Rising Up

A film recalls pioneering players and coaches
March 16, 2008

THERE IS pain at the heart of Black Magic, a documentary about basketball players at historically black colleges and universities that will air in two-hour segments this Sunday and Monday night on ESPN. Classic game footage and eloquent armchair reminiscences from those who played the game are interspersed with searing images of the struggle for civil rights: A black man gets doused with milk at a lunch-counter sit-in; a storefront sign reads no negro or ape allowed.

Magic's lead figures—Bob Love, John Chaney, Earl Monroe and several others—rise above not only society's brutal barriers but also deep personal disadvantages. They become heroes at their schools and go on to thrive, some winning over white audiences and starring in the NBA. Yet even as Magic traces inspirational lives, its narrative is driven by lives manqués. We're reminded that most of these men never got what they deserved. The great Cleo Hill, whose on-court artistry at Winston-Salem State (N.C.) Teachers College is recalled by peers who still seem verging on disbelief, was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks in 1961. Then he was driven from St. Louis by jealous white players and finally blackballed out of the NBA.

The seminal game for black colleges took place in Durham in 1944 between an all-white Duke med school team and the North Carolina College for Negroes, coached by John McLendon, the pioneering black coach who was mentored by Dr. James Naismith himself. The game, an illegal event in segregated North Carolina, took place in front of no spectators (but with two refs) and at 11 a.m. on a Sunday, when most of Durham was in church. Final score: NCC 88, Duke 44.

Black Magic, directed by Dan Klores (Crazy Love), smartly lends perspective by setting the basketball drama against higher-stakes happenings off the court. Seeing a segment on the Orangeburg Massacre, the 1968 event in which white policemen opened fire on black student protestors at South Carolina State, for example, focuses a new light on such acts of game-day courage as the Knicks' Willis Reed limping onto the court for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. And next to what else has been lost, it's tough to feel great indignation when Southern coach Ben Jobe is overlooked as a fast-break innovator. The delicious basketball scenes are an escape, but Black Magic's lasting impact comes not from Earl the Pearl undressing defenders. It comes from the blunt force of injustice and a time that should never be forgotten.

The Pop Culture Grid

PHOTOESPN (BLACKMAGIC)

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)