We Should Celebrate Black History Every Month

Feb 28, 2018

Black history month ends today, which leaves me just a few hours to celebrate the athletic achievements and lives of black Rhode Islanders I have known since I moved here right out of college in 1972.

When I think of black sports history, I think of Dennis Coleman, who came to Rhode Island from Philadelphia via Western Arizona Junior College to play football at Brown. He was half of coach John Anderson’s two-quarterback system in 1973 and 1974 and helped lay the foundation of Brown’s first Ivy League championship in 1976. Coleman earned a law degree at Georgetown and today is a partner at Ropes and Gray in Boston. He assisted in the launch of the firm’s sports and entertainment practice and ranks among the leading sports lawyers in the nation now. Dennis has lived in Rhode Island for decades, moves smoothly between the state’s black and white cultures and works quietly behind the scenes to provide opportunity for black youth.

I think of Steve Jordan, the best tight end in Brown football history who went on to a 12-year career with the Minnesota Vikings, earning six trips to the Pro Bowl from 1982 to 1994 and being named one of the 50 greatest Vikings. And Abbott Burrell, longtime associate head football coach at Brown, football alum Marquis Jessie, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist in northern Virginia, and basketball alum Eric Blackiston, a Brown Hall of Famer and lawyer for Amica Mutual Insurance Company.

I think of Ken Walker -- make that Dr. Kenneth Walker -- at 87 still an East Providence Townie. I knew Ken first as a basketball referee, running the court at the Providence Civic Center for PC games. Over time I learned that he graduated from Providence College and devoted his life to educating the kids of urban Rhode Island. He was a teacher, a professor, an administrator. He earned a master’s degree at Rhode Island College and a doctorate in education at Boston University. He served his community in various capacities, including a long tenure on the state Parole Board, and has been honored, deservedly so, many times.  Providence College named a scholarship after him.

I think of Thom Spann, the Brooklyn native who played football and ran track at the University of Rhode Island in the mid-1970s and never left the state. He is the veteran track coach at Hope High School, was the cross-country coach at Johnson & Wales University and is a founder of the Providence Cobras, the well-known track program for kids. Spann’s dedication to youth has put many inner-city children on the road to college and beyond.

I think of Hollie Walton, a marathoner with Bobby Doyle on the Johnson & Wales Track Club when I first met him in the late 1970s, who had been a standout at Hope High and an All-America at Johnson & Wales Junior College and the University of Texas- El Paso, and who has spent his entire professional career as a coach, administrator and role model at J&W.

I remember the late Jimmy Adams, basketball coach and mentor to hundreds of high-school and college athletes. I met him in the mid-1970s, when he was an assistant coach on Dave Gavitt’s staff at Providence College. I learned later that he was a football and basketball star at URI in the mid-1950s and basketball coach at Central High School in Providence from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, when the Knights were perennial state champions. After his stint at PC, he was the head coach at Rhode Island College for 21 years. Always gracious, Adams reminded me of K.C. Jones of the Boston Celtics.

I remember the late Marvin Barnes, the man-child who excelled for Adams at Central and Gavitt at PC, the best basketball player to come out of Rhode Island, a star in the old ABA who succumbed to the allure of fame, money and drugs, a star who squandered his immense talent, recovered, completed his Providence College degree while serving time at the ACI, and in later life advised young people to avoid the pitfalls that ruined him.

I think of Frank “Happy” Dobbs, head basketball coach at Brown for eight seasons in the 1990s,  currently interim head coach at Bryant, where he has spent seven years, the last three as associate head coach, and a man whose smile and personality can brighten a room.

I think of Tom Garrick, the West Warwick kid who led URI to the Sweet 16 in 1988, who with Carlton “Slick” Owens composed one of the best backcourts in Atlantic 10 history, whose father, a World War II veteran, was legally blind and the focus of heartwarming stories that remarkable March. Tom played four seasons in the NBA, ended his playing career in Europe and coached men and women at URI. As head coach of the struggling women’s program, Tom was always patient and never dodged tough questions. He is an assistant coach for the Boston College women now.

I think of Al Skinner, an All-Yankee Conference basketball player at UMass in the early-to-mid 1970s, a teammate of Rick Pitino at Amherst and of Julius Erving with the old ABA New York Nets, assistant coach at URI for four years and then head coach for nine. He took the Rams to two NITs and two NCAA tournaments and recruited the heart of the 1998 Elite Eight team. He moved on to Boston College and spent 13 seasons at The Heights, leading the Eagles to the NCAA tournament seven times and the NIT once, before his controversial firing. After a brief stint at Bryant, Al landed the head job at Kennesaw State, where he just finished his third season. 

I think of younger coaches like Alex Butler, a basketball and volleyball star at East Providence High School, an All-America basketball player at Rhode Island College in the mid-1990s, and a successful middle school phys ed teacher and East Providence High basketball and volleyball coach; Lajhon Jones, a New York transplant who played football at Warwick Veterans, was an outstanding linebacker at URI, succeeded as head coach at Moses Brown School in Providence, coached three years at Durfee High in Fall River and resigned to watch his son, Lajhon Jr., play football for La Salle Academy; Jamie Benton, who went from the basketball court at La Salle Academy to Boston College and is wrapping up his 14th season as head coach at Johnson & Wales with a Great Northeast Athletic Conference title and berth in the NCAA Division III tournament; Doug Haynes, another son of West Warwick, who played basketball and baseball at CCRI and football at URI and is the longtime girls basketball coach at St. Mary Academy Bay View; and Carnell Henderson, a football star at Woonsocket High School in the late 1980s, an All-America wide receiver at Boston University in the early 1990s, a BU Hall of Famer, the coach of two Super Bowls teams at Woonsocket, assistant principal, athletics director and now principal at Woonsocket High School.

I think of Destiny Woodbury, who grew up poor in Providence with her grandmother and younger sister and brother, ran for the Providence Cobras, was a star at Mount Pleasant High School, earned a scholarship to URI, excelled on the track team, graduated in 2007 with degrees in chemistry and education, moved to Houston and became a star with Teach for America.

This is not a comprehensive list of black Rhode Islanders who have made a difference in sports and life in the Ocean State. I welcome additions and will note them in a future On Sports blog. This is just a list of Rhode Islanders I have known and written about in the last four-plus decades who happen to be black and who have made enormous contributions to our state’s history. We should celebrate them every month, not just in February.