By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Recently, news of a subtler sort was made when Ty Willingham and Tony Dungy were hired as head coaches at the University of Notre Dame and the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, respectively. This gave the great state of Indiana, often linked to the Ku Klux Klan, four African-American head coaches, including Mike Davis at Indiana U. basketball, and Isiah Thomas of the Indiana Pacers.

Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham left no doubt that he intends to return Notre Dame to national championship contention as new coach of the Irish.

What does it mean? Is racism gone? Is affirmative action denying a chance to all white men? Is it a threat? A promise? Neither? More?

What's it all about? Is anybody even studying these issues? And more importantly, is anybody out there trying to make the sports world a better place, a place beyond political and racial label?

One man who can thoughtfully answer these questions, one man who in many ways is The Real Answer, is no African-American ballplayer, but a dutiful, committed white man in a suit and tie who saw an effigy of his father hanging from a tree when he was a boy. His father, Joe Lapchick, had played with the original Celtics up in Boston and had many friends among the old barnstorming Harlem Rens basketball team. Later, as a coach, he just plain saw right through color, and dared to play a black man in an NBA game.

Revolutionary, eh? Sometimes it's hard being first. But it's worth it.

"I saw my father's image swinging under a tree," recalls Richard Lapchick, from a restaurant booth near the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, and from somewhere deep in the recesses of his long-term memory. Lapchick is working on his latest project, the start-up of another ground-breaker: The DeVos Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida.

On Febr. 12-13, there will be a conference on these issues when the National Consotrium for Academics and Sport will will sponsor the "Challenges:Athletics in the New Millenium" at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort. The Giant Steps Awards Banquet is Feb 13th at Disney's Wide World of Sport. Both celebrate what Lapchick calls, "the True Heroes of Sport."

Lapchick will, no doubt, be besieged by more than the hundreds of applicants who already have signed up for admittance into this new and challenging academic program, which may help change the face of sport for the better in the long run. Changing the face of sport for the better seems to be Rich Lapchick's long suit. Why? Well, common sense, for one thing. But also because he can't get a burning effigy of his father out of his subconscious. It wasn't his father who was wrong. Bigots -- another word for the frightened -- were wrong for attacking him for being a decent man who knew ball. Joe Lapchick was a man who knew right from wrong and also how to run a basketball team. He lived to do both, let effigies by damned in the process.

"We lived up in Yonkers. We lived on Wendover Road. My dad was coaching the Knicks; they'd signed Nat 'Sweetwater' Clifton, who was the first African-American player in the NBA to actually play. Later, the phone rang. I picked up the extension. I heard my dad pick up. The caller said two words. ... I hung the phone up."

The two words young Rich heard the caller hurl at his father were not "nice going," but "Nigger lover!"

A little while later -- I was just a na´ve boy -- I asked my father if he was a 'nigger lover.' I'll never forget how he looked at me. With sadness. With caring. And with such frustration.
Richard Lapchick, recalling a life-changing episode in his life
"A little while later -- I was just a na´ve boy -- I asked my father if he was a 'nigger lover.' I'll never forget how he looked at me. With sadness. With caring. And with such frustration."

"But he didn't let that stop him from doing what he had to do."

Years later, after living the life of a man committed to a cause he had been taught should be a simple given, after being involved in the South African anti-apartheid movement and becoming acquainted with Arthur Ashe, the adult Rich Lapchick found himself living in Hampton Roads, Va. It was 1978 and he was beginning to compile the work that would become his seminal 1984 book, "Broken Promises: Racism in Sports." At his house in Virginia, his son Joey, named for his grandfather, came and asked, "Daddy, are you a nigger lover?"

Despite his best efforts, history had repeated itself. The endless circle of bigotry had closed with a vengeance. "He'd heard it somewhere," Lapchick says. "I was getting these harassing phone calls, people calling me names I'd heard before, for my involvement in trying to uphold the athletic boycott of South Africa, due to apartheid, (and) trying to keep the South Africans out of the Davis Cup, which was to be held at Vanderbilt, in Nashville."

One evening, Rich Lapchick was working late at home. It was less than a year after big trouble in South Africa and Nashville. South Africa was banned from the Davis Cup. Steven Biko, a black activist, was not yet cold in his grave after being beaten to death by South African police.

Rich had spoken up. He had said, "This is not right." He didn't say, "My father didn't believe it was right, either." But he didn't have to. The sins, or the graces, of the father are visited upon the son, and depending on the father, that can be a good thing, a life-affirming thing. Also a thing that gets you beat up, or dead, or later revered, and honored, and remembered. Not so much by history or covenants or courts, but by your own children. What do you have good character and do right for? Not for you. For your children.

By then Lapchick was persona non grata among the South African leadership. "The destruction of Mr. Lapchick" was desired, seen as a good thing by the Pretoria regime. Lapchick had moved his family to Norfolk to work at Virginia Wesleyan College. Then one night came a knock at the door. Lapchick answered. It was history calling -- this time in the form of subjugation, violence, a brutal beating he received in which he suffered a concussion, liver and kidney damage and a hernia. Scissors were used to carve the word "nigger" on his stomach. All this for trying to do what his father did, and to show his memory, his conscience, his son and the world that, by thought, word and deed, he was simply doing the right thing.

He survived. The Nashville Banner ran a story in which the Virginia Beach police had said they suspected the wounds had been "self-inflicted." How does a man keep going when confronted with odds like that? How? The wounds and the formidable historical opposition of racism and bigotry were nothing compared to when little Joey asked him what Rich had once asked his own father. Lapchick took a lie detector test and was examined by a New York medical examiner to substantiate the details of the attack.

Better a lover than a hater. Better a man than the tail end of a mob. So what did Rich Lapchick do? Talk about coming from behind. Talk about when the going gets tough the tough get going. ...

Nearly a quarter-century after that physical assault in Norfolk that nearly took his life, Lapchick has not only finished his book, but is constantly writing new chapters for a new edition. He formed the Center for the Study of Sport at Boston's Northeastern University in the 80s; he founded the National Consortium for Academics in Sports in the 90s; now, in 2002, the DeVos School for Sports Management takes flight. Hopefully, the wingspan and reach of each graduate will take the rest of us along with them, into a new day, new era, new age. Some of us may kick and scream at first, but anyplace has got to be better than where we've been.

Which is in denial.

"One day we hope to fill job slots with people who will make the business and social world of sports better," says Lapchick, who remains director emeritus of the Institute at Northeastern. "(Orlando Magic) Rich DeVos put up $2.5 million, and the state matched that. Tom Keon, dean of the college of business adminstration, gave us his full support, as did John Hitt, the university president. We hope that our comprehensive Sports Management program will be a model of what will happen in the future of sports business."

The curriculum is what the hierarchy of sports probably always should have been learning -- but better late than never.

"Most of the old school sports management people, in whatever area, had no idea of service to the community. They were in it for profit, for wins and losses only, for prestige. For a job," Lapchick says. "But you might lose a job. You might lose a game. And then, you'll lose interest in a community, and a community will lose interest in you. What we hope to teach are skills that cannot be lost over time. We hope to educate and improve everybody's lot in sports. The cities, the schools, the participants, at every organizational level. We are making good scholarship out of sports and social issues.

"It will take a business core of 20 accredited hours in the school of business administration, then 27 hours of sports management specialty training. Our faculty will number some of the best minds in sports. And with their and the professors' help, we hope to instruct on how to get things done, in a world of sport -- community service, diversity training, effective management at league-level, individual team-level, college and university levels. We hope our graduates will be the wave of the future, where society benefits from sports; we hope to make our students and ultimately our graduates aware of everything from bottom-line efficiency and community outreach to philanthropy and conflict resolution.

This will make a difference in the future, in the thinking and the skill base of the available talent pool for which all jobs in sports management will be filled, and also in individual lives.
Lapchick on his latest venture, the DeVos School for Sports Management
"This will make a difference in the future, in the thinking and the skill base of the available talent pool for which all jobs in sports management will be filled, and also in individual lives."

A difference already has been made, by the National Consortium for Academics in Sports. "We started with 11 schools. Now we're up to 218 involved colleges and universities, and 20,000 athletes, with $150 million in tuition out there to be taken advantage of," Lapchick says. "Our philosophy? Simple. A scholarship student-athlete who didn't finish his degree could come back at any time and continue his studies at the university for which he performed. You see, I believe that we all don't grow up at the same time."

Lapchick warms to a particular story, the tale of Clifford Moller, from Harlem, U.S.A. His father was a compulsive gambler who left the family when Cliff was 5 and was later killed in a penny-ante crap game. Clifford was shy, but an exceptional high school basketball player who accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Wanted to get as far away from Harlem as he could. But no matter how far you go -- there you are. The work must be done from the inside out, not the outside in.

Moller quit Nebraska after his first year. It doesn't matter what the reason was now: homesickness, inadequate preparation, culture shock, difficult circumstances, money problems, inability to adjust. "But," says Lapchick, "his life was not over at the age of 19."

Moller went back to New York, drove a hack, hustled in real estate, and started a family. He had a son whom he named Clifford. But as Moller later told Lapchick: "I provided. My only problem was that I couldn't tell my son that I had a college degree."

Under the program installed by Lapchick's Consortium, Moller could go back to Nebraska, work toward his degree. Even at 40.

A few years ago, Lapchick was in Lincoln, speaking at the school. He was told by the chancellor that the impressive man who introduced him was ... a man named Cliff Moller.

"Later Cliff told me, I walked last Sunday, man. I walked!' "

In other words, under the umbrella and with the graces of the Consortium, Moller, by then in his early 40s, had gone back and gotten his degree. He then went on the university's law school.

"I saw my father's image swinging under a tree"

Lapchick is a soft-spoken, observant, precise man who is making more of an impact on the acceptance of minorities and women at all levels of sports, both as business and cultural phenomenon, than all the blitzing linebackers, dunking small forwards, head coaches, nostalgic sportswriters and announcers put together.

As an impact player for social progress, Lapchick is Jordanesque.

Dues? He's paid them. That scar? That word? It's now faded from his belly but still on his mind.

On Feb. 13, at the campus of University of Central Florida in Orlando, another of Lapchick's answers to that age-old stumbling block posed as an innocent question -- are you? -- becomes reality.

"Giant Steps," the conference is called. More applicants for a better life, without hanging effigies or brutal henchmen trying to beat the decency out of decent men and women. Another step toward the elimination of the poverty of a spirit that has been pervasive in the past in sports, as it is only a microcosm of American life. And how did this all come about? Because, in the argot of the games, Lapchick "made it happen."

We need more of him.

Oh, and those coaches in Indiana? Each came into the job under a different set of circumstances that were not the norm. Each coach, in his own way, is an anomaly. And in each case, that amorphous, nebulous thing called "race" was not so much overcome as it was luckily transcended. Transcendant. That's a Rich Lapchick word.

It's not how you come in. It's how you go out that matters.

"The story -- our story -- is just beginning," Lapchick says.

So, for us all, it's not so much black history as our history. It's all one thing.

Some teach that fact better than others. That's why sports needs more Joe and Rich Lapchicks.

They should grow on trees. Not be hung beneath them.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."