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'."
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."
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
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.