|Melvin Russell in action at Woodlawn:|
No. 25 (top) on road, No. 24 (with ball,
white home uniforms.
Melvin Russell is a "get along" and a "get after it" person, and he's never been afraid of a challenge.
It was that way when he was among the six black kids -- and the only athlete -- to integrate Woodlawn High School in Shreveport in the fall of 1967, and it is that way now.
His challenge all those years ago was to become accepted in a changing world, and it was a great learning experience for him and everyone. His challenge now, at age 63, is different -- a medical challenge.
Four years ago, he found out he has failing kidneys. Three times a week, for four hours at a time, he goes to dialysis in Arlington, Texas, where he's lived for more than 25 years. A kidney transplant, hopefully to keep him going, is in the near future ... if some complications with his prospective donor (his son, Melvin Russell Jr.) can be alleviated.
The details are here in a story that ran in The Shreveport Times a year ago: http://usatodayhss.com/2014/melvin-russell-sr-returns-to-shreveport-to-give-receive
"Hey, I'm OK," he said when we talked a few weeks ago. "Some people have bad hearts. Some people have cancer. I've got kidney disease, but I can deal with it. I'm not that bad off."
And if you know Melvin Russell Sr., if you look at his record of achievement in basketball and otherwise, you believe he will be OK.
The basketball resume:
-- Point guard, the 6-foot-1 floor leader of a well-balanced team that not only became the first basketball team in Woodlawn's nine-year history at that time to make the state playoffs, but then won four playoff games and the Class AAA state championship (four months after the school won the state football championship). The team's record: 33-3.
-- First black player from Shreveport to play in the Top Twenty state tournament, first black player to be an All-State selection on Louisiana High School Athletic Association teams, first black player in the LHSAA All-Star Game. One of four Woodlawn players off that title team to sign to play at Centenary College, where in three varsity seasons he set career and single-season records for assists, thanks in part to teaming with a 7-foot freshman center named Robert Parish in 1972-73.
-- Drafted by the American Basketball Association's Utah Stars, as was his Woodlawn and Centenary teammate Larry Davis, and Parish (after his freshman year). Parish chose to stay at Centenary; neither Russell nor Davis made the Stars' regular-season roster.
-- Returned to Woodlawn as an assistant coach to his Knights' coach, Ken Ivy, and after two years, succeeded him as head coach. In his third season -- just as Ivy had -- his team reached the state championship game (but lost). The next season, 1979-80, his team went 31-2 and won the Class AAAA state championship. He was the state's "Coach of the Year."
-- In seven seasons as head coach, his teams had a 173-59 (.746) record, with four district titles and no losing seasons. He left in the spring of 1983, citing the low pay for coaches in Caddo Parish as a disappointment and not foreseeing much change in that.
And he was a person who could handle change.
So here's my premise: Say Ken Ivy was the best coach in Woodlawn basketball history and Robert Parish was the best player, Melvin Russell no question is the best player and coach the school has ever had.
I had to laugh a year ago when I opened a conversation with Melvin by asking, "Who is the second-best player in Woodlawn basketball history?" and his reply was, "Robert Parish."
I don't think he was being serious. Some might take that as a conceited answer, but I don't and those who know him wouldn't.
But, yes, he is a confident man, and he was a confident young man. He had to be to walk onto that Woodlawn campus in September 1967.
"My personality was that if you didn't bother me, I wouldn't bother you," he said. "I was laid-back, I felt I could get along with anyone, black, white; I tried not to let things get to me. So I thought I would be OK going to Woodlawn."
He chose to leave all-black Union High School -- less than a mile from Woodlawn -- on the "freedom of choice" plan designed to de-segregate schools. Kids from all-black schools could attend any all-white school they wanted, and vice versa. Few kids, certainly not the whites, made that choice.
The six Union-to-Woodlawn transfers -- three boys (the other two were in ROTC) and three girls -- he remembers, and he can name them all, "had been handpicked because we had the right credentials and temperament" and one of the Union counselors had encouraged Melvin.
"I wasn't sure I wanted to go," he said. "My mother didn't really want me to go; it didn't matter to my dad, and my grandmother (who had worked in the cafeteria at Woodlawn) wanted me to do it."
And there was the basketball factor: He had played on the Union varsity as a sophomore, enough he thought to be a letterman and get the reward for that. It didn't happen.
To be honest, the deciding factor in the move to Woodlawn was "I was mad at [Coach Clifford] Pennywell."
Pennywell, who -- with Parish as a freshman and sophomore -- took his teams to the LIALO (all-black) state semifinals and then when Union was closed as a high school in the integration process moved to the predominant, old-line all-black school in town (Booker T. Washington), did not give the sophomore backup point guard what he wanted.
"We had awards day," Russell recalled, "and I was expecting that sweater. What I got, like the junior varsity guys, was a 6-inch trophy. I was pissed off. I walked out of the cafeteria and threw that trophy in one of those big trash drums they had outside, and went home and told my mother, 'I'm going to Woodlawn.'
"If I'd gotten the [light] blue sweater with the big U on it, I would have stayed at Union."
Union's loss, Woodlawn's gain. (Same with Parish and his Union teammates three years later, but theirs wasn't by choice.)
What the transfers from Union had been counseled on, warned about, and maybe even worried about, wasn't like the reality when school began.
"I was 16 when we walked in to register, and we're among [about] 2,000 white kids, so we stayed close to each other," Melvin recalled. "You could hear the buzz and I heard some kid say, 'black sheep go home'; that's what it sounded like. I'm thinking, 'That's your thing.' I held my head high and I registered."
Early on, there were "racial comments every day ... I had the kind of temperament that allowed me to work with it; I didn't react to everything little thing," he said. There was taunting, resentment, defiance, alienation, and for Melvin, one memorable time when he had to fight to prove himself (more to come on that episode).
One day in the cafeteria, he sat down at a table and "20 kids got up and left," he said. "Id get in line, and people didn't want to stand next to me."
But he had some allies -- especially in athletics. When Coach W.B. Calvert, overseeing a physical education class, saw Melvin in action, he quickly realized this was a player.
"They wanted me to play football," Melvin recalled, because Woodlawn at that time was very much a football school, a state power. "But I wasn't going to do that. So he (Calvert) told Coach Ivy about me. ... I met Coach Ivy for the first time in front of the trophy cases [in the gym foyer). They had those pictures up there; I asked him, 'How do you get your picture up there?' "
He was told you had to be an All-State selection. Two years later, that's what he was.
Ivy, about to build a perennial basketball power, would become his biggest influence at Woodlawn. Soon Melvin was practicing with the team. He was switched from a regular P.E. class to sixth-period athletics.
Here he found a distinct difference from Union. "I was given my own basketball to use, a leather basketball, and three pairs of shoes -- Converse," he said.
"At Union, we only saw a leather ball on game days; we only got one pair of shoes on game days. We practiced with rubber balls and we had to use our own shoes. That was some of that separate but unequal crap."
He also had a friend on the Woodlawn basketball team -- Mike McGovern, also then a junior and a year later the Student Council president and one of the stars on the state championship team.. Melvin's grandmother had been the McGovern family's maid and she also cooked at the family's church, Sunset Acres Baptist (one of the most popular churches in the Woodlawn area).
After some time, there were friends on the football team, too -- "I was cool with [quarterback] Joe Ferguson and [linebacker] Clinton Ebey, and others," he remembered, "so that helped me assimilate with the rest of the student body."
On a personal note, there was one other friend ... in class: Elsa Van Thyn. My younger sister was his lab partner in chemistry.
I was a junior at Louisiana Tech University that fall and one day when I was home, my sister said, "I've got a black kid in my chemistry class. He's nice. I hear he's a good basketball player."
She heard correctly. His name, she said, was Melvin Jones.
And it was Melvin Jones at Union and that first year at Woodlawn. He had been Melvin Gladney early on, then took his stepdad's name when his mother remarried when he was 3. They moved from Houston to Shreveport when he was 10 and, before his senior year at Woodlawn, he had gotten to know his real father, Henry Russell, and took his last name. (Henry now lives in Dallas, not far from Melvin in Arlington.)
But before Melvin Jones could play a competitive game for the Woodlawn Knights, there was one major disappointment and one long wait.
(Next: Sitting out a season ... fighting for acceptance)