Tuesday, May 6, 2014 || By Michael Romain
Monday, MAYWOOD — During an interview last Sunday with ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers discussed the locker room fallout from team owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments.
“This was a distraction,” he said of the controversy.
In the first meeting after Sterling’s comments were made public, his players were visibly angry, so angry they “wanted to DO something.” They were the employees of an organization owned and, for the last thirty years or so, virtually defined by an outed racist (at least judging by his comments).
At that moment, Rivers faced a dilemma.
“As a coach, I had to think about it. I’m not going to kid you,” he told Wilbon. “I walked out with my gear on, because I needed the players to see me with the gear on, but it wasn’t easy to do it on that day. Because at that moment, at that time, you’re representing something else, and you didn’t want to and that was hard.”
Rivers’s response to the rock-in-a-hard-place scenario in which he and his team found themselves has been widely praised.
Sports columnist Bill Dwyre at the Los Angeles Times was effusive about Rivers’s leadership ability, putting him in a pantheon of LA sports coaches that includes such figures as Phil Jackson, Walter Alston and John Wooden.
“Has anybody in our city’s sport history been tossed into a hurricane this wild and emerged unmussed?” Dwyre wrote. “The way Rivers is handling the Donald Sterling mess is not only unprecedented, but textbook.”
“Most of his peers would have played the ‘I just coach basketball’ card,” Dwyre noted. “Rivers has not. He has communicated. He has looked people in the eye. He has been patient and genuine in his responses. He has led. He has put himself out there […] When Rivers said he didn’t know what Sterling could say to him to make him coach here, it was the perfect response.”
But if you ask Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-7th), Dwyre and all of the other media types awed by Rivers’s leadership, albeit quite correct to praise the man, are only telling half the story.
The Child Is Father To The Man
As Wordsworth put it, “My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky: / So was it when my life began; / So is it now I am a man; / So be it when I shall grow old; / Or let me die! / The Child is father of the Man.”
Before Rivers was “Doc,” he was Glenn, Grady’s and Betty’s boy. And that “rainbow in the sky” was a basketball hoop that was often illuminated by powerful outdoor lights Grady Sr., had installed in the backyard of a modest, but comfortable home at 1413 S. 16th Avenue in Maywood–that glorious place now mostly shrouded in memory.
Since at least 1887–when Iva and Amanda Hurst became the Village’s first black family to purchase a home– until the 1960s, Maywood had been a suburb that was segregated along racial lines.
Racist housing codes called restrictive covenants had confined black and Jewish families to a “colored neighborhood” that spanned eastward from 10th Avenue to 14th Avenue and northward from Madison Street to St. Charles Road.
This is the great precedence for Doc’s ability to turn humiliation into an opportunity to display grace, dignity and decency. Over the years, those several blocks that were meant to restrict black movement would, ironically, allow for the flourishing of one of the most culturally dense and vibrant black communities in the region.
And the people gathered on the porch at 1413 S. 16th Avenue didn’t want the world to forget it. Among them were a state senator, a state representative, a Mayor, school board members, trustees, commissioners, business owners, nonprofit leaders, community activists–and most are residents, past or present; native to this place in some way or another.
Congressman Davis, who facilitated this event to recognize Rivers’s handling of the Sterling controversy (and who considers himself an “honorary Maywoodian”), pointed out that Doc belongs to a rather formidable tradition of athletic and cultural achievement that Maywood has cultivated throughout the years.
College and NBA greats such as Jim Brewer, Michael Finley and Shannon Brown, as well as people such as billionaire businesswoman Sheila Crump Johnson and pioneering chemist Percy Julian have called this “colored neighborhood” home at some point in their lives.
“Doc has demonstrated a high level of professionalism and astute leadership and has helped to turn a would-be tragedy into positive action,” said Davis.
“This is about much more than sports. [Doc] grew up in a modest environment, in a predominantly black, low-income community where his family and friends and siblings are all inhabitants….His story says to young people, ‘It’s not where you come from, but where you’re going.’”
“I never considered Maywood humble beginnings,” quipped Grady Rivers, Jr., Doc’s older brother. “It was a truly great town–still is and still can be.”
Of Role Models And Men
As we walked in the backyard, Grady, Jr., pointed to where the lights and the rim used to be. At any one time, according to Mike Smith, one of Doc’s closest friends, there would be dozens of people out here.
“Our backyard was like the park,” Grady said.
Michael Finley and Isiah Thomas and Donnie Boyce were some of the young guys who’d stop by to sweat well into the night.
“There are a lot of memories out here,” Smith said. “It’s about five guys in the NBA who used to be in this backyard.”
And when they weren’t in the backyard, they were out in the community competing in any number of activities. For a close-knit town of people who were constricted within such a tight space for so long, movement was a way of life.
“Back in the late 70s, early 80s, our recreational system here was comparable to anybody’s,” said Grady, Jr.
Grady Rivers, Sr., was a police lieutenant and his sons’ baseball coach. Through numerous articles in outlets such as ESPN and the Boston Globe, Grady, Sr.’s discipline and dedication to his children and his job has grown somewhat legendary. Years later, Grady’s work/life balance would provide a useful model for his son.
According to a 2008 article on espn.com, Grady “hated missing practice and enforced strict rules about player attendance, so he would often pull his patrol car onto the ball field and leave the police radio on in case a call came in during the team’s workout. If one did, Grady barked out instructions to his son, then peeled out, his siren blaring.”
“During basketball season, Grady Rivers sat in the front row of the bleachers in full uniform, a living example of what he expected from his sons.”
Former Cook County Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore, a longtime Maywoodian and a cousin of Doc’s, was among the dignitaries gathered at Congressman Davis’s tribute.
“Grady was the foundation of our community, he took care of all of us,” said Moore.
During Doc’s boyhood, that foundation would be tested. In his recent ESPN interview with Wilbon, Rivers talked about growing up in Maywood during a pivotal period in its history.
Maywood’s Post-1960s Paradox
“I grew up in the ‘60s as a child at Proviso East [High School], which was on ‘60 Minutes’ in the ‘60s because of racial acts,” he said. “And the blacks walked on one side and the whites walked on the other side and they were throwing stuff back and forth […] I remember asking my dad, ‘What are they mad at?’ And he used to say, ‘They don’t know. They just don’t know.’”
In the 1960s, Maywood had begun striking down many of the racially restrictive codes that, in a twist of irony, had helped make its African-American community so vibrant and tightly knit.
The children of Maywoodians like Betty and Grady, Sr., suddenly had recourse to the kind of freedom and mobility that their parents would not have imagined. From Proviso East, Doc went to Marquette and then to the NBA, his life one of constant motion.
For Maywood itself, however, the post-60s narrative is much different. As the town opened up to black settlement, and eventually became predominantly African-American, its social and cultural prospects seemed to be closing in. Today, any resident will tell you that the present generation of youth in the Village, despite the relative absence of outright racist housing codes hampering their physical movement, are nonetheless much less mobile in their dreams and aspirations than the generations that came of age before them.
That’s Maywood’s paradox and it was referenced about as frequently as Doc was praised. Today, the Rivers’s Maywood home is owned by Grady, Jr., who rents it out. Doc’s older brother, the former president of the District 89 school board, still lives in the area and is familiar with many of the Village’s structural challenges.
On the 1200 and 1400 blocks of 16th Avenue, there are at least five boarded-up homes. Maywood has among the highest rate of foreclosures in the state, but residents here pay some of the highest property taxes in the country. That means a diminished base of revenue for schools, public works, fire and police. Crime is a problem. So is unemployment. So are diminished expectations. Young boys saunter down sidewalks with drooped pants and drooped hopes.
For Congressman Davis and others gathered here, this moment was as much about today’s youth as it was about Doc, who after a certain point in the ceremonies, turned into a symbol both of what Maywood was and what many hope it can be in the future.
“We have to embrace our youth,” said Illinois State Senator Kimberly Lightford, herself a native of Maywood.
“We have to embrace the changes they’re making in the school district. Glen was educated on that big stage. He came from here–from Garfield Elementary and Proviso East High School–he’s from good stock.”
“True tolerance and leadership starts at home,” said Theresa Kelly, the longest-serving member of the Proviso Township District 209 Board of Education.
“Our students will continue to exemplify Doc’s leadership and poise,” she said. “To better serve our sons and daughters, we need to take [our local] pride….and mold future Doc Rivers.”
“Men go home–raise some Docs,” said Edward Howard, an ordained minister at Maywood’s Second Baptist Church, where the Rivers’s roots run deep.
Radical Change, Restoration and Renewal
After the crowd dispersed, the police blockades at both ends of the street having disappeared with the pomp and circumstance, Lennel Grace began walking toward a home several doors down from where Doc grew up.
Grace is a member of Maywood’s Historic Preservation Commission and Housing Helpers, a nonprofit organization that renovates homes that have fallen into foreclosure before selling them back to working-class households at affordable rates. His knowledge of Maywood’s rich cultural history and architecture is almost encyclopedic.
“My goal is to create a historic district in the old “colored neighborhood,” Grace said.
He often boasts that, during his youth, Maywood’s quality of life was nearly unrivalled and Proviso East was among the best high schools in the country. He spends his waking days thinking about how to get the town back to that rightful place.
So do people like Audrey Jaycox, Melvin Lightford and Ronald Rivers–all Village trustees and longtime Maywoodians. After the crowd left, they stayed behind–the former, sitting in her car at the end of the street, making midday plans; the latter two in conversation with the mayor’s executive assistant.
1403 S. 16th Avenue had fallen into foreclosure. It’s foundation, like the community’s, closing in upon itself, slowly corroding and buckling under the intermingled tensions of neglect, nature and time.
“It’s a tragedy, because demographically, based on census tracts, this is the wealthiest part of Maywood. The average yearly household income is $72,000,” Grace said as he was inspecting the outside of the newly renovated home. It appeared as if someone might have tried breaking in recently.
Grace desperately wants people with influence to know the kind of work Housing Helper’s does. As time went on, he realized that today may have been a missed opportunity.
“You had someone from just about every level of government out here,” Trustee Jaycox said to Grace, who is her cousin.
“I think you have to show people the before and after. It’s one thing to talk about Housing Helpers, but if people can see it, that’s the best way they can touch it,” she said.
Seizing on Jaycox’s suggestion, Grace urged her out of her car while calling Sarah Lira, Housing Helpers’s executive director, to ask for the security code. This was an opportunity he wouldn’t pass up.
Pressed for time, Jaycox was initially reluctant, before she finally acquiesced and called down the street for her fellow trustees to accompany her. After resolving some issues with the security alarm, Grace ushered Jaycox and Rivers inside (Lightford would come later). Not knowing quite what to expect, she crossed the threshold and was instantly overwhelmed.
“Oh my gosh!” Jaycox said, stunned.
“The walls are new, we rebuilt the bathroom….real hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances…” Grace said.
Downstairs in the basement, Rivers inspected the steel beams that contractors had installed to keep the house from practically caving in on itself.
“Now that’s state of the art,” he said, quietly studying the craftsmanship.
(Top left to right: Lennel Grace and Trustee Jacox wait to enter 1403 S. 16th Avenue; Grace takes Jaycox on a tour of the kitchen; Trustee Rivers, Trustee Jaycox and Grace in the basement; Trustee Lightford descending the stairs).
After touring the renovated home, Grace and the trustees converged in the living room and talked for about half an hour about the state of Maywood’s renewal.
The consensus was that the Village was changing and perhaps for the better, with signs of gentrification appearing all across town. A new, upwardly mobile crop of aspirants is gradually making its mark on the Village–from the sudden appearance of Honduran and Ecuadorian households nearby where Trustee Jaycox lives on the south side of town; to the swell of Mexican immigrants and a growing influx of whites and Asians.
It’s the kind of movement that is both exhilarating and troubling at the same time, because there is no guarantee that the community that made Doc possible won’t get forever lost in the shuffle.
That’s a scary thought indeed, especially for those who remember the kind of identity that a community like Maywood impressed upon a black person–that pride of place and the dignity, decency and self-respect that came along with it. Think about Grady, Sr. Think about his son.
But for those tasked with not only living with this changing tide, but also somehow managing its flow, succumbing to fear isn’t an option.
As they drove through Doc’s old stomping grounds, Grace looked through the passenger seat window and begrudged the sight of the empty, boarded homes and how the owners, sometimes the children and grandchildren of old-time Maywoodians who’d passed on, would allow them to slip away.
“I just want to see this town restored,” Grace said with exasperation.
“Well, sometimes you’ve got to give up something to get something,” Jaycox said, perhaps referring to the foreclosed home that was made livable again, so that another family of Maywoodians can have a chance to raise a Doc of their own. VFP
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