From its inception in 1954, SI prominently featured African-Americans in its pages and through the 1960s no mainstream weekly magazine gave a more nuanced and balanced portrait of Black people. Today with African-Americans a seemingly ubiquitous presence in the sports world, I take this opportunity during Black History month to share with you one of my favorite stories from the SI's first Black senior writer, Ralph Wiley, on Clarence "Bighouse" Gaines, the legendary men's basketball coach at the all-black Winston-Salem (N.C.) State University. Wiley, who died a year before Gaines in 2004, could write about anything, but he seemed to reach his greatest powers when he profiled Black sports figures. -Farrell EvansThe following exceprt was originally published in the November 19, 1990 issue.
Let the lower lights be burning!Send a gleam across the wave!Some poor fainting, struggling seamanYou may rescue, you may save.-METHODIST HYMN
So put the hymn book away already. Find something tangible. Do it the way he did it. Come down a winding road through the east side of the quiet in Winston-Salem, N.C. Turn left to enter the small campus of Winston-Salem State University -- founded, 1892; student population, some 2,500. Off to the right, below old Whitaker Gymnasium, is the entrance to the C.E. Gaines Center. On the downslope behind the modest facade are Gaines Gymnasium, the football practice fields, the offices of a few of the varsity coaches, and the warm, untidy rooms of the men's basketball coach, Clarence E. (Bighouse) Gaines. Gaines is in -- a miracle unto itself. He is a self-proclaimed gypsy, a rolling stone, a man who isn't quite comfortable without a place to go, a distant horn to obey, a buzzer to beat somewhere. Gaines says he is a man who knows life is temporary, and so then are youth, jobs to do, "must-win" games, and places called home.
But Gaines's shingle is still up. Self-proclaimed gypsies don't usually wait around for people to name buildings after them. Gaines has spent enough time along this tributary of Tobacco Road over the past 45 years to marry Clara Berry in 1950 and help raise two children of his own, Lisa and Clarence Jr. -- not to mention the 400 or so children who belong to somebody else. He has survived everything from Jim Crow to cyclones to integration to the Akron Zips. Only the players were constant. They didn't make many like Cleo Hill and Vernon Earl Monroe, though. Hill was called the best player never to have his due in the NBA; Monroe was called Magic, and Earl the Pearl, and Black Jesus. In the end they were just another couple of the players Gaines calls his "six-two guys," give or take a little. There are always more of those.
"Hard to win with those six-two guys," Gaines says calmly.
As a matter of fact, Gaines's Rams of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association were 15 up and 12 down last season. They have lost 395 games during his tenure. They have also won 806 games. Gaines has won more college basketball games than any coach in U.S. history who is not named Adolph Rupp. Only he and Rupp have won 800.
"Could've won a thousand, had he been all into winning," says equipment manager Fernandez Griffin. "He took the athlete who needed a second chance. He'd tell the players, 'Learn one thing here that will help you live well.' They'd say, 'Coach, what about winning?' He'd say, 'That too.' "
Gaines is settled in like a mountain behind foothills of paperwork on his desk, beneath a groaning shelf of books and files. He is wearing a warmup suit made of black satiny material. A lot of black satiny material. He looks as if he needs a nap, but the phones won't stop ringing and folks keep dropping by. The morning varsity practice started at 6 a.m. The evening practice will begin at 6 p.m. "Keeps the boys from drag-assing around," says Gaines. "Can't seem to get the spacing right, though. Don't know if it's me or them."
The football coach wants to talk. E.C. (Pete) Richardson is a native of Ohio and a former Buffalo Bills defensive back. His team went 8-2 last season and at one time was ranked as high as No. 5 in the NCAA Division II poll and No. 1 in the Sheridan Poll, of colleges that are historically and predominantly black. The Rams lost two of their last three games, but still, it was a good season, one meriting the felicitations of the athletic director.
"Damn right it does," Gaines grunts. "The AD was six- and-18 in '89."
Nobody ever said Gaines was Clair Bee, though he did take in Bee's clinic back in '48, in Murray, Ky. He took in Rupp's clinic, too, back in '49, in Carbondale, Ill. "Nobody said much to me. I'm a man of color. I don't like that word black. People play with the connotations of that. But I was six-five, 265� 295 now. Big in any color," Gaines says. "Somebody at Rupp's clinic asked me if I was the janitor. It wasn't Rupp. They didn't ask twice. I learned something, too."