Mar 28, 2017
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Can Baseball Save Your Soul? From Oakland to Cuba in Corr’s New Doc
by Doniphan Blair
Filmmaker Eugene Corr (lft) and Coach Roscoe Bryant share a laugh near a ball field in Havana. photo courtesy E. Corr
IT'S PROBABLY NO SURPRISE THAT
Eugene Corr’s new film, “
Ghost Town to Havana
”, is a weeper, given it is about a team of underserved Oakland kids going to play a team of even more impoverished—but spectacularly well-served—Cuban kids, with a focus on the titanic efforts of their respective coaches. For the trailer, go
Corr himself has had quite the cinematic journey, starting in the late ‘70s when he joined the Bay Area’s premier film collective, Cine Manifest, well-known for a feature, , “Northern Lights” (1981), which crossed the waters to Cannes and brought home gold.
With them, he also made “Over-Under Sideways-Down” (1977), about a working-class couple and their marital and fiduciary troubles. Later he wrote “Wildrose” (1984) for John Hanson, who co-directed “Northern Lights” with renown Berkeley director Rob Nilsson.
Corr carried on in the working-class doc department, including “Hardtimes in Humboldt County” about the end of the logging business. Although today's loggers have another, much more lucrative, plant to cultivate, Northern California was another world back then.
“I went to [the town of] Mendicino, one time with my parents. It was a tough lumber and fishing town,” Corr recalled, when we met at a café in North Berkeley near his small, crowded apartment. With his white mustache, sunglasses and backwards Irish cap, Corr looks like an older and friendlier Dennis Hopper.
“We went to the Catholic Church and there were all these women dressed in black because their husbands had died at sea.”
Corr has also had quite the social journey: coming up working class in Richmond, California; living with a father who was a bit of a rogue and roughneck; playing a lot of baseball—his dad was also a dedicated coach, often the only white guy on the field.
“The defining experience of my childhood,” Corr mentioned by email, “which gave me my point of view on life, was going back and forth between life with my (sweet) mom and sister in the lily white, small town Walnut Creek and life with my father in hardscrabble Richmond.”
“The Richmond of my father was a mesmerizing world for a curious kid. One day, fishing on the bay with my Uncle Chris, a wild Irishman from County Tyrone, who’d get so roaring drunk my father had to tie him to the boat… the next, duck hunting with true, hardscrabble southern whites, the Lucks, who had a country western band and were straight out of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.”
Gene Corr has a proclivity for philosophical rumination which he shared generously at cafe in N. Berkeley. photo D. Blair
This being the Bay Area in the ‘60s, however, Corr was soon enrolled in Oakland’s Merritt College and attending classes with Huey Newton and Bobby Seal, about to form the Black Panthers for Self-Defense. “I knew them enough to say hello in the hallways. They were surprising friendly.”
The social rollercoaster hardly stops there: Corr taught screenwriting in San Quentin; wrote narration for a lot of films, including the famous local indie “Never Cry Wolf” (1983); and his last documentary got an Academy Award nomination! That was back in ’92 with “Waldo Salt: The Screenwriter’s Journey”, about the blacklisted writer, and narrated by Peter Coyote.
Corr has even directed a bunch of well-known television shows, including one episode of “Miami Vice” in 1989, and wrote the 2001 TV Movie “Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story” about another legendary local.
But few of the above can compare, in sheer emotion, to “Ghost Town to Havana” a documentary dripping with pathos and personal stories, including his own, because his father, also named Gene or Eugene, was a well-known baseball coach in Richmond.
That gives Corr insight into his film’s two stars, the wiry and determined Havanan, Nicolas, and the resourceful Roscoe Bryant from Ghost Town, a name that is no metaphor, given it references one of the most lethal ‘hoods in Oakland, if not the country.
A modest man with an irrepressible smile, Bryant has seen tough times. In fact, he bought a house on Ghost Town’s worst corner; he’s got three kids and money and marital problems. BUT as an army brat, raised by a dedicated, if 6th grade educated, father, he is determined to remain a one-man social service out to save Oakland’s kids (see CS’s interview with
The first thing he does with a new group of players is drive them across the Bay Bridge, which many Ghost Town kids have never done. Then he gets them running bases and doing drills, all the while cajoling them and their overburdened parents into the discipline and meditation of baseball.
Indeed, he and Corr got them not only over the Bay Bridge but all the way to Cuba, an incredible journey of discovery for the kids but also Corr, Bryant and us viewers.
On location in Havana with (lf-rt) the Cuban soundperson, the Cuban cinematographer and co-director, Roberto Chile, and Gene Corr. photo courtesy G. Corr
I must say your documentary veered very personal for you and Roscoe. Pretty astounding because it could have just stayed a baseball story.
I probably wouldn’t have had much interest in that. From the very beginning, I thought, if I told the story of these guys, stuff would happen.
In some ways, [baseball coaches like Roscoe and Nicolas] are the unsung heroes of our society. Completely taken for granted, condescended to [but] called to help, in some cases reluctantly, like how Roscoe was drawn in.
How did he feel about such honesty, like when you remarked that he himself was about to quit.
You know, as with any documentary, he started to absolutely hate me at the time of his wife leaving him. He’d say, ‘You’re sticking that fucking camera in my face. You know my whole goddamn life is falling apart.’
He hated my guts, honestly, though we didn’t talk about it in those terms. It’s horrible but it also the real.
What does a documentarian do at that point, politely turn off the camera?
No. You try to explain why it is important to continue. I didn’t know if Roscoe would continue but we made a deal together. His ground rules were:
'Every goddamn movie made in Oakland has got pimps and hookers and gangs and drugs. I am so tired of that shit. They are shootings [cameras] all the time right here on my corner. Channel 2 comes down and Channel 5 comes down and HBO comes down. No one ever tries to tell the story of the ordinary stuff that is going on here.'
But he started, in your movie, talking about a shooting—what did he call it?
'The Oakland Symphony’ [the whizz of bullets]. There lot of shootings because that corner, 29th and MLK, is a big drug corner. But he was very clear about the ground rules: ‘No hookers, no pimps, no drug dealers.’
‘We will tell the story of you and your team and confine it to that.’ That was our deal and he said, ‘OK, I am on board.’ I think he is an honorable guy; he made a commitment and he felt compelled to follow through on it.
Growing up between rough Richmond and gentrified Walnut Creek gave Corr great insight into the subjects of 'From Ghost Town to Havana'. photo D. Blair
I think he was very courageous to continue, to be open and honest about what happened and how badly hurt he was. It was very hard for him for me to be filming.
Just a verbal agreement?
Yes, nothing contractual.
You think some documentarians would want [a contract] since if someone bails half way through your whole investment is—
But how can you do something if someone doesn’t want to do it?
It doesn’t make any difference what you have down on paper. It is the spiritual commitment that matters. And, I honestly think, it wasn’t really the film, even though he took that very seriously.
He didn’t even want to go to Cuba, at [one] point. All along he had been the engine urging the trip. I thought it was very unrealistic, difficult to fund.
You went to Cuba first?
Yes, I had gone to Cuba first, but the idea of taking a whole team down there. No team had gone since 9/11 and travel had gotten very difficult. But he saw it as part of his mission.
One of the first things he does when he gets a new bunch of kids is drive them across the Bay Bridge [in his van]. Most of the time, he just turns around and drives them right back again—just because they have never been across the bridge!
That was a great scene and very telling. It is amazing the hardship of those kids. I live in West Oakland—not every block is like that—but I know that corner.
Quite a few corners.
How long has he been doing it?
I can’t remember if it is since 2005 or 4. He took a year off. There is a rhythm to it, typical of these guys. He gets over committed and he says, ‘I am done; it is too much; I can’t do it any more.’
You know it is hard to fundraise; it is hard on multiple levels. He is often working two jobs. Now, he’s a property manager at this place called the Grand Hotel and moonlights security guard for a construction site for the city of Berkeley.
I know it; I drive by there everyday.
Corr garnered early notice for his narration in 'Never Cry Wolf' (1983) about a Canadian environmentalist who goes to the artic to study wolves but learns about the local shamans, regular First Nation folks and poachers as well as himself. photo courtesy E. Corr
Holy man! You could make a film just about that place. He has been assaulted half a dozen times. He lives in a very small SRO room on site.
This is part of the point of the film: It is very hard to volunteer when you aren’t making much money, working lots of hours. You have to fund raise to get uniforms for the kids because they can’t afford to pay for them. How can you volunteer coach when you’re already working two jobs and can’t make ends meet?
Does he have any supporters in the Oakland business community?
There’s a guy in Berkeley named Robert Deutch, who helped him out a lot—I think he was at Cisco. Then the Lefty O’Douls Foundation [a restaurant and brewery in San Francisco named after the famous ballplayer]. A guy named Rich Robbins, who owns the Fantasy [film/video/music] Building in Berkeley. Almost all these guys played ball.
Myself included. And there is also a deeper experience. How do I phrase this in a way that is not bullshit?
I know that Robert Deutch was in inner city Baltimore for a number of years, so his commitment is pretty deep. I don’t know what Tom O’Douls’s experience is but I suspect there is something.
Just to let you know about Roscoe’s process: He’ll start with one team: ‘I got to have balance in my life; I can do one team; I can handle it.’ But then more kids want to play, so he puts on a second team, raises a little more money.
Then [others say], ‘They are playing, so why can’t I play,’ [and he] puts on another team. Next thing you know he is wildly overcommitted.
In the beginning of the film he had one team. At the end—
Five! He goes from one to five, gets exhausted, stressed out, back to one. [But the] next year it’s two, three.
You made an essential point [in the film] about mentorship and missing fathers and that [coaches] used to be funded by the park departments.
There were really great rec departments. They really did support the teams in various ways. There were guys who were mentors at the parks, like Eural McKelvey in Richmond, Mr. Shields in Richmond and equivalent guys in Oakland. They were good at finding the volunteers; they provided the structure.
Seeing baseball in Cuba inspired Corr to explore both baseball there and in Oakland as well as his own father, a coach in the tough town of Richmond. photo courtesy E. Corr
The other thing is there was a lot of industry in the East Bay, so there were a lot of working class jobs. I worked in East Bay factories from age 17 to 26: forklift driver, crane operator, cannery worker, steel worker, warehouseman—all that ended in the ‘70s.
And a lot of teams had a sponsor’s name on the uniform.
Exactly. Back then any company would fund a team.
And your father coached. Was he exactly like Roscoe?
Exactly like Roscoe but coached at El Cerrito High and ended at Contra Costa Community College, where he was paid a salary. It wasn’t volunteer but he worked with all the volunteer coaches. That was his gig. I don’t know what they are paid at Contra Costa now, not much.
I think Black Lives Matter is the perfect name for a movement because the country has been acting like they don’t matter for a long time. And they don’t matter when kids are young and need to have something to connect to.
It is shocking to me how black and brown lives matter in Cuba and don’t matter here.
Amazing how you portrayed that, so heartfelt. There is a lot of emotion in your piece that you don’t often see just pouring out in a documentary.
Thanks. It kind of floored me. Cuba is fucked up, too, but the area that I was dealing with is children, and the contrast is remarkable.
There is not much for these kids [here] to do in early life. I don’t care if it is baseball, soccer. They need something to do. The coach [Roscoe] was very eloquent, when he says it gives them a sense of belonging.
The structure of a team is so similar to a gang. You have a gang leader: it is the coach. You got all your brothers trying to kick the shit out of someone else. Gang or a team, it’s the same thing, just the social outcome is different. Human beings will always organize.
Men especially. Woman are into more horizontal groups but men need hierarchical structure.
I think we do, we really do. My father was a tribal man.
They often call teams families, they are not families they are tribal, at least the ones involving men. There is probably a long anthropological discussion, and I am not sophisticated academically, but there is some deep need that is fulfilled by things like teams, gangs, platoons...
Corr adored Cuba on his multiple trips but never more so than with almost 20 youth baseballers in tow. photo courtesy E. Corr
If the society doesn’t bother to provide a positive outlet for this stuff—and it is not that mentorship doesn’t happen. Mentorship happens in poor communities every day but it is not the mentorship that society would necessarily like.
Like how to cut up a brick? Doing the math to weigh out dime bags?
Yeah. Coach and I often laugh and he says, ‘At least if these kids do become dealers after baseball they will be better at it.‘
He is very proud that, of the group that went to Cuba, none have been involved in gangs. There are a couple points of temptation. When a friend is shot and killed, it is really heard for these kids not to retaliate.
A lot of it is, in my humble opinion, that it is a very matriarchal society because the patriarch has been injured. They inherited some matriarchy from Africa, where your uncle is more your father. With incarceration and slavery before that, it is just ridiculous.
To shoot someone, especially your enemy, is an incredible self-esteem booster, that is why it happens so much. It is not pathological; it is more normal.
Sure. It has happened to all kinds of human beings in the world that we are very aware of. In my parent’s generation [native-born Irish], murder was part of the language of life.
The Irish were always fighting.
It was part of my father’s life. It is NOT part of mine. But I grew up in a different context. But it is very easy for kids in that environment to go that way, specifically when someone they deeply care about is killed.
There is a deep well of anger for a whole bunch of reasons. In the same way we feel protective of friends and children. It is powerful human thing. Some of it is just business but a lot of it is revenge: ‘You killed Peek-a-Boo.’
There was one kid in the movie who both his father and his step-father were killed, right in that neighborhood?
That was Chris. Chris’s family is from Ghost Town [but] I think his father was murdered by a rival gang in East Oakland. I am not sure about his step-father—
Just a detail. You got pretty close to these kids, you were with them for how long?
The Cuban team flanked by their dedicated by impoverished Coach Nicolas. photo: courtesy G. Corr
Off and on for years. In Cuba, I got very close. The youngest kid, Rontral, I am still close to. One night, in Cuba, he came into our hotel room at the Vedad. My youngest daughter Liza was with me—she is associate producer on the film and shot all the memory sequences—a good shooter, really good artist.
We set up a place for Rontral to sleep. For a kid to go through a night like that: he had night terrors; he had sleep apnea, as a result of some of his biological mom’s (addiction) problems; he had such a host of medical problems. That made night time just a horror.
And I think so many of the kids are traumatized. They have post-traumatic stress because they have witnessed so much. Rontral actually got some help, an operation that diminished the sleep apnea, but didn’t eliminate it. There is a host of psychological problems that come from the difficulties they face at a very young age. They don’t get a lot of help.
It’s kind of a joke in the film. Ridel, the Cuban kid, has a doctor for his asthma, who has been with him from the beginning, and a psychologist, and a psychiatrist, and a teacher—a host of people looking out for him.
We are a very individualistic society and these kids have to deal with it on their own. It’s tough. We aren’t going to suddenly get an army of therapists going into Ghost Town—and they wouldn’t know what to do anyway.
I saw a very good cartoon: Two ducks are in a pond. One says to the other: ‘You might want to think about why you have invited all this duck hunting into your life.’
Middle class psychologists just don’t have the tools to understand the situation. I think the best antidote is having things that kids can connect to and participate in, the arts, athletics, that allows them to express themselves.
It allows kids to realize that if you keep working at it—guess what? You get better! And, if you want to win, you better learn to cooperate with the other kids on the team.
I believe the arts and athletics are so important because, fundamentally, it is a way to scream, ‘Here the fuck I am.’ All the forms of self-expression are crucial and need to be made available to kids.
I believe in film as art. I approached this film as an exploration, so I tried to leave my agenda aside. I think an agenda emerges, that is why I put in the [title] card that compares Mill Valley to Richmond.
Corr and Coach Bryant at his editng room in North Berkeley. photo courtesy E. Corr
They have 31 teams over there, in a city of 14,000. That is just baseball teams for kids 8 to 12 [then there is soccer, etc]. Richmond [with a population of 107,000] has two [teams] for 11-12 year olds. They have no money to travel so they played each other 18 times, which is sort of magnificent and pathetic at the same time.
I want to push on this difference. I am hoping that the film can be used in practical way, to encourage sports. I don’t care if it is baseball—it could be soccer. I think arts programs are even better, because the need to express oneself is so powerful, volcanic, huge.
If you don’t give a positive avenue for that to be expressed, it will be expressed otherwise. It is certainly in the interest of the kids and their community, but also in the interest of the society.
That is why I have great hope for Black Lives Matter. If we can accept that they DO matter and begin behaving as if they do then there would be more programs for kids. Republicans view everything as a hand out and the result is to just warehouse people in prisons.
I imagine you have seen ‘Romeo Bleeding’ [2014, the film about young Richmond poets and their teacher]?
It’s a great film and a great program. Those kinds of programs would be enormously valuable if you could multiply them out.
Totally. So where is the film at now?
I am hoping that we can open the film theatrically in the Bay Area only: San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, maybe Marin, San Jose.
Do you have a distributor? Are you in touch with Karen Larsen?
did publicity for our premiere in Oakland at the Grand Lake Theater. She did a great job.
I don’t know what the future holds for this film. It was very difficult to fund. It is an entirely local project, funded by five foundations and quite a few individuals in the Bay Area. I wrote over 60 proposals for this film and maybe seven resulted in funding.
It has been a hard slog but there are some distribution offers now. I am just starting to go through them and find out if they are real. Documentary distribution and independent film distribution, in many ways, collapsed before the Great Recession, in 2005 or 2006.
My last documentary was [easier, but that was] way back in the ‘90s, it got an Academy Award nomination: ‘Waldo Salt: The Screenwriters Journey’.
I think this film will have a lot of life at community screenings and schools because I think it does say something. It is hard in America right now to point a camera anywhere without seeing deep inequities in this society.
The question that confronts us is: Are we going to do anything about it? So far, we haven’t.
The Black Lives Matter seems to be focused on folks at the end of the journey, but you are focusing on the beginning of the journey.
Corr shares a chuckle with Roberto Chile in Cuba. photo courtesy E. Corr
Black Lives Matter Early! An Afro-Cuban kid has a life expectancy longer then an African-American born in Oakland—and gets a better education.
Cuba is amazing but the contradiction between what they do so well and what they can’t do is phenomenal. They can’t grow food.
They can’t grow food! They have good propaganda about growing food but they import at least half their food.
Farming is completely capitalist. If I work hard to grow food, I am going to sell it and go to the movies, or whatever. But doctoring is a very socialist enterprise, so it works fantastic there.
Communists has never been able to grow food. You can’t have a central planner in a big building in Havana deciding what is going to be planted where. He has no idea.
The insanity is they opened up to truck farming in the early ‘90s. But then a guy with a truck made a hell of a profit because the cities were starving. They understandably got freaked out by that because if a doctor is only making $14 a month, it is going to pervert the society.
Exactly right. Doctors get a little more, $35. You could be a world-class neurosurgeon and be getting 35 bucks a month!
Nicolas, the [Cuban] coach gets the equivalent of 14 dollars a month! Of course that is with rations [food stamps] but he is very poor. If he had an education—there is stratification in Cuban society, he could make 20 bucks.
Nicolas has a friend who can make $100 or so a week as a doorman in a hotel in the tourist section.
They don’t realize the beauty of taxes.
I really hope they will be able to do the transition. Some of the push for a mixed economy is coming from the Cubans themselves. The joke is the Afro-Cubans had such a high rate of illiteracy and now they can all read, ‘But we can’t read what we want!’
It’s filled with contradictions, but it is not like the Soviet Union where you look at it and say there isn’t a thing worth saving. There is a lot of good stuff in Cuba.
Why are they such good boxers, ballet—
All the arts, sports—
The one thing you didn’t mention in the film: Fidel was a ball player.
In the beginning I thought about it but that was another bargain I made [this time] with Roberto Chile [the Cuban producer, co-director and cinematographer]. ‘This is not about Fidel Castro or George Bush,’ he said, ‘it is just about life in the neighborhood and these kids.’
How did you meet Chile?
Saul Landau, who made one of the first films about Cuba, ‘Fidel’, a really popular film back in the ‘60s, referred me.
Saul died two years ago. A remarkable cat, made a film really worth seeing, ‘Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?’  about the terrorism by the US in Cuba, the assassination attempts, airplanes downed.
Some are just delightful; one was a ceremonial baseball with a bomb inside.
What was that baseball in your movie they were smelling?
That was a Cuban baseball, a good baseball.
The comparison with Puerto Rico is interesting. It is a United State protectorate: dangerous as hell, unhappy as hell, dysfunctional economically. More people want to get out of Puerto Rico that want to get out of Cuba.
People often go to Cuba and try to compare it to Marin County. It is not Marin County, the people are not as wealthy, their stock portfolios are not as good. [laughs]
But if you would like to compare rates of infant mortality, longevity, education, using statistics from the World Health Organization, Cuba compares very favorably to first world countries.
We, in our poor communities, compare to Cameroon [West Africa]. It is just disgusting. It looks as if our society is going more and more in the wrong direction. I don’t know how it will change.
But I am excited about movements like Black Lives Matter. They wouldn’t like me since I am fairly hardnosed on crime: If you do the crime you should go [to jail], that’s just it.
But we don’t care about people before they commit the crime, and we don’t even care about them when they are in there, which makes no sense to me at all. I absolutely believe in rehabilitation but those programs ended in the ‘70s.
I grew up in New York in the ‘60s and crime was off the hook. Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, started the Rockefeller Laws in the ‘60s and it ended with three strikes and you are out.
I know how dangerous it was in Richmond and why people reacted with fear. I understand. What I don’t understand was the abandonment of rehabilitation and how we disinvested in people before they went to prison.
For a society to go all in on punishment and foreswear all else is madness. It tells something about the bitter heart that beats in America. I felt that when I was a Merritt College when the Panthers were founded.
Did you know them?
I knew enough to say hello in the hallways and they were surprising friendly. But Huey always had another reputation. My black friends would say, ‘Stay away.’ He legendarily ‘threw hands’ very well, a local phrase.
His book ‘Revolutionary Suicide’ is interesting, worth reading. I give it mostly to kids who don’t know anything about him. It is easy to condescend to Huey.
He was obviously a genius.
He was a complex guy. A fine mind, that could analyze things well, and a deep well of sincerity to improve the lives of his brothers and sisters and a deep anger at the police.
He had a pathology there as well, which is so often the case with social rebels. It takes enormous courage to do what he did. Guts.
The police monitoring was a phenomenal move, as was the takeover of the state senate chambers in Sacramento—but he didn’t go. He was wise enough to let Bobby [Seale] do it.
There is a notion in Catholicism: ‘avoid the occasion of sin.’ For Huey to go with a gun to the capital [would be nuts]. I think he was a convicted felon but don’t know for sure.
He stabbed someone.
He claimed self-defense—might have been.
You have seen Stanley Nelson’s film [‘Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’, 2015], of course. I thought his film was remarkable and hard film to make, landmines to step on everywhere.
But there is still enough of me that is loyal to the East Bay and Oakland that, for many reasons, I thought there was a bit of East Coast bias.
I think one of the remarkable things about Oakland—while the ‘aunts’ might be angry about the violence that the Black Panthers fueled—a lot of black guys of my generation say, ‘Oakland never burned.’
‘The whole fucking country burned, why didn’t Oakland burn?’ In part, it was because of the Black Panthers. There was a sense of discipline, dedication and political consciousness that they brought to the community.
They were human; they had flaws, weaknesses. They were destroyed by their rage and Cointelpro. No matter what, they were going to be destroyed. They all could have been Mother Theresas, they still would have been destroyed.
Of course, but they were also saying, 'Let’s have a violent revolution and overthrow the government,' right on the streets in front of government buildings. It is pretty amazing Huey got off—after three trials—and Angela Davis got off. California did give them a pretty good deal.
Well, a good attorney in a court of law [can work wonders]. O.J. had great attorneys, against the LAPD, that racist cop Fuhrman.
But there was a strong political message [from the Panthers] and it was a sincere one. I think it is part of the reason why Oakland didn’t burn.
It is amazing how personal your film is with your story, Roscoe’s story, the kids’ story.
I would have even liked more about your father but you kept it minimal.
I did. I never wanted to make it the story. Having an old East Bay white guy narrate the movie doesn’t fly with everyone. Someone said, ‘What about Chris, he lost his father and here you are prattling on about your father.’
People view a film from entirely different perspectives. If you enter a film, you go with it. But if you are outside of it, you say, ‘What is this old white guy talking about his father when this kid has had two of his parents murdered?’
Art has always been non-racist. People talk about Mark Twain as racist—I’m sorry. Even Celine, a crazed, anti-Semitic Nazi, in his two great books has nothing about Jews. But among the regular people none of that holds true. So it is hard for artists to make work about regular people.
Intuitively, I felt my father was a part of the film, a minor part, a tone. I knew it the moment I walked onto that ball field in Havana. It felt like time travel, like being in Richmond in the ‘60s.
There is a direct parallel from your father, who was a coach, to [Coach] Nicolas and Roscoe. And you hang out with those black guys who said your father was, essentially, their father.
The connection was really profound. When I was I kid I could see, honestly, that the connection my father had with them was stronger than the connection he had with me. He grew up really poor and Irish and he was tough.
My father was a juvenile delinquent. He got kicked out of Richmond High because he knocked out a teacher. But he had a recreation guy who said, ‘What are you going to do, Gene?’ He was probably on his way to San Quentin.
He identified with the obstacles his black players faced in a deep way. They understood each other in a visceral way. Not everyone could coach in that environment. He could, that was his ability.
Most of those guys, he got them their first job. He knew ten different factories, the clothing stores. Calvin got his first job through my father, Willie Reed, Nate Bates, a lot of guys.
I was a playground kid. My father would drop me off at the nearest playground to his girlfriends—he had girlfriends from Berkeley all the way to Rodeo. When my father died in Kaiser Hospital in Oakland at age 81, I had to manage the flow of 70 and 80 year-old girlfriends who came to say goodbye.
There was a whole world that revolved around the playground. It could lead to a life, a job, an education, all these things that might not even be imagined in the home. I learned to read from one [rec guy], a white guy named Steve Ames.
I could not learn to read, probably dyslexic, as many artists are. He told me he couldn’t read either. I thought, ‘This is the most pathetic motherfucker I have ever known: a grown man and can’t read!’ He said, ‘You are going to read me an article from the sports page everyday.’ I would labor through it and, by the end of the summer, I could read.
Four or five years later, I opened the Contra Costa Times and there was the name Steve Ames in the byline. He was a sports writer; he had a sports column— [laughs] saying he wasn’t able to read had been a ruse.
I think for a lot of kids, the experience of mentorship is basic—like learning to read, going to school, imagining yourself different and capable somehow. We discover the law of cause and effect on playgrounds. If you keep fielding ground balls, you get better at it.
The mentor thing, it takes you out of the family pathology. If your father is psychotic or absent you need a new father. Mothers you usually don’t need to replace but fathers, yes.
It is place where real love can develop. My father loved these guys and they loved him. That itself can have real force in a person’s life.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 09, 2015 - 01:13 PM