African-American women are paid an overdue tribute


If you've never heard of Ora Washington, an eight-time tennis champion in the early part of this century, or Bessie Coleman, a stunt pilot who got her license two years before Amelia Earhart did, or if you didn't know that the Tennessee State Tigerbelles produced 40 Olympic track performers, don't worry, for you're not alone.

What these women have in common is that they are of African-American descent, and their accomplishments have been largely unheralded by the mainstream media.

That is, until Sunday's one-hour "A Passion to Play: The African-American Experience" special, airing on ABC (Channel 2, p.m.), which salutes their efforts and those of women and girls like them.

"I want people to come away thinking what special people these women were and thinking about how important their accomplishments are," said Robin Roberts, on loan to ABC from ESPN as host of this excellent special, the second of four salutes to women athletes.

Roberts, a basketball star at Southeastern Louisiana in the late 1970s and early 1980s, says one of the most exciting developments for young African-American women is that they are branching out into sports that had not been open to them before.

For instance, Debi Thomas won an Olympic figure skating medal in 1988, golfer Laree Sugg is a regular on the LPGA Tour and Maryland gymnast Dominique Dawes is one of this country's leading medal hopes for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

hTC "I wanted to play tennis, but it was assumed that with my height, I should be playing basketball," said Roberts. "Now, no one is trying to put a basketball in [14-year-old tennis player] Venus Williams' hands. I think that's a very positive development."

Punchin' preacher returns

When George Foreman takes to the ring tomorrow (HBO, 10 p.m.) in his heavyweight title defense, against Axel Schulz, he'll not only be fighting the unknown German champion, but also expectations.

After all, Foreman, who has not fought since beating Michael Moorer last November, has been braying for a high stakes showdown with Mike Tyson. He hardly could expect to earn such a megabucks bout with a poor performance against Schulz.

"People are expecting George to do something dominant or definitive," said HBO analyst Larry Merchant. "If this unknown heavyweight can give him problems, I think that weakens George's case."

But probably not his appetite. By the way, Merchant, Jim Lampley, Gil Glancy and Harold Lederman, the HBO broadcast crew, will entertain questions in cyberspace tonight at 10:30 on the Prodigy service.

Playoff line forms to the right

It's the final weekend of the NBA regular season and NBC (Channel 11) has mondo coverage plans.

Tomorrow's Charlotte-Chicago game (3:30 p.m.) is a likely preview of an Eastern Conference first-round matchup, and your last regular-season chance to see Michael Jordan shoot 40 percent at home.

Sunday's doubleheader kicks off with Orlando visiting the Knicks (1 p.m.), and though the Magic already has locked up home court in the Eastern playoffs, it can knock New York below Indiana in the race for home court in the conference semifinals. The second game, Seattle-Phoenix (3:30 p.m.), could decide the Pacific Division title.

An interesting note: Bill Walton will fly from his home in San Diego to be in Boston tonight to help the Celtics mark their final game in the Boston Garden, go to Chicago to do color with Tom Hammond tomorrow, then go to Phoenix to join Greg Gumbel and Steve Jones on Sunday.

And finally

Home Team Sports has dropped its broadcast of tomorrow's Orioles-Chicago White Sox exhibition game from Sarasota, Fla. The Orioles originally were to play the Colorado Rockies at Camden Yards, but a change was made last week. Because of the late switch, HTS was unable to line up a crew for the telecast.

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