Black male role models are out there

August 26, 1994|By Calvin Watkins

LOCALLY AND nationally, the past couple of weeks haven't been great for African-American men in the limelight.

On the home front, former Dunbar football and basketball coach Pete Pompey, according to a report obtained from the State's Attorney's office, took some $51,000 raised by Dunbar's concession-stand sales at Orioles games and deposited the money into an unauthorized account. But the state's attorney decided there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute.

Nationally, the NAACP ousted its executive director, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, for not informing the board or counsel about an agreement to pay a temporary employee up to $332,400 in NAACP funds to settle sexual harassment and sex discrimination allegations.

There are racists who will be pleased by this turn of events. And there are black folks who will despair and say those two brothers are making black men look bad -- as if black folks are the only ones who have trouble handling money. Remember Jeffrey Levitt?

And, of course, soon there'll be media stories about the lack of black male role models. Somebody may cite the downfall of Mr. Pompey and Mr. Chavis as examples.

Well, don't count me among the hand wringers. I -- a 26-year-old black male -- find that there are many role models out there. They just aren't necessarily the guys in front of the TV cameras.

The ones I run into -- because of my line of work and my interests -- just happen to usually be on the playing field or in the gym.

One example is William Wells of East Baltimore's St. Frances Academy. He just finished his second season in charge of the Midnight Madness Basketball League, which recently ended its summer run at the Madison Recreation Center, known as the Dome, on Biddle and Eden streets.

The league -- like those proposed by President Clinton in the federal crime bill now before Congress -- runs from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and is designed to give high-school age youngsters an alternative to the attractions of the street.

Mr. Wells, head basketball coach at St. Frances, says he operates the league "because it's something I like to do . . . . It keeps kids off the streets and away from other things."

Mr. Wells said an Eastern District police sergeant told him that crime in the area dipped 40 percent during the nights that the basketball league played. It's easy to see why: The Dome is the place to be on a summer night in East Baltimore. Basketball lovers pack the place to watch Mr. Wells' league of six teams (about 60 players). Before the Midnight Madness league played the Craig Cromwell Basketball League, another nighttime league, would take to the floor at the Dome. That league is comprised mainly of Catholic League rivals and city public school powers like Dunbar, Walbrook, Southwestern and Southern.

So from about 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. even the criminals took a break to check out the Dome. Even some former and current NBA players stopped by to play or watch.

The Dome is no sports palace: The roof leaks buckets when it rains. But Mr. Wells' program has sparked the interest of many who see the good it does. For example, it receives financial support from the Johns Hopkins Health System; and the city Bureau of Recreation and Parks provides security.

But Mr. Wells is not just interested in trying to produce NBA products. Next year he plans to have a tutorial program for the players to help them prepare for the Scholastic Assessment Test, which is needed for entrance to many colleges.

Another role model at Mr. Wells' side is Eric Skeeters, 25, who coaches junior varsity basketball at St. Frances and helps out at Midnight Madness.

"A lot of kids have no fathers. They are like bait for role models to pick them up and teach," Mr. Skeeters said.

But basketball doesn't have a lock on role models. One would be hard-pressed to find a role model of any color more outstanding than Cornell Bass, a former varsity wrestling assistant at McDonogh who runs the Northwest Wrestling Club out of McDonogh during the summer. He follows Baltimore City wrestlers at least in part to give them an adult male to confide in.

In probably his most selfless move, Mr. Bass took one Northwest wrestler, Ed Overton, into his Owings Mills home to live. Ed, who says he had drifted into a self-destructive lifestyle that included sometimes selling drugs, managed to turn his life around under Mr. Bass' care.

Ed Overton graduated from Owings Mills High School in June and is now enrolled at Garden City (Kansas) Community College.

I think Ed is on his way to being a role model, too.

Calvin Watkins is an editorial assistant in The Sun's sports department.

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