Apologies not Accepted
The child sleeping on the soiled pillow in a rat-infested Harlem tenement should bother anyone, black, white, brown, yellow and all shades in-between. Amazingly, it won’t. Some will feel nothing.
When I was a NYC paramedic (please see previous blog), I saw this scene “100 times” and I didn’t react. I saw worse. Now, it eats at me and it was Junius Kellogg, a man who passed away in September 1998 who whispers in my ear and tells me to speak to the truth.
Our society has an aversion to the truth. The same people who frequently throw around words such as “White Supremacist” on social media sites do no more to meaningfully change the equation than the most crackiest of crackers. Words are easy and so what? I believe if Junius could reach out to me from his grave (I sometimes think he is), he would tell me to not be afraid. No matter who I might anger.
Who are You?
Not long ago, a woman chided me on the Twitter social media website. She is the child (now a middle-aged woman), of a former NBA basketball player. The player was not a superstar, more of a 1970s bench-sitter. He was allegedly the object of racism. I have no reason to disagree with her. She asked me how I thought I had the right to do a book about the life of a black man, a black basketball player at that. I had been waiting “for her,” or someone like her. I am neither black nor was I ever a decent basketball player in middle school, let alone the NBA.
I did not respond to her. She was far too angry to listen to reason. Let me try to answer “her” now.
A great deal of African-American history, much like the history of my people, the Jewish people, has faded into oblivion. The essential choice in regard to Junius Kellogg was to allow this man’s remarkable life to evaporate save for a wholly inaccurate Wikipedia page that “no one” reads, or to reconstruct it. Is it better for a white man to tackle this man’s life, or for no one to care?
Junius Kellogg’s memory, the torch of his memory, has been largely carried by Robert “Bob” Otten, Junius’ friend of 48 years, and a white man who was in fact, raised by racist parents. They were first teammates and roommates. I will talk more of Bob in a minute however, one extremely important point: Bob was adamant that Junius did far more for him than he ever did for Junius.
This story is neither “The Green Book” nor the iconic “Brian’s Song,” where the people were often portrayed as cut-outs, devoid of emotion.
To write “The Man Who Saved Basketball,” I conducted several first-person interviews and extensively researched anything ever written on Junius. I was aided by many good people of all races and religions. Some of the interviews were difficult to obtain.
Sadly, there were roadblocks, and the roadblocks were telling. For example, without naming names, two men directly related to Junius wanted to charge me for the privilege of interviewing them. Good grief, I’m a writer, not a Hollywood producer! One man, in particular, (a relative) has been leeching onto Junius’ life for decades. Often religion or race are far less a factor than a good heart.
In short (to the woman), I am a writer who is writing the most accurate, heartfelt book on an incredible man’s life I can write. I have a lot of support and more than that, I am surrounded by love.
In the now, almost 4-1/2 years I have been researching Junius Kellogg, one person has taken this journey with me. Through Bob Otten’s eyes I have witnessed Junius’ life in ways I could have never seen.
Bob loved Junius and he paid the price for it. Bob stood up against racism at Manhattan College, in his personal life and throughout his career. This was in the 1950s through the 1990s and beyond. It doesn’t make him a hero but Bob was extremely aware of his privilege and he did what he could to heal and not harm. Bob is in hospice. He greatest dream is for my agent to sell this book to a good publisher.
A final note for this blog, though I will continue to write on Junius for years to come. There is an entire aspect of Junius Kellogg’s life NOT defined by race but by disability. I submit that over the course of his life, he was close — if not closer — to his friends in the spinal injury community than “black friends” or “white friends.” He loved those who fought along side him for justice for the disabled. Would the woman I spoke of above wish me a spinal injury before I continue writing?