Waiting for competition to resume at a regional track meet in Churubusco, Ind., last spring, the 15-year-old didn’t look much different from other teenagers on coach James Reed’s North Miami High School (Ind.) team. The boy was perhaps a year or two younger than the rest. His stocky, athletic build and longish blond hair distinguished him a tad from everybody else, and maybe – just maybe -- how he viewed the world was misaligned with theirs, too.
Huddled with teammates between events, the 15-year-old noticed black girls and boys, jeans sagging off their asses, milling around. As if out of nowhere, he blurted out, "I don't really not like black people. But I just don't like black people when they're sagging, when they've got their hat on backwards."
Stunned, Reed grabbed the boy and hustled him a few feet from the pack. "Why'd you say that?" Reed demanded. "Why?"
The 15-year-old stood mute. But what words do speak to ignorance, which is what racist rhetoric is? Reed knew, however, that the boy wasn't the only person in his high school of 500 students -- or in his town or any similar place in rural America where the sight of black faces was rare -- who embraced such myopic beliefs. In rural schools like North Miami, many teenagers look at sagging jeans as a clownish fad - same, too, with rap music. They find the profanity-laced lyrics of Trinidad James, 2 Chainz and Rick Ross impossible to dissect to their essence because the black rappers focus too much on baby-momma drama, on living the gangsta lifestyle, on making coin:
Cocaine runnin' in my big vein
Self-made, you just affiliated
I built it ground up, you bought it renovated
Talking plenty capers, nothing's been authenticated
Funny you claimin' the same bitch that I'm penetratin'
Hold the bottles up, where my comrades?
Where the fucking felons, where my dogs at?
"That's not music," Reed had insisted about tracks like Ross' "Blowin' Money Fast" when he himself was 15. But no more. He later discovered the rhythmic riffs and hard-driving intensity that drew blacks to rap music held allure for him, too. Reed discovered that and much more when, in 2005, he, an 18-year-old white boy, left behind his rural roots and headed east to play basketball in Baltimore, for a black college in a nearly all-black, urban environment.
Towns around North Miami bear no resemblance to cosmopolitan Baltimore. They all are, well ... undeniably white. Few stretches of America are as devoid of diversity as nearby Yorktown, Bluffton, Upland, Fairmount and Gas City, Reed's hometown. With "The City of Gas City City Hall" - the name the butt of a David Letterman joke - and the Gas City Library as hubs, downtown is two short rows of small, family-owned shops in low-slung redbrick buildings. The town exudes a folksiness that makes some outsiders think of fictional Mayberry, N.C. With a fertile enough imagination, one can imagine strolling Main Street with Opie, Aunt Bea or Deputy Barney Fife.
All that sets Gas City apart from other nearby white enclaves are the local racetrack - the I-69 Speedway -- and the fact the town was once home to the James Dean Gallery, a homage to the film heartthrob who was raised in nearby Fairmount before he went to Hollywood to play the role of the rebel without a cause. Each year, folks in Gas City still commemorate Dean's life with a street festival that includes custom cars, flea markets and pork tenderloin sandwiches the size of Frisbees. Yet it is not flea markets and tenderloins that connect Gas City, a 4.56-square-mile smear along the Interstate 69 corridor midway between Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, to Baltimore; sports connects them. And in Indiana, sports means basketball.
James Reed loved basketball. As boys, he and Chance Cowgill, his best friend, shot hoops in the gravel driveway outside his family's four-bedroom house late into the dark. Other times, they played on Cowgill's backyard court or at the park in town, working at basketball as if it were a 9-to-5 job. From early adolescence, the two friends attended summer camps in Marion and Fort Wayne, playing in camp leagues or in pickup games after hours where talent was colorless. What they learned in those camps, Reed and Cowgill brought home and practiced playing with and against each other. In eighth grade, Reed went to a basketball camp in Gas City, and he played so well there that he left with a growing local reputation and all the honors a boy could win.
Together, the two friends set a goal. On their mile-and-a-half trek home from Gas City Park one night, the friends, 13 at the time, talked about it: a Division I basketball scholarship. They promised to work toward it, and then made a pact and shook hands on it. They told each other they would do whatever it took to earn a scholarship, and made a commitment to chase the game and follow basketball wherever it led, through exhaustive sprint drills, shooting drills, dribbling drills, pickup games and countless practices. When the freedom of summer allowed it, Reed and Cowgill spent endless days putting 10 hours or more into their dream.
Their hard work showed on the court. By ninth grade, both boys looked to be the future of Mississinewa High School basketball. Reed dressed with the varsity as a freshman. By his senior year, at 6' 4 and 175 pounds, he emerged as one of the team's stars, averaging more than 17 points per game. He played shooting guard; Cowgill ran the point. Together the duo led the Indians to an 18-3 record.
It wasn't enough to impress college coaches. For at the end of 2004-05 season, neither of them received an offer to play basketball at a Division I college. They were just two more low-profile ballers with fanciful dreams far out of reach. Reed and Cowgill, however, refused to let that dream unravel. They believed all they needed to do was audition for some college coach, any college coach, really, and that if they did they could prove they had D-1 game.
So Reed, Cowgill and Fred Hodson, the school's JV coach, hit the Midwest "exposure circuit," a series of grueling, gritty hoops camps that brought coaches like Temple's John Chaney, Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson and Indiana's Mike Davis in to deliver instant evaluations on hundreds of players whose high-school play had gone noticed and unnoticed. For every rising star like O.J. Mayo, there were a dozen or so James Reeds and Chance Cowgills.
Then, at a camp in Indianapolis, Reed produced a breakout performance. "Coach Hodson told me, 'cause I wasn't there, that James caught fire; he just blew up," Cowgill remembers. "He was just balling - balling on everybody." Finally allowed to play without wearing the straitjacket of his high school coach's slow-down offense, Reed let his game flow that day and his dream began to come together.
His deft shooting caught the eye of Butch Beard, basketball royalty. Beard was Kentucky's "Mr. Basketball" in high school, starred in college at Louisville and went on to an 11-year career in professional basketball, earning a berth on the NBA All-Star team in 1972 and who then served three seasons as coach of the New Jersey Nets. Now, Beard coached Morgan State University, a historically black college that first opened its doors only a few years after the Civil War.
In Reed, Beard didn't see a white player; he saw a player. "I was looking for a kid who could shoot," he said. "James can shoot." Three days later, he called and offered Reed a scholarship. And Reed didn't see a black college; he saw a chance at a dream and a coach who believed in him. "As soon as I talked to Butch," he remembers, "my mind was made up."
James told his parents - Parr and Janice - that Morgan State was all black, but they didn't fret over the color issue, for in their home, the couple never made a big to-do about black and white. In fact, the older of their two daughters blessed the Reeds with a black grandson - Jaiden -- whose presence brought them racial acceptance that some of their neighbors didn't have. The family knew, as most folks did, that black athletes enrolled in white colleges all the time; they saw evidence of that on the Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame rosters. What they hadn't seen -- or even heard of -- was a white athlete like James going to play basketball or football at a black college.
Beard invited Reed and his parents to Baltimore to explore the 5,000-student campus. Curious -- and, for their son's sake -- the couple accepted the invitation. "I imagine that I had the same questions that Jackie Robinson's mom had," Janice Reed said. "Would the other students treat him differently? Would they be nice?"
Upon arriving, the Reeds, both educators, found themselves on a suburban-like campus of brownish-red brick buildings and glass-and-steel structures that stood three or four stories tall, a stark contrast to one and two-story storefronts in downtown Gas City. The front door to the campus was historic Holmes Hall, the heart of the school and home to the College of Liberal Arts, a stately stone and wood-columned structure with a steeple and clock that gives students no excuse to show up late to class. In contrast, nearby stood the McKeldin Student Center, a futuristic building of gleaming glass. Between the buildings, patches of green grass lawns and towering oaks allowed the campus to breathe.
The place impressed the Reeds, but they were more impressed with what they saw of Coach Beard. They liked the fact he didn't mind his players joking around with him, and his focus on education appealed to their inner teacher. He was no-nonsense about it: He expected his players to get to class on time, study hard and maintain a solid grade point average. "He won my parents over by saying while he's there, he's going to be my parent; nothing's gonna happen to me," James said. Even more reassuring than Coach Beard's promise to play the surrogate dad was the question asked by the son of one of the school's football coaches, a 6-year-old who was in the gym while the Reeds watched James play in a pick-up game.
"This young kid and I were talking and laughing, and he asked me why was I here on campus," said Janice Reed, her son the lone white player on the court. "I told him I was here watching my son. The kid looked out on the court and asked, ‘Which one is your son?' That put everything in perspective for me."
The couple may not have found out everything about Morgan State on their two-day visit during the spring semester, but they felt comfortable enough about the big-city campus to encourage their son to accept the scholarship. Not that their opinions mattered; James had made up his mind already. He didn't care what his parents or what other people thought.
"James could have played at a lot of colleges locally, but his dream was to play Division I," said Cowgill, who had once shared the same dream but unlike his friend, was never able to fulfill it. "When he got that opportunity, I was wantin' him to go play. I said, ‘I know it's all the way in Baltimore, but I'll come out and see you (play).' "
Reed didn't need to convince his best friend that going to Morgan State was the right decision. However, he did have to convince blacks on the Morgan State campus. Although a handful of white students had previously attended the school, most had grown up in urban environments around blacks. They were skeptical of the white boy from Gas City, Ind.
"I didn't think there was any way a white boy from where he's from in Indiana would want to come to an all-black school," said Chris Warfield, a sophomore guard on the 2005-06 team. "I got a call over the summer that my roommate was James Reed, and I didn't remember who he was. My teammates kept saying that ‘You're rooming with the white boy,' but I didn't believe them. When I looked up his 765 area code and saw Indiana, I thought, 'Oh shit, the white boy is coming.'"
Whatcha doin' here, white boy?
Beard, books and a basketball scholarship had lured Reed to campus, but could a naïve, guitar-strumming, country-music-listening-to white boy from rural Indiana fit into the world of John Legend, 50 Cent and Erykah Badu? From his first day on campus, Reed seemed bent on proving he could.
After the first day of classes, he tagged along with dorm mates to the cafeteria at Rawlings Hall for dinner. More than a buffet of fried chicken and soul food highlighted the menu; the dining hall also served as a gathering spot for one of the biggest social hours of the school day. As they ate, Reed, the only white person among the 200 people in the hall, noticed the stares. Once dinner ended, he and a few teammates walked outside and into the commons between Rawlings and Blount Towers where 40-50 students milled about. Football, skipped classes and upcoming parties generally peppered their conversations. On this day, however, those subjects were forgotten. Most of the talk centered on Reed.
"That's when it all started," he said. "Everyone wanted to know why I was here. Why was I at a black college? The questions were the same, and so was my answer: I'm here to play basketball."
The questions didn't stop outside the dining hall's doors. Three days later, Reed experienced an ordinary moment that, in retrospect, reflected the sweep of cultural adaptions he encountered at Morgan State as the solitary white boy. As he dressed in dorm room 208-C of Rawlings Hall for his first Friday night out, Reed felt his heart pounding out of his chest. Uneasy about wearing his own clothes, he fidgeted with the white-and-gray, 3XL Rocawear button-up shirt and the three-sizes-too-big jeans he borrowed from a roommate. With two quick tugs, a teammate pulled the jeans downward, ensuring they sagged off Reed's ass. Someone yelled from the corridor to remind Reed not to tuck in his shirt. Inspecting his look, Reed first shook his head and moaned: Oh, nnnoooooo, this won't do.
Nevertheless, an hour later, jeans sagging, Reed and his dorm mates piled into his shiny red, 2001 Monte Carlo with Indiana plates and drove to Hammerjacks, a popular dance club near Baltimore's Inner Harbor that catered to a black clientele. Outside, the line ran 100 deep on a humid, late-summer night as Reed and his friends took spots at the rear. As the line inched toward the club's entrance, he caught people staring: Whatcha doin' here, white boy?
He ignored them. "At first I thought, ‘How is James gonna do his thing?'" said Marcus Gomes, a roommate and one of Reed's teammates. "But James came out, went to the clubs, danced. James is James, man; he treated Morgan like he was back home in Indiana."
Basketball is basketball. A player has game or he doesn't - there is no ethnicity thing to it, really. All James Reed needed to do was to show he had some game. He didn't need to be the next Larry Bird or Steve Alford; no one expected him to be. Reed could shoot, which was why Coach Beard had given him a scholarship, and that's what he needed to do.
Still, Reed's teammates wanted proof. So before the start of the season, when they all played unorganized pick-up games and one-on-one, they would sneak a black student into the gym to test Reed. "Everybody wanted to play the white kid," remembered one teammate.
One after another came in and lost to Reed, and his teammates soon found humor in seeing him win time and time again. Tall and long, he never found the one-on-one games overly challenging; they just demonstrated the wisdom of Coach Beard's decision to add him to the team. The more that teammates saw of Reed's game the more comfortable they grew with him and the more comfortable he grew with them. By the early stages of the 2005-06 season, Reed often forgot he was a freshman. Basketball-mad Indiana had schooled him well. His sound play and laser-accurate shooting allowed him to contribute from the start. While he never made the starting lineup, he wasn't the last man off the bench, either.
The more Reed played, though, the more the spotlight shined on his whiteness, especially when the Bears opened league play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, known for its raucous crowds and street-savvy play. In the MEAC, taunts had no boundaries. They came in torrents - from the floor, from the bench and from the bleachers. Moore Gymnasium at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., which seats only 3,000, was the toughest place to play in the all-black conference, and not just for white boys. Players on the school's football team sat within arm's length of the visitor's bench, and their sole purpose was to intimidate opponents. And the B-C fans? No crowd was as uninviting as the one at B-C.
"There's even old ladies in the stands talking about you," said Sam Brand, a white, hip-hop-loving guard from New York City who had used up his eligibility at Morgan State the season before Reed brought his small-town roots to campus. "There was one game where whenever my teammate got the ball the crowd screamed 'Head, head, head' because he had a funny shaped head. Whenever I got the ball, the crowd would go: Let's go white boy (clap, clap, clap). Let's go white boy (clap, clap, clap) for the entire game."
Other gyms were no friendlier. In Reed's mind, one gym - or rather, one moment there -- stood out. It came during a game in Memorial Gym at Howard University in Washington D.C. One of Howard's stars, Eugene Myatt, beat a defender off the dribble and had a clear lane to a dunk. Seeing the action unfold, Reed, who had been providing help-side defense, switched off his man to contest Myatt's dunk. In midair, he and the 6'4 Myatt collided, chest to chest. Both men crashed to the floor hard, the Howard player landing on Reed.
"The next thing I know, the crowd's going nuts," Reed said. "And I'm like, ‘What the heck? They're not cheering for me. Surely, we're at Howard; they hate me here.'"
He was right: Howard fans weren't cheering him. Myatt had slam-dunked on Reed ... a thunderous, crowd-pleasing, SportsCenter highlight-type dunk. "The kid gave him a mean ‘poster,'" Gomes recalls. "It was a small court, and everybody was on top of you. James was embarrassed; his face was red. I felt bad for him." For Reed, the rest of the game was a calamity; the dunk unnerved him. The crowd chanted "Snowflake," "Vanilla Ice" and other off-color names. "It was bad," he said.
Yet Reed mostly enjoyed the intense razzing he took from rival crowds. For a white boy who grew up with a cornfield behind his backyard, Reed quickly adapted and soon found nothing peculiar about playing in front of blacks and partying with them afterward. He never felt like a pariah, as Marcus Jacoby, a white quarterback at all-black Southern University, did in 1996. His presence splintered the team, pissed alumni off, turned color into a divisive issue on the Baton Rouge, La., campus and in his second season caused Jacoby to give up football and transfer to L.S.U.
White athletes on black college football and basketball teams remain a rarity, and athletes like Jacoby tend to find their transition from a white to black world littered with hurdles. But for Reed, the transition would have been almost seamless had it not been for one issue: his speech. His Indiana dialect amused his peers, who teased him about his use of the word "guy." But he picked up replacements like "dude" and "man" little by little, learned how, when and where to use such words, with an obvious exception: "nigga."
Inside and outside his inner circle of friends, Reed heard the n-word in their music, in their conversations; he heard it in the hallways in Rawlings, in the dining hall and everywhere else blacks congregated. "My nigga," a term of endearment, was often applied to him, too. Yet as accepted as he was among those who referred to him that way, Reed never felt comfortable using the word himself. He didn't know how his black friends might view him if he stepped across that line, and he avoided using the word - except for one slip during basketball practice.
Exasperated with how his practice routine had gone, Reed screamed out the n-word for a reason he still does not quite understand. He had heard it spoken so often that, for an instance, he dropped his self-imposed ban over using it.
He immediately looked to see whether teammates had heard him. No one even looked his way. "If he said it," Gomes said, "no one thought nothing of it." They allowed Reed to do what they did: He spoke as they spoke; he dressed as they dressed. That's the way it was for Reed, a white man who made an all-black campus feel like home.
Sports can bridge the cultural and racial miles between black and white, between the French Licks and the Hotlantas, and sports on the D-1 level can teach a young man about life, about his circumstances, about those of other people. Reed, now 26, knows this all too well these days, days he spends hundreds of miles from MEAC gyms but not from the oxymoronic nickname the girls on campus gave him. To them, he was their "White Chocolate," a quasi-mystery, the subject of dorm gossip, a white interloper who dined, studied and loved among them, defying stereotypes implicit in the bad racial bargain blacks and whites too often strike: a bargain that leads to mistrust, to hatred and to a lot of needless angst.
White Chocolate, a nickname that sticks with Reed still, saw his inconspicuous whiteness bring him face to face with the socioeconomic and cultural norms on a black, urban campus: the basketball; the hip-hop; the basketball; the nightclub scene; the basketball; the frat parties; the basketball; the classes; the basketball; the sistas who wooed him - young, dark-skinned honeys who fell hard for his sandy-blond hair, his handsome features, his white skin and his Kenny Chesney chill. "It used to shock me," Gomes said. "I'd go out there and do my thing, but it seemed like every week James had a new girl."
"I didn't do anything to try to make that happen," Reed said. "I was different, but the girls figured out I wasn't some weird white boy. I ended up being the ‘cool' white boy."
Cool never did count for much in Gas City. There, Fridays and Saturdays didn't have the electricity of a weekend out as a college student. "The parties I went to in high school, the guys didn't do anything; they just stood there," Reed said. The party protocol at Morgan State wasn't to play the wallflower. What college party is? Reed didn't give a thought to whether he should be at those parties or whether others thought he shouldn't be. "James didn't really have to change for anybody," Gomes said. "People accepted James for who he was." Reed, his color notwithstanding, wanted to have a good time like most college students. "That's just kinda how I was," he said. But as appealing as the parties and black women were, Reed never enrolled in Morgan State for the nightlife nor to get his groove on; he came to play Division I basketball.
Whatcha doin' here, white boy?
A basketball season doesn't last forever, and at some point, it had to come to a stop for Reed. It ended in a 4-26 record for him and the nine other freshmen Coach Beard had on his 17-man roster. Without the anchor of basketball in the spring, Reed grew homesick. "James was calling me all the time: ‘Dude, I don't think I can do this,'" Cowgill said. "I said, ‘James, just focus on the basketball -- use it as a steppingstone if anything.' I think he kinda grew up from this."
Reed might well have stayed for a second season, but on Mother's Day Coach Beard's wife, Ruth, suffered a stroke and later died. Beard told the team he was stepping down. Without Coach Beard, Reed lost what bound him to Morgan State. "He was kinda, at that point, like my father-figure," Reed said. "But when Coach left, I didn't really feel comfortable being at Morgan State anymore."
When classes ended in May, Reed loaded his Abercrombie & Fitch and Old Navy gear into his Chevy, said his goodbyes and returned to Gas City, taking with him a carload of reality TV moments to share with folks in his hometown. He left campus having basked in the college's Afro-centric ethos, having forged friendships with students like Gomes and having experienced D-1 hoops.
He returned home with a lifetime of experiences to share with the friends he had left behind in Gas City. He had seen places on his travels with the team that he never would have seen had he stayed near home; he had taken classes, as the solitary white boy, he never would have taken had he enrolled in Wabash, DePauw, Saint Francis, Earlham or Indiana Tech; had conversations with people he otherwise never would have met; and witnessed firsthand the socioeconomic disparities that separate white and middle class from black and poor.
Those disparities displayed themselves in surprising ways, in the odd choices he had seen others make that Reed is still processing in his mind for meaning and understanding. He recalls one incident that took place during winter break. Living in off-campus housing at the time, he and his roommates arrived home one afternoon and found a neighbor's front door ajar. His inclination was to pull the door shut, but his roommates had another idea: sneak into the apartment and steal what they could. Out the door went a computer, a TV set, money from a dresser ... everything of value.
As he watched, silent, Reed was confused. He wasn't necessarily thinking right vs. wrong, as his Indiana upbringing had taught him; he was just thinking "Why? - Why were his roommates doing this?" Afterward, he never questioned them about it; he never called the cops -- no one in the apartment complex did. He just tried to sort out why his roommates, men from impoverished backgrounds, chose to steal and made the decision so easily. He finally concluded: "If they were home when this happened, this is naturally what you do, I guess." The incident exposed Reed to a raw, unfiltered lesson about the desperate reality of urban life, a lesson that has shaped him in ways white people in Indiana might never comprehend or understand.
Yet the most important lesson Reed carried back home to Indiana was not to be scared of something other people were unsure of. Others back home were unsure of his decision to attend a black college, and they told him so. He, however, never doubted his decision. "I think it's all about doing what feels right, and that's what felt right to me," he said. "I knew it could have been a really bad experience. But it felt right, and I felt like that was something that was meant to happen in my life."
Now a coach himself, Reed has carried those experiences into adulthood. He earned his bachelor's degree in education from Manchester College, a Division III school where he transferred to finish his collegiate basketball career, one that ended in a series of shoulder injuries. While any NBA aspirations died there, his goal of being a schoolteacher, the profession of his parents, stayed with him.
Ask Reed now what has affected his life most, and he says his time in Baltimore. The more he learned about the big city and its people, the more he thought of them as a reflection of all he was himself: open, carefree, basketball-crazy - similarities, not differences. His year there delivered insights that have made Reed a better, more principled person, a schoolteacher and coach unwilling to stay silent in the face of racial intolerance. With his teenaged athletes, he's teaching with a deeper perspective, sharing lessons he learned about race with them and with other white folks, white folks who never got - or never will get -- as comfortable among blacks as he did.
Whatcha doin' here, white boy?
Here, for basketball, was James Reed's answer to that question in the fall of 2005. Now, in the winter of 2013, well ... his answer sounds a bit different; Reed is different, too. White Chocolate had his eyes pried open in Baltimore, opened up to a world beyond the small, insulated towns he had sank jumpers in during his boyhood pilgrimage through Hoosier gyms. Those visions are what he shares now with players on the North Miami basketball and track teams - white teenagers who are much like Reed was back in the early 2000s: boys who consider playing basketball a rite of passage - sacred like the Holy Bible. Basketball and the Bible, they've always been and always will be Hoosier staples.
Life away from small-town Indiana is much more. While basketball and the Bible do matter, big cities teach more complicated and layered lessons, and those lessons aren't easily learned, even for a white baller who arrives with a sweet-as-cane-sugar jumper. James Reed did learn those lessons. He learned about poverty, T.I. and Young Jeezy, crime and punishment, wealth and privilege, racism and ignorance. "I appreciated the opportunity to do what I did," Reed said. In his job as a North Miami coach and special ed teacher, he works hard to share it all. But don't look at Reed as a left-wing do-gooder, not in his miniature world. His influence isn't so broad. Whatever wisdom he has comes from stories about Morgan State, tales about how one white boy and his love of basketball touched the souls of a campus of black folks and how the campus touched back.
Reed's jeans still sag, although not midway down his ass the way he wore them during freshman year and after, even while he was at Manchester. He knows that no one in a "white" town wants to see a man's drawers, not in the rural community where Wrangler jeans and flannel shirts from WalMart pass for couture. Still, he says, "I've got my own style." That style, however folks in Central Indiana might describe it, remains dipped in a "chocolate" veneer. Although Reed had left a black campus, he continues to look at life through a different lens.
That's the lens he wants the teenagers he now teaches and coaches to look through as well. He realizes, of course, that none of those teens will do what he did: go to a black college to play Division I basketball. Their talents might be good enough to play there, but circumstances have to conspire to form a perfect and unlikely storm, which is what happened when he and Coach Hodson met Coach Beard. But what Reed's students can be is more open to possibilities and less prone to judgments - the word "colorblind" might put it best - and some day when they are older and move away to cities like Indianapolis, Toledo or Chicago, perhaps they will look at the faces of the inner city and think of what James Reed has tried to teach them.
For now, he knows the teenagers are often too callous and too immature and too inexperienced thinking about race to process his lessons; he doesn't expect them not to see color and not make judgments based on race. Nevertheless, he still tries, providing them with knowledge that runs counter to what many of them have previously learned in their young lives. "I was a little shocked at how he handled going to a school like that," said Ethan Beech, a 17-year-old senior on Reed's basketball and track teams. "But he talked about it more, and he was like, ‘I didn't even notice color after a little bit.'"
Reed's immersion into black culture is what he tries to share with his students, but the learning curve is steep. "We're all just people," Reed tells them. That's true, but as he found out last spring when he took his North Miami track team truth to Churubusco, truth doesn't always strike a responsive chord. "We're a farm school, and we don't have many [different] cultural groups," Beech said. "But Coach Reed's seen that before, and he's all comfortable about it. You can tell he's been around it."
Reed knows his students have not. They are white teenagers from small towns, towns that are stuck in the '60s. Not much has changed in those towns; not much will change - not soon anyhow. Many teens there still lug around the preconceived notions of their parents about blacks, Hispanics and everybody else whose skin color doesn't match theirs. Yet Reed never lets their conflicted views of race go unchallenged. Once every week or so, he will hear a teen spout some nonsense or will see a boy or girl display racist behavior.
Where others might stay silent or look away, Reed will stop the teen right away. He will pull the boy or girl aside and use those moments to teach, to say, "Hey, you don't know what you're talking about, and if you're around me, this isn't the way it's going to be."
He pointed to an incident that played out in the locker room last year. A 16-year-old biracial sophomore was playing the urban gangsta, using the n-word and profanity in front of his half-dressed white teammates as if he were cutting a rap demo. All were laughing; Reed wasn't. He found no place in his locker room for such language, particularly so because the rural boys he coaches know so little about race that they don't need to hear the word used so cavalierly. He interrupted the 16-year-old, one of a handful of minorities in the school, and opened a page from his life experience.
"I know this might sound weird coming from a white teacher, but I was in your same situation just the opposite at one point in time," Reed told the teen. "What you're teaching these guys, who are already subject to so much prejudice, is that that language is OK. You're doing them a disservice; and, really, you're doing yourself a disservice." From another teacher those would only be words, but when spoken by James Reed the words carry the weight of hard-earned knowledge.
Inside such teachable moments is Reed's central lesson: People are people. A hick farmer from Gas City is a lot like Marcus Gomes, a teammate who grew up in Brooklyn. Their backgrounds differ, but both are good at heart; both want the best life possible; and both are trying to find the right opportunity to get them to that good life. That's why Reed left Gas City for Baltimore in August 2005, and while he was there, on an urban campus of unending blackness, he discovered opportunity was colorblind, even if a chunk of American society was not.
So what was this white boy doin' at Morgan State, anyway? Reed came to play college hoops at the highest level he could. Coach Beard needed a shooter. James Reed could shoot. No regrets ... not then and not now. "There's a lot of values I take from growing up in Indiana; there's a lot of values I learned and took from Morgan State," Reed said. "These two things put together, I'm really sure, made me a better person." They also made him White Chocolate, a man at ease in parallel worlds: one black, one white; one urban, one rural. Reed counsels his students to embrace both.
Whatcha doin' here, white boy?
Life isn't about following a roadmap; it's about doing what feels right, Reed said. For him, grabbing his D-1 dream felt right, even if catching it took him someplace where his skin color made him stick out. An urban campus for a white boy from rural Indiana could have been a dreadful experience - a really dreadful experience. Yet it wasn't, not for James Reed.
"This must be one of the things God wanted me to do with my life - to go to this place, go to Morgan State to see what I saw and to learn what I learned," he said. "I learned a whole heck of a lot. I would never take back that experience - ever in a million years. That's one of the coolest years I ever had."
The author would like to acknowledge Branson Wright of the Cleveland Plain Dealer for his friendship and insight during the writing of this story.