Blog Posts where Race is an Aspect of the Themes
In the fall of 1969, I was a new recruit – selected by retiring head coach Red McManus to play basketball at Creighton. The new young coach I was to play for was Eddie Sutton. He had come from Oklahoma. I was one of three Division 1 recruits. At that time we played a Freshman game schedule, yet we frequently practiced with the varsity.
The varsity had numerous Black players from major cities. One player, Cyril Baptiste, a year older than me and from Miami, had been recruited by the prior coach as well. Cyril was a superbly talented athlete. His career was ascending. He had led the US AAU team in scoring against other International teams in the summer of 1969. He was slated to be in the 1972 Olympics – what Spencer Haywood had been for the US in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It was a joy to be on the same court with him. Almost always when scrimmaging, I was playing on the opposite team from Cyril. He was 6:10 and 240, I was 6:3 and 175. I was forced to learn “the floater.” Cyril did not like it when the ball barely went over his outstretched hand and through the net. He could not just jump, but he could soar — so the floater needed to rise very high.
One day early in my second year we were going to scrimmage on our practice court gym in front of an all-white male group of contributors/boosters. Chairs were lined up in a single row all around the court about two feet away from the court perimeter. The boosters appeared to sip scotch and some smoked cigars while they watched the talent for the upcoming season. Of the 12 players, 6 were Black from major inner cities. When the scrimmage was over the Black players who I hung out with at meals said more than once — it felt like being on the auction block. I heard these off-the-cuff comments and internalized them.
In my two and a half years playing basketball at this University I never overcame the sick feeling I had from this scrimmage experience. Yes, the world was different then. Strides have been made on racial issues. Yet there I see a connection between the slave trade, Jim Crow, that exhibition scrimmage, and George Floyd’s death. And in that connection – the ugliness of white dominance has persisted.
Cyril, his brother Leroy, and others were removed from the team after the 1971 season. It became known to the coaches that Cyril had developed a heroin addiction. It was very painful to watch up close in his dorm room and while traveling the Country to play our away games.
Cyril was going to be in the vernacular at the time “a million-dollar baby.” It was highly likely he would sign an NBA contract worth a million dollars possibly as a signing bonus. Therefore, people existed who wanted to get such an athlete in their clutches through drugs. Living in an Omaha dorm room with very little support did not even begin to prepare Cyril for what he was facing.
I still carry the image of Cyril and his brother being driven to the airport on a Saturday night with all their belongings and little notice, looking out the back window of a big car as the University and coaches were moving on. I stood and waved. They waved back. All I could think of was the auditorium where we played with 15,000 or so people standing and cheering for one after the other incredible athletic feats that Cyril performed. Cyril endured much in his years at the University. He lived in a dorm where it was not unusual for him to have a note slipped under his door using the n – word to address him.
I played my freshman year, my sophomore year and started playing my junior year until the first game approached. Two seniors and I quit before the first game. Our scholarships had vested for that year. It was apparent that the new coach, Eddie Sutton, wanted to move past the Cyril era. The coaches knew Cyril was my friend. It was the coach’s decision to go in a new direction. My choice was to quit. It was so painful to me that Cyril and his brother Leroy had been banished with their heroin habits rather than someone reaching out in an attempt to help.
Let me be clear. I was no stand-out b-ball player. I was good enough to get a division one scholarship. I could hold my own on the court with many others. But I very likely would never have received much if any playing time. The coach had moved on. I was the fastest guy on the court running from one end to the other. I was the slowest guy from one spot to 10 yards away. The game is played and decided by “quicks” and “jumps.” I had neither. I could shoot. But it became clear to me it was time to buckle down on books and classes and leave the daily rigors of the grind of basketball ball behind.
Could I have been successful in some other atmosphere? Possibly. But what is success? My identity was not tied to basketball. So, it was good to move on.
Interesting that Eddie Sutton fought alcoholism his entire life. He was successful at Arkansas after Creighton. He was then successful at Kentucky until the NCAA discovered cash in an envelope going to a recruit. Eddie had to leave Kentucky and did well at his original playing and coaching home in Oklahoma until a real tough D.W.I. surfaced. Eddie was inducted posthumously into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Cyril was drafted by the Warriors in the NBA knowing full well he had a heroin habit. He was so good they wanted to try to rehab him. But the NBA also wanted production. He could not kick it. I last spoke to Cyril in 1975 when he was playing with a New Jersey globetrotters b-team. We had a very warm, friendly, filled with laughter conversation. Cyril’s obituary years later from Miami his birth home has beautiful quotes from fellow addicts in treatment programs with Cyril who described what a kind man he was — A true gentle giant.
The chapters of these years, 1969 to 1972, in Omaha always vividly return at March Madness time. I have no regrets — just sadness.
In 2021, I heard about the Creighton Coach telling his players after a game they lost not to leave the “plantation” on him – it was an attempt to keep his players engaged for the next game. All my memories of my time on the court at the scrimmage returned in vivid detail. It was then starkly apparent from the coach’s words that a thread establishing a forward lineage went back 50 years to Cyril and others and our experience at the scrimmage.