On a warm, languid morning in Durham, N.C. last week, a group of spectators silently gathered to watch Dr. Walker and His Imports, who are not a twist and shout musical group from the early '60s but the latest and hottest number on college track's jukebox. They are the North Carolina Central University mile-relay team.
The setting was improbable: a dilapidated track stadium on a small college campus. No isometric machines were in evidence and coaches did not swarm about the athletes, correcting flaws in technique. In fact, relay batons were at a premium this day. The track was faded and pocked from its fight with nature over the ownership of the land. Broken hurdles were littered about and sand from a jumping pit spilled haphazardly over its boundaries. In the infield the grass stood shimmering in a luxurious bouffant. There a solitary figure was replaying past glories. "Trying to keep in shape," explained the thick-legged man, a former Central football player.
Here among the rusting goalposts and bales of hay stacked for archery practice were four superb athletes preparing for an assault on a formidable track barrier—the sub-three-minute mile relay. Only two weeks before the group had run a 3:03.1 in the Penn Relays.
To assemble this four-cylinder racing machine in this secluded locale involved foreign diplomacy in the cases of Julius Sang and Robert Ouko, two world-class runners on loan from Nairobi, Kenya, and shrewd cajolery when it came to Larry Black of Miami and Melvin Bassett of Chicago. Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, in his 25th year of coaching at North Carolina Central, was and is the thermostat for the four, cooling down edgy tempers at times and when necessary heating up tepid ambitions. Every member of the team has come close to quitting at least once, and only the magnetism of Dr. Walker has held them in place.
"Doc's full of surprises," says Black, the relay team's anchor man. A junior, Black ran a 43.8 on his leg at the Penn Relays, the fastest anyone ever has gone over that distance. "He always has something up his sleeve that we don't know about. We think that we've taken in everything he's been able to teach us but every week he has something new. Like when I ran a 44.1 split in the Florida Relays this year. I was scared. I thought that I had reached my peak early. I went to him. He said not to worry about it because this was an Olympic year and he was gearing us for three peaks: an indoors peak, an outdoors peak and an Olympic peak. I believe in him."
The Olympics are part of the reason the Kenyans are on the team, and Sang and Ouko definitely are part of the reason the team is so good; good enough, in fact, that some members fondly believe Central actually can win the NCAA championships this year even though Dr. Walker has only six men who might score points, all runners, to work with.
Sang is the more talented of the foreign pair, in part because Ouko started running only a few years ago and has not begun to reach his potential. Dr. Walker first saw them at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968 when they were only high school students. He talked to them about coming to the land of cheeseburgers and artificial running tracks, but they stayed in Kenya, trained, and worked as guards in the prison system. Finally last summer they accepted the doctor's offer, assuming that they were coming to one of the United States' large universities.
"Compared to the other universities in the other states in this country, we don't have anything," says Sang in his lilting English. Only last year did North Carolina Central get a whirlpool machine for its athletes, and even now the track team does not have a trainer. Dr. Walker fills that role with help from his assistant, Ted Manly.
Although Sang and Ouko had little trouble adjusting to their new academic world, they were discouraged by the reception they got on a social level. The students on the predominantly black campus shunned the newcomers at first. "I think they are brought up with this discriminatory—is that what you call it?—thing in their heads," says Sang. "Therefore, when they meet someone of another nationality, they just feel they're not part of them. But now it is different. Right now things seem to be on the right path and better for us."
Dr. Walker went to great pains to get the Kenyans into his school, and he did the same with Black and Bassett. Black was a noted high school runner, and Dr. Walker brought him and the rest of his high school mile-relay squad to enroll at North Carolina Central. Bassett was first contacted while a sophomore in high school, which much impressed him. "I thought anybody who would go to that much trouble had to be all right," he says.
Both Black and Bassett, however, have almost pushed the eject button several times. "Down here they think an athlete is just an athlete," says Black, which is his way of saying that athletes are expected to do things like attend class. "They expect it, but an athlete doesn't expect it. The coach is the head of the P.E. department, so an athlete thinks if he gets in there he's got it made. But it isn't that way. If you want a grade, you have to earn it."
Last year Bassett left school for a few days. Different pressures started to squeeze his mind, he said. And only last Thursday, with Dr. Walker away on a business trip, Bassett turned peevish and refused to practice with the relay team, which was getting ready for the International Freedom Games in Philadelphia on Sunday. "He gets this attitude and he takes it out on the whole group,'' says Black. "I'd like to put my foot in him sometimes...."
"Here on campus people don't like us so much because track isn't a big thing," says Bassett. "All they think about is football and basketball. Even the president of the school is not really aware of what we are doing. I just get hung up about things like that. And I'm kind of upset because I haven't been able to run a decent race in the intermediate hurdles, what with having to run in the relays. And this is an Olympic year, you know. They tell me that I won't have any troubles off of my times last year, but how do I know that? When I get ready to run I want to be free to get at it. I keep running under handicap conditions."
"Every team has one, Bassett's ours," sighs one of the other runners understandingly.
On Sunday Bassett did not have a handicap. He ran in the intermediate hurdles, the first event of the day, and finished third in a very fast race. Even in losing he and Dr. Walker were happy with his outing, although their smiles turned sour a short time later. Running in the 220, Black suffered a pair of misfortunes. He misjudged the finish line and blew a three-yard lead, ending third. And after the race he complained that he had strained his right foot, which meant canceling out the mile relay effort. Sang salvaged matters somewhat by surprising the crowd with a 45.6 victors in the 440 over Olympic gold-medal winners Vince Matthews and Lee Evans. The time, made in a rainstorm, was superb.
Earlier, Bassett should not have been so hard on Central's president, Dr. Albert Whiting. The doctor was on the Amherst track team as a collegian and now is trying to upgrade North Carolina Central's athletic programs, figuring that calculus champions don't get much publicity. If he upgrades the track program much more, America can just send North Carolina Central to the Olympics, first making Sang and Ouko U.S. citizens, of course. A liberal arts school of just under 4,000 students that can boast of Sam Jones, the onetime Boston Celtic, among its alumni, Central enrolls three girls to every two boys. "That's why we're in such bad shape," says Jeff Horsley, who with freshman Charles Foster makes up the rest of the track team.
UCLA, which is somewhat larger than Durham, to say nothing of North Carolina Central, is Dr. Walker's biggest worry in the NCAA mile relay. The Bruins turned in a 3:06.2 against Southern Cal two weeks ago. Right now it looks as if Central will meet its Coast rival in the upcoming California Relays before they both go on to the NCAA championships. "They say they're ready for us and they're going to show us who's the best," says Bassett. "I figure if they don't have the lead after I get through, they won't have a chance because they can't match anybody else on our team."
UCLA thus taken care of, Dr. Walker and His Imports could think of more important things, like record times. Dr. Walker has been trying to play down the thought of breaking the three-minute mark. He thinks three flat would he just fine, but Bassett, perhaps hoping to get someone on campus to ask for an autograph, thinks 2:58 is not out of the question. "We're cocky," he says. "But we're good."
THE SWIFT ONES, who make up the world's best mile-relay team, are (from left) Mel Bassett, Robert Ouko, Julius Sang and Larry Black.