`Big House' Gaines: His noble way dealt bigotry a beating

April 26, 2005|By Alexander E. Hooke

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — "I do not think it matters how disruptive or poor an environment they came from. Every kid can learn."

- Clarence E. "Big House" Gaines, 2004

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C., has just buried its most renowned citizen, Clarence "Big House" Gaines. He was its university's basketball coach and athletic director for nearly 50 years. His legacy is such that, according to a local archivist, the funeral marks one of those rare events when Winston-Salem is the center of attention for all of North Carolina. The event deserves the attention of an entire country.

Mr. Gaines was a star football player for Morgan State in the early 1940s. An athletic official met him at 6 feet 4 and weighing more than 250 pounds, and he said Mr. Gaines was bigger than a house. The nickname stuck. Its symbolic richness came later.

After his graduation, he went to Winston-Salem Teachers College. He retired with 828 wins, placing him among the top five basketball coaches of all time. His Rams won one national title, in 1967. But these facts are not the reasons North Carolina is paying homage. Mr. Gaines was much more than a sports figure. He was also a mentor, friend, substitute parent and, during moments of frustration, drill sergeant for generations of young black men.

In his view, collegiate sports provided opportunities for high school graduates to improve their lives. Most of his players came from poor neighborhoods. Many had no father in their lives. Yet, with Coach Gaines' loyal and enthusiastic tutelage, over 80 percent of his players obtained their degrees from Winston-Salem. Growing up in Kentucky when racial segregation was still legal, Mr. Gaines witnessed countless moments of humiliation spawned by a country's hangover from slavery. Signs of progress, such as Jackie Robinson playing Major League Baseball or the passage of civil rights laws, were sporadic. To effect any positive influence required personal commitment. Throughout his early years, for example, the coach insisted that his players bear with grace the insult of having to sleep or eat in "colored only" quarters.

As his basketball teams improved, recruits began coming from different parts of the country and they began traveling to larger cities. Big House and his Rams quickly discovered that bigotry spanned all classes and social perspectives. Somehow, the blue bloods of snobbish New England and the hillbillies in the rural South shared a strange kinship. They could feel like nobility by looking down upon a common scapegoat.

The pretense of this decadent nobility is readily exposed when faced with the stature of someone such as Mr. Gaines. Reading his recent autobiography, They Call Me Big House, one is struck by how seldom he dwells on the rancor of bigots, whether they are small-town proprietors or big shots like University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp. Coach Gaines instead evokes the image of the noble soul that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described. Such a soul is so magnanimous that he treats the taunts and slights as little more than annoying parasites who feed off the abundant vitality of their host.

When Nietzsche proclaimed, "O my brothers, I direct and consecrate you to a new nobility; you shall become begetters and cultivators and sowers of the future," he could have envisioned Big House Gaines. Mr. Gaines was too focused on cultivating the future to let past disappointments interfere.

Wherever Winston-Salem's athletic graduates are teaching, counseling, advising or helping today's youth, the imprint of "Big House" Gaines is seen. They know that nearly half of today's young black men are part of the criminal justice system. Without Mr. Gaines being part of their own lives, worse fates could have befallen them, too.

That's why North Carolina has paid homage to a basketball coach. And that's why an entire country should note this homage - as a way to celebrate a noble life.

Alexander E. Hooke teaches philosophy at Villa Julie College and is the editor of the book, Virtuous Persons, Vicious Deeds,

Columnist Trudy Rubin will return Friday.

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