Saturday, February 8, 2020

Hank Sanders: Sketches #1704 - They said it could not be done, but we did it

  It was March 19, 1966. I and others huddled around the television screen. We were anxious. We were excited. We were scared. We were proud. The moment meant so much to us. The moment was pregnant with the overriding issue of race. They said it couldn’t be done, but we did it.

  The players came onto the basketball court to commence the game. Mighty Kentucky, the royalty of Southeastern Conference basketball, marched out. All the players were White. They were coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp who had won multiple national championships. It was their destiny to win this NCAA championship final. The other team, Texas Western, started five Black players. It was coached by an unknown man named Don Haskins. They had not even smelled a national championship. They were destined to lose. But destiny did not hold true during this March moment. They said it couldn’t be done, but we did it.

  I will always remember this game. It meant so much to me. It meant so much to Black People. This game came on the heels of the civil rights struggles for public accommodations and voting rights. The Southeastern Conference did not have a single Black basketball player. They said Blacks were not skilled enough or good enough or smart enough to play in this mighty conference. Even though Texas Western had a mostly White student body, it had five Black players starting. In fact, the team was majority Black, or "colored" as was the term of the day. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  I can still see Bobby Joe Hill shooting his jump shot and immediately heading back down the court because he just knew the ball was going in. We were so proud. It was a powerful, intense game that ended with the score: Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65. It was more than an upset. It was a sea change. It shattered the White supremacy rationale in basketball. In my mind, I was a member of that team. I also became a part of other moments when barriers of color in sports were broken. That’s why I say we did it. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  I grew up in a time when Black people were excluded from virtually anything with White people that was worthwhile. They said we were excluded because we were not skillful enough, not capable enough, not intelligent enough, not moral enough, and just not worthy enough to participate. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  We were excluded from the national pastime of major league baseball until Jackie Robinson broke the White racial barrier. He went on to lead the major leagues in batting and be inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. He was followed by Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and other great Black players. Aaron broke Babe Ruthe’s home run record. Blacks not only participated but excelled. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  Black players were not allowed to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Chuck Cooper, and Earl Lloyd were the first to break the White racial barrier. However, Black basketball players soon dominated with greats such as Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain. Eventually, those once considered not good enough to play based on their color became all-time greats such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, etc. Today, the league that prevented Blacks from playing because they were not good enough is 74.4 percent African American. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  A few Black players were in the National Football League (NFL) when it commenced in the 1920s. Fritz Polland and Bobby Marshall were two of the few. However, in the 1930s, Blacks were barred on the grounds that they were not good enough. Then Kenny Washington broke the White racial barrier in 1946. Washington had set rushing and passing records at UCLA but was not drafted. He was a college teammate of Jackie Robinson. They said Black players were not good enough. In 1946, the Cleveland Rams (Los Angeles Rams) drafted him years after he graduated. In 1947, a year after he entered the NFL, he was among the rushing leaders. We know the greats that follow: Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders, Jerry Rice, etc. The last two NFL Most Valuable Players are Black quarterbacks (Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mohames). They said Blacks could play any position except quarterback. Patrick Mahomes is the latest MVP of the Superbowl after being named MVP of the NFL last year.

  Then there was golf. Blacks were also excluded from the Professional Golf Association. They said that golf was a thinking man’s game and Blacks were not able to think their way through a golf game. Charlie Sifford broke the color barrier in the 1960s. He won tournaments in 1967 and 1969. Lee Elder played in the Masters in 1975. Eventually, Tiger Woods dominated golf as no other player had. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  Then there is the sport of tennis. Black players were not allowed to play because they were supposedly not intellectual enough to plan strategy. Althea Gibson broke the color line in the 1950s. She won 11 Grand Slam Tournaments. Even with Gibson’s great accomplishments, the general perception was that tennis was too cerebral a sport for Blacks to play successfully. Now we have the William Sisters, Venus and Serena, dominating the game over the last 20 plus years, and more great Black tennis players are on the horizon. They said it couldn’t be done, but we did it.

  Then there is gymnastics. For years, Black players were excluded one way or the other. They said Black people did not have the right body type for gymnastics. Dominique Dawes came along and challenged that construct. She was a three-time Olympian, a gold medalist in the Summer Olympics, a silver medalist in the World Championship, and on three Olympic teams. Now Simone Biles is considered the greatest gymnast ever. They said it couldn’t be done, but we did it.

  There are various others, so I often wonder about all those who were excluded by this false racial construct. We will never know how great they might have been. We can, however, limit such racial constructs in the future from excluding people in sports and other areas of life.

EPILOGUE – Every one of these racial-barrier breaking episodes in sports occurred during my lifetime. I understand that these great successes were possible to this extent because sports have concrete rules and scoring and referees. I also know the power of being excluded, and I know the joy of being included, especially when they said it couldn’t be done.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represented District 23 in the Alabama Senate from 1983 to 2018.

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