A former member of the famed Harlem Globetrotters visited an Austin School last week to help honor its athletic team and newly-crowned basketball champs.
Austin's San Miguel School-Gary Comer Campus' boy's basketball team won the West Side Catholic Basketball League championship last week. On Thursday, they received a visit from Harlem Globetrotter Curley "Boo" Johnson, who helped celebrate their victory while also offering the kids advice on how to succeed off the court.
Hard work, determination and relentlessness were the central topics of the former basketball player and showman. To drive each characteristic home, Johnson pointed to his own life and that of his father, Curley Johnson Sr. - also a former Globetrotter and Boo's mentor throughout much of his life.
"Every time someone told me I couldn't do something, I did it," Johnson said. "If you don't believe in yourself, no one else will."
Johnson told the sixth, seventh and eighth graders about his father's quest to play professionally for the Detroit Pistons, a dream that was never fulfilled because of "an unwritten two-black ballplayers per team rule," that he claimed existed at the time. As a result, Curley Sr. joined the Globetrotters, playing for them in the 1960s and '70s. As for himself, Johnson explained how hard he practiced to improve a less-than-accurate jump shot. He eventually honed that skill, which helped him earn scholarships to Spoon River College in Canton, Ill. and later to Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he graduated from. It was there that he excelled athletically, academically and socially.
"I was All-American [at Spoon River], I was part of the student government, and I had three girlfriends, although I lost all three of them in a three-day weekend," Johnson joked, followed by raucous laughter.
Although his largely motivational speech contained tidbits of humor, it mainly stressed the importance of education and averting street life.
"This basketball paid for my education and the Globetrotters found me in school, not in a gang and not in jail," he said.
Nearing the end of his address, students were visibly nervous that he might not dazzle them with some of the tricks he made famous with the Globetrotters. But Johnson
didn't leave without a little razzle-dazzle.
Before the exercise, Johnson paid homage to the Warriors' 11-0 season and championship victory over the Providence-St. Mel Knights by announcing the achievement. He then invited them to partake in the exercise. Johnson's fast-paced dribbling tricks showed off his ball-handling feats, completed with multiple basketballs.
"OOOOHHHH's!" and "AAAAHHHH's!" filled the auditorium along with cheers from the ball players he invited to mid-court for the drill. Johnson began by tossing the ball between three or four students, and then performed a few ball-handling tricks as a distraction: an attempt to test their attentiveness once he threw the ball their way. He later alluded to the fact that the exercise was a metaphor for readiness and preparation in life.
Johnson struck a chord with kids, who were hanging onto his every word. "I thought the kids enjoyed it. It's good for them to see an African-American, someone that looks like them, with a positive message," said Principal Caprice Smalley.
As for their championship season, player Mike Clark, 13, an eighth-grader said: "It was a hard season, but we pulled through. [Coach] pushes you to work really hard."
"It was nice to finally win - we been playin' together since fifth grade," added Raekwon Boyles, 14, also in eighth grade, noting that many of the boys played ball together in their elementary schools.
Austin's San Miguel campus, 819 N. Leamington, boasts an 88-percent high school graduation rate for its alumni. Boy's basketball skipper and Austin resident, Eric Berger, who has coached the team for seven years, believes the school's discipline and positive outlet - such as basketball - provide the kids with structure to steer them from trouble.
"Every year you get them involved when you show them you're concerned," he said. "There are kids who want to go out on the street, but once they're a part of something positive, they stay."