There are some who are suggesting that Black History Month is no longer needed. This includes, sadly, some of us Black folk who don’t see this yearly February observance as necessary.
On the contrary, Black History Month isn’t just for Whites to learn more about us, but also for us to know more about us. “Black history itself is not talked about enough,” says Dr. Elinor Ruth Tatum, publisher of the New York Amsterdam News.
“I think in general the importance of Black history [is] not just the people who did the first thing, but also how we got to where we are right now,” says Nate Parham, who manages SBN’s Swish Appeal, a website that covers the WNBA and women’s college basketball around the nation from Seattle.
“View” recently asked several local athletes the following Black history sports-related questions:
Who was the first Black manager in major league baseball? (Frank Robinson)
Who was the first Black coach in pro basketball? (John McLendon)
Who was the first Black head coach to win an NBA championship? (Bill Russell)
Who was the first Black player to be drafted by the NBA? (Chuck Cooper)
Who was the first Black player to play in an NBA game? (Earl Lloyd)
Name the first Black commentator on NBA national television broadcasts. (Russell)
Who was the first Black head coach in the NFL? (Fritz Pollard)
Name the first Black player on the then-Minneapolis Lakers. (Bob Williams)
All the players quizzed failed to get a single question right, but they did seem both interested and surprised when we gave them the answers.
“The first Black head coach in basketball? I don’t know,” admitted Minnesota Timberwolves second-year forward Wes Johnson.
“These are kind of hard questions,” said Wolves fourth-year forward Michael Beasley, who originally thought Bill Russell was the first Black NBA player drafted. “I really don’t know as much as I should,” he added.
“You’re killing me,” said Minnesota Twins outfielder Denard Span on the Black history questions. Asked who was the first Black baseball manager, he said, “That’s a great question. I couldn’t tell you that.” On the Fritz Pollard question he said, “I really want to say Tony Dungy, but I don’t think that’s true.”
Michaella Riche, a U of M sophomore forward from Gloucester, Ontario, said that Black History Month is not recognized in her native Canada, “but it is something that I’ve been a part of since I have come here.”
Since she’s a Canadian, we asked Riche who is the first Black NHL player. “No,” she quickly responded, not even risking a guess. When we told her it was a Black Canadian, Willie O’Ree, who played for Boston in the late 1950s, she said, “I had no idea.”
Added Span on the Willie O’Ree question, “There’s no way I know anything about hockey unless it had something to do with Wayne Gretzky.”
“It is very important,” said Johnson on knowing our history. “It wasn’t [taught] that much when I was in school. It was up to my parents, who gave me Black history when I was growing up.”
“You taught me a lesson today,” noted Span. “I think as a Black race and culture, we’ve been through a lot, and the history is what has brought us to this point now, to have opportunities to play on this stage and to be successful.”
“The more we tell these stories, the harder it is to forget,” said Parham.
“I’m learning more stuff,” said Riche.
Throughout this Black History Month of February, “View” will feature “Did You Know” questions and answers to assist those who are still “learning more stuff.” For example: Did you know…that John McLendon was the first Black student at the University of Kansas physical education department where James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, taught?
McLendon took several of Naismith’s classes as well as learning the game of basketball from its founder. McLendon later became an assistant coach at North Carolina College, an all-Black school, in 1936 after he graduated from Kansas. Two years later, McLendon became head coach.
He also achieved several other firsts: the first Black head coach in an integrated league with Cleveland of the American Basketball League; the first Black head coach at a majority-White college (Cleveland State); and the first Black head coach of the American Basketball Association’s Denver Rockets in 1969. He died in 1999 at age 84.
Along with winning 496 games as a college coach, McLendon’s greatest first, for which he never got full or even half credit, was developing the fast break in basketball, which he learned from Naismith.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.