Walter Dukes recalls that when he joined Detroit in the 1950s, "Blacks could not be shooters, because it was the white fans who supported the game. The whites were the scorers. I was the rebounder and feeder. The plays were set up for the whites to score. Even though in my early years I had a good shooting percentage, I was forced to specialize in rebounding and chasing, to the point that I was constantly in foul trouble.
"The press began to write about me as if I was some kind of clown—the press tends to do this with Negro ballplayers. I remember once the front office sent me to the wrong city for a game, and the press made mc out to be an idiot." In basketball circles that unfortunate image has stuck to Dukes to this day. Since he now has a law degree, a master's degree and an international business, it is unlikely that Dukes was ever an idiot. But his sport always assumed he was.
The indisputable talent of the Negro basketball player has forced a change in some of the old policies. NBA franchises have never been strong. Winning is essential, and it takes Negroes to win. The economics of the matter cannot be escaped. Red Auerbach knew this and showed the way with his use of many-Negro starters on the Boston Celtics. Eventually he made a move that no other major sport has dared: he appointed a Negro, Bill Russell, to succeed him as coach. "Because of this." says Dukes, "pro basketball has begun to realize what competition really means—fair play and a fair chance."
Maybe so, but a lot of Negro players are not as certain as Dukes that attitudes have materially changed. To use the baseball image, they still know that they have to hit 20 points higher than the whites.
Can there be such a thing as a professional sports unit in America that works together and lives together without racial discrimination, or is the problem of prejudice as virulent in sport as it seems to be in every other aspect of American society? The overwhelming evidence is that sport has not been able to lead the way to new attitudes or new accommodations, that it has found no way to divorce itself from the dreary intolerance which is seen in all the other avenues of American life.
There arc two possible exceptions. One is the Celtics, a small squad led by a dynamic, militant black under conditions that hardly would permit internal racism. The other is more interesting, because it involves a sport where the Negroes are still the minority and where the boss is white, which means it more closely approximates conditions in the country as a whole. That team is the Green Bay Packers.
Whenever racial questions are discussed by NFL players, the subject of the Packers arises. In a league beset with racial confrontations, the Packer players get along. Success has something to do with this; a winner always finds life more pleasant than a loser. But more to the point is the attitude of the Packers' remarkable Vince Lombardi.
Aided by the fact that Green Bay is an isolated community with no significant Negro population of its own, Lombardi has insisted that his Packers be a family. "If you're black or white, you're a part of the family," he says. He will permit nothing that is antithetical to this basic notion. "We make no issue over a man's color. I just won't tolerate anybody in this organization, coach or player, making it an issue. We respect every man's dignity, black or white. I won't stand for any movements or groups on our ball club. It comes down to a question of love.... You just have to love your fellow man, and it doesn't matter whether he is black or white. If anything is bothering any of our players—black and white alike—we settle whatever it is right away. If we find something that doesn't fit in with the Packers, we lick it before it starts, that's all."
There is nothing in this particular credo that every coach in the country would not repeat with equal earnestness. The difference is that Lombardi means it, and he enforces his belief as only Lombardi can.
"I can't think of a single racial incident we have had," says All-League Safety Willie Wood. " Green Bay is such a small town that you can't have a difference with a player because you wouldn't have anywhere to go. A lot of credit in past years goes to Em Tunnell and Paul Hornung. Tunnell was a natural leader. The players took to him. He and Hornung were almost inseparable, and Hornung knew no color. Most of the activities of the players centered around these two guys. Lombardi has picked men for the Packers who are bigger than any little racial hatred. We go over to Bart Starr's for dinner. When new players came they saw how Starr from Alabama and Hornung from Kentucky and the others acted. So there was only one way for the new fellows to act, no matter where they were from."