Black Magic

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6-8 p.m. Sunday-Monday, March 16-17
ESPN

Many are familiar with the titans of segregationist Negro League baseball -- but basketball? That would be a big fat "No."

But ESPN's extraordinary, ambitious four-hour documentary film single-handedly puts that little oversight to rest, not only lifting the veil on an exclusionary era long cast in shadow and irrelevance but also doing so with insight, candor and one helluva soundtrack.

"Black Magic" instantly stands as the finest, most enlightening original program in the sports net's history because it places athletics in the revolutionary social context where it belongs, illuminating the xenophobic parallel universe for blacks that hoops embodied from the 1940s through the early '60s. It happens that basketball -- ironic though it now seems -- wasn't integrated until a full decade or so after Jackie Robinson's ascension to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

It took a collection of bold and courageous pioneers to alter the racist dynamic. During the course of two nights in producer-director Dan Klores' project, we get to know these men surprisingly well, a tribute to a docu that isn't ever content merely to mail it in.

Narrated alternately by Samuel L. Jackson, jazz great Wynton Marsalis and New Orleans Hornets star point guard Chris Paul, "Black Magic" opens with a bang: detailing a secret game held in the racist South between the team from the all-black North Carolina College for Negroes Eagles (yes, that's what they were called) and an all-white Duke School of Medicine intramural squad in 1944. It took place on a Sunday morning with no fans present.

The North Carolina guys won -- by 44 points. It fueled the point of legendary coach John McClendon that his players were every bit as good as the whites, and then some. McClendon is cast here as an early hero who revolutionized the game of basketball, quietly creating such innovations as the fast break and the four-corners offense that took the sport from a slow half-court chess match to an exciting full-court track meet. Having learned at the feet of basketball's inventor James Naismith, the venerated McClendon would win three consecutive national titles (1957-59) while coaching at all-black Tennessee A&I.

As "Black Magic" moves along, it moves from a tale of the rise of black college squads at such schools as Morgan State and Grambling to one of slow, painful integration, with legends like Earl Lloyd (the first black man to sign an NBA contract), Harold Hunter and John Chaney integrating predominantly white universities to open things up for the generations to follow. Indeed, while it's hard to imagine a time when pro basketball wasn't predominantly black, until the late 1950s the only option a talented black basketballer could count on was the Harlem Globetrotters. And even at that, the money was comparatively piddling.

All of these factoids come to light in a fascinating pastiche of vintage footage, narrative and interviews that operates with the style and substance of a Ken Burns undertaking.

On hand to share their insights are pro great Earl "The Pearl" Monroe (also one of "Black Magic's" producers); Chaney; pro legends Oscar Robertson, Willis Reed and Dick Barnett; and Bob "Butterbean" Love, whose speech impediment thrust him into the obscurity of a $4.45-an-hour busboy job after his sterling NBA career ended. He now does the motivational speech circuit.

The stories found here aren't nearly all so inspiring. In the main, this is a tale of determination and integration, yes, but also exclusion and heartache and unfairness and horrid discrimination. The guys who paved the way for the $10 million-a-year superstars of today don't harbor resentments, however, understanding their place in the historical food chain. Thankfully, this riveting and important piece of work shines an overdue light on their legacy.

BLACK MAGIC
ESPN
ESPN Films in association with Shoot the Moon Prods.
Credits:
Executive producers: John Skipper, Keith Clinkscales, Connor Schell, John Dahl
Producer-director: Dan Klores
Producers: Earl Monroe, Libby Geist, David Zieff
Writers: Charlie Stuart, Dan Klores
Co-producer: Jake Bandman
Associate producers: Eric Hamilton, John Miller-Monzon
Directors of photography: Claudia Raschke-Robinson, Buddy Squires
Editors: Michael Levine, David Zieff, Eliza Kurtz
Original music: Sherman Foote
Music supervisor: Brian Chin
Narrators:
Samuel L. Jackson, Wynton Marsalis, Chris Paul
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