Black Players' Struggles Find Voice in 'Black Magic' A new ESPN documentary tells the stories of many of the black basketball players who gradually broke through the barriers of segregation and racism, and set the standard for the stars of today.
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Black Players' Struggles Find Voice in 'Black Magic'

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Black Players' Struggles Find Voice in 'Black Magic'

Black Players' Struggles Find Voice in 'Black Magic'

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams.

A documentary about African-American basketball pioneers and the black colleges that nurtured them debuts tomorrow on ESPN. "Black Magic" is two-part film about basketball dreams. Some realized the true courage, others dashed by racism.

NPR's Allison Keyes has this preview.

(Soundbite of NBA)

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Man: Jordan open. Chicago with the lead.

ALLISON KEYES: In a world where most players in the National Basketball Association or African-American, it's tough to imagine the time when the NBA was all-white. In fact, the color line wasn't broken until 1950 by Earl Lloyd. But long before that, African-Americans were having a profound effect on basketball. "Black Magic" director, Dan Klores:

Mr. DAN KLORES (Director, "Black Magic"): In the 1940s, there was World Championship basketball held in Chicago of the eight best teams in America for the entire decade of the 1940s, throughout World War II, it's not an accident that by 1949, the World Championship basketball ended. You know why? The black team started to win.

KEYES: The film tells how some of the greatest basketball player took their generation (stymied by quotas and racism, still managed to shape the evolution of the game.

At a Washington, D.C. screening of the film, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe was talking about things in it that might surprised people like…

Mr. EARL THE PEARL MONROE: (Co-producer, "Black Magic): The secret game, in 1944, was between Duke and North Carolina College for Negroes. John McLendon coached that team and it was played at a time when whites and blacks - it was illegal for them to play against each other.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Black Magic")

Mr. GEORGE PARKS(ph) (Former North Carolina College basketball player): Coach McLendon ordered all of the students out of the gym. So…

KEYES: From the documentary, then North Carolina college player, George Parks set the scene.

Mr. PARKS: Yeah. So if anything were to happen, they wouldn't get hurt.

KEYES: John McLendon's widow, Joanna, remembers that the experience was unique for students throughout segregated America.

Ms. JOANNA McLENDON (Widow of John McLendon): Some of his players had never had any contact with white people. Some of them had never touched a white person to shake hands either.

KEYES: Bowled over by Coach McLendon's pioneering fast break, Duke lost 88-44.

Early Monroe was named as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history and co-produced the film. He says that game wasn't an isolated incident.

Mr. MONROE: That also made its way to Winston Salem when I was there, because we played against Wake Forest at 12:00, 1:00 in the dead night, you know, because we weren't supposed to be playing against each other. So, you know, there are a lot of revelations in this as well as the civil rights struggle is woven between all of this.

Mr. SONNY HILL (Founder, Philadelphia Basketball League): This is bigger than basketball.

KEYES: Sonny Hill says "Black Magic" shows younger African-American players who far they've come. He's touched the lives of over 30,000 young people through his 40-year-old Philadelphia based basketball league.

Mr. HILL: basketball is the backdrop to the social problems and the social ills that blacks now, African-Americans now, and the Negro in the college went through.

KEYES: Director Klores agrees.

Mr. KLORES: There was a quota system at Harvard, at Yale, at universities, in the work place. So basketball just mirrored the quota system. And what it did, just as it did in society, is it kept skilled and educated and intelligent men and women from earning their living.

KEYES: One such man is Cleo Hill, nicknamed, Sky Walker. In 1961, Hill was a first player from a black institution drafted by the NBA in the first round. But Sonny Hill - no relation - says there was trouble from the start.

Mr. HILL: Well, Cleo went into a hornet's nest in St. Louis. It was a southern basketball franchise — they really didn't want black players.

KEYES: Then Cleo Hill and several other black players were denied access to a hotel dining room in Lexington, Kentucky. Rather than support Hill, the St. Louis Hawks retaliated and refused to let him play. In the film, it's hard to watch Cleo Hill's face as he tells his story.

Mr. CLEO HILL: (Former St. Louis Hawks Basketball Player): After the first game I scored 26. So when I came that meant the averages of 27 by Bob Pettit, 23 by Cliff Hagan, 21 by Clyde Lovellette, those averages all broke down because of my scoring ability.

KEYES: But Cleo Hill was benched, cut from the team then blackballed from playing in league ever again.

Many of the legendary athletes interviewed for this film are hoping it has a positive effect on young basketball players of color - some of whom seem to have forgotten their roots. Seventy-five-year-old coach Ben Jobe has been in basketball since 1940.

Mr. BEN JOBE (Basketball Coach): In order to have a real future, you've got to first embrace your history, and we're paying a dear price because we don't know our history.

KEYES: "Black Magic" airs on March 16th and 17th on ESPN.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: And you can watch a trailer and other video from "Black Magic" on our Web site, npr.org.

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