Sports of The Times; The Violence Far From the Court
BY GEORGE VECSEY
Published: August 13, 1995
John Walker beat his wife. Half a century later, his youngest son, Chet, can remember the violence of the words, the violence of the hands.
"I tried to understand what made him so mad all the time," the son has written. "He whipped all of his children for the usual misbehavior. Yet it was my mother who bore the brunt of his verbal and physical abuse -- when he was at home, that is."
These searing visions arrive in a year when Warren Moon of the Minnesota Vikings has publicly apologized to his wife for striking her, when many other athletes are being accused of abusive behavior toward women.
The potential for violence is just one of the themes in a valuable new book titled "Long Time Coming: A Black Athlete's Coming-of-Age in America," by Chet Walker, with Chris Messenger, recently published by Grove Press.
Chet Walker is 20 years past his distinguished career as a quiet, silky forward who held the Chicago Bulls' single-game record of 56 points until a chap named Jordan broke it.
The world was not waiting for a memoir from Chet Walker; this is not one of those churn-it-out star autobiographies, or a dirty-little-secrets book. This is a book from an adult who has some wisdom to share.
Now a film producer in California, Walker won an Emmy for a documentary on Mary Thomas, the mother of Isiah. He knows a thing or two about matriarchs. His own mother, Regenia Walker, summoned the courage to leave her husband and rural Mississippi and head north, for a better life.
On the day of the departure of the rest of his family, John Walker hit Regenia Walker one more time, sending her sprawling. As the older brothers prepared to fight off their father, Regenia Walker gathered herself and said, "Come on, y'all, let's go."
Her dreams were realized in her son Chet, who not only became a college basketball star but also gained an education, scholastic and otherwise. He learned from the black bootstrappers in Benton Harbor, Mich., who coached him and disciplined him and took him to church. And he learned from Wyatt, the lookout man outside the poolroom who warned him to stay away from the hustlers inside, and "second, whatever you do, NEVER TRUST THE WHITE MAN. . . . NEVER." Chet Walker suspended that sound advice occasionally when his instincts told him it was safe.
Walker learned from the gang of coaches who illegally waylaid him on his trip to the University of Nebraska and took him by chartered plane to Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. He learned from the white coach at Bradley who treated him like property. And he learned from black and Asian scholars, as well as two white nuns who stood up in class and pungently spoke out in favor of Martin Luther King in the early 60's.
He describes being too shy to speak in class, afraid that being black and inherently southern would make him sound ignorant. And he earned his degree in four years, leading to his belief that freshmen should not play varsity sports, nor should black athletes be given special treatment for eligibility.
As a professional player in Syracuse, Philadelphia and Chicago, Walker remained elusive, letting others do the leading. He makes a strong case that basketball was more fun, more cerebral, when he played, and he portrays Robertson, Russell, Cousy, Chamberlain, DeBusschere, Baylor and West as great players for any age.
For basketball buffs, Walker offers three fresh memories of his being the intended receiver in the "Havlicek stole the ball" playoff game made famous by the gloating, rasping voice of Johnny Most, the Celtics' announcer: the indecisiveness of Dolph Schayes, the Philadelphia coach; Wilt declining to get the ball because Wilt didn't want to shoot foul shots, and Hal Greer having to adjust his inbounds pass because of the guide wire from the basket to the floor in archaic Boston Garden.
Walker also writes about the 60's, about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and how he, as a liberal black man, campaigned for Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
"We all think our era was the best," Walker said in a recent telephone interview, "but when I played it was a fascinating time. As destructive as the era was, you had the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. There was something positive. The human race came together. You had a purpose. Today I see a generation without a purpose. The whole purpose of ball players today seems to be money and living in big houses."
Walker keeps up with apparent wave of incidents involving athletes and women, most recently documented in an excellent article by William Nack and Lester Munson in Sports Illustrated.
"I don't think it's only athletes," Walker said. "A lot of men get off on being abusive to women. When I decided to do this book, it was very difficult for me to talk about my father. I was concerned about the image of black men in this country, but I wanted to share it.
"I know what it was like for my father to live in Mississippi," he continued. "You had to say 'Yes, sir' to a 6-year-old white boy. You can't imagine how much damage that did to his manhood. It turned him into a monster."
Not excusing it in any way, Walker attests to a level of rage ticking away in himself, and many other athletes.
"There's a frustration about being an athlete," Walker said. "When your career is not going good, you don't feel like being around people. You're tired and angry. If somebody does something wrong, you could snap.
"When you're angry at the world, the one person you feel should understand you is the person closest to you," he said. "If she makes you feel that pressure, you say, 'You're the enemy, too.' Ball players feel their wives don't understand. There's a great need for psychological counseling for athletes."
Although he talks about many female companions, Walker's most poignant memories are about escorting one woman to an illegal abortionist and how he once grabbed a female friend by the throat, both many years ago.
"A big part of my life has been spent in fleeing from my father's image," Walker writes. "It's probably one of the main reasons I haven't gotten married. I worry about treating women the way he treated my mother."
Chet Walker proudly considers his nieces and his nephews and his documentaries to be his family. Now he has added this memoir to his legacy.