A moving screen

The Baltimore Sun

There's embarrassment and shame in this admission, but you need to know: We forgot about Woody Sauldsberry.

He was the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 1958, just the second black man to win the award. He played for four NBA teams and later the Harlem Globetrotters. Retirement wasn't always easy. Diabetes claimed one of his legs and had its sights set on the other. When Sauldsberry died last year in Baltimore, there was no obituary in the next day's newspaper and no old highlights aired on that night's SportsCenter. We forgot about him, but Earl Monroe and filmmaker Dan Klores didn't. We're fortunate for that.

Sauldsberry is one of many characters who give life to Black Magic, a new film that revives a lost slice of history, examining the civil rights movement through the eyes of the basketball players and coaches from historically black colleges and universities. It's a gripping and educational four-hour journey, and to underscore the importance of the story, ESPN is airing the documentary commercial-free over two nights, March 16 and 17.

Monroe, drafted by the Baltimore Bullets out of Winston-Salem State in 1967, is not just one of the film's riveting subjects, he's also listed as a producer.

"I don't think any of today's players really know the story," Monroe said last week after a private screening of the film in New York. "This will be an educational thing for them. Hopefully, they'll take it to heart.

"You're looking at so many guys who go into the pros at such a young age. If they can understand more about the people who came before and helped them get to where we are now, they can have a bigger appreciation for the whole process. If you don't know what it was like before, you can't really appreciate what you have."

Klores' film credits include the critically acclaimed Crazy Love. He had set out to create an epic multipart documentary on basketball, a la Ken Burns. From his research, Black Magic emerged, a story that was just itching to be told. Klores conducted dozens of interviews, even came to Baltimore and interviewed Sauldsberry just weeks before he died. Klores successfully preserved a story that was at risk of falling through the cracks of time.

Klores said it's a "curse of progress that people forget," but it's not just progress. We're talking about a natural byproduct of the passage of time. Think about it: Today's college freshmen were 1 or 2 when Michigan's Fab Five was taking on Duke. A 30-year-old basketball nut would have been in diapers when Monroe retired. And anyone under the age of 45 has learned about the civil rights movement mostly from books and television. As evidenced by the anecdotes and interviews in Black Magic, though, it's clear the education we received has been massaged and edited many times over.

In the film, we learn of Cleo Hill, who could have been one of the greatest had he not been blackballed out of the game.

And we learn about Vanderbilt's Perry Wallace, the first black player in the Southeastern Conference. He had to compete while university-sanctioned, pompom-waving, skirt-wearing cheerleaders chanted the most vile of racial epithets during games, followed by "Rah! Rah! Rah!" Of course, that's when the games were actually held. Once, Vanderbilt's game against Mississippi State was canceled. The official reason, as reported by Sports Illustrated at the time, was so players could "concentrate on their schoolwork." Can you imagine a school canceling a game for that reason today?

We learn about the Orangeburg Massacre, in which police killed three South Carolina State students protesting segregation at an all-white bowling alley. It was Kent State minus the media coverage -- and the white victims.

We learn about the culture of the black school, the special relationship it enjoyed with its students and the temperamental relationship its athletes sometimes shared with much of the world.

In an interview last week, Monroe talked about his Winston-Salem State team scrimmaging against Billy Packer's Wake Forest squad more than 40 years ago. But the teams had to play in secret in the middle of the night. "Obviously, we used to win those," Monroe said with a laugh.

Monroe went from Winston-Salem to Baltimore right in the middle of the civil rights movement. Since I arrived in town, it has always struck me as curious that Baltimore so proudly reveres some of its athletic forefathers, but others, like Monroe, seem like an afterthought.

"Your horizon is wherever you choose to focus it," Monroe said of how he was embraced during such a tempestuous chapter of Baltimore's history. "My horizon wasn't Towson or those places out there. It was Baltimore. The city. That was my horizon and my existence."

Monroe acknowledged he probably lost some Charm City support when he forced a trade from the Bullets to the New York Knicks, but he said his days in Baltimore are still near and dear. It was a special time to be a young black man, he said.

Before tip-off each night, Monroe would sit in the locker room, carefully studying Lerone Bennett's What Manner of Man, learning about the early work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The reverend's speeches would still be echoing in Monroe's ears well after the first whistle blew. "That was what had me so juiced up," Monroe said.

"When I see this film, each time I sit down and watch it, it's just like reliving that era," he said. "Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad."

Monroe and Klores say they hope the film connects generations. Basketball is the vehicle, but the message and lessons are much bigger.

Sport has changed since then, evolving at a quicker pace than much of society. The race forward makes it easy to focus your eyes solely on the future. Jalen Rose, an NBA veteran and current television analyst, watched an early version of Black Magic and said today's players are in the midst of a "corporate revolution." They're mostly ignorant to the "cultural revolution" men like Monroe witnessed and endured. That's too bad.

We should all remember. The struggle. The successes. Men like Cleo Hill and Woody Sauldsberry.

"The younger guys who get a chance to see this, I don't know if they'll be able to relate to it, but it's all fact. It's history," Monroe said. "And we need to remember this history, so we can all learn from it."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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