Monday, June 21, 2021

An after-school basketball program in the early 80s expanded my worldview a little

Big bad Lincoln Elementary (now Wickliffe Elementary)

When I was in fifth and sixth grade at Mapledale Elementary School, we had an after-school basketball program for boys during the winter. Or at least I assume it was specifically for boys, because no girls ever participated, nor do I expect they were ever invited.

A few times a week, we would gather in the gym and Mr. Oravecz would teach us the fundamentals of the sport: dribbling, passing, shooting, etc. We tried to run a few very basic plays, though our early-adolescent brains often had trouble absorbing even those.

One day in the spring, we would travel across town to Lincoln Elementary School to play end-of-season games against boys from Lincoln and from Worden Elementary.

Both years we did this, the outcomes of the games were never in doubt. We would beat Worden and get beaten by Lincoln, and Lincoln would beat Worden.

Lincoln was, you see, by far the biggest of the three elementary schools in Wickliffe at the time. It had two floors. Two floors! Mapledale and Worden were single-story buildings with only a few wings each.

Lincoln also had a gym with bleachers. Bleachers! We had no such thing at Mapledale. It was intimidating, at 11 years old, to walk into a strange gym with bleachers overlooking the basketball floor and seeing those bleachers filled with kids rooting heartily against you.

Lincoln also had something else we didn't.

Lincoln had Black kids.

If that sounds pathetically sheltered and Caucasian, it's because it was.

We didn't have African-American kids at Mapledale, and I think Worden was in the same boat. (Actually I do remember one Black kid at Mapledale, Ricardo Davis, but he may have been the only one there during my time.)

African-Americans were actually a minority at Lincoln, too, but there were definitely far more of them there than at our two small schools.

So, in addition to coming to this seemingly large school with a gym twice the size of ours, we also had to find a way to play against Ralph Topps. Ralph was an African-American kid who, if he wasn't already 6 feet tall in fifth grade, was darn close to it. I was one of the taller Mapledale players, and I don't know if I was even 5-7 at the time.

I later played summer baseball with Ralph, and while he was a decent athlete, he was really just a regular kid like the rest of us.

Looking back on it now, that sort of "revelation" seems pretty funny, maybe even sad. A year or two later, we would all be brought together at the same middle school, and it turned out we had a lot more in common as Wickliffe kids than we were ever separated by race.

Or at least that's how it seemed to me at the time. It was only later I learned of some of the things the African-American kids had had to deal with because of the color of their skin. Things I never would have dreamed of, things that never in a million years would have happened to me, and things that made me sad.

In the end, that basketball program was the start of an education for this kid from Harding Drive that continues to this day.

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