instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Chapter 2 (excerpt)

Wes Bizilia got the first glimpse. It was January 1968 and Bizilia was a graduate assistant at Auburn University. Each week he went to classes, taught physical education, and made $45 helping the Auburn basketball program. His primary responsibility was scouting prospective players.

 

"We got a game for you to go see," Rudy Davalos told him. "There's a kid named Henry Harris we want you to look at. It's in Boligee."

 

Davalos, an Auburn assistant coach, thought Bizilia was a natural for the assignment. He was a successful high school coach and had graduated from Livingston State, just sixteen miles from Boligee in west Alabama "You've been over in that area, so you'll know where it is," Davalos said. But Bizilia had no idea where Boligee was. "I didn't even know Boligee existed."

 

The game was scheduled for the late afternoon, so Bizilia left Auburn in plenty of time for the 180-mile trip across the state. He was anxious; he didn't know what to expect. The grandson of Ukranian immigrants, Bizilia grew up in Pennsylvania and had never gone to an all-black school before. He expected to be the only white person there.

 

When he finally arrived, he couldn't believe it. "Boligee was a God-forsaken place. You drive in there, and you didn't even know it was a town. It was as rural as it gets," he said. When he found Greene County Training School, he headed straight to the principal's office. He had called ahead, so A. W. Young was expecting him.

 

"Coach, you're going to sit with me," Young told him.

 

They walked a short distance down the hall and into the small gymnasium the players called "The Chicken Coop." The court was probably ten feet short of regulation. The floor was painted concreted. Chairs, not bleachers, lined the court. This would be basketball in the raw, Bizilia thought, nothing but the ball and players and who wanted it the most. The excitement was palpable. A buzz started as soon as Bizilia walked in. White folks didn't come to Greene County Training School, and everyone knew why he was there. He had come for Henry Harris, the pride of the people, the promise of a new day.

 

Young led Bizilia to their seats at mid-court. When the Bobcats finally came out to warm up, they spotted Bizilia immediately. Harris was leading them. "When they get to midcourt," Bizilia said, "Henry puts the ball on the floor and goes in and shoots a lay-up,"

 

Bizilia turned to Young. "He has a scholarship to Auburn right now."

 

"But, Coach, you haven't seen him play."

 

"I've seen enough. He can play."

 

Young looks at Bizilia in disbelief. "You mean it?"

 

"I mean it. He can play."

 

Henry Harris could play, and Bizilia was living a recruiter's dream. He could hardly contain himself. Deep in the outback of west Alabama, in the midst of cotton fields and poverty, Auburn had unearthed a marvelous talent. No other recruiters were there. Bizilia was getting a private showing of Harris's skills and verve, and the more he watched the more excited he grew. Good body control, he thought. Good control of the basketball. Good shot balance. Tremendous leg spring. "When he went up, he got it up and he got it over you. That first time he shot a layup, just the way he went in, the control of the ball. He exploded when he went up. He was six-foot-two, but he had an explosion and quickness about him, you just didn't see every day."

 

Young introduced Bizilia to Harris after the game.

 

"I like the way you play," he said.

 

Harris smiled. His grin was quick and easy. And huge.

 

"You didn't disappoint me. We're interested. We'll be in touch with you." 

 

- - - - -

 

Larry Chapman was the next coach sent to evaluate Harris, the basketball prodigy living on the edge of modern society. Bizilia had told Davalos, "Man, he's a good player." So "Rudy [Davalos] sends me down there," said Chapman, Auburn's freshman coach.

 

The afternoon Chapman and his wife set out for York and Sumter County, site of Harris's next game, they would traverse Alabama on a 185-mile, two-lane trip drenched with irony, on U.S. 80, history's highway. They drove through Tuskegee, training site of the black pilots who would quell Americans' doubts about black men's courage and valor under fire in World War II. They went through Montgomery, where Rosa Parks birthed the civil rights movement by remaining steadfast in her bus seat in 1955. On the way to Selma they passed the patch of highway where Viola Liuzo was shot dead by the Ku Klux Klan. They drove into Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and the site of the bloody confrontation less than three years earlier that propelled Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the hour from Montgomery to Selma, the Chapmans passed through the seminal bookends of a movement that had thrust open gates he was now hurrying to find a young man to walk through. His spirits were soaring. He knew Auburn was moving ahead of all the SEC schools in the Deep South. Not one of them had given an athletic scholarship to a black basketball or football player, and now it appeared Auburn could be the first. As the miles dragged with winter's darkness fast approaching, he wondered, "Lord, will we ever get there?"

 

Seven miles from the Mississippi line, York was a game site seemingly scripted out of destiny. Sumter County was where Harris's family had struggled to get by for decades, picking cotton in the Alabama sun, where his ancestors were slaves, and where his mother had to drop out of school at fifteen. Now, a coach was coming to Sumter County hoping to offer him a college scholarship.

 

"We go to the high school," Chapman said, "and they let us sit up on the stage. The boys teams come out to warm up during halftime of the girls game. I watch them warm up, and I know this guy is kind of special. And then they start playing, and he is [special]. I don't remember how many points he got; I just know he dominated and was an incredible basketball player." shrouded

 

Chapman got a tinge of the excitement that major league talent scouts felt when they discovered seventeen-year-old Willie Mays playing center field at Rickwood Field for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1947. They stumbled upon a natural in a closeted, skill-laden sub-culture most Americans trivialized or ignored, and many didn't even know existed. Chapman couldn't believe his luck, couldn't believe Auburn's luck. He sensed he was watching a "basketball icon" in the making.

"He just instinctively reacted to whatever happened on that court, and that's what basketball is," said Chapman. ". . . There was no doubt that, from a basketball perspective, this guy was like someone you would see in a ballet."

 

But Chapman also grasped the larger story. "A story about a black kid in the Deep South who loved basketball. Who was poor. Who lived in a cinder-block home in a part of the state that was pretty desolate. Out of that rose Henry Harris. It's like he took a wrong turn. He wasn't supposed to be there. But there he was."