BLACK MAGIC which originally aired on ESPN in 2008 is finally available on DVD. It’s the story of basketball at historically black colleges, the coaches who lead these programs, and the players who played for them. Some, such as Winston Salem State star Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Grambling’s Willis Reed would find fame in the NBA, but most languished in obscurity, largly ignored my mainstream historians and sportswriters.
Black players weren’t allowed to play in the NBA until 1950, when Earl Lloyd became the first player to play in an NBA game, and even in the years after there were unspoken quotas that mandated that no team could have more than a few African-Americans on their roster.
The film begins with details of a secret basketball game played in Durham, N.C. on a Sunday morning in 1944. Held in a locked gym with no fans to witness it. Pionerring African-American coach John McLendon (who was in many ways the father of black college basketball), one of the games great innovators, led his fast-breaking team from the North Carolina College for Negroes iagainst an intramural squad from Duke University’s medical school. The game was illegal and unsanctioned. McLendon’s team ran Duke off the court 88-44.
McLendon is one of the most important figures in BLACK MAGIC, not only because of his many innovations and accomplishments, but because he served as mentor and role model for so many of the players and coaches profiled. Clarence “Big House” Gaines, the iconic coach won won more than 800 games, and coached Monroe and Cleo Hill, the first player from a historically black college to be chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft, who was one of the best, if not the best players of his era, but who was blackballed from the NBA because of resentment from white players.
Ben Jobe one of the most compelling figures in the film, a star at Fisk University, and a coach Southern Unversity and an assistant at Georgia Tech and the University of South Carolina, who was denied the opportunity to coach at a major college because of his race. Perry Wallace, the Vanderbilt star who was the first black player in the SEC.
Harold Hunter the first African American to sign an NBA contract and McClendon’s assistant. Bob “Butterbean Love, the Southern University star, and legendary rival of Willis Reed, who achieved All-NBA status with the Chicago Bulls, but who was unable to find work after he retired because of his severe speech impediment.
John Chaney, known by many as the long time coach of the Temple Owls, who starred at Bethune Cookman college, but was forced to play in the Eastern League because there were so few spots for African Americans in the NBA. He later turned to coaching because of the lack of playing opportunities and led Divison II Cheyney State to a Nation Championship, before ascending to his post at Temple.
The film interweaves historical events such as the “Orangeburg Massacre”, the shooting three students on the campus of South Carolina State by the National Guard during a peaceful civil right protest, an event, which preceded the shooting at Kent State, that was under reported and largley forgotten because it took place at a historically black college.
Normally I find talking head oriented documentaries to be dull and uninspired. However BLACK MAGIC is blessed with some amazing interview subjects, particularly Ben Jobe and Bob Love, who’s stories are especially moving, even if you have no interest in basketball. As a result the film feels very much like an oral history, effortlessly weaving together the stories of more than a dozen of these coaches and athletes who came of age at historically black colleges with some amazing archival footage.