The day after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. died on that fateful Thursday evening in April, the world needed non-violence while the basketball game played on; now we’re getting called to sit in (if we want to call it that) and the games have stopped. Times haven’t changed much, or have they?
The Friday after the assassination, the world was stunned and shattered, yet the sports page read like another day heralding the first game in a playoff series with the Philadelphia 76ers, the reigning champions, taking on the Boston Celtics, the dynasty. An article in The Philadelphia Inquirer had Coach Alex Hannum talking about the psychology of influencing the fans as they were unphased by the events being played out in real life and were gearing up to fight the greatest rivalry in professional sports in their day.
“You want a boisterous crowd at home” Hannum continued, “It intimidates the officials. I don’t consider that immoral. The crowd needs someone to hate.”The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 5, 1968: “Coaches Bait Hook, Fans Bite” by Sandy Padwe
I was shocked to read on and discover how fans threw eggs and beer cans at games. I always thought of basketball as a more civilized sport. But Dad said he remembers Boston fans throw raw eggs from the rafters and hit their own player. And in Philadelphia, someone threw a beer can or bottle, he can’t remember which, from the second level of the old convention hall and cracked somebody’s skull open (he just happened to be sitting at the score table). They had thrown it with the beer in it. And even when Dad coached he said: “no one would even think of wearing paraphernalia for the wrong team.”
Okay, truth, I did wear all green to a Philadelphia 76ers game. I was in 7th grade and it’s embarrassing to admit I had an all-green outfit, but in all fairness, it was St. Patrick’s Day. I remember doing my walk of shame to the seats after someone pointed out, “You’re the coach’s daughter. You of all people should know better.” Of course, I’d rather be embarrassed for my oversight than have an egg thrown at me.
Fifty years later, the 76ers World Championship team got together to celebrate their reunion at the Spectrum. While reminiscing about the good times the year before, they couldn’t help but remember the bad. They wished they could have taken back that game. After all these years, that question can’t leave them alone.
Maybe we can try to understand this now for what it was.
Dad had no choice but to sit out that game, he had broken his wrist (we discussed that last week) and had just come off of his operation on Tuesday. So Dad said, “I’m not the right person for you to talk to on this. Call Mr. Jones tomorrow at 10. He’d love to talk to you.”
So we are in for a treat getting to see this through the perspective of point guard Wali “Wonder” Jones, he got the nickname from 76ers teammate Chet Walker, and he was kind enough to grant me an hour and a half phone interview on Wednesday. He considered himself to bleed Philly having gone to Overbrook High School and Villanova University where he was one of two African Americans on the team and only 20 in the entire school to get out of the inner city and the violence.
When he transferred to the 76ers after making the NBA All-Rookie Team with the Baltimore Bullets, he considered himself to be a great quarterback of the team, and Dad stands by that claim saying he was an incredible team player, he made it his job to keep everybody happy and harmonious on and off the court.
But that part of his job was easy. They were a family, brothers, a fraternity. That family included everyone on the 76ers team and even the other teams, yes, even Boston. “When we played, we were the best of friends. The papers made it seem I hated Sam Jones and that we (Boston and Philadelphia) hated one another. We’d go to Boston and eat dinner and meet their family…We were taught don’t fraternize with the enemy. Don’t show your friendship on the court (off the court no one would tell us what to do).”
In 1967, even the papers referred to Jones’ job (in this case it was “Helps 76ers Nick Knicks”).
Only one year before, the 76ers upstaged Boston for the Championship; it was happier times. Unlike Sunday, 1968, the national day of mourning. That second game in the series was canceled and they reflected on the game that had been played that Friday night. Suddenly it all seemed so “trivial”, according to Jack Ramsey.
Mr. Jones said that Chet Walker even wrote about it in his book, published in 1995. “Long Time Coming: A Black Athlete’s Coming-Of-Age In America.” https://www.amazon.com/Long-Time-Coming-Coming-Age/dp/0802115047.
The Boston Globe summed up the situation after the game was played. I do warn you, as Mr. Jones had mentioned to me when he introduced himself, “I was called Negro and colored then.” It upsets me to see that word in print in The Boston Globe when The Philadelphia Inquirer writers didn’t use it, but sadly, that was the least of the problems.
Since Dad had his injury, Mom didn’t save the sports page the day after MLK died, it wasn’t exactly on her mind either, so I don’t have any of the Evening Bulletin articles by George Kiseda, which I would have loved. When I can get to some microfiche in a library, it will be something I will most definitely pursue. But luckily The Boston Globe article just mentioned referred to it.
“Up to a half-hour before Friday’s game, Walker was not going on the floor at all. He was interviewed by George Kiseda (Phila Bulletin writer) and the papers here Friday night were full of his remarks about not wanting to play said Hannum.”The Boston Globe, April 8, 1968
But Mr. Jones said if he could, he wouldn’t have played, but at the time, he needed the job; there were only 16 teams. He felt a sense of powerlessness and he felt defeated and the world seemed out of control and hopelessly divided. His heart wasn’t in that game. Of course they lost.
Society was different back then, he said, in order for me to understand how devastated he was the day after MLK died, yet why he played, I have to understand how other African Americans were treated, he explained. In 1972 he co-authored a book with Jim Washington, “Black Men Challange American Sports” and he explored black athletes who never got recognition from the 1800s to the 1960s. He still recalls Jesse Owens speaking to his Middle School and telling them how after he won the gold medals in the Olympics in 1936, he came home and couldn’t get a job.
Mr. Jones had seen his own father, an excellent baseball player, who is 103 and living on his own and sharp as a whip, play in recreation centers for the Negro Baseball League. Consequently, baseball was Mr. Jones first love, then basketball when his older brother introduced him to it. Mr. Jones saw it as his way out of the inner city.
When I asked him if he loved basketball, he said he chose to play basketball so he could get a scholarship to get a college education. He came from the inner city but from a family who valued education and the golden rule that came from the bible: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He came from an activist family who believed the world needn’t be divisive. There was a way out.
They were marching, there were sit-ins (in the 50s at Woolworth’s, his brother was in college then) and his father and mother were speaking out about inequality.
He had nine brothers and sisters and he remembers when his older brother went to N.C. A&T State University in 1957. A 15-year old Wally Jones went with his parents and he had never experienced segregation with white fountains and having to sit at the kitchen. They were told they weren’t allowed to sit at the Woolworth’s counter and his mother said, “I’m not eating in no kitchen.” https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18615556
For Mr. Jones, basketball was a way out. Not to say there wasn’t aggression being played out on that court, too. Mr. Jones said, “aggression was the game…It was a dog eat dog world.”
“I was very aggressive. As small as I was, you’re getting hit by 6’8, 6’9 men, kneed, knocked down. I got hit so hard in my groin I had to go to the hospital. There were stitches in the head, broken clavicle bones in shoulders, two operations on the knee.” In fact, he still ices his knees because they swell up.
But I’m jumping ahead to next week. There’s so much more we need to explore here and so much we weren’t able to cover. But let’s end part one on this note: Mr. Jones made up for the powerlessness he felt that night and he’s made a lifetime of good out of it. He’s been a humanitarian and he’s made his ancestors proud. Yet, if there’s one thing he could have changed in that world of sit-ins, that night he would have chosen to sit out.
It’s not so different today. We’re still sitting in, albeit this time in our houses, and the games have stopped, regardless of how the fans wanted them to continue.
So maybe we really can learn from history. Maybe we can learn from the past to understand how to pave the way for a brighter tomorrow. If we just take this one sit-in at a time.