Before there was March Madness, there was Black Magic, the story of basketball's black pioneers. I love sports, I love great films, and I especially love great, sports films. Filmmaker Dan Klores' Black Magic is a great, sports film and more.
Black Magic is an entertaining, engaging and emotional look at the all-but forgotten players and coaches from the Historical Black Colleges and Universities ("HBCU"). These civil rights pioneers and sports stars, like co-producer, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Willis Reed, tell us their stories.
The two-part, four-hour Black Magic documentary airs, commercial free, this Sunday and Monday night on ESPN at 9 pm EST/ 6 pm PST. Like all great sports films, Black Magic also has a fantastic soundtrack.
Basketball and Civil Rights
At its heart, Black Magic is a civil rights movie and Klores uses brutal footage to show the history of American discrimination and violence against blacks in all aspects of their lives.
These civil rights pioneers and sports stars tells us their heart-wrenching stories of violence, prejudice and poverty living in the Jim Crow South. Klores also reminds us that racism and oppression wasn't just limited to the South. Their tales are funny, sad, and inspiring. Some players overcome their humble beginnings and have successful careers despite discrimination, others aren't as lucky.
Klores is a wonderful story-teller. He weaves rare footage with personal testimonies and hits the archives to show us documents and photos that give us the insider's view of this world. Narrators Samuel L. Jackson and Wynton Marsalis help frame the story and illuminate the racist historical context. Their passion for the topic shines throughout the film.
The Secret, Illegal Game
In 1944, The North Carolina College for Negroes and Duke's white medicalJim school team had a secret, illegal game on a sleepy Sunday morning to see which team was the best. They defied the Jim Crow laws to play and picked Sunday morning to avoid detection as they all were too afraid to invite any spectators.
Too afraid to invite fans? I remember growing up in Seattle and hearing stories like this one and almost not believing them. I remember asking why blacks and whites couldn't play together and wondering if my relatives were pulling my leg.
Ironically, the civil rights movement assured that men like my father, NBA legend Bill Russell, could attend white schools thus diluting the incredible talent pools at the HBCU schools and driving sports revenue to majority schools. My dad didn't have the option of going to a HBCU since the University of San Francisco was the only school to offer him a scholarship.
When we spoke this morning, dad told me about traveling to the Northwest and Canada to play basketball after high school. My father learned to play hoops in Oakland, CA, not in the South. Nevertheless, it wasn't until this tour that he played in an official basketball game matched against a white player. No, he wasn't pulling my leg. It was the byproduct of de facto not de jure segregation that polluted this country.
I was especially moved by Bob Love's tale of redemption. I don't want to spoil it but hats off to Bob and to my hometown store Nordstrom. They are both class acts.
Thank you Dan Klores for telling this story that needed to be told and for preserving an important part of American sports history.
It's a shame that the ESPN website had a typo on my cousin Bob Hopkins stats when they unveiled their list of HBCU All-Time Top 10 College Basketball Players. Even though they listed him at #8, they incorrectly state he attended Grambling State University from '52-66, when he graduated in '56. These players don't get much ink, so it's disappointing that ESPN didn't catch the typo.
Black Magic airs this Sunday and Monday on ESPN @ 9 pm EST.