Friday, March 6, 2015

Melvin: A long wait, fighting for acceptance

(Third in a series)
      "The story of Melvin Russell [integrating basketball at Woodlawn High School] is that it went smooth as silk because of the kind of person Melvin Russell is. I saw him get knocked into a wall or get knocked to the floor, and he'd just get up, pat the other team's guy on the butt, and keep on playing." -- Ken Ivy, Woodlawn coach, 1965-79
     "You could tell from the start that Melvin Russell was exceptional. Some [black kids] came in with a chip on their shoulder. He wasn't like that. He came in humble, not asking for anything. What he had to go through, what he had to deal with, I knew where Melvin was coming from." -- Woodlawn and Centenary College teammate Larry Davis
Woodlawn's Class AAA state champions, 1968-69
      The year Melvin Russell became a Woodlawn student, the school's basketball program became a winner for the first time. But he didn't play in a game.
      That was a huge blow. He had to sit out his junior season.
      After practicing unofficially with the Woodlawn team since early September and for more than a month after the start of official practice, and with the season about a week away, Melvin was told he would not be eligible for the 1967-68 season.
       The ruling came from the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, which did not acknowledge the "freedom of choice" plan by which Melvin had moved from all-black Union High School to Woodlawn (less than a mile away).
       All these years later, some of us still believe the ruling stunk. Same was true for Jeff Sudds, Melvin's junior high teammate at Union who was a sophomore that year at brand-new Captain Shreve High across town and also was declared ineligible.
       Melvin and his family did not change residences; there was no physical move involved, and they were clearly in the Woodlawn school district by LHSAA standards. The all-black schools such as Union had their own athletic association, their own rules.
       In plain terms, you could look at it as racism. LHSAA officials were not ready for integration in athletics to happen that year in Shreveport.
       "It was disappointing," Melvin said. "But I practiced every day, and I watched every game, and I tried to learn. I learned how to run the offense, what everyone was supposed to do, and I learned all the defenses."
       And when he was eligible the next year, he obviously was ready. He was the floor leader, the 6-foot-1 point guard of the Knights team that was the first in the school's history (ninth year) to make the playoffs ... and then won the state championship.
       What those Knights didn't do was win the district championship. That went to Captain Shreve and its second-year program, including Sudds, a 6-3 forward who with Melvin integrated Shreveport high school ball that year.
       And like Melvin, Sudds and his teammates were in the state championship game the next season. Here were two players worth waiting for, and fun to watch.
       Some Woodlawn basketball background: For the first six years, it was a wasteland, nothing close to a winning record. This despite each year having an All-City player (Charlie Williams, Jimmy Kneipp, Jon Pat Stephenson, Ken Liberto, Larry Bazer), a couple the city's top scorer. 
       In my senior year (as manager/statistician), we were 4-21; the next year the team was 5-22. Then came a coaching change, with Ivy -- the "B" team coach in 1965-66 -- taking over, his first high school head coaching job.
       His first team, with another big scorer (guard Ricky Hayes), went 16-17, missing a winning record with a one-point loss (on a late basket) in the regular-season finale. 
       Then Melvin arrived, and sat out as a team with senior starters Hayes, Bob Turner, Gary Alderman and Mike Sanders, went 24-5 but missed the playoffs, finishing third in a tough district 1-AAA. A late-season loss at home to Bossier, the district runner-up to Byrd, was the difference; Bossier wound up in the state championship game, losing to Al "Apple" Sanders and Baton Rouge High.
       Put Melvin Russell on that third-place Knights team at point guard, and he might have made a difference. 
       The next season he did.
       In basketball, as in school itself, though, he had to battle for acceptance. He couldn't fight the LHSAA, but he did fight an antagonizer in a Woodlawn stairwell, and he had to win over a teammate or two.
        A few weeks after school began and he had joined the basketball program, Melvin was coming from class down the main-building stairwell on the gym end (Woodlawn people will know this location) when he felt something hit him in the back.
       "I've got pretty good peripheral vision, and I saw this kid going up the stairs throw a paper wad at me,' " Melvin recalled. "I turned around and followed him to his class and I caught him and confronted him. I said, 'I don't want any trouble, but if you do something like that again, I'm going to whip your ass.' "
       Next day, same time, almost the same spot, same kid. This time, said Melvin, "he said,  'Don't nobody bump into the nigger.'
       "I grabbed him by the neck of the collar and threw him against the wall," Melvin said. "I remember he had a silver tooth and I was trying to knock it out. I was punching him in the face, but I was thinking to myself about what might happen. I thought I might get ganged up on. But to my surprise, nothing happened."
        As the fight was broken up, "I remember a white girl nearby fainted and they were carrying her off."
        Sent to the office, Melvin explained to "Mr. [J.W.] Cook [then the assistant principal in charge of discipline and devoted athletics fan] what happened. He already talked to some other kids and they verified what I told him. ... He sent me back to class. He knew I didn't start it."
        On his way back to class, a student stopped him and said, "I saw what happened and I don't blame you. I would have done the same thing.' That surprised me, too."
       That was the only physical challenge he had in his time at Woodlawn, but in basketball there were some tough moments, too, early on.
        "Larry Davis couldn't stand me at first," Melvin said. "There was an acceptance period there. But it wasn't so much Larry; we were OK in practice and in the dressing room. It was his friends that couldn't stand him being on the team with me. His friends tried to influence him, and maybe they did. There were some contentious moments between us."
        "I don't think I felt that way; I always had a lot of respect for him," Davis told me last week. "But older people, like my parents, were from another generation; they maybe had different feelings [toward black people]. And there were people [friends] who I didn't understand how they could hold things against certain people, but they did. ... It had always been that way, and maybe there's still some of that today. 
        "But Melvin, he was just a good person."
        They grew to be close; they played together for five seasons (four at Centenary), both in starring roles. 
        In the state championship season, Davis was easily Woodlawn's top scorer. In the last three games of the playoffs, in the stretch of each game, each of them came up big.
        (Next: Winning it all, and Russell's legacy)         


  1. From Tommy Youngblood: Hard to imagine that those times were real. It must have been a difficult time to be a kid. Either color.

  2. From Ellace Bruce: Enjoy your blogs dealing with Sunset Acres and Woodlawn. Many of the names bring back fond memories of those individuals. Very interesting on Melvin Russell.

  3. From Brent Patterson: I doubt that you will remember me, but I coached at Sunset Acres during the '60s. Seeing Gary Green, Paul Waldon, and Wayne Barrett really brings back a lot of memories. You also mentioned Bob Turner. I coached all of them, and am so proud of their accomplishments.