Closing Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
Here is the closing installment from my 2004-2005 series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. In this and in the recently posted opening installment I try laying out the scope of achievements that distinguishes this group of athletes, the way that sports provided advancement opportunities for these individuals that may otherwise have eluded them, and the close-knit cultural and community bonds that enveloped the neighborhoods they grew up in. It was a pleasure doing the series and getting to meet legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, et cetera. I learned a lot working on the project, mostly an appreciation for these athletes’ individual and collective achievements. You’ll find most every installment from the series on this blog, including profiles of the athletes and coaches I interviewed for the project. The remaining installments not posted yet soon will be.
Closing Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Appreciation of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Any consideration of Omaha’s inner city athletic renaissance from the 1950s through the 1970s must address how so many accomplished sports figures, including some genuine legends, sprang from such a small place over so short a span of time and why seemingly fewer premier athletes come out of the hood today. As with African-American urban centers elsewhere, Omaha’s inner city core saw black athletes come to the fore, like other minority groups did before them, in using sports as an outlet for self-expression and as a gateway to more opportunity.
As part of an ongoing OWR series exploring Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, this installment looks at the conditions and attitudes that once gave rise to a singular culture of athletic achievement here that is less prevalent in the current feel-good, anything-goes environment of plenty and World Wide Web connectivity.
The legends and fellow ex-jocks interviewed for this series mostly agree on the reasons why smaller numbers of youths these days possess the right stuff. It’s not so much a lack of athletic ability, observers say, but a matter of fewer kids willing to pay the price in an age when sports is not the only option for advancement. The contention is that, on average, kids are neither prepared nor inclined to make the commitment and sacrifice necessary to realize, much less pursue, their athletic potential when less demanding avenues to success abound.
“Kids today are changed — their attitudes about authority and everything else,” says Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, an Omaha Tech High grad who grew up in the late’40s-early ‘50s under the stern but steady hand of coaches like his older brother, Josh. “They’re like, I’m not going to let somebody tell me what to do, where we had no problem with that in our day.”
Gibson says coaches like Josh, a bona fide legend on the north side, used to be viewed as an extension of the family, serving, “first of all,” as “a father figure,” or as Clarence Mercer, a top Tech swimmer, puts it, as “a big brother,” providing discipline and direction to that era’s at-risk kids, many from broken homes.
Josh Gibson, along with other strong blacks working as coaches, physical education instructors and youth recreation directors in that era, including Marty Thomas, John Butler, Alice Wilson and Bob Rose, are recalled as superb leaders and builders of young people. All had a hand in shaping Omaha’s sports legends of the hood, but perhaps none more so than Gibson, who, from the 1940s until the 1960s, coached touring baseball-basketball teams out of the North Omaha Y. “Josh was instrumental in training most of these guys. He was into children, and into developing children. He carried a lot of respect. If you cursed or if you didn’t do what he wanted you to do or you didn’t make yourself a better person, than you couldn’t play for him,” says John Nared, a late ‘50s-early ’60s Central High-NU hoops star who played under Gibson on the High Y Monarchs and High Y Travelers. “He didn’t want you running around doing what bad kids did. When you came to the YMCA, you were darn near a model child because Josh knew your mother and father and he kept his finger on the pulse. When you got in trouble at the Y, you got in trouble at home.”
Old-timers note a sea change in the way youths are handled today, especially the lack of discipline that parents and coaches seem unwilling or unable to instill in kids. “You see young girls walking around with their stuff hanging out and boys bagging it with their pants around their ankles. In our time, there were certain things you had to do and it was enforced from your family right on down,” says Milton Moore, a track man at Central in the late ‘50s.
The biggest difference between then and now, says former three-sport Tech star and longtime North Omaha Boys Club coach Lonnie McIntosh, is the disconnected, permissive way youths grow up. Where, in the past, he says, kids could count on a parent or aunt or neighbor always being home, youths today are often on their own, in a latchkey home, isolated in their own little worlds of self-indulgence.
“What’s missing is a sense of family. People living on the same street may not even know each other. Parents may not know who their kids are running with. In our day, we all knew each other. We were a family. We would walk to school together. Although we competed hard against one another, we all pulled for one another. Our parents knew where we were,” McIntosh says.
“There were no discipline problems with young people in those days,” Mercer adds somewhat apocryphally.
Former Central athlete Jim Morrison says there isn’t the cohesion of the past. “The near north side was a community then. The word community means people are of one mind and one accord and they commune together.” “There’s no such thing as a black community anymore,” adds John Nared. “The black community is spread out. Kids are everywhere. Economics plays a part in this. A lot of mothers don’t have husbands and can’t afford to buy their kids the athletic shoes to play hoops or to send their kids to basketball camps. Some of the kids are selling drugs. They don’t want a future. We wanted to make something out of our lives because we didn’t want to disappoint our parents.”
The close communion of days gone by, says Nared, played out in many ways. Young blacks were encouraged to stay on track by an extended, informal support system operating in the hood. “The near north side was a very small community then…so small that everybody knew each other.” In what was the epitome of the it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child concept, he says the hood was a community within a community where everybody looked out for everybody else and where, decades before the Million Man March, strong black men took a hand in steering young black males. He fondly recalls a gallery of mentors along North 24th Street.
“Oh, we had a bunch of role models. John Butler, who ran the YMCA. Josh Gibson. Bob Gibson. Bob Boozer. Curtis Evans, who ran the Tuxedo Pool Hall. Hardy “Beans” Meeks, who ran the shoe shine parlor. Mr. (Marcus “Mac”) McGee and Mr. (James) Bailey who ran the Tuxedo Barbershop. All of these guys had influence in my life. All of ‘em. And it wasn’t just about sports. It was about developing me. Mr. Meenks gave a lot of us guys jobs. In the morning, when I’d come around the corner to go to school, these gentlemen would holler out the door, ‘You better go up there and learn something today.’ or ‘When you get done with school, come see me.’
“Let me give you an example. Curtis Evans, who ran the pool hall, would tell me to come by after school. ‘So, I’d…come by, and he’d have a pair of shoes to go to the shoe shine parlor and some shirts to go to the laundry, and he’d give me two dollars. Mr. Bailey used to give me free haircuts…just to talk. ‘How ya doin’ in school? You got some money in your pocket?’ I didn’t realize what they were doing until I got older. They were keeping me out of trouble. Giving me some lunch money so I could go to school and make something of myself. It was about developing young men. They took the time.”
Beyond shopkeepers, wise counsel came from Charles Washington, a reporter-activist with a big heart, and Bobby Fromkin, a flashy lawyer with a taste for the high life. Each sports buff befriended many athletes. Washington opened his humble home, thin wallet and expansive mind to everyone from Ron Boone to Johnny Rodgers, who says he “learned a lot from him about helping the community.” In hanging with Fromkin, Rodgers says he picked-up his sense of “style” and “class.”
Super athletes like Nared got special attention from these wise men who, following the African-American tradition of — “each one, to teach one” — recognized that if these young pups got good grades their athletic talent could take them far — maybe to college. In this way, sports held the promise of rich rewards. “The reason why most blacks in that era played sports is that in school then the counselors talked about what jobs were available for you and they were saying, ‘You’ll be a janitor,’ or something like that. There weren’t too many job opportunities for blacks. And so you started thinking about playing sports as a way to get to college and get a better job,” Nared says.
Growing up at a time when blacks were denied equal rights and afforded few chances, Bob Gibson and his crew saw athletics as a means to an end. “Oh, yeah, because otherwise you didn’t really have a lot to look forward to after you got out of school,” he says. “The only black people you knew of that went anywhere were athletes like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson or entertainers.” Bob had to look no further than his older brother, Josh, to see how doors were closed to minorities. The holder of a master’s degree in education as well as a sterling reputation as a coach, Josh could still not get on with the Omaha Public Schools as a high school teacher-coach due to prevailing hiring policies then.
“Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s the racial climate was such we had nothing else to really look forward to except to excel as black athletes,” says Marlin Briscoe, the Omaha South High School grad who made small college All-America at then-Omaha University and went on to be the NFL’s first black quarterback. “We were told, ‘You can’t do anything with your life other than work in the packing house.’ We grew up seeing on TV black people getting hosed down and clubbed and bitten by dogs and not being able to go to school. So, sports became a way to better ourselves and hopefully bypass the packing house and go to college.”
Besides, Nared, says, it wasn’t like there was much else for black youths to do. “Back when we were coming up we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have this, we didn’t have that. The only joy we could have was beating somebody’s ass in sports. One basketball would entertain 10 people. One football would entertain 22 people. It was very competitive, too. In the neighborhood, everybody had talent. We played every day, too. So, you honed in on your talents when you did it every day. That’s why we produced great athletes.”
With the advent of so many more activities and advantages, Gibson says contemporary blacks inhabit a far richer playing ground than he and his buddies ever had, leaving sports only one of many options. “In our time, if you wanted to get ahead and to get away from the ghetto or the projects, you were going to be an athlete, but I don’t know if that’s been the same since then. I think kids’ interests are other places now. There’s all kinds of other stuff to think about and there’s all kinds of other problems they have that we never had. They can do a lot of things that we couldn’t do back then or didn’t even think of doing.”
Milton Moore adds, “It used to be you couldn’t be everything you were, but you could be a baseball player or you could be a football player. Now, you can be anything you want to be. Kids have more opportunities, along with distractions.”
Ron Boone, an Omaha Tech grad who went to become the iron man of pro hoops by playing in all 1,041 games of his combined 13-year ABA-NBA career, finds irony in the fact that with the proliferation of strength training programs and basketball camps “the opportunities to become very good players are better now than they were for us back then,” yet there are fewer guys today who can “flat out play.” He says this seeming contradiction may be explained by less intense competition now than what he experienced back in the day, when everyone with an ounce of game wanted to show their stuff and use it as a steppingstone.
If not for the athletic scholarships they received, many black sports stars of the past would simply not have gone on to college because they were too poor to even try. In the case of Bob Gibson, his talent on the diamond and on the basketball court landed him at Creighton University, where Josh did his graduate work.
By the time Briscoe and company came along in the early ‘60s, they made role models of figures like Gibson and fellow Tech hoops star Bob Boozer, who parlayed their athletic talent into college educations and pro sports careers. “When Boozer went to Kansas State and Gibson to Creighton, that next generation — my generation — started thinking, If I can get good enough…I can get a scholarship to college so I can take care of my mom. That’s the way all of us thought, and it just so happened some of us had the ability to go to the next level.”
Young athletes of the inner city still use sports as an entry to college. The talent pool may or may not be what it was in urban Omaha’s heyday but, if not, than it’s likely because many kids have more than just sports to latch onto now, not because they can’t play. At inner city schools, blacks continue to make up a disproportionately high percentage of the starters in the two major team sports — football and basketball. The one major team sport that’s seen a huge drop-off in participation by blacks is baseball, a near extinct sport in urban America the past few decades due to the high cost of equipment, the lack of playing fields and the perception of the game as a slow, uncool, old-fashioned, tradition-bound bore.
Carl Wright, a football-track athlete at Tech in the ‘50s and a veteran youth coach with the Boys Club and North High, sees good and bad in the kids he still works with today. “There’s a big change in these kids now. I’ll tell a kid, ‘Take a lap,’ and he’ll go, ‘I don’t want to take no lap,’ and he’ll go home and not look back. I’ve seen kids with talent that can never get to practice on time, so I kick them off the team and it doesn’t mean anything to them. They’ve got so much talent, but they don’t exploit it. They don’t use it, and it doesn’t seem to bother them.”
On the other hand, he says, most kids still respond to discipline when it’s applied. “I know one thing, you can tell a kid, no, and he’ll respect you. You just tell him that word, when everybody else is telling him, yes, and they get to feeling, Well, he cares about me, and they start falling into place. There’s really some good kids out there, but they just need guidance. Tough love.”
Tough love. That was the old-school way. A strict training regimen, a heavy dose of fundamentals, a my-way-or-the-highway credo and a close-knit community looking out for kids’ best interests. It worked, too. It still works today, only kids now have more than sports to use as their avenue to success.
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Hoops Legend John C. Johnson: Fierce Determination Tested by Repeated Run-Ins with the Law (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- One Peach of a Pitcher: Peaches James Leaves Enduring Legacy in the Circle as a Nebraska Softball Legend (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Great Migration Comes Home: Deep South Exiles Living in Omaha Participated in the Movement Author Isabel Wilkerson Writes About in Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)