Gary Franks: Black History Month – The ‘basketballist’

I am a blessed man. I am an American. I am a Black American, a descendant of slaves who has been granted the vast opportunities this country has to offer. Praise God. It did not have to be this way.

In 1870, George Washington Petteway, my great grandfather and a minister to his fellow slaves, convinced former slave owners to give him a small piece of land on which to build a church and school. It would permit him along with his wife – Cecilia White Petteway – to establish the first school for former slaves in their region in North Carolina.

Also, it is highly likely that Rep. George White, the last Black member of Congress in the 19th Century, was a distant cousin as he was my great grandparents’ congressman.

I did not come from a broken family or single parent household. I had two hard working parents. My father could not read or write, but my mother was a “self-proclaimed” outstanding student who completed high school.

I had two sisters who were grade school teachers while I was at home. So, I had home schooling as well as great public schooling at the same time. How could I not get excellent grades?

As the youngest of six, I had role models. My three sisters had either PhDs or JDs and one of my brothers was a Colonel in the Army while the other was a school teacher and sports coach.

With God, arduous work, and a supportive family, all I had to do was believe in myself, treat others like you would want to be treated, never blame others, have faith and be thankful for my achievements.

As I told the Congressional Black Caucus at our first meeting, no one except Rep. John Lewis had faced the kind of racism that I had encountered in life. In an ordeal that lasted for months, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of our house, made death threats via telephone against our family nightly, shot our dog to death on our lawn, and placed a bleeding dead possum in our mailbox. All this did not stop until the FBI apprehended the Klansmen involved.

But my mother convinced me as a child that most people, the vast majority, are not racists. My going to Yale, getting hired by Fortune 500 companies, being elected to Congress (in 92% white district), teaching as a college professor, becoming a lobbyist/consultant, and now writer – a nationally syndicated columnist – is all proof of that.

I never wanted anything because I was Black, but I did not want to be denied an opportunity to compete, because I was Black either.

Last year Yale University established the “Gary Franks Papers & Journals” archive in the Yale Special Collection at the Beinecke Library.

I say facetiously, I may have been a “basketballist” (a made-up word).

Whenever I saw a white guy walk onto the basketball court, I immediately prejudged that person. First, I did not pick him to be on my team. In fact, none of my friends would “want” to pick the white guy either. After all, we wanted to win, and we just “knew” he could not play well enough to help us win. But we would not prohibit him from playing. Then we would be racists.

The white guy was the last guy picked. And we did not care how tall he was.

No, I did not feel he belonged. I thought that he should have just gone to his own neighborhood to play in a “rec” league. He would feel more comfortable there.

Yet the white guy who had the courage and the ability would not be fazed despite being the last guy picked, or should I say – left. He had to handle the pushing and shoving, the fouls that nobody called – after all, it was a pick-up game on the playground, which meant no blood, no foul.

As fate would have it, the white player got a steal and dribbled the ball down the court for a layup. We all thought that “white guys” can’t jump. And then the unthinkable, the unimaginable happened. The white guy leaped high in the air and did a two-handed slam dunk.

Everyone’s mouths dropped in amazement. His teammates rushed to him to give him a high-five. He could not hide his elation but quickly realized that he had to remain cool and modest, as other observers did not relish his success.

For the white guy, he did not need or want everyone to like him. He just wanted everyone to respect him, allow him to compete, and be fair.

Now let us reverse roles and call the game of basketball “life” for Black people – in a country dominated by white people.

Being a basketballist in the 1970s was a sign of ignorance. I would soon come to respect white basketball players (not prejudge them). In fact, many white players with proper training and hard work often beat me at my game.

In the game of life, I hope that people of all colors can relate to this example and if need be, change their behavior.

In basketball we have had some great white players and in life Black people have made major contributions to society. All we all want is an opportunity to compete fairly.

Believe me, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Pistol Pete Maravich, Luka Doncic, Dirk Nowitzki and the “Joker” Nikola Jokic did not need or want any “preferred treatment” by the referees to be Hall of Fame caliber basketball stars.

The NBA has waged, however, an aggressive “recruitment” effort to find top European (white) players as they realize the “added value” they bring to the game.

Hmm… lesson learned.

Gary Franks served three terms as U.S. representative for Connecticut’s 5th District. He was the first Black Republican elected to the House in nearly 60 years and New England’s first Black member of the House. He’s host of the podcast “We Speak Frankly” and author of “With God, For God, and For Country.” Reach him on Twitter @GaryFranks. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.