Why is it that we Blacks must often wait for the shortest month each year to be honored, to get our accomplishments recognized, to get our heritage respected? Why do we often have to be half-past dead to finally get our bouquets?
It took one Black History Month and nearly half of another before the Minnesota Golden Gophers publicly honored the late Kwame McDonald, who died in October 2011. The belated recognition came Sunday at halftime of the Minnesota-Illinois men’s basketball game. The Gopher women are expected to offer a similar tribute at this Sunday’s Minnesota-Northwestern contest.
Kwame covered the two Gopher basketball teams since the 1970s, but he was much more than a sportswriter. He was an advocate, a confidant, and a respite in a cultural storm. He kept more than a few out-of-state Black youngsters from going back home because they found Minnesota colder than its weather, and he encouraged more than a few in-state Black young people to seriously consider attending the state’s largest university.
“You don’t build relationships like that,” noted Gopher senior forward Trevor Mbakwe, who knew Kwame during his high school days in St. Paul.
I don’t know too many sportswriters, especially in this town, who would have helped organize an all-star game to honor two state high school championship teams that didn’t get a single player named to the annual state all-star team. That game is the now-annual Inner City All-Star Classic, held each June.
“He was faithful in bringing everybody together,” recalls Mbakwe.
I don’t know too many sportswriters, especially in this town, who would have spearheaded a drive to get Linda Roberts’ banner in Williams Arena two decades after Minnesota’s then-all-time leading women’s basketball scorer had been virtually ignored. “He was really proud when Linda had her number retired,” notes U of M Assistant Vice President of Equity and Diversity Rickey Hall.
I don’t know too many sportswriters, especially in this town, who would personally talk to “so-called” non-stars and give them the same print coverage as the star players. Kwame McDonald did all this and more for over five decades.
“He really transcended sports writing,” notes Archie Givens, Jr.
“It was more than about sports for him,” says Kwame’s son Mitchell McDonald. “His main goal was to help anyone be better than the person they were the day before.”
It is for this reason that every team in this town, save the Minnesota Wild, “owes” Kwame in some form or fashion. Thus far, only Concordia University in St. Paul has paid this debt — at each CU home basketball game, that game’s outstanding male and female basketball players are named the Kwame McDonald Player of the Game.
The Twins should name something after McDonald, especially since he helped desegregate the team’s spring training home in Florida in 1961 as director of the Minnesota Commission against Discrimination. He also helped new Black Twins players find housing once they arrived in the Twin Cities because segregation, often not talked about in these parts, was silently practiced.
The Gophers need to go beyond the halftime ceremony and name the proposed basketball practice facility after McDonald. Or at least do what Concordia, a local Division II school, has done and name its player of the game after him.
“There’s never a time that he did not support the Gophers,” says U of M Women’s Basketball Coach Pam Borton. “He support[ed] our players, encouraging players to come to Minnesota and encouraging kids to stay home. He did a lot for girls’ basketball.”
As for the Timberwolves and Lynx, a Kwame McDonald Media Room sounds nice.
“Kwame touched my life in a way that very few people did,” said Lynx Assistant Coach Jim Petersen, who knew McDonald since he was a local high school player. “He pulled and pushed me to get better.”
Let’s not forget the local high schools: “He always was a figurehead at a lot of games at the state tournament,” adds Borton. “When you saw Kwame, you thought about Minnesota basketball throughout the entire state. It is not the same not seeing him at the high school games, and I miss seeing him at the state tournament and at the [Gopher] games. We miss him.”
McDonald was a “multi-cultural” man, says U of M Men’s Coach Tubby Smith. “He worked to make Minnesota, to make St. Paul and Minneapolis a better place.
“Being an African American myself, he was a guy to look up to. People like that, you have to treasure their memory and their accomplishments,” Smith points out.
It’s about time that the local teams step up and truly show how much they treasured what Kwame McDonald did for them publicly and behind the scenes. Let’s do it before two more Black History Month cycles come and go.
Answer to last week’s ‘Did you know…?’
Kwame McDonald covered both Gopher teams for how long? He covered both teams for four-plus decades from the mid-1970s to until a couple of years before his death in October 2011.
For more “Did you know…?” questions, read this week’s “Sports Odds and Ends.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.