, would be its breakout character. But at a Washington screening sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, another figure drew a standing ovation, Bob “Butterbean” Love, a Louisiana native who lighted up the nets at Southern University and the Chicago Bulls. What appeals to viewers is the disability he lived with: a stutter, a major reason he wound up, after his playing days, working as a busboy and dishwasher, pitied no doubt by those who had no idea what he was made of. Love comes across as a gentle soul ready with a hug for the world despite all he’s been through. More important, he’s someone for whom “We shall overcome” was a personal credo, in a way that brought the screening audience to its feet.

“They called my name and people yelled and clapped. I was shocked,” Love recalled this week. “I loved it.”

But he seems to have gotten equal pleasure out of something else, how people remembered how flat he shot the ball -- like a line-drive -- while twice averaging more than 25 points a game for the Bulls.

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That “really surprised me,” he said. “I never knew that people loved my jump shot.”

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paul.lieberman@latimes.com


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