by Art Levy
Updated 5 months ago
When I was 5 years old, I looked outside my bedroom window and saw an image of my father swinging from a tree. Racial epithet after racial epithet was being hurled, and I didn’t understand any of it except that a lot of people hated this man who was my best friend. I didn’t get it, and I wouldn’t get it for years, until I was old enough to absorb that as coach of the New York Knicks, my dad had signed the first African- American player in the NBA — Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton — and there were a lot of people who were not happy about that in 1950.
Orlando fundamentally changed the night of the Pulse nightclub shooting. I do a lot of speaking around the country, and when people hear I live in Orlando, they talk about the city with such respect for the way it responded to the shootings and the way it pulled together as a community. I’m on the board of a number of organizations, both locally and nationally, but probably the one I’m most proud of is being on the board of the onePulse Foundation.
I was 6 feet tall in the eighth grade, one of the tallest players in the New York City area, and I was being recruited by most of the high schools that played big-time basketball in New York. One was Power Memorial. I chose not to go there, but I became friends with the coach, and the coach invited me to a summer camp in 1961. His returning ballplayers were there, so he had five white guys and one black guy, and one of the white guys was hurling the n-word at the black guy for the first three days, until I finally challenged him. The white guy knocked me out cold. The black guy was known then as Lew Alcindor, and later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a lifelong friendship between us began. As a 15-year-old white kid from a predominately white community, the importance of our friendship was I suddenly had a young, urban African-American lens to see what racism was doing to communities of color. I was devastated by what I saw, and I decided as a 15-year-old that I was going to spend the rest of my life working in the area of civil rights.
Our daughter went to Eckerd College, our younger daughter, and in her sophomore year she was ready to move off campus, so we found a little bungalow in St. Pete Beach that she could live in with her friends, and when she graduated, we kind of took it over. I don’t get there as often as I would like to just because my life is so crazy, but we love going to St. Petersburg. When we go over that bridge, heading toward the Don CeSar hotel, my blood pressure just drops, and I can really relax and enjoy the beauty of it.
Everybody can’t be on the front lines, but everybody’s got to get off the sidelines. By that I mean, find an organization that represents an aspect of social justice that you feel passionate about. Read about it to make sure it’s the right organization for you. Volunteer. Vote.
In the mid-1970s, I was leading the sports boycott of South Africa in the United States. Most of the European countries no longer would compete with South Africa because of apartheid. In 1978, South Africa sent its Davis Cup team to play in Nashville, Tenn. My role — as the chair of the coalition of groups that had come together to boycott South Africa — was to go there and try to get the matches canceled. Dick Schaap came up to me — he was a correspondent for NBC Nightly News at the time — and said that the financial backers of the Davis Cup had pulled out, and it looked like the matches would be canceled. I flew home to Virginia that night thinking maybe for the first time in my life I had done something worthwhile.
The next night, I was working late in my office at Virginia Wesleyan College. At 10:45 p.m., there was a knock on the door. I assumed it was campus security, which would routinely check if there was a light on in the building after it was closed, so I didn’t hesitate to open the door. There, instead of campus security, it was two men wearing stocking masks who proceeded to cause liver damage, kidney damage, a hernia, a concussion and then they carved the n-word in my stomach with a pair of office scissors.
Later, lying in my hospital bed, I realized that if people had gone to the length they had gone to try to stop my father 28 years before and the length they went that night to try to stop me, then they must have thought that what we were doing had been effective. So I decided that I was going to spend the rest of my life using sports as a platform to address racism and other social justice issues in America — and that’s essentially what I’ve done for more than 40 years.
When I met my wife 37 years ago, I ate a normal diet, and she was vegetarian, so I became a vegetarian very quickly after that. I used to love shellfish, but I would say that after three months of being a vegetarian, I was so in love that I didn’t miss shellfish anymore.
The miracle of sports is the huddle. Once you’re in that huddle, it doesn’t matter if you’re African-American or white, Latino or Asian-American, Native American, Arab-American, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, gay or straight, if you come from a rich family or a poor family. You’re not going to win the game if you don’t pull together as a team. If we took the huddle concept and brought it to every sector of America, what a different world we’d have today.
Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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