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The student news site of Milwaukee Area Technical College

MATC Times

The student news site of Milwaukee Area Technical College

MATC Times

The student news site of Milwaukee Area Technical College

MATC Times

Black History In Athletics

Athletes who left an incredible mark on the game and the community

Black History Month in America is a time when the country recognizes the historically overlooked achievements of African Americans and the contributions they have made to society, as well as highlighting the adversity that they had to overcome. The observance of Black History Month began in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson.

As part of a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 1900, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first publicly performed by 500 school children at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida. The school principal, James Weldon Johnson, wrote the words and Johnson’s brother Rosamond set them to music. The hymn highlighted the struggles and hopes of Black Americans at that time, becoming a symbol of perseverance and resistance.

● Jesse Owens became an American hero after an amazing performance at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Jessie proved how wrong Hitler’s racist ideas were by winning the gold medal in the long jump, the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter dash. He took home a fourth gold medal by running the opening leg for the US team that won the 4×100 meter relay. Jesse was nicknamed the World’s Fastest Man and, in 1976, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom- the highest award a US citizen can receive.

● Kobe Bryant is most well-known for spending 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, and for his record with the NBA for playing the most seasons with one team, and with the same team for his entire career. Kobe Bryant scored a total of 33,643 points during his career. He ranks fourth for points scored, behind LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Karl Malone.Kobe Bryant actually took home an Oscar. He won the Academy Award in 2018 for the animated short story category for “Dear Basketball.” The entire short animated feature is based on Bryant’s letter that he wrote in the Players’ Tribune in 2015. In this letter, he announced that he would leave basketball due to the fact that his body could no longer take the “grind of the season.” Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other people died tragically in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020.

● Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play major league baseball. Robinson was a star in the Negro Leagues but wasn’t allowed to play in major league baseball because he was Black. He finally got his chance when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. He led the league in stolen bases and was named the National League Rookie of the Year. More importantly, he broke baseball’s color barrier and opened the door for other Black athletes to participate in professional sport.s

● Nicknamed Air Jordan or His Airness, Michael Jordan’s leaping ability made him world famous and also helped popularize the NBA. As a Chicago Bulls player for 12 years, Jordan achieved five Most Valuable Player Awards, 10 All-NBA First Team designations, six NBA championships, and two NBA Slam Dunk contest championships. He is also a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Jordan’s Legends profile on the NBA’s History website refers to him as “the greatest basketball player of all time.”

● The sporting resume of Althea Gibson reads like a virtual bullet list of firsts. A champion of the all-Black American Tennis Association many times over, she was the first Black player allowed to compete at the U.S. Nationals in 1950. On May 26, 1956, Gibson became the first Black player to win a major tennis title when she defeated Angela Mortimer by the score of 6-0, 12-10 to claim the French championships.

● Willie O’Ree made history when he stepped on the ice to play for the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958. Willie was the first African American to play in the National Hockey League. He only played two seasons for the Bruins, because of an eye injury, but he opened the door for many other African Americans to skate in the NHL.

● Vonetta Flowers – the former track star turned Olympic bobsledder – made history at the 2002 Winter Olympics by becoming the first Black athlete to win a gold medal at a Winter Olympics. Vonetta’s gold medal will hopefully inspire future Black athletes to become more involved in winter sports.

● When the Los Angeles Raiders (now of Las Vegas) named Art Shell as their head coach in 1989, he became the first African-American to hold the role in the modern NFL. He was preceded only by Fritz Pollard, who was co-head coach of the Akron Pros in 1921. An eight-time Pro Bowl selection as a player and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Shell was named AFC Coach of the Year in 1990 when he guided the Raiders to a 12-4 record and the AFC West championship.

● The most prolific winner in professional sports history, Bill Russell captured an NBA championship in 11 of his 13 seasons. Russell was the NBA’s first African-American superstar, and in 1966 he became the first African- American head coach of a major professional sports team in the modern era, when he became player/manager of the Boston Celtics and two years later became the first Black man to coach his team to a championship. Also known for his indomitable nature, Russell was an activist for equality in his time and refused his Basketball Hall of Fame for 44 years until Chuck Cooper — the first African-American drafted into the NBA — was elected to it.

● Bo Jackson is perhaps the greatest pure athlete of all time. Jackson demonstrated simultaneous excellence in two professional sports, and to date no player has matched it. In 1989 with the Kansas City Royals, Jackson was voted a starter for the American League All-Star team. In the game, he hit a 448-foot home run in his first at-bat and stole a base the following inning. Add in an RBI-saving catch in the outfield, and he was named the game’s MVP. The following year with the Oakland Raiders, Jackson ran for 698 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games and was elected to the AFC Pro Bowl team.

● The integration of professional basketball was simultaneously accomplished by three individuals. In the 1950 NBA Draft, Chuck Cooper, Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl Lloyd all were all selected and broke into the league in different capacities. Cooper was the first African-American player drafted, going as the first pick in the second round. Due to the season’s schedule, Lloyd was the first to play in a game for the Washington Capitals, while Clifton was the first to sign a contract that season.

● In 1992 Cito Gaston guided the Toronto Blue Jays to the first of two consecutive World Series championships. In the process, he became the first African-American manager to ever win a World Series. Between two terms of managing the Blue Jays between 1989 to 1997 and again from 2008 to 2020, Gaston won 894 games. Gaston has the rare distinction of winning the World Series in every season he reached the postseason in his career.

● When Doug Williams appeared under center for the Washington Redskins at Super Bowl XXII, it marked the first time in the game’s history that an African-American called the shots at quarterback. And Williams did not disappoint, throwing for 340 yards and four touchdowns, defeating the Denver Broncos, 42-10. Williams was named MVP of the game and would remain the only Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl for the next 26 years.

● It took 26 years for an African-American to lay claim to a Heisman Trophy, and it was Ernie Davis who did so. Following in the footsteps of the great Jim Brown, Davis was twice selected as a consensus All-American, running for a total of 2,386 yards and 20 touchdowns. Davis was selected first in the 1962 NFL Draft and fourth overall in the 1962 AFL draft but was diagnosed with leukemia before playing and died a year later.

● The world’s most unique and entertaining sporting attraction, the Harlem Globetrotters have been putting on their signature brand of basketball since 1926. They truly live up to their calling card, putting on 450 shows per year and over 26,000 all time in 124 different countries. Prior to the rise and integration of the NBA in the 1950s, they were the premier basketball team for many African-American ballplayers. It hasn’t always been all fun and games either, as in 1948 they famously defeated the all-white Minnesota Lakers, featuring the legendary George Mikan.

● In a moment that transcended the ranks of sports and became one of the defining moments in American history, Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. After a brief minor league stint, Robinson debuted at first base with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, becoming the first African-American to play in the majors since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884. Robinson faced substantial pressure and racism but thrived all the same. He became baseball’s first Rookie of the Year and later became NL MVP, a six-time All-Star and a World Series champion over his 10-year career all while ushering in an exhilarating style of play. Robinson was the right man for an impossibly difficult but incredibly necessary job.

● When it comes to the wide receiver position, there is Jerry Rice and then there’s everybody else. Rice is the most dominant offensive player in the history of pro football, owning every significant record there is at the position. Rice rose from the ranks of a little known HBCU (Mississippi Valley State) — where he set 18 Division I-AA records — to become a three-time Super Bowl champion. A 13-time Pro Bowler, Rice scored more points than any other non-kicker in NFL history and is the only player ever to top 20,000 receiving yards.

● After decades of African-Americans being underestimated and excluded from the position, Lamar Jackson put the football world on notice during a jaw-dropping 2019 performance at quarterback. In his second season, the 23-year-old set a record for rushing yards by a quarterback, with 1,206, while also throwing for 3,127 yards and a league-best 36 touchdowns. Jackson became the manifestation of what a completely dual-threat weapon can be at the position and became the second unanimously selected MVP in league history. Not bad for a guy who slipped to the final pick of the first round the previous year due to concern for whether he could stick at the position.

● As fearless of an athlete who ever existed, Muhammad Ali was always destined to be far more than just an incredible boxer from Louisville, Kentucky. He is the only three-time heavyweight champion in history, the class of division during the historical peak of the heavyweight division. He also was a man of principles who sacrificed the best years of his career during a battle with the U.S. government over his refusal to involve himself in a war he didn’t believe in. He was a frontline voice during the civil rights movement and hero to the world over for decades afterward. He was a truly legendary fighter, both in and out of the ring.

● Michael Jordan also revolutionized the game of basketball and the business of being a professional athlete. His accomplishments on the basketball court — six-for-six in the NBA Finals, a five-time MVP and 10-time scoring champion — helped to redefine the earning potential for athletes off it. Jordan wrote the manuscript for athletes to follow in marketing and branding, as his many endorsements and partnerships with companies such as Nike, Gatorade, McDonalds and Wheaties made him the most famous athlete in the world. Even 17 years after his last game, his Jordan Brand shoe line still generates over $1 billion for Nike.

● In 1966, the Texas Western men’s basketball team pulled off one of the most significant upsets in sports history. The Miners defeated the Kentucky Wildcats in the national championship game by the score of 72-65, in the process marking the first time in history that an all-black starting lineup claimed the national title. The impact of the victory carried even further significance, as the Wildcats roster remained without a black player until three years later.

● That notion that Black players were mainly interested in “showboating,” and needed the steadying hand of white leadership was dealt a serious blow by the Texas Western University men’s basketball team, which featured an all-Black starting lineup for the first time in NCAA championship history on March 19, 1966. Squaring off against the all-white University of Kentucky team, which included future coaching great Pat Riley, the Miners’ starting five— Bobby Joe Hill, David Lattin, Orsten Artis, Willie Worsley, and Harry Flournoy (pictured here)—played a disciplined, fundamentally sound game en route to a 72-65 victory. The game was a watershed moment for coaches and players of the time, and it wasn’t long until all-white teams like Kentucky’s disappeared from the basketball landscape.

Facts provided to MATC Times by MATC Athletics.

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