In Harlem they stomp out into the winter chill four times a week and glide over the ice. It is like a photographic negative of a typical high school hockey game: Three dozen black kids circling two rinks at the north end of Central Park, whacking each other's ankles with hockey sticks, flopping on their bellies and rising back up on their blades. Hockey in Harlem, a schoolwork-and-slap-shots program, has been running games for a decade. With 275 kids ranging in age from four to 18, it is operating at full capacity.
"People tell me hockey is a white person's sport and I shouldn't play," says one of the players, Feliz Cameron, 15. "They say, 'Why do it? You're not going to make it.' But I'm proving them wrong."
Even as many young white males, faced with the black dominance of basketball and football, try to find their footing outside the athletic mainstream, blacks are casting an ambitious eye on traditionally white sports such as hockey, gymnastics and swimming. "Nobody is giving us anything," says Philadelphia Department of Recreation coach Jim Ellis, whose inner-city swimming program produced Virginia senior Jason Webb, one of the fastest backstrokers in the nation. "We're working for it."
That blacks have overcome—or are overcoming—barriers to success in all sports is welcome news, but some African-Americans view it as a mixed blessing. "Blacks have always played the games," says Thomas Elkins, former track and field coach at John Marshall High in Cleveland. "The slave master used to watch the slaves play games to amuse himself. Fifty years after Jackie Robinson, we've progressed to the point that we're still athletes and entertainers, we're just better paid."
Elkins and others worry that too many of today's black youths unrealistically focus on becoming professional athletes. Although any given high school starter has only the slimmest chance of making the pros, 55% of the middle-school-age and high-school-age black males polled by SI (compared with 20% of the white males) think they may be good enough to play pro basketball. Some 49% (compared with 27% of whites) believe they could reach the NFL.
"It's hard to break that train," says Walt Frazier, football coach at Miami's Carol City High. "The kids are still looking at the popularity, the financial security of pro sports, even though statistics say you have a greater chance of being a rocket scientist." When SI's poll asked students to pick from a list of careers the ones they thought they could successfully pursue, 57% of black males chose "professional athlete." Pro sports was the only career selected more often by blacks than by whites or Latinos. By contrast, in assessing their ability to enter fields other than sports, black males were the least likely to believe they could succeed in careers requiring higher education. "I've tried to stress education to my kids, to other kids," says San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, "but it seems like excelling in school is so much harder than throwing a ball through a hoop or running with a football."
Impoverished black teens aren't the only ones who aspire to a sports career. "My son is 16, with a near genius IQ," says Molefi Asanti, former chairman of African-American Studies at Temple, "and all he wants to be is the next Michael Jordan."
Former major league pitcher Dave Stewart, now the Padres' pitching coach, agrees that black youngsters put too much emphasis on spoils. But he also knows that when he was growing up in a poor neighborhood in Oakland, spoils made him feel better about school and gave him a life. "If athletics is what we're going to be good at, and the one thing we can be the majority at, the one thing in which we can set up our businesses and families and pass [the wealth] on—so be it," Stewart says. "Right now it's spoils, but we're seeing a lot more black people in government, more black doctors, more black lawyers. You've got to begin somewhere."
Perhaps as more blacks become successful in other fields, their children will need and want sports less. Not long ago Isiah Thomas, the NBA great and former Toronto Raptors vice president, was talking with Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith—two African-American millionaires discussing their kids. Smith told Thomas he would never let his three-year-old son, Alston, play football: It's too painful, too rough.
"My son plays violin, and he plays golf," Thomas said. "Basketball? He likes to watch it, loves going to games. But I've got a gym in my house, and he doesn't necessarily want to use it. But he'll play his violin all day."