How I Integrated Basketball in Chicago | Essay | Chicago Reader

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How I Integrated Basketball in Chicago

(And it wan'st nearly as hard as it sounds.)

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Don't ask me how I was anointed with the captaincy of the Von Humboldt elementary school 1948-49 basketball team. Any possible explanation long ago made its jailbreak through a crumbling cell wall of my memory.

First let's eliminate Jordan-esque athleticism as a reason. My vertical leap didn't scale the altitude of the average armadillo's, and at five-foot-two and 92 pounds my presence didn't exactly dispatch gulps to my opponents' gizzards. So I figure maybe my leadership status was conferred on me by my irrepressible brass. In short, I had a big mouth.

Don't ask me either how I've somehow managed to recall the starting five I cobbled at season's launch. I just have. And they were:

1. Forward Bobby Everson, who grew from five-two to five-eight in one summer break, ascribing his mutant sprouting (but somehow not the belligerent spectrum of pimples blotching his face) to a diet of bananas and raspberry ripple ice cream.

2. Forward Robert Iwonski, five-four in his dirty-stockinged feet--but five-seven if you counted his formidable Russian brush, a stand of immovably Brylcreemed hair, each filament ascending in perfect perpendicularity to his aircraft-carrier-flat cranium, as if snapped to military attention.

3. Guard Shelly Goodman, five-three, whose irreproachable shooting form presented me with my young life's baptismal example of style without substance. Balanced as his shooting stance was, impeccable as his splayed follow-through was, glorious as his school-yard shot arc was, Shelly never managed to sink a basket at any of the season's opportunities. To make matters worse, he dribbled more than an overfed infant.

4. Me (see paragraph 2).

5. Center Arnie Orleans, five-eleven. Nicknamed "Mikan" after De Paul's six-nine Hall of Fame center because both were bespectacled, spectacular at scoring, and tall for their age, Arnie parted similarity with George Mikan on one score. Mikan occasionally passed the ball to a teammate. As the certified star of the team, Arnie figured such an act was beneath him.

You might describe the site of the Humboldt Park-area elementary school basketball tournament--the second floor of the Deborah Boys Club at Division and Western--as a toy court. Originally constructed as a small boxing gym, it later doubled as a paltry, pitiable basketball court. That this makeshift's length and width were about two-thirds the size of a regulation court, we could manage well enough. But owing to the low-slung ceiling, the baskets rose to the pitiless, scrawny height of nine feet. Unless we altered our customary school-yard loops into near line drives, the basketball would wallop the ornate ceiling and bang ingloriously onto the varnished floor, yards away from the intended target. Hitting the ceiling with a shot happened often enough so that nobody's emotional state hit the ceiling as a consequence. The player nearest the ball would simply rescue it and continue playing as if the shot had been batted away by a ten-foot-tall center. (Now that I think of it, it may have been the repeated low trajectory that was Shelly Goodman's athletic undoing, hurtling him unwittingly into bad shooting habits and permanently blighting his game, hitherto so dependent on the mortar shell's arc of his school-yard shot. Poor Shelly Goodman, shrunk by the shrunken dimensions of the Deborah Boys Club gym into a wretched 13-year-old has-been.)

The gym also hosted the annual Deborah Boys' Club Golden Gloves boxing tournament, where my timorous, trembly figure had been shoved into a ring by what is today called peer group pressure but was then known as shame over being called "chicken" by your buddies. In the game between Fear of Shame and Fear of a Punch or Two in the Nose, our working-class culture dictated that the latter get trumped. And so, in my 11th and 12th years on this planet, I bobbed, weaved, ducked, dodged, bounced, ran, jabbed occasionally, and prayed profusely for an eternity of six boxing minutes each year, roundly losing--by the unanimous decree of the judges--all six rounds. Naturally, after each match I wore the masks of, first, sullen outrage, then, abject despondency, each mask shrouding the surge of euphoric relief I felt over having placated my friends without being forced to advance in the tournament, thus to endure another six minutes in that squared-off torture chamber of rope, canvas, and the sweat of fear.

One who was manifestly devoid of even a strand of fear was my fellow Von Humboldt student, Harold Dillinger. So adroit a boxer was Dillinger that he skated through five or six annual tournaments without allowing so much as one challenger to raise the wimpiest welt on his rippling hide; nor did he permit one challenger to see the end of the third round. What's more, this black prince of pugilism excoriated his opponents not with malice but with impassive, remorseless art--swiftly gunning his ack-ack of jabs, smoothly slipping feckless lunges, smartly counterpunching with blinding combinations, bedazzling one and all with his footwork, till the referee--usually in the first round--called a merciful TKO halt to the mismatch and raised Dillinger's right arm in roaring victory as the wobbly adversary slouched off to his corner, muttering dim, self-reproaching invectives on the long, weary way back.

Along about now you're likely to be wondering how a black kid wound up attending school in a white, working-class neighborhood. Along with a small cluster of other African-American youths, Dillinger owed his presence at Von Humboldt to a then prevalent practice of unscrupulous, panic-mongering real estate investors. The practice was called blockbusting. Its aim was--through establishing black residency on a given block--to startle whites into selling their homes at well below market value. Somehow the scheme didn't work in Humboldt Park, thanks probably to the fact that property values were so low to begin with. Consequently the neighborhood's small black enclave of apartment buildings never widened beyond one small stretch of Western Avenue.

So there squatted Von Humboldt School, integrated before anybody in the neighborhood had even heard of the word. More remarkable was the fact that never in my time at the school did I observe--or even hear rumor of--an incidence of racial tension. Perhaps it was because there were so few blacks. More likely it was because of our collective awe of Harold Dillinger, not to mention our deference to his older cousin, Joseph Lee, himself a Deborah Boys Club boxing champion in a heavier weight class. Joseph wore a less iridescent reputation. He was seen as largely unconquerable, while his younger relative was considered wholly indestructible. In a neighborhood whose highest medal of honor was fighting mettle, the two cousins were enshrined with abiding respectability and deathless respect. Dillinger's pugilistic standing notwithstanding, he never bullied a soul. In the school yard he was as self-effacing as is the most timid of sissies (today known as nerds). And apart from palling around with his cousin Joseph, he pretty much kept his own stoic company. Indeed, I can't remember Harold Dillinger ever getting in a school-yard brawl. After all, what fool would dare detonate bare-fisted fisticuffs with a young man whose fists wreaked such furious force--even when the fury was compromised by the clemency of thick padding?

Meanwhile, around the time the Von Humboldt basketball team had been marching in place toward an uninspiring 2-2 won-lost record, rumor had been broadly strewn regarding Big Stashu and his gang of hulking thugs from the Saint Aloysius basketball team. Word was that the infamous Big Stashu was severely allergic to loss and would break out in a red-hot rash of violence at the first outbreak of defeat. "If you beat Saint Aloysius, Big Stashu beats you up," ran the riff of alert.

Scanning the schedule and noting that our showdown with--and the tortuously reasonable prospect of triumph over--Saint Aloysius lay an achingly short four weeks away, I grasped that it now fell upon me, the captain of our capsizing fellowship, to consider what countermeasures could be seized in order to thwart the menace of the amply muscled, eagle-beaked, seismic-tempered, universally reviled terrorist Big Stashu and his swaggering gang of four. The 2-2 Saint Aloysius team, you see, wasn't nearly as tough to beat on the court as it was tough on the street. And our craven little quintet, though clearly demonstrating spunk on the court, stunk on the street.

I labored in a rumination stoked by existential dread. Soon a solution to our disquieting dilemma blinked on. At the age of 13 I made my first unilateral executive decision. I would assemble a prefabricated defense system of staggering magnitude by recruiting for the home team the sole soul in the neighborhood more fearsome than Big Stashu--that one-man stampede, that irresistible force and immovable object in one, that terrible thunderbolt Harold Dillinger.

As I anxiously approached Harold Dillinger at recess the next day, I carried with me brittle hope and the approbatory regard for Dillinger's race that had been shaped for me by family and family friends:

My mother, a four-nine seamstress, was what was called in those days a deaf-mute and is today known by the ambiguous euphemism "hearing impaired." So it's not much of a cognitive jump to figure that, as with the black women of the time, her career opportunities were severely choked. Yet she was thankful to be employed as a seamstress in one of the Franklin Street sweatshops. On the occasions my sister and I visited her at work our eyes would come awash in a sea of chocolate-shaded faces intently slung over churning sewing machines, the monochrome of the seascape broken by a solitary whitecap: my mother's clenched kisser. Witnessing my mother, the seamstress, working so seamlessly with her salutary black colleagues sculpted my first image of black people. They were my mother's peers and thus mine. Moreover, when I saw my mother's black ILGWU comrades treating her with unflagging solicitousness and endless empathy for her disability, my second impression formed. Black people were kind as well.

My Uncle Hank, a Wallace-voting soft-core socialist, in railing against America's social and economic malignities would often include in his polemics "the terrible persecution of Negroes," although, I'm embarrassed to confess for him, he did refer to them as "happy-go-lucky folks." Yet after doing the addition I was left with the sum opinion that--like the deaf--black people were overlooked, undervalued underdogs.

Our deaf-mute next-door neighbor, former prizefighter Joe Hertzberg, held longtime reign as a neighborhood hero. In today's more sensitive society it seems impossible to believe that he had fought--in the 1920s and '30s--under the name "Dummy Jordan," the sobriquet doled out to him by a boxing promoter with the apathy of an Ellis Island official and the sensitivity of a urinal. With such disdain stabbed into him by the boxing establishment it's not hard to figure out why Joe had been denied so much as one title shot, despite the fact that for years he had been ranked as the number one contender for the lightweight title of the world. Anyway, Joe, who had yielded two daughters as his only issue, viewed me (the progeny of a deaf marriage) as a kind of surrogate son and so took me on as his earnest--but failing--boxing student. During the course of my lessons he would frequently allude to his own paradigm of good boxing and clean living, Joe Louis. So, via the revered Joe Hertzberg, another favorable imprint of black people was stamped into my moral registry.

My Yiddish-speaking grandmother, who saw no real distinction between "Schvartzes" (a term that, for her, bore no pejorative freight) and "Polaken" or "Italianers" or "Litvaks." She classified them all equally as Gentiles and, as such, citizens of a friendly foreign power, with the underscore on foreign.

Naturally, growing up I heard the N-word spitting out from toxic tongues from time to time, but to a large measure I had been immunized from the virulence by my primary influences and so paid little heed. I didn't know for certain whether or not I was a rare exception among white working-class kids, but it grieves me to say today that I probably was.

And so, my luggage of respect in hand, I found my eighth-grader self facing seventh-grader Harold Dillinger on the gravel of the Von Humboldt school-yard.

"Hi, Harold," I said with a defrosting smile.

"Hi," he returned agreeably.

"Wanna be on the school basketball team?" I asked with faux nonchalance.

"Sure," he answered with an insouciant shrug.

That was it! All of it! That was the watershed moment! There were no reporters present, no fanfare, no fireworks, no ceremony, no speeches. Just two kids stumbling. A monumental insemination of social change, caught in a small, vanilla time capsule of mundane exchange.

Truth is, my vision of social forces was so blurred, my level of political consciousness so low, that the relevance of the seminal moment sidestepped my notice. And I suspect the same was true for Harold Dillinger.

I then simply informed Harold of the time and place our next game was to take place.

As I walked off snuggled rapturously under my team's bright new panoply, a swift realization called on me. On his climb to the roster Harold Dillinger had bypassed any form of tryout. Moreover, I had no idea whether or not Harold Dillinger could actually play basketball. Who knows, on that luminescent, turning-point day in the late 1940s I may have breathed life into the chrysalis of affirmative action.

A couple of days later Harold Dillinger showed up to our tussle with Lafayette school, to my knowledge the first black student athlete to play on a Chicago elementary school team otherwise composed of white student athletes.

I wish I could report that Harold Dillinger dazed us with his athletic virtuosity and propelled our team to the championship. But the disenchanting fact is, he turned out to be an average basketball player.

I wish I could denounce the other teams for hurling racial epithets at--or attempting bodily harm to--Harold Dillinger. But the yawning fact is, no such conflagrations singed our season. By my reckoning the other teams' players knew who Harold was and didn't dare mess with him.

I wish I could detail the great clash of the Titans after our game with Saint Aloysius--their execrable earthquake, Big Stashu, versus our inexorable tsunami, Harold Dillinger. Or gleefully describe how Big Stashu cowered before the prospect of rumbling with Harold Dillinger and slunk away into the shadows of his self-inflicted disgrace. But the pale fact is, in the struggle between our two middle-of-the-pack teams, Saint Aloysius won by eight points. And the only exchange between the two supreme gladiators was an inscrutably dispassionate glance or two.

Finally, I wish this denouement were suffused with the high drama of stirred conscience and embattled wills. But the flumping fact is, when Harold Dillinger and I strode arm-in-arm in our blinkered march past that milestone on the road of social progress, nobody else showed up for the march.

Today, looking back into the slipstream of the last half century, I'm still missing a theory on what Harold Dillinger was thinking. But I do realize that my motive--fear of Big Stashu--for being a catalyst of integration was, er, less than noble.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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