By Leland Stein III, For TheAfricanAmericanAthlete.com
hen legendary coach John Thompson transitioned, I had to take a step back and reflect.
With a sad heart I sought out narrative after narrative scribed by some of my friends.
I found solace in that.
My Thompson story is more like a phenomenon that happened to me.
In my transition phase moving from engineer to journalist, I was in graduate school searching for a teaching credential in English.
I was covering only local sports for the Black Voice News in California’s Inland Empire at the time.
However, I wrote a column that merged education and athletics and the Black Athlete.
A week later, my wife brings me the phone and says, “John Thompson and John Chaney are on the phone.”
Of course, I did not believe her. She says, “Are you are going to take the call, or what?”
I grabbed the phone cautiously, but indeed there was Thompson. He said “Chaney and I saw your article about the NCAA, and we want you to come to Chicago to interview the coaches in the BCA (Black Coaches Association).”
There was a little more conversation, but that was the main thrust. Now, this was in 1993, and I was an infant in the big journalism world. Yet, here came my personal blessing.
Of course, I had to pay my own way to Chicago from LA, but it was all about the chance. I had railed against the NCAA and its relationship with its Black student/athlete base in my early conversations with my Dad when I was an aspiring athlete, and with the late sport writing pioneer, Los Angeles Sentinel writer, Brad Pye Jr.
Once in Chi-Town, I met my cousin, George Stein, who drove over from Detroit after I relayed to him that I was asked to come to the second strategically guarded BCA meeting.
Thompson and Chaney gave me the hotel info and the times that they would be available. George and I were there on time and we were completely shocked to find out I was the only reporter in the conference room area.
The exceptional opportunity to interview almost all the Black Coaches collectively was a journalism moment for me that set me on a path that enhanced my life.
After joyfully receiving that unexpected phone call from Georgetown to Riverside, Calif., sure enough a couple of days later after a quick flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, much to my delight sitting in front of me were the crown jewels of black coaches
There was Thompson, Chaney, Vivian Stringer, Nolan Richardson, Rudy Washington, Marian Washington, George Raveling, Perry Watson, Mike Jarvis, Leonard Hamilton, and Reggie Minton, among a noteworthy host of others. I was given unfiltered access to interview anyone.
Somehow, someway, this neophyte journalist scribing for a Black-owned news medium had a national story. The coaches trusted me to write that story, and, I did just that.
I tried to let their voices tell the story about that moment in a time when Black Coaches dared to confront the Lordly NCAA, and college presidents almost 30-years-ago.
At that time a number of proposals and actions by the college presidents and NCAA did not sit well with Thompson and the BCA Coaches, whom collectively felt the NCAA was knowingly or not, was traveling down a path of unnecessary exclusion in collegiate athletics for minority youth.
(The coaches also generated a host of other viewpoints and ideas they debated over the two-day summit).
The college presidents and NCAA at that time ran roughshod through their so-called minions or student/athletes. They chose to only see things through an SAT test score or exclaim them as amateur athletes that should not get paid.
Yet, Thompson, Chaney, and BCA wanted the NCAA to see that in most cases when given a real opportunity, overwhelmingly, minority student/athletes uplifted themselves from the experience of higher education – even if they did not graduate – or from the experience of being tutored by a Thompson or Chaney.
That is the message that Thompson and the other BCA Coaches wanted to convey.
After writing the story it was published throughout the Black Press of America, and I begin to receive phone calls from everywhere. The Associated Press and local LA media called, trying to get me to give up some details of the conference.
Editors and reporters asked me things like, “Are all the BCA Coaches going to protest or what is Thompson going to do or is someone boycotting a game or event?”.
I said nothing about what I knew or thought the BCA Coaches might attempt to do collectively. I tried to just let their voices speak.
The fact of the matter was, whether Thompson knew what he was doing for me or not, it kickstarted me on a personal journalism journey that allowed me to do more in my communities than I ever dreamed.
I changed career paths from engineering into journalism/education (yeah, you need two jobs working for the Black press).
After that faithful moment in time for me in Chicago, over the next 30 years ago, I always saw Thompson and Chaney at the Final Fours. When I started covering the tournament former New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden told me to come to a small meeting.
Coach Ken Maxey and I went to the meeting and Thompson, Chaney and Richardson were there as were writers Bryan Burwell, Rhoden, Michael Wilbon, just to mention a few.
We always made sure to get together at the Final Fours going forward. Thompson and Chaney were almost always at the small meetings as the carousel of other coaches and writers changed. The early agendas were always centered around how the writers and the coaches could navigate the white-dominated system to somehow find inclusion and merit. For sure I listened more than I talked.
After that wonderous phone call from Coach John Thompson, over the next 30-years, I continuously saw him at the Final Fours. We always spoke, when time permitted we had in-depth conversations and occasionally we broke bead together.
Years ago . . . I asked Thompson why they decided to call me and invite me to come to Chicago. He said, “We liked the story you wrote about the NCAA, plus it did not hurt you were working for the black press.”
I never asked him about it again, but every time I saw Thompson or Chaney I always felt so thankful for their benevolence.
Leland Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter at LelandSteinIII