There's never been another sports drama like The White Shadow. For one thing, most of the actors had played organized hoops, so the action was realistic. For another, the program tackled tough issues—a teenage character's learning his girlfriend is a prostitute, for example. But for me, then a preteen, the show stood out for its touchstone qualities: Shadow (seen these days on ESPN Classic) provided a common mythology for me and my friends growing up on Long Island, N.Y., in the late 70s.
Guided by the White Shadow himself, coach Ken Reeves (played by Ken Howard), the mostly black team from Carver High included Coolidge, the goofy center with a third-grade reading level; Hayward, Carver's best player, whose smarts allow him to escape conviction after each of his 17 arrests; Thorpe, the team wag ("Remember," he once said, "Naomi spelled backward is I moan"); Jackson, a shades-and-beret-wearing dope smoker who doesn't practice because he "might get stale"; and Salami, the most prominent white guy.
We used their moves on our driveway courts and quoted them in school and set ourselves in front of the TV on Monday nights. I'll never forget the high-water shows: Thorpe's sleeping with Coolidge's girl and getting syphilis, the team's forming the band Shower of Power, Jackson's getting shot. Nor will I forget the immortal lines we co-opted. "You're like a White Shadow," we'd say to one another on the playground, even though we knew there was only one.