Any Life is Worth More Than a Wikipedia Page
The challenge of writing nonfiction, especially a biographical piece such as The Man Who Saved Basketball, is an over-reliance on popular search engine tools or websites. Junius Kellogg’s life, much like any life, is a blend of the obvious, the hidden and the very hidden.
Researching Junius Kellogg
I have had the blessing on this journey of knowing Robert “Bob” Otten, Junius Kellogg’s friend of nearly 48 years. Bob was first Junius’ roommate and teammate, then friend. However, there are many facets of Junius’ life that Bob never knew. Junius was a quiet and introspective man. He shared what he could with Bob but he remained closed to some extent.
It is easy to understand Junius’ behavior. He was a black man who had grown up in the south during a time when everything was defined by race. It is lousy enough now, it was inconceivable then. When he first arrived at Manhattan College, the product of a segregated high school, he was the first African American student to get in on a basketball scholarship. He was about eight years older than Bob. He had already been through the U.S. Army (1946-1949) during the turbulent time of desegregation, played a semester at West Virginia State (a segregated school) and was reviled by some of his Manhattan College teammates for being black. In fact, in addition to some of his teammates who openly mocked him, I learned through interviews that after the scandal well-placed teammates disparaged his uncovering of the scandal (they felt he may have been involved) — without a shred of proof. A sports writer I interviewed in this regard did not discount racism as one of several factors.
To believe that Junius always felt comfortable confiding in Bob, is pure silliness. On the other hand, it was not necessarily a racial thing. Bob was to learn facts about Junius that Junius never shared with his African American friends. For example, Bob was told by Junius he had a biological son with a woman he met during his second tour of the army. Few people knew of that with the exception of women referred to as Junius’ “work-wives.”
It leads to another point I’ve made previously. Junius worked for New York City Government for more than 35 years yet finding anyone (I found a few) to openly talk of Junius in personal terms was impossible save for the most benign details. The walls they put up around Junius were impenetrable.
Yet in this mishmash of private and secret, hidden and deeply hidden I would find remnants that opened up interesting worlds, each remnant leading to a whole new area. I offer as one of the items — the key to the City of Portsmouth — that I show as the featured image. Junius Kellogg had several celebrations on his behalf; a celebration on May 1, 1951 where he spoke in front of a crowd. However, Junius Kellogg Day, a one time event on September 26, 1959 was the really big celebration.
I have no idea who put the key up for sale at auction, or who bought it, or why. I wish the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth could have come into its possession. There was greed involved here, plain and simple.
Another remnant was a press release that recently came into my possession. In March 1999, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office honored Junius (about 6 months after JK’s death) by naming an auditorium at the New York City Community Development Agency (where Junius worked) after him. Giuliani was one of five bosses Junius had over more than 35 years. They also shared the bond of being Manhattan College graduates.
The first and second items I shared above show that Junius never lost his “celebrity.” However, he was more than a stick figure on a sports writer’s pedestal.
I found an Ebony magazine article, November 1968, that created interesting controversy. How some of his fellow classmates and friends had found out about it, I am not sure. The article was about wheelchair sports, basketball in particular said Junius “If we could get some of the ‘brothers’ to join…we could dominate wheelchair sports the way we do regular competitions.”
Bob Otten said there were some “comments” were made by ex-classmates, but Bob — as always — stood up for him. Bob felt Junius should be proud and to talk proud and that there was far too much injustice for too long. I need not tell you but over the years Bob lost friends because he refused to give into racism.
I also found another remnant, a photograph taken in the Bahamas from 1969. The Kellogg’s were on vacation with another couple (I know who they were, but I’ll keep it to myself for now). Junius looked miserable. Through another first person interview I learned that Junius and his wife were close to separating at that point. I know the look on Junius’ face: he was heartbroken.
I bring the last two points up to explore, once more, that unlike the many comments on his life by PR and sports writers, Junius was very much human and felt deeply, hurt deeply, and stood for justice as should we all.
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