A PAL Story
“ I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no black college.”
Back in the ‘80s, I was a “gym rat” and spent a lot of time with my friends at the Police Athletic League gym on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, one of the many havens for inner city youths like so many others in cities and towns around the country.
Centers like these were the one of the first places that a youngster could go to began working on a game and a dream. It was the first stage of development for many of them who had visions of escaping the reality surrounding them. And, it was the first taste of organized sports and learning some of the life skills they that would help them overcome the proverbial “streets”.
The Webster Avenue Police athletic league Center was ran by an ex-All -CIAA power forward, Oscar Smith (and Elizabeth City State legend). The first rule they came to respect was- once you crossed the threshold of the wide doors- you took off your cap! No exception, no excuses.
That was one of the little things that resonant in their maturation. This place was a safe harbor that allowed them to work on their dream. Most of the volunteers were young black men, who had come up through the system, went off to college and returned to “give something back.” And, for both parties, it was a love affair that lasted a lifetime.
One hot summer day many years ago, I was hanging at the PAL and I glimpsed a young man seated behind me and eventually engaged him in small talk.
He seemed a little out of sorts and after a while, he revealed he had returned home after a failed stint in college. I recalled he was a former high school All-American who had been highly recruited and accepted a basketball scholarship to play a Big Ten program in the Midwest.
He confessed that it was a cultural shock to him…an inner city kid who found himself it hard to adjust to life in the middle of the Corn Belt. He felt he had few options and decided to come back home to “regroup.”
Here was young man experiencing depression, which happens to a lot of youngsters who don’t have strong mentoring support and a moral compass.
I felt empathy and tried in a feeble way to offer some encouragement. I must have burbled something like, “Have you considered playing for a Black college?”
He looked at me with a querying look and mumbled, “ I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no black college.”
I had no answer then and that moment still haunts me.
Yet, I knew about the Black college experience because I recall how it felt to walk across a campus where there were no barriers to overcome and you felt nurtured and supported by teachers, fellow students and teammates.
There was an air of belonging I experienced nowhere else (and I attended a couple of predominately white institutions).
I recall that moment quite often when I’m face to face with a teenager who is full of confidence and swagger and faith in his ability to make all the right moves – on and off the fields, yet fails to fulfill his potential.
If I could see that young man now, I would look him in the eye and say, “You can’t ball all (of) your life. You need to learn all you can…about everything you can. Be the best you can…you can still reach your dream.”
While we believe in diversity and support the right of a student and/or athlete to choose to study and perform at a school of their choice, we also recognize the relevance of tradition and pride in supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
A lot of HBCUs are feeling the enrollment pinch even though they may offer scholarships and opportunities. At one time, these hallowed halls of learning once offered the greatest opportunity for African Americans to get a quality education and play sports at an optimum level. Many of the past and present leaders in nearly every aspect of society were products of an Black college.
While we believe in diversity and support the right of a student and/or athlete to choose to study and perform at a school of their choice, we also recognize the relevance of tradition and pride in supporting HBCU programs.
Finally, if another student player ever replies, “I don’t know ANY.”
Boy, do I have an answer now…