Honoring Hilton White

Hilton White was the father of my best friend, Kim (not the Kim who edits my books, who is much younger than us). I am so proud to say that a street in the Bronx was named for him this past Saturday, August 1st. (The photo above is of Derrick White holding the newly minted street sign identifying his father's namesake street, Hilton White Way.) Unfortunately, I was unable to get to New York this weekend . . . but I was there in spirit.

Those of you who've read my older books might think that name sounds familiar. With the permission of his family, I named the hero of my second romance, A Love of Her Own, after him.

Here's the text of the article reprinted from The New York Times about a tribute to a wonderful man:

August 3, 2009
More Than Playing Ball on a South Bronx Playground

The small patch of concrete in the South Bronx features slides and swing sets, along with a large fountain where neighborhood youngsters frolic happily through the spray. But the basketball hoops, and the legendary coach and recreational leader who once presided over them, have vanished, part of the ever-changing demographics of this gritty neighborhood.

But every once in a while, some local residents say, the deep baritone of the unforgettable Hilton White can be heard echoing across the old playground, and his muscular, 6-foot-3 frame can be seen stalking the former sideline. For it was here — on a small concrete playground near the intersection of East 163rd Street and Cauldwell Avenue — that the locally renowned community leader and coach taught some of New York City’s greatest 1960s and 1970s basketball players (like the former N.B.A. star Nate Archibald) how to become both outstanding basketball players and responsible adults.

It was also where White, who died at 57 in 1990, put together one of the most successful recreational teams in city history: the famed Bronx Falcons, who became local legends by often winning well-known amateur tournaments, like the Rucker in Harlem.

On Saturday, dozens of White’s protégés, most now in their 50s and 60s, returned to the Bronx from across the United States to pay homage to a man many called their surrogate father. Against a background of thumping soul music and speeches by elected officials, an enthusiastic crowd of about 170 — including roughly 30 members of White’s extended family — beamed as the little fenced-in park was renamed Hilton White Playground and an adjacent street received a new moniker, as well — Hilton White Way.

During White’s decade-long career as the reigning youth basketball coach at tiny Cauldwell Park and Playground in the South Bronx, White taught the fundamentals of the game to hundreds of teenagers — including Willie Worsley, Nevil Shed and Willie Cager, three Bronx youngsters who later gained national fame as starters on the 1966 Texas Western College team. That year, Worsley, Shed and Cager helped lead an all-black starting lineup to an astonishing upset victory against Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team to win the N.C.A.A. championship.

On his small outdoor lot, White insisted that his young charges learn the value of education, discipline, hard work and respect for others. By combining basketball instruction with fatherly guidance, he helped mold hundreds of teenagers into socially responsible adults. Many went on to become doctors, judges, social workers, educators and coaches.

During the ceremony Saturday, many attendees said they missed White and the other “parkies,” former city recreational workers who had helped to shape their characters. They also lamented that these recreational positions were eliminated in New York during the 1970s by budget cuts.
“What I remember was the sense of excellence he instilled,” said Walter M. Braswell, 59, now an administrative law judge in New Jersey who sometimes sought out White for advice. “He looked you in the eye, and he was a big guy, tough. He was very convincing that you could accomplish whatever you want.”

Braswell, whose son plays basketball at Yale, looked around the park and added: “And the results he got. He told us how good we could be, and then the Falcons went out and were that good. And the kids started getting college scholarships. That’s what I think really woke everyone up in the neighborhood to the fact that, there was a way out.”

Standing near the little park’s iron fence, the former White disciple Robert McDonald described how he ran into the coach in 1987 at an educators’ conference in Washington. There he asked White why he had put so much extra time and effort into working with young people.

“The main thing,” McDonald said, “is he wanted to help our community get more scholarships for the underprivileged kids — he wanted these kids to get a fair shake and he thought education would be their road out. He used basketball as a tool.”

At the renaming festivities Saturday, the players hugged and slapped hands, some of them looking ready to tip off in shorts, T-shirts and shiny high tops, others in slacks and collared shirts. Shed, now 66, stood tall at 6-8 and flashed his chunky, gold N.C.A.A. championship ring on one finger and his diamond-inset Naismith Hall of Fame ring on another, while Archibald, a longtime N.B.A. star, warmly greeted old friends.

Many remembered White’s incredible dedication — how he would follow them home at night to make sure they stayed out of trouble or would call their parents to discuss both basketball victories and potential behavior problems.

Speaking earlier at a Bronx reunion dinner in honor of White, Shed remembered receiving a hug from his old recreation-league mentor at Cole Field House in Maryland, moments after the 1966 victory over Kentucky.

“He was beaming, and I hugged him,” Shed said. “We didn’t have to say thank you to him, because we knew that he was proud of us.”

Then, tears coming to his eyes, he added, “I would say that I’m a child of God, I’m the son of Lillie Mae and James Shed, and I’m a product of Hilton White. He helped make me into a man.”



DonnaD said...

Wow. What an amazing tribute to an amazing man.

As soon as I saw the names of Willie Worsley and Nevil Shed, I instantly thought of "Glory Road", a terrific movie about a story I had never heard. The courage of those young men and what they went through to get to the top was simply amazing. It's great to know that your friend's father had a hand in teaching them how to be courageous in such trying situations.

bettye griffin said...

Yes, Donna, he was a wonderful man who left this world far too soon, and he is definitely missed.