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Not long ago Melvin Rogers was sitting at his desk in the Eula D. Britton High School when the telephone rang. "It was Elvin calling long distance," says Coach Rogers. "He had just signed the contract with the San Diego team, and he wanted to know what the kids needed back home. I asked him, 'Elvin, what helped you the most in school?' He said, 'The recreation program. What does it need?' I said, 'Well, we have an old building here that could be turned into a recreation hall. And we need a hard-surface court with basketball nets all around.'
"And you know what Elvin said? Well, if you do know him I don't have to tell you. He said, 'Wait right there, Coach, wait right there! You'll have baskets all over the place!' " Elvin Hayes wants to save the remaining water elms in the quiet town of his childhood.
In his determination to work among the Negro poor, to unlock the tongues of mumbly-jumbly black children in the South, Elvin Hayes is typical of the new Negro athlete, whose commitments extend far beyond a lime-washed goal line or an outfield fence 356 feet away. But in other respects the Elvin Hayes story can be misleading. It can be cited, in fact, to buttress certain theories that have been used to keep the Negro in bondage since the Emancipation Proclamation. A white traveling salesman in Tupelo, Miss, makes the case on behalf of millions of racists: "Look at that Elvin Hayes. Started with nothing. Family had nothing. Came from the deep South, where we're supposed to be mistreating the Nigras. And look what happens? He gets a college education and a $440,000 deal. It just goes to show you: a Nigra can get ahead if he tries. Trouble is, most of them would rather sit around collecting welfare checks."
It is perfectly true that the Negro "can get ahead if he tries"—if the Negro is like Elvin Hayes, if he has an iron-willed mother like Savannah Hayes and a hardworking father like the late Chris Hayes, if he sprouts to 80 inches in height and has a fanatical determination to shoot baskets, if he has a patient coach like Melvin Rogers and an inspiration like the Rev. Dr. John Calvin, if he gets enough to eat, if he is not weakened by pellagra or worms, if he does not fall from rheumatic fever or pneumonia or any of the other diseases that seem to concentrate on Negro children, and a dozen or so other "ifs." If the chain of "ifs" is not broken at any point an Elvin Hayes may be produced. The yawning gulf that separates whites from blacks may be crossed.
This gulf between the races is dimly understood, even by many with bona fide intellectual credentials. The so-called liberals tend to look on Negroes as Americans who are exactly the same as whites except for pigmentation and a few minor physical characteristics. Give the Negro the chance to get into college, they say, and he will prove that there is no other difference; give the Negro the same job as a white man and the end product will be identical. Sadly, this approach breaks down as often as it holds up. The Negro is different, because the cultural deprivation that is visited upon the Negro child from the cradle onward has had its inevitable effect by the time of college or job-seeking.
John Novotny, the athletic counselor at the University of Kansas, entertains no illusions about the extent of this cultural gulf. "You go to their houses and there's not a single book," Novotny says. "People forget: it's a white pastime to have a bookshelf. White people can't seem to realize the environments these boys come from. It's easier to sit back and say they're inherently stupid, racially inferior, than it is to confront this problem and see it whole and do something about it."
Few Negroes are willing to discuss the cultural gulf; they prefer to pretend that it does not exist. The Negro has been called stupid for so many generations that he is supersensitive about allusions to matters like his reading speed, his spelling, his cultural background. KU's back, Don Shanklin, never read a book until he got to college. Harry Gunner of Oregon State had read one: The Willie Mays Story. Willie McDaniel, a KU tackle, cannot recall reading a real book, "But I did read some comic books. No, come to think of it I mostly just looked at the pictures."
The simple fact is that the black athlete who enters a white college must cram his belated education into four hectic years. He must make up for black secondary school systems that are underfinanced, understaffed and markedly inferior, and he must excel on the playing field all the while.
Shanklin talks about his "separate-but-equal" high school in Amarillo: "We had all the titles. We had a Spanish teacher, a trig and algebra and geometry teacher, a physics teacher, all the titles. But the trig teacher couldn't teach trig. She didn't have the background. There was a boy in my class used to get up and teach it sometimes; he was supposed to be helping the teacher, but he wound up doing more teaching than she did. In English it was the same way, except we didn't have no kid to help out. In my senior year of English we wrote one theme. It was the only writing I ever did before I came to college. My theme was on What Christmas Means to Me. Mostly I emphasized the toys and gifts and the holiday from school."
Mike Garrett has bad memories of his first days on the campus of the University of Southern California. "I was prepared only for football. I couldn't read and write as well as my classmates. How could I compete with students who had gone to high school in Beverly Hills, places like that?"