What Junius Kellogg Expects Me To Do

Uncertain Journey of a Writer with a Manuscript

Junius could rely on only one teammate to defend him on and off the court;Bob Otten. Bob, intensely loyal to Junius, could be a hothead, often to the point where Junius took him aside and yelled at him. Knowing that Bob’s father was an avowed racist and anti-Semite, in one  game Junius grabbed Bob after Bob “cheap-shotted”  a guy who was knocking Junius around on the court.

“What are you, a Nazi?” asked Junius.

I love Bob Otten, he is my friend, but Bob has just been moved to an assisted living facility. I am blessed to have been able to speak about Junius with Bob but I have sadly realized he will not be able to continue with me on this journey. As Junius left Bob in 1998, I fear Bob will leave me in 2019.

The journey to keep a man’s name and legacy alive is mine;  not Junius’ relatives nor his Alma mater nor his elderly friends. Would Junius want me to be a hothead on his behalf? I doubt it. He would urge me to keep going, to fight back, but more than anything else he would demand me to tell the truth.

I find that in telling a narrative, nonfiction story, bending the truth can become quite tempting. It is a dangerous game. Once the truth starts to bend, the story is no longer nonfiction but “fiction based on a true story.” I always wonder, “Just how based is it?” Is it essentially so bent, it may as well be a novel?

The Green Book, a movie based on a black and white friendship has received acclaim enough to win the Academy award, yet the family of jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley, has bashed the movie as being inauthentic in its portrayals.

Said Vanity Fair magazine (January 4, 2019): “Green Book has come under increased scrutiny. It’s been called a white-savior film. It’s also been accused of using the Shirley character as a ‘magical negro,’ a black character who simply exists to solve the problems of the white one.”

From the outset of my conversations with Bob Otten, Bob has raised-up Junius. Bob has never taken the role of he saving his friend from anything, but much more the other way around. Bob also concedes there were times in the friendship when their lives drifted. Bob had a wife with a growing alcohol and drug dependency problem in addition to the fact that he had five kids to raise. The two men did come together at critical times and, I firmly believe, loved one other, but I can’t bend the truth enough to turn Junius Kellogg into “Uncle Junie,” always present at family dinners, birthdays and weddings.

The Truth

The truth provides boundaries and context.

A disturbing image for me, and it was from a white perspective conveyed by white friends and associates, was that of an always smiling, always happy-go-lucky Junius. The image became especially harsh after his accident. I started wondering how a man could go from being a D-1 basketball player and Harlem Globetrotter (with moderate NBA upside) to a quadriplegic and not have a bad day here and there? He did and I learned this from an unexpected source.

While at Manhattan College Junius grew close to several of the Catholic Brothers (De La Salle Christian Brothers). The friendship was maintained long after Junius graduated. When he returned to the Bronx VA after his accident (he was at the Little Rock VA for about a year), the Brothers came to see him. One of the Brothers shared Junius could get very despondent, and the Christian Brothers community surrounded him with hope and purpose. To me, this added a dimension of humanity that was missing when the story was told through the eyes of “classmates.”

However, truth need not be “big.” Bunches of small untruths, make stories unbelievable or purely fiction. The image that accompanies this post is George DeLuca shaking Junius’ hand (I have no idea who scratched out Coach Ken Norton!). The scandal was allegedly spear-headed by Manhattan DA Frank Hogan. Not true. Hogan took the credit.

George DeLuca was the Bronx District Attorney from 1950 to 1954. Interestingly, he played basketball at CCNY in 1909 and that era. Perhaps he was motivated by wanting to protect the integrity of the sport, but it was he who moved forward with uncovering the scandal. He later became Lieutenant Governor of New York and was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 1954 and 1958.

He lived in Riverdale in the Bronx, not all that far from Junius’ apartment on Kappock Street.

Truth is, that truth is very exciting and opens up amazing possibilities.

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