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Collision on the new Underground Railroad

Bob Presley came to California from Detroit via a secret transportation system that moves Negro athletes out of ghettos and into colleges around the country. For good or ill, it led to the wreck at Berkeley

The catalyzing force boiled up from matters of seeming insignificance: a bushy head of hair worn as a badge of racial pride, a day of playing hookey from basketball practice, a sneering remark by a star player about his coach. But the widely publicized case of Bob Presley, 21, a 6'10½" Negro center for the University of California basketball team at Berkeley, has ramifications beyond the immediate events that fostered it. Indeed, it is symbolic—perhaps a near-perfect microcosm—of the combined bafflement and belligerence that has come to infect the relations between black and white races in America.

Presley was born on the north side of Detroit, a vast urban jungle that became the fiery core of last summer's riots. Until he was in his mid-teens, Presley's world was almost devoid of contacts with white people, and during his early high school years he attended the Moore School for Boys, a predominantly Negro institution set up especially for troubled or troublesome kids. Oddly enough, Moore School had no interscholastic sports program and when Presley was 16, he was transferred to the nearly lily-white Pershing High School on Detroit's east side—largely because he was already a lanky, graceful giant with obvious potential for becoming a fine basketball player. A Pershing coach, Will Robinson, a Negro, tried desperately to keep Presley interested in getting an education by giving him lunch money and even driving him to school, but the youngster cut so many classes that he was suspended after six weeks. "Pershing was 97% white," Presley says now, "and I couldn't make the adjustment. At 16, it really hurts you when you can't dress well and drive around in nice cars like the other kids."

For the rest of that year he took a job reconditioning used cars, then enrolled the following fall at Northern High, a classic ghetto-neighborhood school (there was one white youngster among some 2,000 students). Presley buckled down more or less, was a reserve center on a team that went to the state championship finals and did finish his sophomore year. Then things exploded. In October 1964 he came to school riotously drunk one morning, slugged a teacher and started a free-for-all that took four teachers and two squad cars of policemen to put down. In retrospect, Presley says, "I was wrong and very much ashamed of myself. It still bothers me to think about it." Of course, he was expelled from Northern, but he soon enrolled at still another Detroit school—and stayed for a grand total of four days. "Everyone started bugging me," he recalls. "Kids wouldn't stop reminding me I had hit a teacher."

By now he was really drifting and disoriented, just another rootless ghetto kid facing a future of futility and frustration—but there was still basketball. Presley spent the rest of that year working out on playground courts, polishing his moves and his shots with such local stars as Bill Buntin and Mel Daniels. Clearly young Presley had all the natural talent required to make it as a major-college basketball player. But he was 19 and still had not started his junior year of high school. Detroit school officials had had more than enough of his recalcitrant irresponsibility.

During Presley's days at Moore School he had come under the wing of George Gaddy, 50, a physical education instructor and manager of The Collegians, a local sports club for underprivileged kids. It was Gaddy who was instrumental in Presley's school transfers around Detroit, and now he was there to help again. "Of course, I refused to have anything to do with Presley until he straightened out," says Gaddy. "Then I started to look for a school to place him. I've got a friend at Pasadena City College in California, and he put me in touch with some people at Mt. San Jacinto College in Banning [Calif.]. I don't know what their connection is at the University of California. Let's just say there are people at Banning who are interested in the basketball team. I don't know who paid Presley's way out there; sometimes we have to beg money for that."

At this point Bob Presley had become a client of a mysterious but highly efficient network operating for Negro athletes who want to play college-level sports but simply do not have the grades, or the intelligence, or the disposition to meet the academic requirements. In a way, this is the Underground Railroad of the 20th century, a transportation system to move kids out of ghettos and into college—whether they have the basic qualifications or not. The operation is common knowledge to Negro coaches and athletes all over the country, and it is not exactly an unknown quantity to white recruiters at major colleges. It reaches far beyond Detroit, of course, but George Gaddy and Pershing Coach Will Robinson are both extremely expert conductors on the line.

"Coaches from all over the country write to me to ask me to recommend kids," says Gaddy. "They get their brains beat out by some team and they ask the rival coach, 'Where did that great colored kid come from?' He tells them to write to me. I've got them spread all over—Texas, West Virginia, California, everywhere. I can't speak all the names, there are so many."

Some of the connections are with junior colleges that can prime a kid—both academically and athletically—for entrance into a big-time college. Other stations, such as the one used for Presley, offer high school diplomas. "We save as many boys as we can," says Will Robinson. "Anybody who understands the problem of the ghetto Negro understands that the only way out of this mess is through education. It's the only way to change things. When it comes to high school diplomas for them, you can just get them, that's all. It depends on who you can touch. There's no set formula for the way we handle these kids. We try to put them someplace where they'll have a chance."

Bob Presley wound up at Salinas High School in northern California, where he roomed with five other Negro imports from Texas. He finished his junior year, went home for the summer, then moved to southern California, where he enrolled at both Mt. San Jacinto College (like other California JCs, it requires only that students be 18 years old) and at Banning High School, where he finally got his diploma not long before his 21st birthday. He then played on an excellent Mt. San Jacinto basketball team (its record was 25-5), finished the year with a C-plus average there and applied at the University of California.

Despite Presley's bad record in Detroit, California Coach Rene Herrerias had had his eye on him from the moment he turned up at Salinas. Presley was eligible for entrance at Berkeley under a policy effective at all divisions of the California university and college system which allows 2% of entering undergraduates to be admitted at a level below the usual academic requirements. Ideally, it is a fine rule, for it brings to college the kind of late-blooming student who struggled unsuccessfully through high school, only to grow into a solid academic citizen later on. This year, at Berkeley, there are 28 athletes among 160 freshman Two Percenters but, on occasion, there have been charges that the athletic department "prostitutes" the intent of the rule.

Obviously, in this case, the combination of the Underground Railroad and the easy-entrance path to Berkeley raises a broad—and by no means new—question of academic ethics vs. cold opportunism in college recruiting. Yet, possibly the end does justify the means. As Will Robinson says: "If we can get a boy one year of college, it's better than no years at all. Once in a while one stays long enough to catch the message, and anything is better than letting them go off the deep end when they drop out of high school."

In a way, it is ironic that the Presley case should have happened at the Berkeley campus because, despite the plethora of other activist groups there, the angry organizers of Black Power have not been much in evidence. But there is an extreme, at times almost unreasonable, sensitivity these days toward any hints—real or imagined—of racial discrimination, and it does not take a professional militant to whip up a controversy.

Presley feels that his "natural" hair style may have offended Herrerias and that this, as much as his cutting practice and calling Herrerias incompetent, led two weeks ago to his "permanent" suspension from the team (it lasted no more than a few hours). Now Presley and the 25-member organization called the Black Athletes of the University of California feel they have been victims of the white man's exploitation, that equality exists on the playing field but not a step beyond. "Lack of recognition has been going on here for 25 years," says Presley. Whether this is true or not, the Negroes believe that it is; those who don't agree run the risk of being called Uncle Toms.

At the moment there is at least an uneasy truce between blacks and whites on the basketball team, although Cal has lost three of its last five games. "From my view," says Cal Athletic Director Pete Newell, "I would like to see the Presley case forgotten. But I realize that he is part of a national problem. I can't know about his supervision or opportunities in early life, but it is plain that he is typical of the angry young men who come from such neighborhoods. If he is able to overcome some obstacles and finally find himself, he should be credited rather than blamed."

Sooner or later the Presley case will be forgotten. But amateur Negro athletes' charges of exploitation motivated by white men's opportunism may just be beginning. They are likely to continue as long as men are sought after and allowed to enroll in college only because of their athletic prowess.