SI Vault
Richard W. Johnston
November 13, 1972
'I can't tell you the happiness,' Sugar Ray said. There were cheers, certainly, when he left retirement to box a benefit, but it was the kids who turned on the real Ray
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November 13, 1972

'the Best Years Of My Life'

'I can't tell you the happiness,' Sugar Ray said. There were cheers, certainly, when he left retirement to box a benefit, but it was the kids who turned on the real Ray

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Perhaps the strongest endorsement comes from the black community. Talmadge Spratt of Douglass House in Watts, who worked for three years with Budd Schulberg on his writers' workshops there, says: "Sugar Ray has moved into the 'what's happening' category. Nobody criticizes him now. If a foundation with black roots is phony, it usually folds in a year. Ray is getting the support of the black community—he really has somethin' goin'."

Millie's encompassing love seems even to have tamed the champion who was once thought to be—and perhaps was—a relentless womanizer. Not, of course, that he's gone blind. Strong girls tremble when he appears and he loves it. "I haven't got that old yet," he told Tom Moran, a local magazine writer, "and I don't think there's any law for contempt of thought."

What does Sugar Ray live on? As he is quick to tell you, taxes took a great deal of the $4 million he supposedly squandered. "I did buy a lot of champagne," he says, grinning, "but I never drank none of it. Never drank anything." But he is not broke. He still keeps the Riverside Drive apartment in New York (his mother lives there now), and he gets occasional television and movie assignments. Recently he launched a construction company and he and Millie get some income from a small apartment house in the West Adams area.

Which leaves only Wright Fillmore—Uncle Wright. Vital statistics: born in Texas, attended Wiley College, played professional football with Providence in the early '20s, went to work for Southern Pacific in 1923 and retired 40 years later as "Head Instructing Waiter." Uncle Wright's life is an open book, except for one page. He isn't Millie's uncle. "Uncle Wright and his wife were my parents' best friends," Millie says. "When they died, I just naturally came to them. He'll always be Uncle Wright to me." Given sufficient exposure, Wright Fillmore might be Uncle Wright to anybody anywhere—a Chinese in Peking, a bullfighter in Madrid, even a white settler in Salisbury, Rhodesia. He could be the uncle of us all.

It is Saturday morning in Watts and Sugar and Uncle Wright and Mel and David Coleman, a dynamic young schoolteacher from New Jersey who has been hired to supervise the foundation programs, have come down to Drew Junior High School to check on a games-and-workshop program begun only three weeks before. The concrete playground, interrupted at intervals by basketball backboard posts, is strewn with broken glass. Forty or more black kids are playing basketball or flag football on the one unpaved section. Inside, a number of black girls are present to learn various skills, from basket-weaving to the Hula Hoop.

A weak sun penetrates the smog but it does not bring much joy. This is one of the more disadvantaged sections of Watts. Uncle Wright, in a felt hat and a blue Sugar Ray sweat shirt, tosses a Softball to a tiny girl in a red dress, a girl who cannot speak or hear and is barely big enough to swing a bat at Wright's gentle pitches. Coleman, who taught at this very school last year, points to a teenager among the football players. "Last year that kid was a real bad egg," he says. "In and out of correctional institutions, real trouble. Now he's out there learning to play a game. And by the rules, too."

"Those are the ones we want to reach," Sugar Ray says softly. Mrs. Leonie Hays, a neighborhood matron employed by Pacific Press, has volunteered to teach the workshops. "This is a great thing—a great thing," she says, almost fiercely. "Cooperate! That's what these kids are learning to do. Cooperate! See all that glass? That's going to be cleaned up, and they goin' to do it."

For a moment Sugar Ray stands alone. "This foundation is my destiny," he says. "I never been anything but an American. I want to help all kids, not just black kids. I don't believe in racial movements, I won't put down the militants, but I don't want any part of that. This foundation is open to all disadvantaged kids—regardless of color or creed. I mean that," he says, perhaps aware of the slightly prefabricated sound of the sentence. As Mel Zolkover notes later, this surely is Sugar Ray's intention, but the programs—now enrolling about 4,000 youngsters in 10 schools, with 15 more to be added soon, as well as a branch operation in San Francisco (one already has been started in Las Vegas)—thus far have attracted about 80% blacks. "After all," says Zolkover, "it is the black kids who need it most."

An hour later, the Watts school checked out, the king and his modern court—dedicated to helping rather than hell-raising—are back at the foundation to participate in a TV film-clip screening for the 19-hour telethon Sugar will offer over Los Angeles stations later this month ( Bob Hope is the honorary chairman). The annex is full of excited youngsters, boys and girls, and out on the wide floor a tiny, dolled-up 3-year-old named Darius Lawrence is successfully spinning three Hula Hoops. Sugar Ray leans over him, hands on knees, his eyes brimming with delight, the marvelous smile shining like white neon. "Hey!" he yells. "Watch this little boy! Watch this little boy!"

Whoever that was in New York, this is the real Sugar Ray.

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