Bouncing Balls. Family. (And Segregation.)

It wasn’t bleeding-edge journalism, I’ll grant you that, but it had heart and an unusual perspective. It was a sweet story, and I liked it in part because I’ve lived (some of) it. What sticks with me, sticks in my craw, I guess, gums up my mental gears, is the story behind this story-behind-the-story. I’m afraid that I understand this story a little too well, and I’d love to be proven wrong. But. The sports world is often a profoundly segregated one.

Chris Mack is the men’s basketball coach at Cincinnati’s Xavier University. The X is no Kentucky, Duke, or Kansas, not what UCLA once was – legend-spawning, dynastic power programs in the world of college hoops. They’re good, though, having gone to the Sweet 16 (notching two NCAA tournament wins) three times in the past six years, one of those under Mack. That is only the background to the charming tale told by Gregg Doyel in his on-line column, though. Unlike coaching gypsies – the most notable being the ever-restless Larry Brown, now coaching his 47th team – who flit from job to job, one step away from their next firing/opportunity, Mack may be at Xavier for awhile. He is intimately tied to this university (he played there) in his hometown, and for other reasons that the article makes clear. I love it, and had I had the clarity to focus my coaching ambitions more narrowly, more competitively, I hope I would have done it Mack’s way and had his good luck, too.

The upshot is, at any rate, that he isn’t going anywhere. (Three of his predecessors at Xavier used their success with the Musketeers as the launching pad to one of the Big Jobs.) He’s got kids, and he doesn’t want to let his high-profile, high-stress job eat him as it has swallowed, well, almost every guy who’s tried it at the feverishly workaholic level of a major-level head coach. So, when he’s not on court, recruiting, breaking down film, doing his local radio gig, gladhanding with boosters, or unable to sleep because his team can’t shoot free throws, Chris Mack coaches his third-grade daughter’s house league basketball team. (Where he seems to care about winning and losing, which I would’ve thought unnecessary for a guy at his level, coaching waaayy down. Can’t turn it on and off, the coaches say, but I’m sure Mack can spin the dimmer switch.) Even coming off a road trip and a late flight home, he’ll be urging his pony-tailed, cute-as-buttons kids on a Sunday morning. Great. Not sure it’s worth a Purple Heart, but it’s a neat story, and good for the Macks.

I was struck, though, and keep on being struck, by a photo that accompanied the article. (It’s not there anymore. They must have sensed my discomfort.) I hope that I was reading too much into it, that there were other kinds of faces and other shades of hair on the kids outside the frame, but I noticed how white this lovely little team was. Mack lives in a

This isn’t the photo I saw first, but it’s the same li’l girls team getting to practice at Daddy’s awesome campus gym. That’s his go-get-em daughter whose head he’s palming.

suburb of Cincinnati (across the river in Kentucky). He recruits Cincinnati and Ohio in general, but Xavier also draws players from as far as Maryland, Chicago, even Los Angeles. I’m guessing that he doesn’t recruit his own neighbourhood, though. There’s an old, sorrowfully head-shaking truism from the States that “Sunday morning at 11 is the most segregated hour in American life”, a sad commentary on the inability of even shared Christian belief and practice to bridge the racial divide. Basketball is another of those places where most blacks and most whites are distant from each other. Mack is in the middle, and most big-time college coaches share his position.

This is no revelation. Anybody with a television has been seeing (mainly) African-American pros leaping and banging for (overwhelmingly) white paying customers for the last 40 years, and not just in Oklahoma City. Check out Xavier basketball, or college hoops at any place that loves it (there are hundreds of such places) and you will see the crazies with the face paint, and the band, and the powerfully perky cheer squad, shouting for their team. They are almost exclusively white kids. Then there are the basketball players. The current squad, the young men that Chris Mack makes his excellent living coaching, is composed of sixteen guys, of whom likely seven or eight actually play in close games. Twelve are apparently African-American. Of the four “white” players — only by alphabetical coincidence are they at the bottom of the roster, but they may as well be — at least three are “walk-ons”, roster fillers, what I and other coaches have unkindly called “practice meat”. (Mind you, even guys at the bottom of a fine D1 roster like Xavier’s are better players than I ever was, and I wasn’t bad.) They play with future pros in practice, they travel, they keep their heads and bodies in the game they love, and they add a little local flavour — and, I must say, colour — to the Musketeers.

Perhaps this makes me a crank and a curmudgeon to point out what is almost never said.

Musketeers in full throat. Go, X!

The black kids play, and the white kids watch, which is a less vulgar brand of segregation than what American society battled over in the past. It is segregation, nonetheless. I don’t know Chris Mack, and have no reason to think that he has a racist bone in his body, but he stands at a peculiar (and distinctly American) junction. The (mainly) young black men that he coaches so well are the reasons he makes a salary that qualifies him to live in a part of town where – and yes, I’m guessing again, and happy to be proven wrong — there is not

Jalen Reynolds is from Detroit. Does Xavier do as much for his mind as his body does for Xavier?

likely a very sizable proportion of homes filled with minority families. Hence the blonde ponytails on his daughter’s team, and the long-limbed, lean young black men on his own. It’s certainly not a situation Coach Mack created, nor is it one he is called upon to solve. But it’s there.

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