Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Race Matters

Race is an inescapable subject in basketball. It’s front and center, not hidden under helmets or long-sleeved uniforms.

Race is present at choose-up games at the local YMCA or watching NBA League Pass on the couch. It’s joked about openly when discussing the five best white NBA players of all time, and it surfaces subliminally when clueless commentators decry the lack of fundamentals in the modern game.

All of these strains can get tied together, which makes for fascinating stories. Such is the case with “Chase The Game,” an often-overlooked gem of a basketball book by the inimitable journalist Pat Jordan that was published in 1979.

Jordan has written some wild stories for Deadspin in recent years, but “Chase The Game” is straight reportage with bits of social commentary peppered in. The narrative centers on three friends and standout prep players in the surprisingly fertile hoops vineyard of Bridgeport, Conn. A high-school aged Wes Matthews Sr. even makes a cameo appearance during a pickup game.

Two of the players are cousins, Frank Oleynick and Barry McLeod, who have stylish games that were honed on the playgrounds in the projects of Bridgeport. Walter Luckett is considered the best talent in the city, recruited by the top-tier hoops colleges because of his sweet jumper that was perfected in well-kept gymnasiums.

The twist is that Oleynick and McLeod are white, and Luckett is black. That factors into their development as players. Oleynick and McLeod come from a hard-drinking immigrant family, and they latched onto basketball and labored incessantly on their games. Luckett was from the same projects as the cousins, but had some white benefactors who pushed him to excel.
Luckett went to a rival high school, but the three played pickup games together all over the East Coast. Oleynick and McLeod would win over skeptics by faring well in games against Providence star Marvin “Bad News” Barnes and even at the famed Rucker Park in New York.

The players tried to “chase the game” to the NBA. Luckett ended up choosing Ohio University, where he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as one of the best freshmen in the nation. McLeod landed at Centenary, where his main duty was to feed the ball to a 7-footer named Robert Parish. Oleynick put some distance between himself and his hometown, choosing Seattle University.

Oleynick became a legend in The Emerald City. The white kid with an urban game won a cult following and averaged 22.6 points over three seasons. He was recently voted the ninth-best player in school history. Luckett had a hard time living up to his recruiting hype, but he averaged 20.5 points in three years. McLeod had the greatest team success of the three in college, with Centenary going 68-13 in his three varsity seasons, but NCAA violations involving Parish kept the school from the postseason.

Oleynick and Luckett incessantly measured their success against each other. Both entered the NBA draft a year early in 1975. Oleynick was the 12th overall pick by the SuperSonics and Luckett was chosen by the Detroit Pistons in the second round. McLeod was chosen a year later in the seventh round by the Chicago Bulls.

Oleynick was the only one to make a regular-season NBA roster. Luckett and McLeod were waived in training camp. Oleynick lasted just two seasons (5 points and 1.1 assists per game) with the SuperSonics under coach Bill Russell. Oleynick battled injuries and a crowded backcourt that featured “Downtown” Freddy Brown and fan favorite Slick Watts. Oleynick hinted that race might have played a factor in his limited opportunities.

As an interesting postscript to the book, the trio ended up back around their hometown. McLeod became a longtime coach at Bridgeport Central High School. Luckett worked corporate gigs but now helps Oleynick with basketball clinics.

Still chasing the game.

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