My favorite Bob Seger song, “Night Moves,” includes what some may consider a throwaway line, “Ain’t it funny how you remember?” It’s never been a throwaway line to me, though, and it’s been on my mind a lot the past couple of weeks.
This column is a tribute to the African-American athletes I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of watching, covering and getting to know over the last six decades — and, by extension, a tribute to the African-American community as a whole.
In the wake of the senseless, heartbreaking, mind-numbing George Floyd tragedy in Minneapolis, I begin by recalling my memories of the great Westley Unseld, the Seneca High School, University of Louisville and NBA legend who died last week at age 74.
I have a connection with Unseld that goes back to his heyday at Seneca. He and Kentucky Mr. Basketball Mike Redd — who later played at Kentucky Wesleyan — led the Redskins to the 1963 KHSAA state championship. A year later, Redd having graduated, Unseld put Seneca on his broad shoulders and led the Redskins to a second consecutive state title — earning Mr. Basketball honors himself in 1964.
For a time, Unseld was recruited by the University of Kentucky, which was considering breaking its color barrier by making Unseld the first African-American basketball player in program history. During the recruiting process, Unseld’s mother reportedly asked UK coach Adolph Rupp if he could guarantee her son’s safety on the team’s SEC sojourns through the Deep South. Rupp reportedly responded that he could not and, well, that was the end of that.
Kentucky’s loss, of course, became U of L’s immense gain.
I attended some of Unseld’s games at Seneca in Louisville as a very young child in the early 1960s. My first cousin, Dru Gibson, was a Seneca freshman when Unseld was a senior, and my aunt, Betty Jo Gibson, was a substitute teacher at Seneca who on occasion had Unseld in her English class.
Thirty years later, I interviewed Unseld while he was coaching the Washington Bullets, the team he and Elvin Hayes led to the 1978 NBA championship. I was in Atlanta to write a feature story on former Apollo High School and Kentucky star Rex Chapman, a member of the Bullets at the time.
A couple of hours before tipoff, I had a one-on-one courtside interview with Unseld in The Onni, and he could not have been more gracious. Numerous times since his death, Unseld has been described as a gentle giant, and this is spot-on. He was also steadfast and exceptionally intelligent, and I came away from the interview understanding why Unseld had been such a high achiever — he had a big body, a big brain and a big heart.
Unseld had just completed his junior season at U of L in the spring of 1967 when he and a host of other crestfallen African-American basketball players throughout the commonwealth walked into the Caldwell County High School gymnasium in Princeton for the funeral of Western Kentucky star Dwight Smith, who along with younger sister Kay had been killed in a tragic one-car accident in Hopkins County while traveling back to Bowling Green on a rain-soaked Mother’s Day.
Greg Smith, the driver of the car, survived the accident. Also a Hilltopper star, he came back to complete his senior season with Owensboro native Wayne Chapman in 1967-68. Greg was the starting small forward on the Milwaukee Bucks’ NBA championship team of 1971 led by the great Lew Alcindor, who shortly thereafter changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
My father, Jim Pickens Sr., was baseball coach at WKU at the time of Dwight’s death and also a Princeton native, having been a childhood friend of the Smiths’ father, Henry. In the late afternoon of May 14, 1967, my dad walked into our Bowling Green home and grimly announced the news about Dwight and Kay. I cried like a baby deep into the night because Dwight was not only one of my early heroes, he was my friend. Fifty-three years later, this one still hurts.
Dwight was still with us in early 1967 when I attended the 4th Region Basketball Tournament at E.A. Diddle Arena and became friends with Calvin Vinson, an African-American who was three years older than me.
On the very night we met, we were playing with a group of maybe six others in one of the arena’s corridors when a cocky, older youngster from Allen County started directing the N-word toward Calvin, the only African-American of the bunch.
I was probably the youngest of all, but I wasn’t going to let some ignorant outlier humiliate my new friend with racist vitriol. I looked up at the guy and forcefully said, “Fella, you’ll have to come through me to get to him.” I had fire in my eyes, and I meant it (all 4-foot-2 of me), and like most bullies when confronted, he soon slinked away, spewing a steam of expletives in our direction as his parting shot. Good riddance. I cried that night, too, at the utter senselessness of such cruelty.
Calvin and I were solid friends for the next three or four years, always hooking up at WKU games, but we lost track of each other in the early ‘70s. Just a few years ago, via Facebook, I reconnected with Calvin, who for the past 14 years has been director of Rescue Mission at Miracle Hill Ministries in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He’s as good as they come, and our bond is as strong as it ever was; maybe stronger — a half century down the line.
Just a few loosely linked memories from the 1960s that were on my heart to share.
Ain’t it funny how you remember?