Essay by Warren Jabali, April 2004

A writer from the Oakland Tribune called me recently to get my thoughts on being a member of the 1968-69 American Basketball Association champion Oakland Oaks. That team boasted members such as Larry Brown and Doug Moe who later became NBA coaches. The team also included Gary Bradds, an all American from Ohio State, Henry Logan and me. In addition, we had Rick Barry, who played only in the first 18 games of the season due to a knee injury.

During the interview the writer told me that Rick had stated that I was a racist and was a teammate who would not pass him the ball because he was white. I do not know if these quotes are accurate but they nonetheless deserve an examination. They deserve examination because those of us who came into adulthood during that time have never openly and honestly had any discussion about the dynamics of those days. I am sure that there are opinions held by all which have yet to find expression in a widespread manner.

It would seem to me however that Rick would put forth something a little more substantive than "I wouldn’t pass him the ball." The preponderance of evidence contradicts his assertion since I was second behind Larry in assists, and it would have necessitated my passing only to Ira Harge and to myself since we were the only black starters. I fail to see, with all of the other possible subject matter, why this should be his focus. We could not have gone 60-18 in the regular season, 12-4 in the playoffs, and become ABA champions with that kind of animosity on the court. A more gracious person would have commented perhaps about the high expectation which existed for him to lead the Oaks to higher attendance and a championship, how his injury cast doubt upon that goal, how the team coalesced without him and how I surprised most people by averaging 33 points and 12 rebounds in the championship series and 28 points for the entire playoff. These are of course the type of numbers which would have been recorded by him had he played. Can it really be that what Larry and I remember as fondly as a great and wonderful time can only be commented upon relative to ones feelings about the texture of the ball and not receiving it enough?

There is nevertheless a modicum of validity to Rick’s charge related to race, although it certainly has nothing to do with passing a basketball. The 1960’s was an explosive decade with regard to race in America. Although it would be a misnomer to call the period the beginning of the end of active white racism which had been directed toward blacks for centuries, it was certainly a decade which witnessed acceleration in black assertiveness. The actual beginning was of course when the abolitionists, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Luizo, Swerner, Goodman and others made their stands. The racism which these outstanding Americans targeted was the “racism which is the scientifically unsubstantiated belief, that each human race is characterized by distinctive attributes which determine behaviors and capacities, and that a particular race is inherently superior.” I did not maintain a belief that white people possessed any attributes or capacities which were inferior to mine. I did and do maintain however that white people exhibited behaviors toward black people which were despicable and disgraceful. Since it was impossible for me to know whether a white person was harboring such attitudes and behaviors, I chose to cast a wary eye toward all.

As far as I am concerned, given my knowledge and background, this was the prudent thing to have done. Conversely, the socially acceptable thing to do, according to some, was for me to continue in the vane of proving to white people that we were their equal. I saw that as placing blind faith in the hands of strangers. A passage from the Bible illustrates the dilemma faced by those of us who began the process of integrating the professions.

“Those who carried us away captive, required of us a song; those who wasted us, required of us mirth."

This was the sentiment of the Hebrews during their captivity. The “captives” are commenting on the arrogance and the ignorance of those in the ruling classes with respect to their attitudes toward those whom they subjugate. The rulers demand that the captives “not worry and be happy” and never display resentful, discontented nor hostile countenances."

The aforementioned sentiment compels blacks to project what Franz Fanon called “Black Skins, White Masks”. W.E.B. DuBois called it “twoness.” Listen as DuBois expresses his point of view. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

The insights of Fanon, Dubois and the Hebrew lament are accurate reflections of the feelings of most African Americans up until at least 1970. Although all groups of people have their “Edward G. Robinsons,” that is to say they have accommodationist strands, most African Americans were about the business of redefining their relationship to white people particularly during the late sixties, and did not relish the role of being required to make white people feel comfortable when the setting was mixed.

This accommodationist relationship was one in which blacks had to look the other way and attach no apparent significance to events such as the killing and mutilation of Emmitt Till, the Ebony Magazine yearly count of black men lynched and burned in America, the four little girls killed by a bomb while in church, James Meredith being shot while attempting to enroll in college, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the assassination of Malcolm X. All of these things and infinitely more were being done by white people to black people as we dribbled our ways down the basketball courts of America.  

The accommodationist relationship had also forever been one whereby blacks had to be an “example for the race” and not make any blunders that would jeopardize the opportunity for other blacks to get a chance. This relationship of course had been based upon the African American’s relegation as an inferior and as an intruder into white affairs. History reveals that sports have been the main instrument of integration in this country. Paul “Tank” Younger, the football player from Grambling and Jackie Robinson, the baseball player from UCLA were the cross bearers for black folk. They had to be highly skilled athletically and socially and are to be commended for the sacrifices which they made. Many other black men became highly skilled and highly sought after by the sports industry but not all of them had the “social skills” of Younger and Robinson. Fortunately, they did not have to.

More and more blacks got opportunities as owners of professional team acted upon what would later be an Al Davis admonition, “just win baby.”  By the time I began playing professional basketball it was no longer required that black men be like Younger, Robinson. The only actual requirement was to be better that most of the non-starting whites on the team. Very few if any black men sat on the far end of the bench. Black men were playing and starring. Consequently the attitudes of the black players began to change accordingly. My attitude reflected the indifference which I saw in the attitudes of whites toward me. The burden had not been transferred to me of carrying the banner of the race, and since the white world did not extend an invitation to me, I sought none.

We got precious little training in dealing with the larger society because we did not get invited to activities where personal interactions were occurring. I was one of those who had no experience socializing with whites and consequently had no desire to make social acquaintances of white people. This condition existed not because I disliked white people but rather because I had been segregated from childhood through my senior year of high school and in addition was also taught to fear white people. (Emmitt Till had been murdered for speaking to a white girl) With all of the things that were happening to black people at the hands of white people it simply never occurred to me that they were awaiting my entry into their world with open arms. So I felt no obligation to step into the abyss and ascertain where the bottom might be.

Rick Barry’s accusation of racism has to be weighed with the events of the time. Rick is operating from the point of view which is understandable for him. He, like most Americans - black and white - is uninformed and ill-informed about race relations in this country. Consequently, the opinion which he held during that time, and the one which he continues to hold is incomplete and erroneous. His opinion does not take into consideration key social and racial realities.

Rick did not consider that in 1964 when Bobby Mitchell left Cleveland and signed with the Washington Redskins that he was compelled by management to sing “Dixie” at one of their functions. Earl Faison and Ernie Ladd had a gun pulled on them and were promised that they would be shot if they attempted to enter a club in New Orleans. That event prompted the black players for the American Football League to boycott and have their all star game moved from New Orleans to Houston.

Rick never experienced treatment such as that. Rick was not only a member of the dominant group, he was also one of its princes. His attitude was that professional basketball provided him with a wonderful opportunity for fame and wealth and that anyone with such an opportunity should maximize it, as he did. He seems to have failed to realize that black players could not do what he was able to do. During our playing days a comment was made and attributed to someone in management that there were too many black players in pro basketball. Good white players were highly prized. Rick promoted himself well and saw pro basketball as a market place that anyone could exploit, but he underestimates the double standard which existed.

His self promotion, as expert as it was, does not however qualify him as an expert on the psychology of race relations in America. My opinion is that he thought black folk should have been so satisfied with arriving in professional basketball that nothing else should have mattered. Rick and white people in general assumed that blacks and whites being teammates and “league mates” should have or could have somehow eradicated the realities of black life in America. I already knew that whites and blacks playing on the same team did not directly correlate to off court relationships.

During my time at Wichita State University not one of my white teammates invited me or any other of the black players to join in any of their activities off the court. I never met any of their parents, and I never took any trips to their home towns. I had no idea who their girl friends were. If they lived off campus, I could not have located them in case of a team emergency. Life was such that we didn’t expect them to include us in what they did and it never occurred to us to extend such invitations, thus off court camaraderie was never an issue.

People found my attitude inscrutable because I did not subscribe to the conventions of the day. I typically let statements concerning attitudes and opinions about me go unchallenged. I have accepted that very few people got to know me and that the description of my being enigmatic, as far as they are concerned, was essentially correct.

Upon reading the recent Oakland Tribune article, however, surprise overtook me. Surprise not by Rick Barry's comment but by the commentator. Rick has always been a person whom I have admired and respected. My most lasting impression of Rick came as I worked with the organizers of the first Indiana Black Expo (it continues to go strong now after some 30 years). I was put in charge of recruiting players to play in a nationally televised Martin Luther King benefit basketball game. I called Rick and asked him to play. He had a previous commitment on the East coast, but said that he could arrange to come in to play the first half and then run to the airport to complete his connection. I think most people would have just said that they were too busy. This was not something that I felt that he did for me, but rather for the cause of civil rights, and with that act he gained my respect.

Rick obviously is not familiar with some of the issues outlined here. Therefore I decided to take an opportunity to inform him, as well as give some clarity to the larger issue.

With concern to the larger issue, I think we Americans are severely myopic. Why does the issue have to be whether Warren Jabali liked white people as opposed to did white people like Warren Jabali? Remember, as a child of the segregated 50’s and a teenager in the tumultuous 60’s I saw white people as oppressors and mean-spirited people. With a backdrop of  Ku Klux Klan acquittals, FBI attacks on black organizations, Fannie Lou Hamer not being allowed to sit in the Democratic Convention, just to point out a few atrocities, the greater question has to be why on earth should I have liked white people?” What have they done that I should put down my guard and embrace them? If one looks at white folks as I did, which is as a monolith, then they were to be as despised as the Egyptians were by the Hebrews. Certainly there were “individual” white people who were committed to the cause of human rights, but I didn’t grow up with any.

To this day only Jim Eakins, Claude Terry and their wives have demonstrated the humanity which compels me to share mine with them. Jim Eakins, my former ABA teammate on the Oakland Oaks and Washington Capitols, is the only white player from college or professional ball who actually sought to understand and challenge my thinking on the subject of race in America. Also, a former high school opponent of mine has turned out to actually be a good friend. We exchange thoughts and ideas.

In retrospect, most of these issues were class issues. They were issues of education, exposure and experience. Steve Jones was the perfect example. Steve was smart, well versed on a lot of subjects and dealt with white folks on a level plane. Steve ended up as a national broadcaster for the NBA.

We can see today that when black kids grow up in the more affluent neighborhoods and go to better schools the aforementioned racial issue is ameliorated. Issues of race have not disappeared but wealth and opportunity are great equalizers over time.

The professional players of the days of blatant segregation and discrimination constantly look back and measure their responses to the great issue of their day, mostly with pride for the things which they “took” or which they “stood” for. The black professional players of today should draw from the examples of Jim Brown, who created the Black Economic Union and Magic Johnson who believes in investing in urban areas. Up until this point the black athlete has had an historical imperative which transcended the playing field. If the current and future African American athletes are only going to measured only by what they do on the field then they will have abandoned their historical calling. As long as they have not witnessed and end to of the social, political and economic problems of their race, they must determine what then is “required” of them.

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