Wrong color at the wrong time   

Updated: February 15, 2007, 3:03 PM ET

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In the history of American women's volleyball, few players are more accomplished than Bev Oden. During her career at Stanford, Oden became the only person to be named a first-team All-American four times. She was the 1990 NCAA Player of the Year, a captain of the 1992 national champion Cardinal and a starter at middle blocker on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.

Along with her older sisters Kim and Elaina, both Olympians as well, she is one-third of the most dominant family the sport has ever seen.

Bev Oden

Al Bello/Getty Images

Bev Oden (left) decided to do something after this ugly incident.

To volleyball fans, Bev Oden is fantastic. Dazzling. Legendary.

To the police, Bev Oden is black. Suspicious. A subject.

Were I not a friend of Bev Oden's, I doubt I would feel comfortable writing such things. Yet to know Bev is to know pure goodness. In the 10 years since we met, I have never seen or heard Bev curse, lie or condemn others. She volunteers every Sunday at the Christ Our Redeemer Church near her home in Irvine, Calif., and legitimately aims to spread the mojo of righteousness via her lifestyle.

In short, if my 3-year-old daughter grows up to possess the virtue of Bev Oden, I'll know I did well.

For this reason, I feel compelled to write of an incident that took place last Thursday; an incident that serves as reminder No. 12,371 that in today's America, even the most decent, accomplished black person can still evoke fear and suspicion.

On the morning of Feb. 8, Bev was driving to her job as a supervisor with While You R Away Professional Pet Sitting Services in Ladera Ranch, Calif. With little time to spare, she stopped at a Washington Mutual Bank to discharge $20 from the ATM machine. As she exited her Dodge Stratus, Bev noticed a pair of police officers entering the bank. "For a brief moment I thought that maybe it was being robbed and I shouldn't go in," she says. "But if a robbery was in progress, the police wouldn't just be strolling in."

When she left the lobby with her money, Bev was not alone. There was also a Hispanic woman walking away from the ATM area. And a white man, too.

Yet as soon as Bev drove off, the police followed her. She was immediately targeted by Sergeant Wayne Byerly of the Orange County Sheriff's Department, who instructed her to pull over in an adjacent shopping center's parking lot.

"Stuff like this happens to black people all the time," says Bev. "It's nothing new. But the first time I really thought it was weird was when the officer parked his car diagonally across from me, blocking an exit so no one could get through. There were a lot of people around, and it was almost like he was trying to create a spectacle."

After receiving Bev's license and registration, Byerly -- joined by another officer, Deputy Jung Lee -- asked if she minded if they searched her car. "I was thinking he'd sweep it for weapons and let me go," Bev says. "So I said, OK." With that, Byerly frisked Bev, then guided her to the back of his patrol car, his hand on her arm the entire time. "Can you sit in here?" he asked, pointing to a rear seat that offered the 6-foot-3 Oden the legroom of a coffee mug. The question was rhetorical. "It was uncomfortable," she says. "But they told me it would be quick. Call me a fool, but I believed them."

Quick is a relative term. Compared to the time it takes Pluto to orbit the sun, the span was quick. Compared to the time it takes Steve Trachsel to pitch 30 innings, the span was quick. In back-of-the-cop-car time, however, 1½ hours is not quick.

That's right. Bev Oden -- volleyball legend, church volunteer, black woman -- was locked in the back of the police car for 1½ hours.

Her apparent crime: Withdrawing 20 bucks from an ATM.

"It was humiliating, it was scary, it was horrible," says Bev, searching for adjectives. "I work in this community, and people are walking by, staring through the window. I felt completely violated in every possible way."

For those 90 minutes, Bev Oden sat in the rear of a hot police car -- window open a sliver, as if she were a dog -- and watched the two officers check everything. They dug through her bags, through her glove compartment, through her papers. Though, according to Bev, neither officer would explain the situation, they made it blatantly clear she was potentially in big trouble.

When Bev asked to call work, they said no. When Bev asked that an officer call work on her behalf, they said no. When Bev asked to use the bathroom, they said no. When one of the officers briefly opened the back door, Bev tried stretching her cramped legs toward the ground. She says she was ordered to keep them in the car. The questions came fast and furious: Where was she going? When was the last time she was in Los Angeles? Did she have a boyfriend? Why didn't she have a receipt from the bank? Why did she have two cell phones? (Answer: She was donating her old one to charity.) "I kept thinking, 'They're almost done,'" says Bev. "But they weren't. It's in that type of situation where you can't help but think about race. If you're black, you know this stuff happens."

Bev says she reached her boiling point when she looked out the window and saw the officers laughing with one another. When Bev was finally released from the car, she says Byerly told her, "Well, I guess you were just an innocent bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time." Then, according to Bev, the exchange went like this:

Byerly: "There's a black man trying to pass off false checks in the bank."

Oden: "And … I'm black."

Byerly: "Yeah."

"Was it racial profiling?" says Bev. "Undoubtedly. What else can you possibly call it? There were other people leaving the bank when I left, and none of them were stopped. I was the only person pulled over, and -- coincidentally, they'd say -- I happened to be the only black person there.

"When you're black, it makes no difference who you are. Volleyball, church, job, family -- it all falls behind color. You're a black person driving a crummy car at a bank in a white, wealthy town. That's good enough for them, I guess."

Neither Byerly nor Lee returned ESPN's calls, but Jim Amormino, the spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, refutes the idea of racial profiling. "Her race wasn't a factor -- period," he says. "It wouldn't have mattered if she was white, black, Oriental -- she was outside the bank, and when the deputies arrived she drove off. That was suspicious to them, so they stopped her, talked to her and released her. The man had mentioned he had a girlfriend picking him up."

Translation: The perpetrator was black. Bev Oden was black. Instant lovebirds.

When told of Amormino's explanation, Oden laughed. At 35, she is well-versed in the crafting of racial suspicions. Like many African-Americans, she's been followed in department stores, denied help from clerks, pulled over for a weapons check. Recently, while house-sitting, she was retrieving letters from a client's mailbox when a white neighbor came running out her front door, screaming, "That's not your mail! That's not your mail!"

"And black men have it so much worse than we women do," she says. "I don't know how they deal with it."

Here's how Bev Oden has dealt with it. Three days after the incident, she found herself sitting in Christ Our Redeemer Church, waiting for the sermon to begin. Pastor Mark Whitlock's subject matter that morning was the myriad injustices blacks have faced over the years. The words SPEAK UP flashed across the screen above.

It was a message.

"I wasn't going to say anything about this, because I want to move on with my life," says Bev. "But when [Whitlock] was speaking, it was as if he was speaking to me. I don't believe in coincidences. Everything takes place for a reason. I feel like I'm not supposed to just meekly let this pass.

"This sort of thing happens every day. I'd like to think this time they picked the wrong black person to pull over."

Indeed, they did.

This time, they picked Bev Oden.

Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds & the Making of an Antihero."


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