Much has been written about the controversial subject of Rus Bradburd’s new book, Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson but I was, as usual, interested in the local angle. What does a book about the great college basketball coach who challenged discriminatory practices have to do with Chicago, and in particular, my old neighborhood, Hollywood Park?
More than you’d expect.
Bradburd and I haven’t met in person, but I emailed him anyways. It took two phrases and a time frame to establish we had a lot in common.
Von Steuben…Hollywood Park…early 1970s.
I started at Von as a freshman in 1970 and after two years transferred to a different high school. Bradburd was a freshman in 1972 and after two years moved to a different state. We both spent a ridiculous amount of time at Hollywood Park, Bradburd playing basketball, and me, well, hanging out.
I’m not an athlete or a sports writer. By Chicago standards, I’m barely a sports fan. But I enjoyed Bradburd’s book. It isn’t just about Nolan Richardson and basketball. This is a moving story about the cost of standing up for what you believe in. It’s also a lesson in American history, starting with the stories Coach Richardson’s grandmother told him about her parents, who had been slaves in Louisiana.
Basketball at Von
Bradburd reminded me that in the early 1970s the Chicago Board of Education didn’t have a citywide integration plan. Students went to neighborhood schools, which were almost entirely segregated. If a local school was overcrowded or inferior in some respect, students could apply to transfer to a better school under the Permissive Transfer program.
Most African-American students came to Von from the West Side and, as Bradburd and I recall, we all got along well. As a sophmore, Bradburd played on the Frosh-Soph team and remembers guys giving each other nicknames, visiting each other’s homes, and showing admiration for each other. He credits Coach Frank Hood for making the integrated group bond as a team.
When Bradburd attended his class’s 30th reunion a few years ago, he also went to a team reunion. “You would have thought we had been city champs. That’s how we felt about each other.”
Von alum and Chicago sports announcer Les Grobstein attended Von in the late 1960s when the school was newly integrated. He also did the PA for Panther games. “Integration was the best thing that ever happened to Von,” he told me. “We came from lily-white neighborhoods and at Von we had the chance to become good friends with African-American kids. I’d say Von was successfully integrated.”
Von’s basketball team hadn’t won a city title since 1938, Grobstein told me. No North Side public school had. By 1970, African-American transfer students made up more than half of Von’s varsity team and they beat Von’s historic rival, Roosevelt High School, for first place in their section, Red North.
Basketball at Hollywood Park
Outside school, the place to play ball in our neighborhood was Hollywood Park. Guys came from Von, Roosevelt, Mather and even suburban Niles West. Bradburd remembers pickup games were played full-court across the width, rather than the length, of the court. “It was a rapid-fire game and you had to think and play fast. If you lost, sometimes you had to wait an hour or more to play again.”
Grobstein remembers the fights. “Some of the Hollywood Park guys would say to people from outside the area, “You’re not from around here.” It wasn’t racial tension, just old-time Chicago neighborhood tactics.
These days, there isn’t as much of an “around here” attitude. Most Chicago public high school students do what our Von classmates from the West Side did: they take public transportation from one part of the city to another part of the city to go school.
Basketball in the Barrio
Speaking of neighborhoods, every June for the past 18 years Bradburd’s been coaching a basketball camp for kids in Segundo Barrio in South El Paso, where Coach Richardson grew up. Segundo Barrio is one of the poorest communities in the country, so the fee is only a dollar and basketball is only one-third of the program. The rest of the time is devoted to life skills. Bradburd and former UTEP guard Steve Yellin started the program when Bradburd was an assistant coach at UTEP. One day Coach Richardson showed up, asking to talk to the kids, and that was the start of the conversations that led to Bradburd’s book.
Resources: Visit Rus Bradburd’s website for more information about his career as a basketball coach and for links to his books. For more about Basketball in the Barrio, here’s an article by Dave Zirin.
You can hear Les Grobstein calling Chicago Sky Games, Chicago Rush Games, and he’s on Radio 670/The Score five nights a week. His website is at GrobberNet.
For another perspective on integration at Von Steuben just a couple years later, check out Danny Miller’s blogpost.
Read more Chicago Book Reviews.