Every February, I celebrate Black History month in the lessons I teach. I know what a travesty it is to be left out the history books by the powers that be. I owe a lot to my African American teammates who overlooked my skin color during our time together. Shared passions, common goals and interdependence out weigh prejudice. But nowhere was the bond greater than when I moved to Paris and joined the expats ball club.
It doesn’t matter if you are blue, green, orange, purple or female when you are flying solo in the Euro basketball league. Only a fellow American can appreciate our love for the game and understand the isolation of living in a foreign land 4,000 miles away from home.
When I first started coaching high school ball at international schools, women coaches were rare, but my male contemporaries – players recruited to play in Europe and who stayed on – accepted me with open arms. At the American School of Paris, Henry Fields, dubbed the Father of French Basketball, took me under his wing in the international coaching “brotherhood.” Another mentor, Mike Maloy, like Henry broke down racial barriers, and left his mark in Austria.
Mike, a tall lean guy with an endearing personality, winning grin and a raspy, heartbreaking bluesy voice, never belied the bitterness that a lifetime of discrimination could create.
He was so non judgmental and unassuming. You would never know by talking to him that he put Davidson College on the map of the NCAA basketball, dominated in the Austrian pro league and sang lead with Boring Blues Band in the Viennese music scene.
Under the leadership of the legendary Coach Lefty Driesell, Mike became the first African American to play at the small southern, predominately white Davidson College where the New Yorker worked as hard to fit in as he did to rebound. In 1967 Mike also became the first African American to pledge SIGMA CHI fraternity, an action that created scandal within a system that had a long-standing tradition of discrimination.
In 1970 Mike was drafted by the Boston Celtics. In 1976 he became the first African American in the Austrian league. He again overcame intolerance and went on to win four national titles with UBSC Wien Basketball team before becoming a successful coach in the league.
In Austria, Mike admitted the he started to enjoy the game again. “It wasn’t about money. It was about chillin out and getting my head straight. I kept staying another year.”
That line echoes the sentiments of dozens of former American players that have befriended me during my decades of living abroad.
After his untimely passing, American International School of Vienna (AIS) named the high school basketball gym in his honor. And it was on his court that I remembered him best.
My fondest memories of Mike were seeing him at international tournaments, sitting at the bar sipping beer after a game, ever ready with a pep talk.
Once while lamenting getting beat out of the final, I asked, “What am I doing wrong?
“Wrong? With your tiny, lil’, raggedy team you got no business being in the same gym with goliath – I saw you coach your skinny butt off to get into the semis.”
When many seasons later, my lil’ raggedy team from Geneva snatched the Sport Council International School (SCIS) championship from the 7-time champion AIS on their home court, I thought I heard my old buddy laughing from the rafters.
“I told you so, girl.”
Thanks for believing in me, bro.
This one is for you.