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Monday, April 29, 2019

Danny LaRose: then we ended up killing Nebraska

Danny LaRose
Danny LaRose was arguably the best to ever pad up for the Crystal City Hornets football squad. That is quite a statement about a program as storied as CCHS. The 1957 grad went on to become one of the top linemen in the history of the University of Missouri Tigers. After his 1960 senior year, LaRose, a two way end, was named to several All-American teams. He finished in the top ten in that fall’s Heisman Trophy balloting for top player in the nation, the highest rating that season of any lineman. A first round NFL draft choice of the Detroit Lions, LaRose played offensive tackle for four NFL teams over a seven year career. LaRose retired from a second career, selling medical equipment; and lived the good life with his wife in a riverside log cabin in upstate Michigan until his passing today at the age of 80. 

“Danny was just a big old kid in high school,” remembers CCHS and University of Missouri teammate Dick Cook. “He played in the line and didn’t get a lot of recognition. But when he got to Mizzou, he just took off."

“Coach (Arvel) Popp knew I was on my own a lot and he looked out for me,” LaRose said in a 2016 interview I did with him. “Coach was a hard-nosed old school type of guy. He is one of the most honest people I've ever met. Sometimes he would be too honest, and it could hurt your feelings. But that
Tackling Navy's Heisman Trophy Winner 
Joe Bellino in the 1960 Orange Bowl
honesty was what a kid like me needed to hear. His son, Jerry, was my age and Coach was really hard on the poor guy, use to make him box me in the gym and I was a lot bigger, but I better not let up, either, or coach would have been all over me. But, Coach also had a soft side he tried hard to hide. He knew I needed some special looking after and he saw I got it.”

“For me, growing up in Crystal City, sports were everything,” LaRose recalled. “My mom died when I was 13 and my older sister was in nursing school, so it was just me and my dad at home. Every other week he worked the evening shift over at PPG, so for a week I would not see him, at all. I was always up at the school playing sports for something to do. Once, I was home cooking some  Spaghetti O’s and I forgot it was Friday night and we had a game and the bus pulls up to my house and Coach Popp is yelling at me to get my big dumb butt on the bus.”

“Sports in high school kept me in school, no doubt,” LaRose says. “I just had so much fun in high school. In 1957, Richard
Mel West
Byas and I were a two man track team and we won the state track meet. Richard won both sprints and the hurdles race
and I won the shot and discus. Fifty points between us and it was good enough to win. Richard was so fast, unbelievably fast. His mom had never seen him play football and she finally came to a game one night. Richard scores four touchdowns that game and his mom makes him quit football. Said she never realized it was so rough. Can you believe that? But man, was he fast, fast as anyone I played with in pro ball. Only one who could slow him down, I guess, was his mom.”

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education decision, a ruling that outlawed the racial segregation of the nation’s public schools. As a southern border state, the evil of separate but equal Jim Crow was deeply rooted in rural Missouri’s social norms. Many Missouri school districts initially ignored the federal edict then challenged it in the state courts first, and then the federal courts, often delaying school desegregation in most Missouri rural towns until far into the 1960s. 

In 1955, LaRose's senior year at Crystal City High School, the local district became one of the first in rural Missouri to voluntarily integrate its schools. That fall three newly enrolled black students, Richard Byas, Bennie Evans, Don Riney, joined LaRose and the other white members of the Hornets' football roster. LaRose would credit the experience at CCHS with helping him grow as a man and to deal with the issue of race at a very volatile time of national upheaval and unrest.  

LaRose was an established star player at the University of Missouri in 1958 when St. Louis Vashon High School graduate Norris Stevenson became the first African-American to earn a football scholarship to the state’s flagship university.  Years later, upon his induction to the Missouri Athletic Hall of Fame, Stevenson gave a newspaper interview in which he recalled the positive role LaRose played in Stevenson’s trailblazing and sometimes rocky path as a Tiger. 

Norris Stevenson, Vashon High School
“When I first came to (Missouri) Danny LaRose was a team leader and (he) went out of his way to make me feel welcome,” a still grateful Stevenson remembered. Racism was a constant companion for Stevenson in his years at Mizzou. With many football players from the South on the roster and a campus heavily decorated with the Confederate Flag and a “Dixie gonna do it again” mentality, without the symbolic message the respected LaRose’s actions sent to the rest of the squad, Stevenson feels his road to acceptance, or at least tolerance, would have been much steeper. “It says a lot about LaRose’s character,” said Stevenson. “It wasn’t a popular stance he took with many on the team at the time.” But it was a just stance and LaRose’s actions validate his strong commitment to fairness and equality.

Later in life, LaRose eschews with a cavalier shrug his role in Stevenson’s story and plays down any noble intent on his part in befriending him. “Anybody that knows me, knows I am a big jokester,” LaRose says. “I just liked the guy because he was like me, always kidding around. I am not political and never have been. The other black player on the team at the time was Mel West from Jefferson City. Mel and Norris were two of my best friends on the team. Mel was very light-skinned for a black guy. (LaRose gave West the nickname that would stick with him the rest of his life: Rose Bud.) I had been outside all summer working construction and I was really dark from the sun. One time, Mel and I went downtown together and this lady in a restaurant says, ‘Oh, you two boys are so tan.’ We laughed and laughed at that one.” 

1955, First Integrated
 Hornet Team

Together, the trio of LaRose, Stevenson and West became the team jokesters. On a road  trip to Nebraska to play the mighty Huskers, Mizzou Head Coach Dan  Devine found the three "singing and carrying on" down the streets of Lincoln after curfew. At the team breakfast the next morning before the game, Devine was livid and raged at the three, convinced the Tigers would lose. LaRose remembers trying very hard but to no avail to control his giggling. As the coach  grew more irate, the players tried, and failed, to stifle smiles. Finally, Devine left the room, slamming the door behind him. "We just burst out laughing," LaRose says. "And we ended up killing Nebraska."

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Dean Tolson: A Life of Turnovers

Let’s be candid. Major college athletics is big business, we are talking billions in revenue and the line of hogs at the feeding trough is long. Due to the huge explosion of exposure on televisions and the donations on largesse that winning teams generate from chest popping alumni, two sports, men’s basketball and football, support everyone else under the funding umbrella of the college athletic department. These rosters of men’s basketball and football teams are dominated by African-Americans; majority-black teams entertaining majority-white crowds. Head coaches and athletic directors - dipropionate to the makeup of their teams - are mostly white, male  and make millions. The players receive no compensation beyond their scholarships.

Dean Tolson, 2016
Being a major college football or basketball player is a full- time job. These student-athlete must squeeze in a full academic schedule while training to compete at a world class level. They are required to remain on campus to workout throughout the summer break and are by rule not allowed to hold jobs. Men’s basketball and football players don’t graduate at the same rates as the general student body or student-athletes in nonrevenue sports.

Literally, the collegiate athletic experience of non-revenue sports and their mostly white rosters with higher graduation rates is paid for by the athletic skills of black athletes many who do not graduate. And that is the rub. It is a system that fits the narrative of the flashpoint white privilege argument that so enrages many whites. Many big-time Division I universities’ athletic administrators struggle to come to terms with how to reconcile their desire for profit with the lofty ideals of higher education. In all fairness, collegiate men’s basketball and football coaches are often trapped in a limbo of supporting the ideal that education comes first balanced with the necessity to win – often to win big – to keep their well-paying jobs.

Forget playing by the rules, everybody cheats. Style is what matters. Those who today fall into the cross hairs of NCAA enforcement are the blatant. Those who do not are subtle. It has been a hypocritic system forever. Jerry Tarkanian and UNLV were bold and brassy, demonized as cheaters. John Wooden and UCLA were furtive and lithesome, canonized as noble. In the world of big money collegiate athletics in 2019, the One and Done approach of John Calipari and Kentucky - straightforward and outspoken - is loathed. The accepted fashion for the fraud the NCAA has become is to be devious with bafflegab about the fraud of the “amateur student-athlete.”

Enter as exhibit A for those critical of the hypocrisy of major college athletics the basketball adventure of one Dean Tolson. In 1970, Tolson departed his home down of Kansas City, MO. For the next 15 years his basketball odyssey roamed the globe like a lost caravan following the sun.

 vs Bill Walton, 1973
Tolson graduated from Kansas City Central High School in 1970. He was a first team all-state 6’8” post man for Coach Jack Bush. He was given a full scholarship to the University of Arkansas. He played four years for the Razorbacks and his basketball prowess while in Fayetteville lead to his jersey number being retired. In 1974 he leveraged his four years at the university into a professional basketball contract with the Seattle Supersonics. In 1978, after a four-year NBA career, Tolson took to barn storming the world with an ear always out for a new and higher bidder. He lived for the next six years by a “have jump shot, will travel” motto leading a vagabond and gypsy lifestyle, wandering the basketball courts of the world. In 1984, after a decade of pro ball and at 34 years of age, his body was done with basketball. He had little to show from his career other than a passport with many exotic ports of entry and a travel trunk loaded with world-wide memories. 

Tolson was woefully unprepared for his post basketball life. Despite staying academically eligible to play varsity basketball for three years at Kansas City Central High School, earning a diploma, qualifying for admission to the University of Arkansas and maintaining his academics to a level to play four seasons of college basketball; Dean Tolson could not read or write beyond a fifth-grade level. He was a 32-year-old functional illiterate.

In 1998, Tolson told Sports Illustrated, "No one knows what it's like to be recognized all your life for something, to be a basketball star—to be somebody—and then, to no longer have that. You're a zero. I affected hundreds of thousands of basketball fans at Arkansas, in the NBA and all over the world. But when my career was over, I was worth $3.50 an hour. That's all. Do you know how much that hurts?"

The years of abusive lack of regard by those assigned to educate Tolson for anything besides a basketball commodity, on every level, goes all the way back to his pre-high school days. Raised in poverty by a single mother, from the ages of 9 to 13 years he and his siblings were put into a state-run Kansas City orphanage, the Niles House. To survive, the reed thin and passive young man was forced to fend for himself. He says he learned to fight. "It was a very lonely time. I felt like I didn't have anybody to love and that nobody loved me."

Finally, reunited with his mother for his junior high years, Tolson revolted, spending time with a group of similar young street toughs looking for trouble. He admits he was out of control, incorrigible and is fortunate to have survived his adolescent years. He credits his Uncle Raymond for stepping into his daily life and giving him the male tough love, he had been so lacking in his life.

Razorbacks, 1972
Tolson avoided failing the 7th grade by a unique agreement. He had already repeated the 5th grade and could not afford to be held back again and fall two grade levels behind his chronical age.  "The principal told Uncle Raymond I couldn't pass unless I took 10 swats on the butt with a board," Tolson says. "Uncle Raymond said, 'Dean, do it for me. I'll take you out for some ice cream afterward.' "

While at Central High School he readily admits he took the path of least academic residence. Tolson never received a grade of above a C in the core classes of math, science or language arts. His final high school transcript showed an abysmal GPA of 1.83, ranking him in the bottom 1/3 of his graduation class. That lowly standing was achieved with a steady school day menu of classes such as metal shop, auto mechanics, printing, cooking, speech and family relations.

His father never made it past the third grade, his mother no farther than the eighth grade. Growing up, education was not a priority for Tolson. Basketball was. “I would rather dunk on you than eat,” he recalls of his starring high school years. By his senior year, he was a dominant force on the basketball court, averaging 23.6 points and 14.9 rebounds per game.

Tolson claims Coach Jack Bush squeezed many of his high school teachers to give his star player a higher grade than he had earned. Bush denies the allegation but does so with a bit of pragmatic logic, "A kid Dean's size could've been given a little leniency along the way. Face facts. That still happens today." 

Fayetteville, AR  has all the ingredients that make college towns a desirable modern habitat. Locals enjoy a cultural identity from the University of Arkansas found nowhere else in the state. The area is a prominent arts and music center with a vibrant college entertainment district, anchored by numerous trendy and exotic bars and restaurants. And of course, there are the Razorbacks. Fayetteville's passion for the Hogs earned the city a #15 ranking on Forbes' latest "Top College Sports Towns" list.

Tolson partook in  none of the cultural offerings of his home from the ages of 18-22. He was in Fayetteville to play ball and enjoy the campus perks his athletic standing gave him. "I'd sleep in, eat lunch, then go to practice," he explains. "Then I'd drive around in my car, drink beer, and pick up girls."

Admitted to the University of Arkansas based on what Tolson claims was an ACT test score taken by someone else for him (the University denies this charge), he not surprisingly showed little interest in collegiate academia.

His Animal House style  college experience was, according to Tolson, "like being at camp." His class load resembled his high school transcripts, filled with worthless and endless classes of physical education activities. He didn’t bother to buy text books and often, when he bothered to show up, turn in tests with only his name written on his submission.  "As long as I played basketball, I'd never be kicked out," he says.

"Every semester, the coaches would go around and ask teachers to give me a grade," Tolson said. "Some would do it, some wouldn't. Some gave me a D, or some gave me a C because I came to their class. Those were gifts. Some wouldn't be willing to talk to my coaches at all and told them to get out of their office."

With Frank Broyles
When you are honest, sans the pageantry and the exposure, there is no logical educational defense for America’s obsession with inter collegiate athletics. There are a lot of campuses  besides Fayetteville where it is more popular and profitable to install stadium  luxury boxes  than bookshelves. But, the imminent demise of college athletics has been proclaimed for almost as long as its existence. Like some pollution resistant carp, the beast continues to not only exist but to thrive in the very toxic quagmire it has created.

In 2018, despite a football team that had hit rock bottom, the University of Arkansas generated an athletic department profit of $114.2 million. The profit margin was a 1-year increase of 18.0% and a 5-year increase of 46.2%. Donations from boosters, community leaders and local corporate entities tallied a yearly total $24.4 million. Licensing/Rights fees for the Razorback logo was $49.8 million. Over the previous three years football revenue averaged $61.6 million. Three-year average men's basketball revenue was $15.9 million, while 3-year average for Women's Basketball revenue totaled $0.3 million. Men’s Baseball, Men and Women’s Cross-Country Men and Women’s Golf, Women’s Gymnastics, Women’s Soccer, Women’s Softball, Women’s Swimming & Diving, Men’s and Women’s Tennis, Men’s and Women’s Track & Field and Women’s Volleyball are funded thanks to the windfall of Men’s Football and Men’s Basketball. These non-revenue sports - five men’s and nine woman’s - depend on the Robin Hood system of the NCAA’s revenue sharing policy.

The NCAA, who oversees major college athletics, is a text book example of a cartel. By enforcing rules that prevent paying players (euphemistically called student-athletes by the NCAA) what they would make in a competitive labor market, they have created a slave labor pool of students who own high in demand skills, but have no rights under the current system to share in the wealth.  A superstar athlete in the two sports that are responsible for almost all of the revenue produced in college athletics, men’s basketball and, of course, football; generate literally millions of dollars but receive only scholarship assistance and a small additional spending allowance in return. Wealth that would under a capitalistic system go largely to players flows instead to those who recruit them, namely coaches and athletic administrators.

When Charlie Ward, a quarterback at Florida State University, won the 1995 Heisman Trophy as the best college football player in the nation, the FSU owned University book store made tens of thousands of dollars selling replicas of his number 7 game jersey. But Ward himself, he testified, could not afford the $75 asking price. Today, 23 years later the throwback jersey is still a hot item on the FSU book store website. The now 47 year old Ward has never received any of the proceeds.

After Four Years of College 
The University of Alabama’s football coach, Nick Saban, makes over $11 million annually to oversee the Plantation in Tuscaloosa, earning about as much in a month as his boss, the University of Alabama’s president, earns in a year. Today, in 41 states the highest paid state employee is a collegiate men’s basketball coach or a football coach. The starting quarterback who led the Crimson Tide to a national football championship in January, Tua Tagovailoa, with his “salary” scholarship, is less than one percent the earnings of his coach. Contrast that to professional sports where in a true free market capitalistic system, the true worthy commodity, the players, have salaries that dwarf that of their coaches.

In the 1950s NCAA bylaws stated: “Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” 

In today’s athletics arms race universities, despite a stated mission to create a place of higher learning and intellect, have commercialized athletics to the point where they are essentially running professional teams. Not burdened to pay market driven salaries while exploiting hundreds of athletes by using their images and skills for profit, the colleges hold all the bargaining chips, with the player’s scholarships dependent on participation.

According to data from the University of Michigan, one of the nation’s largest athletic revenue producing institution, the educational journey of an athlete will often suffer a dismal fate. Nearly one-third of the recruited athletes to its Ann Arbor campus in the class of 2011 — 70 out of 221 — had quit their sports by November 2010, according to a report submitted to the provost by the Compliance Office. U M’s Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger said the numbers are very similar year to year.

Major college athletics is fundamentally based on a mercenary system that one must believe will eventually cannibalize itself. The out of control spending on facilities to stay in competition with fellow institutions of high learning is insane. It is a system that cannot be maintained and will eventually cave under the weight of its own greed and the hypocritical treatment of its most basic and indispensable revenue source – the athletes themselves.

In 2015, when the players at the University of Missouri threatened to not play in a home football game against Brigham Young University unless the University President resigned, their demands were quickly met. The mostly white alumni were infuriated. The mostly black athletes were almost giddy with empowerment. Shock waves rolled through every Athletic Director of a major university’s office. Was there a revolt brewing on the plantation? Have the athletes finally figured out they are the valued commodity, not the coach, and without them there is no show, no need to expand stadiums and build new luxury boxes at Fayetteville’s Reynolds Stadium?

They have not, yet.

Dean Tolson departed Fayetteville in 1974 as the school’s all-time leading rebounder, averaging 13.2 caroms per game. He averaged 22.5 points a game in his final season. He left after 8 semesters of college work nowhere close to earning a degree.

Frank Broyles was the Athletic Director at Arkansas when Tolson was a student-athlete. Broyles is candid in admitting the university was complicit in Tolson’s lack of academic progress.  "In the '70s, all of us in athletics found ways to take advantage of school rules to keep athletes eligible," he says. "A coach did all he could do to save his job. We just jumped at great athletes. Dean was enrolled in classes only to stay eligible; he made no progress toward a degree. That was within NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association) rules."

Tolson’s final undergraduate class transcript was a perfect poster for the abuse of student-athletes by athletic manipulation. The illiterate Tolson had 38 hours of failing grades and a 1.43 grade point average, based on a 4.0 scale His passing grades were in courses like golf, tennis, swimming, square dancing, typing and coaching football. The only purpose for this type of curriculum was to keep Tolson eligible to play basketball. Earning a degree was never a serious goal the university set for Tolson and he was complicit, he admits today, in his own academic failure.

In 1974, Tolson left Fayetteville with no degree but he did have  an NBA contract to show for the four years spent as a student-athlete. The Seattle Super Sonics selected Tolson in the fifth-round of that spring’s NBA draft. It was the start of Tolson’s decade long and bumpy[DA1]  roller coaster ride through pro basketball. Seattle released him in their  rookie pre-season camp but then resigned him the day after Christmas. Tolson survived on the Supersonics roster for the rest of the season. During the following season’s training camp, the Supersonics cut him again.

After a stint with the Hazleton, PA franchise of the Eastern League, where he earned the princely sum of $100 per game, Tolson was in 1976, back with the Supersonics. He signed for a salary of $45,000 a year. Popular with the local fans because of his aggressive and high- flying style of play, 1976 would be the  apex of Tolson’s life as a pro basketball player.

By the start of the 1977 season, feeling he had finally carved out a niche for himself in Seattle, Tolson set down roots and bought a $200,000, six-bedroom house beside a golf course in suburban Bellevue, WA.  Six games into the season, Seattle for the third and final time cut ties with Tolson. He remembers the day he was released as one of many low points in his life. "Sitting in my house, my Mercedes in the driveway, I never felt emptier in my life," he recalls.

Tolson took to the road to make a living the only way he knew how, selling his basketball talents to the highest bidder. He gave Sports Illustrated a stop by stop tour of his post-NBA life as a basketball gypsy.

•The Anchorage Northern Knights, 1977-78. "When I arrived it was 30 below. At one point, 
we had daylight around the clock. I remember taping tinfoil to the windows to sleep. I rode dogsleds and snowmobiles."

•Gilbey's Gin team, Manila, 1978-81. "They were calling me Filipino Deano. I ate dogmeat and drank gin.... I attended a lavish party at the Marcoses' palace. In the entry, there were guards with M16s. We feasted on roast pig. I slow-danced with Imelda."

•Carabobo team, Valencia, Venezuela, 1981-82. "I was known as Jirafa—that's giraffe in Spanish. For one game, we had to drive into the Andes Mountains, through clouds, in a rundown bus. There were white crosses on the side of the road where cars had gone over. I saw mountain people, guys skinning cows alive and picking coffee beans."

•Panteras team, Caracas 1982-83. "There were teenage boys, barebacked, with iguanas on leashes. That was their pet. I learned to habla a little espa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ol."

•A.E.K., Athens, 1983-84. "I lived near a nudist beach.... The Greeks found me a curiosity because of my seven-foot wingspan. My outstretched arms are longer than I am tall."

By 1984, he was washed up, his hoops odyssey done. Tolson  made the decision to return home to Kansas City. He had nowhere else to go. It would eventually turn into a fortuitous choice. It took some motherly tough love to finally set Tolson straight, to get his life in order and stop living off a now defunct dream of an NBA basketball career.

"You've spent every penny you've ever made," his mother said. "I've never asked anything of you. Please do this for me. Go back to school and get a degree. Make something of your life."

Tolson says he was gripped with uncertainty about a return to Fayetteville; not sure he could master college level work with a reading ability that tested at the 5th grade level. He told his mother his self-doubts. If he was searching for sympathy from his mother, he was disappointed.  She unloaded on her son. "You don't know what you can do," she challenged, "because you've never really tried!"

In the fall of 1984, Tolson returned to the University of Arkansas, determined to make his mother proud and to earn his Bachelor Degree. Fourteen years after starting school on the Fayetteville campus, he was back, fortified this time with the wisdom of his past mistakes. A degree, he knew was his only hope to live the life he wanted. It was a second chance and in all likely hood, his last. The quest for a college degree proved to be a long and winding road.

He studied nine hours a day. Finally, he got help for what was a treatable learning disorder that had limited his ability to read and comprehend written words. In due time, his tutors were amazed that he possessed a photographic memory. “If I could get an image in my mind, I would never forget it,” he remembers. It was a life changing discovery.

Tolson soon made believers of the skeptics on campus that questioned his resolve. ‘It was such an uphill battle," says associate registrar Guy Nelson. "I told Dean several times to start over at another school. With his transcript, he had a better chance of graduating from someplace else." Tolson refused. Donald Pederson, vice-chancellor for academic affairs, says: "Any other student would have dropped out and never gone back to school.”

The Razorback Foundation, an athletic department fund raising organization, based upon Athletic Director Broyles’ recommendation, provided Tolson a full scholarship.   

"Dean's first year back, he'd come into my office," Broyles recalls. "He'd say he couldn't do the work, that he needed help. I suggested tutors, and soon after that a $2,000 bill for private tutoring hit my desk. He insisted tutors were the only way he could get his degree. After-hearing that, I never thought he'd be able to graduate."

Broyles now views the Tolson story as the proverbial taking lemons and making lemonade; finding success in failure. "It is a story that will encourage any athlete who went into the termination of his career unprepared, because he thought pro ball would last forever," Broyles said. "It's a great example of what can be done. We were determined to help him, no matter the cost. It didn't cross my mind to check the cost."

Through a self-discipline he never knew he had and with a new found grit he knew he needed to survive, the former apathetic student became a stickler for his own self-imposed rules: “Never miss a test or class, always turn in assignments on time, get to know the professors.”

It took seven long semesters of battling self-doubt, of constant self-pep talks and the support of many on campus support personnel; but against all odds, Dean Tolson in 1988 earned his Bachelor of Science degree in education. He became, at age 36 years, one of the oldest Razorback athletes to ever earn a degree.

Tolson decided to take his certification as a high school history teacher and become a mentor to young people, to stress the avoidance of the folly of youth and the pitfalls that often follow.

The story of Dean Tolson would make great screen play for a Hallmark movie, if it ended here. Unfortunately, as happens often in life, it did not.

For a few years Tolson seemed to have conquered his demons, having become a true American success story. He became a much sought-after education and motivational speaker, claiming through his website to have given over 1200 lectures and motivational talks. "I'm helping kids," said Tolson, at the time.  "That's my only purpose for any of this. I didn't make it as a professional sports star, I made it in education, and maybe they can do that, too." He was living the good life in the Seattle are, still cashing in on his popularity as a retired Super Sonic.

In 2005 Tolson returned to Fayetteville and at age 55 earned his Master’s Degree in Education. But the red flags of concern were again blowing in his personal life.  Soon they would be at full mast.

In 2006, Tolson had injured his back playing in a charity basketball game.  He became a hard-core addict to Vicodin and other pain killers. Feeding his addiction was easy. "Eventually, I didn't even have to go to the doctors. They would just mail me my prescription drugs."

By 2010, the addiction dominated his life. He celebrated Christmas day that year alone in a Miami rehab center. Tolson had hit rock bottom.

Dan Miller is a Seattle area blogger who had befriended the former basketball star. He sees real Greek Tragedy in the crash, rise, but then fall again life of Dean Tolson. He became concerned when he could not locate his friend. “Halfway through 2011, I tried to get hold of him a couple of times without any luck,” writes Miller. “Then I just tried to locate him anywhere all through 2012 and all this year (2013), too. This is a guy that you can find on Wikipedia now gone from public view. It seemed he had apparently just fell off the face of the Earth and was nowhere to be found.”

In January 2014, Tolson reemerged as a tattered shell of his pre-addiction days. “He must have just checked into another drug rehabilitation program earlier in the month,” Miller states. “I had Googled ‘Images of Dean Tolson’ and there he was with the counselors. Poor Dean was starting over again in another drug rehab home, this time in Florida.”

Tolson, in 2016, enrolled in a new and unique program called Pain Alternatives, Solutions and Treatments (P.A.S.T.). Based in New Jersey, the clinic has partnered with the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball to treat former players addicted to pain killers. The services are free. Tolson, like most of the fallen former regaled stars enrolled in the rehab program, had neither the income or the health insurance to pay for the medications and treatments.

In 2016, now 65 and living in Scottsdale, AZ; Tolson’s now chaotic life took another sharp and unpredictable turn. He was accused of harassing a local consignment store clerk. The police were called and he was given a warning for trespassing. Tolson, as he had done many times in his life, refused to drop his guns and walk away from a volatile situation before it became toxic. He filed a law suit against the Scottsdale Police Department alleging violation of his civil rights and emotional distress. He hired a lawyer who he found out latter was under suspension by the state bar association. Tolson was entering the senior citizen golden years’ in a downward spiral.

Tolson was raised a child of the streets, a physically talented waif besieged by the demons of poverty and deprivation. He was a high school graduate and every college recruiter in the nation pursued him but, he struggles to this day to order off a restaurant menu. After four years of “study” at the University of Arkansas, he left diploma less and illiterate.

Somewhere along the way the joy has been wrung from the game. It is the distressing ugliness that has turned many former fans into cynics of apathy. Shoe companies, shady AAU coaches, agents, groupies and assorted leeches;  they deserve  a pox on all their houses. Once they were sought now the ignored - the collateral damage of a system that enriches all but the Dean Tolsons.  

In 2019, no working phone or email address can be found for Tolson. His business website has been taken down. His Facebook page shows no engagement since 2016. Perhaps, he has returned to the very streets he could never quite remove himself from. Once again, he has disappeared. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Summer Game

The magnificent basketball magician of the 1970's, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, said, “if you want to hang out, you got to have game.” 

Unfortunately, today, the playground summer game is close to dead. Once the vibrant  setting for hoop dreams, now is found only emptiness. The reason for the death of the outdoor playground  game are numerous. The most blamed  culprits are AAU tournaments taking over the high school age players summer’s, college players required by their schools to be on campus over the summer to work out and take classes and  neighborhood violence that has found its way to the playground courts, driving the ballers inside.

The summer playground game is an exotic chapter in the history of basketball, its best practitioners forever immortalized, their grit and fearlessness making their anonymity even more the temptress.  

And1 was a hip-hop basketball apparel brand that rose from the city playgrounds  to challenge Nike as the game’s premier outfitter. Founded in 1993, ripe timing for the social media explosion of the internet, And1 brought the playground game to the world’s sage. They were soon fundamental basketball's enfant terrible, the anti-Hoosiers. In 2001, And1 released a promotional video sanctimonious to the game’s fundamental core, featuring one of basketball’s all-time villains, Latrell Sprewell. Known for the death choke hold he once applied to his own coach in a 1997 practice; Sprewell looked sternly into the camera and declared, "I am the American dream.”

Outdoor pickup basketball is a game that can be played anywhere a hoop can be found. Alone or on a team. Full Court or half court. I its golden age of the 1970’s, many of its stars were known only by their colorful nicknames: Beast, Iron Man and Big Money Griff – playing  on the same concrete as Wilt and Doctor J. What ever happened to Shamgod, Fly, Sundance, and Homicide? The street game of the playground had flair, talking down an opponent as important to one’s creed as a killer cross over: “You reach and I teach.” “Fall back, baby.” “Pass. Save yourself the embarrassment.”

These mostly unknown lost soul playground vagabonds had the game but not the self-discipline to avoid the common pitfalls of growing up in the inner-city: drug and alcohol addiction, academic deficiencies and attitude problems. Streetball players built their reputations largely by  word of mouth. They feel into obviation mostly by poor choices.

 "AAU has changed the game, and it's really changed the game a lot. We've got a lot more indoor basketball than we have outdoor basketball now,” said Marty Storch, Louisville KY’s  deputy parks and rec director. Storch, at one time, oversaw the famous Louisville outdoor court known as the “Dirt Bowl.” Located  in the city’s Shawnee Park, the asphalt outdoor courts housed some of the best summer playground basketball outside of New York City. At the height of its popularity, weekend tournaments would draw up to  6,000 swarming fans, arriving early to jockey for a good court side view. NBA super stars such as Daryl Griffith, Artis Gilmore and Wes Unseld matched up with local shadowy street ball legends. Former University of Kentucky and NBA players Jack Givens and James Lee would guard each other.  “Those days are over,” says the longtime city official. The risk of injury is just too great.

Summer days of playing ball on the blacktop were spent sorting out the changing world of a teenager, deciphering what it meant to be alive while navigating a world of new and sometimes confusing opportunities. It was a summer of ceaseless motion, teeming with new and exciting freedoms. There is no better place to come of age than in the midst of a summer pickup basketball game. Combine a special place with like minded companions and an activity that has no purpose other than to be joyous; and you will find a slice of a happy childhood.  

In the 1970's  there were none of today's options. No AAU select teams and high-profile summer camps backed by shoe company blood money. In 1972, the outdoor blacktop with  bent rims (sans nets) were the only true path  for those with the fever, born to play the game year-round. Kids made their own rules. Sadly, today's players have been robbed of a truly special part of the basketball experience -  the non-pretentiousness and raw summer playground culture of "whose got next."

Friday, February 1, 2019

Jack Bush

Wake up the echoes with a reference to some long ago battle and watch the lightening flash from those 94-year-old eyes.

An afternoon with a legend
Retired Kansas City Central hall of fame basketball Coach Jack Bush has railed against racial injustice his entire life.  For nearly a century he has always been consistent, exhibiting his displeasure with a comment here or a refusal to shuffle there, at a time being “uppity” could get a black man lynched. Bush never has compromised his pride or dignity as a man by passively accepting unfair behavior.

Bush began his coaching career under the cloud of Jim Crow. He graduated from all-black Kansas City Lincoln High School in 1944. He then attended and graduated in 1949 with his Bachelor of Science degree from the all-black Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO He is a member of the Lincoln University’s Hall of Fame. In college, Bush was a record setter in track and field, throwing the javelin. Bush was also a member of the football team from 1946-1948. He never played college basketball.

The Bush clan has resided in the same house on South Benton Avenue for over 60 years. Bush and his wife, Marchieta, will soon celebrate 74 years of marriage. They meet at Lincoln University. “She comes from Sedalia (MO),” the coach recalled. “She was a professor of English, the youngest prof ever at LU. I always did need some extra help with the books,” he says with a winking nod to his long-ago role as teacher’s pet. “I been a coach’s wife for oh, like 100 years,” Marchieta, teases her husband.

In the late 1990’s, his son and namesake, Jack Jr., would fill the role of head football coach at Lincoln University, his father’s alma matter. Over a long career, the younger Bush worked as a football coach at several other colleges and high schools. Now retired and living next door to his parents, Jack Jr. is the oldest and only male of five siblings. His sister, Juanita, also lives next door.

Defending the Tradition
“What I am most proud off,” the coach states, “is that all my children and all of my grandchildren are college graduates. It is education that is important, and I think me and the wife did a good job with our kids and their educations. I grew up here in Kansas City, graduated from Lincoln High School. I was an only child and my mother was a stay at home mom. There was never a doubt I was getting an education. Back talk my mom and there was a whipping coming, “a go out and cut me a switch” old time type whipping. My dad was a fire starter with the railroad. He worked on the old steam engines that needed a fire. Working for the railroad meant his family could ride anywhere the railroad went for free, as long as we set in the colored section, and we went everywhere, me and my mom. Texas, California, all over. My friends did not have this (opportunity). It really made me realize what a big world and what was out there. It motivated me. Funny thing, I don’t remember my dad ever going with us, just me and mom.”

Bush, even today, has a sharp edge to him, more prone over the years  to push back when he felt unfairly treated. There have been few times anyone would have described the passionate Jack Bush as mild or soft-spoken. Early in life he was forged in adversity and tempered by the traumatic experiences of racism. Bush is a proud man, even now as his elderly age makes it hard for him to get out much, he stays engaged as much as possible with the local KC black community where he is today still held in the highest esteem.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Bush parlayed the power his  high-profile job gave him in the KC area to test the social boundaries in a decisive and defining time when American society was being turned upside down. Bush was not the devious type to stab a rival in the back; he would figuratively stab him in the front. Amongst the white KC educational establishment, Bush’s teams, and its followers, invoked menacing images of potential trouble. Over the year’s switchblades, broken-down rims, attack dogs, and street fighters were inaccurately used to describe the M.O. of his Central teams. Bush did little to dispel such talk, refusing to give such non-sequential racism any standing or wasted time. Today, while not claiming ownership, he admits he liked the fear his team’s reputation struck come playoff time when the white suburban teams - who refused to play Central in the regular season - had no choice but to square off with his high-flying Blue Eagles.

Bush relished in the academic achievements of his players. Over the years, when the topic of his 1979 state championship team would arise, Bush never failed to use the opportunity to inform listeners that all 12 team members had graduated from college.  The veteran coach stressed to his young men the importance of staying power and a tenacious fighting spirit. Don’t just show up and be present, he would advise; but participate, “confront your critics and those who stand in the way of your progress. Put their backs to the wall, not yours.”

Fifteen years before Martin Luther King's march had aroused the fury of Birmingham, in the fall of 1949, Bush began his 53-year high school coaching tenure at the small all-black segregated by law Washington High School in the small southeast Missouri community of Caruthersville. 

Bush’s experience in Caruthersville, he says is something, “I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. There was nowhere in that little town black people could go to socialize. Our students, their parents were cotton filed workers. We were given hardly any money for those kids to educate them. My wife and I both had college degrees. Made no difference, we were treated with no respect by local whites. We might as well been in Mississippi.”
Missouri high schools in 1956 began open racial competition in athletics with all schools belonging to the same Association. “They did give us a chance to play basketball with them and it was now open for us if we really want to do it,” remembers Bush. “But, it wasn’t like the white schools were to hug us and kiss us and welcome us with open arms. We got the opportunity to play, true; we just had a lot of catching up to do. Seems like I spent the next 50 years playing catch up."

After three seasons in the state’s “bootheel,” Bush moved back to his hometown, Kansas City, MO. He took over the team at R.T. Coles Vocational School. He later took the top position of the Kansas City Manual High School program. He had coaching success at every stop.

Bush moved to Central High School in 1968, where he stayed for 33 years. Overall, Bush led teams won 799 games. He guided the Central Blue Eagles to twelve final four appearances and the 1979 state championship. He retired in 2002, claiming his 1972 team that battled Raytown South in the quarterfinal round at Maryville, was the best team he ever coached. He continued to teach physical education classes at Central well into his 80’s.

Ed Benton was a 6’6” star on the 1972 Eagles. “Playing for legendary Coach Jack Bush was a life changer,” says Benton. “We called him Uncle Jack and we loved the guy. We played so hard for him, always wanted to have him satisfied with your effort.”

“We still got some kids here that have talent, that can play the game,” Coach Bush tells me. Today, he says it is most often raw and unrefined talent, but more importantly, undisciplined, and that keeps futilely flailing away, moored in the doldrums of poverty. Year after year, the problem remains constant - they all got baggage. “Watch them play pickup games in open gym or in the city parks, and you will know immediately what I am talking about,” Bush says with a sorrow shake of his head. Most run their mouths much more than needed. “Let your play do your talking, I always tell them.” But, much too often his words of wisdom to this hip hop bunch of today falls on the deaf ears of fools. “It has always been hard down here to give them discipline. They are only with us a small amount of time,” he says. A much bigger problem, according to Bush, is by the time the school finally does gain influence at 15 or 16 years of age, the die has often already been cast. By that age the street has already taken hold and their priorities are all misshaped. Once it gets hold, the street never gives back. “So many of the kids we see today have no structure in their lives,” Bush says. “They lack parental guidance and have no plan, they just float.”

To the urban youth of 2019, tomorrow is far off and of no concern. “Our kids never bother with a thought of worry as to their future. Where am I staying tonight? Where am I eating next is what is important,” Bush states.  The very reality of the present is the concern of urban students. Simple survival occupies the here and now of their daily routine. City kids learn early on to live in the present. Nobody is promised tomorrow. Take as much as you can, when you can, while you can. Dysfunctional, sure, but it is the reality of urban survival for a young black man.

Today, is nothing like it was in 1972, Bush says, “Back then we had pride. Central High School was more than a school, it was a community treasure,” Bush today states. “You embarrass yourself then you embarrass all those who care about you, your community. We didn't need gangs.” In 1972, there was one big gang, the KC Central Gang, he says of that simpler time, they all wore Eagle blue.

To wear the basketball jersey of the Central Eagles in 1972 was the greatest honor a black kid from the KC inner-city could earn. When you walked through the school hallways or the neighborhood streets, adorn in a stylish Eagle team Jacket, you were a local god. You had earned respect. Even the dealers left you alone – “no, not him,” the street drug kings would say, “he an Eagle, he has got a future.”  

In the spring of 1972, the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) voted, due to a riot after Central had lost in overtime to Raytown South at Maryville in that March's quarterfinal round of the state tournament, to put Central on probation for one year. The Eagles were suspended from the 1973 post season state playoffs. Central loyalists were outraged. Coach Bush pointed to the exemplary behavior of his athletes before, during and after the contest. Bush pointed out that the school was being held accountable for the behavior of blacks who were not even students at Central. “Not one of our students has been accused of misbehavior,” Bush observed. “You can’t make us responsible for the behavior of every black person who attends the game.”

“We play 23 regular season games and have no problems,” Coach Bush stated. “What the state needed  to understand is that when the playoffs get here and a city school’s team gets beat, they then start following us, coming to our games. Many of these people (at Maryville) I had never seen before.” True, but according to MSHSAA, if they have black faces, then Bush and Central are responsible. “If they are breaking the law, no matter who they are, throw them in jail” Bush said, “but don’t punish our kids who have done nothing wrong. The way this was  done,  they are saying we all failed, student-wise, player-wise and school-wise. I don’t think that is true or fair.”

Bush felt many of the problems in Maryville were a long time in coming. “There were  no blacks on the state board (MSHSAA). There were no black officials when you get to state play. Our people felt we were  the outsiders. If a percentage of the state association is black, then why did  blacks have no say in the officiating and administration of the state playoffs?”

In 1974, due to a fight in a regional game with Paseo, Central was not allowed to start its season the following year until January 1. For their behavior in the Paseo game, the principal of Central High suspended from school the entire varsity team of 10, except one, for 5 days. The 10th player was suspended for 10 days. In 1976 the Kansas City Officials Association, due to public criticism from Bush of the quality of their work, refused to officiate Central’s game.  To end their boycott, they demanded that Bush be fired. Eventually, a shaky true was reached between the two sides; Bush stayed in his job and the officials returned to theirs’.

Bush is passionate in his belief that as a society we should never forget the degrading barriers and disadvantages those of color endured to compete with whites on a court that was never really level.  

The coach is  still an active and enthusiastic supporter of the Central Eagles. Last winter, the old floor at Central’s gym was torn up and a new one laid down in its place. The school board voted to rename the court Jack Bush Court. A ceremony before a home game was held to christen the new hardwood, with the legendary Coach Bush in attendance for a celebration of a loyal man, a recognition of his unbending courage, and sentimental, full memories of a long life approaching a well lived end. Bush was touched.  “My, oh my,” the coach remembers, “That was a great night, to see so many people all come together who had been so important in my life.”

Don’t call Bush a “legend.” His son tells me his dad hates the word. After you've been around for so long, Bush, Sr. tells me, everyone speaks of you with reverence in low tones. “Legend makes one think of death,” Bush relates. “Most of my friends are dead. Some of my players are dead. I am, you know, an old man." True, by my what those tired old eyes have seen.