Thoughts on sports from ‘The Godfather’ of Twin Cities athletics

Kwame McDonald, seated at left, talks with Gophers Head Basketball Coach Tubby Smith at Kwame’s October 7 community celebration. Photo by Charles Hallman


By Kwame McDonald
and Ray Richardson


In a recent special interview with Kwame McDonald, there was nothing frail about his memory, humor, wit, and his perceptions of the sports world that have shaped most of the 80 years of his life. In fact, some of the topics presented to him almost made him get out of his hospital bed to find a microphone so he could really preach the truth!


The passion of what Kwame has seen and experienced in the world of sports is still there — and will always be there. Though illness has a grip on Kwame’s body, nothing can take away the spirit of his insight that has benefited so many people in the Twin Cities inside and outside the sports world.


I was honored to have an opportunity to sit down with Kwame and capture his thoughts on a number of sports topics, ranging from O.J. Simpson to former St. Paul Central girls’ basketball legend Linda Roberts. Please take a moment to continue reading the fascinating perspectives of a man I’ve affectionately called “The Godfather” of the Twin Cities sports community.


One quick note: In case you didn’t know, Kwame’s real name is James Cornell McDonald. He took on the name Kwame after a visit to Ghana in 1968 to study African history. While in Ghana, he learned that kids in the country are given their first names based on the day of the week they were born.


James was born in 1931 on a Saturday, which is Kwame in Ghana’s Twi language. That’s when James became Kwame.

Here are Kwame’s top
five sports memories:


5. Participating in a protest march on the field during the 100-year anniversary of the Rutgers-Princeton college football game in 1969. Kwame was part of a group protesting the lack of African American players on both teams.


4. St. Agnes (Class A) and Washburn (Class AA) winning the 1994 Minnesota boys’ state basketball championships. It was the first time two all-Black teams won the state title in the same year.


3. Linda Roberts getting her jersey retired in Williams Arena on Jan. 25, 2006. Roberts was the first University of Minnesota African American women’s basketball player to receive that honor.


2. St. Paul Central’s boys’ basketball team advancing to the state tournament title game in 1979 for the first time in school history. That team featured former NFL player Stacy Robinson.


1. St. Paul Johnson’s boys’ basketball team winning the 2010 Class 3A state championship. “I taught some of those players,” Kwame said.


Word association


Kwame let me play a little word association with him. I tossed out some names and asked him to say the first things that came to his mind. The responses below are Kwame speaking.


O.J. Simpson: His lifestyle, background and environment caused his demise to be inevitable. He got caught up.


Jim Brown: Best player in NFL history. His racial pride was conveyed by his skills and deep-seated animosity toward the way White people treated him and other Black players in those days…from Syracuse to the Cleveland Browns. He quit on his own terms. He was very intelligent.


Michael Jordan: As talented a basketball player as there ever was. He was more interested in succeeding on the court. He didn’t seem much concerned about race or racial achievement or being a spokesman.


Today’s Black pro athletes: Most of them accept themselves as participants in a capitalistic society.


They’re more individualistic, less socially conscious. It’s all about money. They’re not understanding of what ownership really means.


A message to today’s Black superstars: Let’s take our money and form some franchises. Let’s show that Black franchises can be successful. It would encourage other Blacks to do the same thing.


Bill Russell:  He did what he was able to do in his environment. The difference between Russell and Jordan is that Russell pushed the agenda as far as he could. Michael wasn’t interested in that.


Former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson: A big, strong Black man. He not only took advantage but also developed advantages. He made things happen that never happened before, paving the way for other Black coaches. I had the impression he would have had a hard time getting another coaching job because of his power and strength and brilliance. You can be a coach and all that, but you’re not going to run the university. He was as close as any coach to doing that.


Texas Western (today known as Texas-El Paso, the first school to win an NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship with five Black starters in 1966): The name Texas Western means a lot. Back in the day, us colored people were very proud of those guys and the way they did it. I think a lot of people believed that was going to be a one-time deal. They were willing to tolerate it. That moment was a trendsetter.


Magic Johnson: He got the most out of himself in a non-racial way.


Why we don’t see more business-minded Magic Johnsons: They don’t see the long-term advantages of planning for the future. Black players and individuals don’t understand collectivity. They try to do it more or less on their own, which is ironic, because all of their success is based on collectivity and teamwork.
Muhammad Ali: My favorite athlete of all time.


Dennis Green: The most racially conscious coach that has ever been in professional football. He used to have monthly meetings for Black leadership in the Twin Cities in the Vikings’ cafeteria where the players ate.


A final thought: If White people want to continue to dominate sports, they will have to come up with some new games. We’re making our mark in a lot of sports.


Thank you, Kwame. All of us have been blessed to feel and hear your wisdom.