NSights Blog

Sometimes a great notion: The growth of Kap, and the growth of us all

An ESPN story on Colin Kaepernick is a reminder to us all that freedom lies in growth and understanding

If you haven't had a chance to read ESPN senior writer Tim Keown's profile of former Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick yet, "Colin Kaepernick is a real American," you should.

Keown's story takes a nuanced and insightful look into the evolution - I'd prefer to call it growth - of Colin, from growing up in Turlock, Calif., as an adopted child to Rick and Teresa Kaepernick, to his time as a student at Pitman High School and here on our own campus at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Keown's story is useful in the ongoing debate about Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the National Anthem. It doesn't point fingers, doesn't lay blame, doesn't really defend as much as it explains that human beings should always be allowed to evolve, to grow, to form opinions based on their own experiences.

Reading it this morning reminded me of an experience I had with another Wolf Pack athlete from long ago, a basketball player named Eric Morris.

Eric belongs to a long-ago Wolf Pack era, the early 1990s. It was a time when college basketball practices were open to the media, a time where if you were a young newspaper reporter like me, you had a chance to spend a great deal of time with the coaches and athletes you covered. The coach then, Len Stevens, lived his life in the open. He wasn't afraid to share it with you. And he encouraged his athletes to do the same.

It was a much more informal time. If you wanted what is referred to today as a "media availability" with a player, you often simply asked the coach. I don't ever recall Len making his players unavailable to me, particularly in 1992 when I had a story idea.

The Spike Lee film "Malcolm X," a 3-hour, 22-minute historical opus starring Denzel Washington, had just been released nationally. I wanted to localize what I felt was an important film, one that chronicled the life of one of the leading figures of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

After practice one day, I asked Len if it would be OK if I were to ask Eric about attending the movie with me. I wanted to write a story about Eric's experience as a young black man growing up in an America that had been stirred by the Rodney King riots earlier that spring in Los Angeles. What lessons, I wondered, could black and white people glean from Lee's new film?

Len didn't hesitate.

"That's a great idea," he said, grinning. "Eric would be perfect for what you're talking about. I'm sure he would love to do it."

I chose Eric because of who he was. He was the Pack's undisputed leader. His journey to Reno had been full of roundabouts. Coming out of James Madison High School in Houston, his entrance to our University hadn't been smooth, thanks in no small part to the subtly racist combinations of NCAA Propositions 48 and 42, which first prevented athletes from receiving their full four years of eligibility in college if they failed to meet standardized test score requirements and, later, proposed to keep high school athletes from receiving athletic scholarships in their first year of college, again because of failure to meet standardized test score requirements.

It's interesting, particularly given the uproar we have seen over Colin's decision to kneel during the National Anthem, to think back now about what Propositions 48 and 42 did to college basketball.

Though perhaps well-meaning, there was no way around either proposition - they were discriminatory policies against potential college athletes. They targeted and discriminated against low-income, inner-city school settings whose students had not been exposed to solid curriculums and college-bound academic support systems. They forced many young athletes like Eric who had grown up in difficult circumstances to scramble off to junior colleges, or to sit out a year at four-year institutions, before they could finally fully realize their aspirations for a four-year degree.

The propositions spawned protests, too.

Georgetown men's basketball coach John Thompson spent much of the build-up to the 1988-89 season discussing the inherent biases contained in Props 42 and 48. Then, the talk led to action. Before the tipoff against Big East Conference rival Boston College in the winter of 1989, Thompson, a 6-foot-10 black man who had grown up in a separate and unequal America in the 1950s and 1960s, quietly, with his trademark white towel draped forlornly over his shoulder, walked off the court. When asked why he had chosen not to coach that night, Thompson said that Proposition 42, in particular, was wrong; it would hurt and single out a disproportionate number of black student-athletes.

Like Colin Kaepernick today, John Thompson became the source of a heated national debate. What sort of message was he sending? He was a college basketball coach. He was being paid rather handsomely. Thompson's job was to coach, keep his mouth shut otherwise and not to protest. Yet he had chosen to walk out on a game, electing not to coach the athletes he was paid to coach because hundreds of other athletes, all across America, were being denied their right of entrance at four-year universities because of Proposition 48, which was enacted in 1986, and Proposition 42, which was scheduled that winter to be enacted in 1990.

Thompson bristled at the notion that somehow, as a coach, he was sending the wrong message by walking out on a game, not coaching and protesting a discriminatory policy. "I don't think people stand up because of their position, I think they have their position because they stand up," he told William Rhoden of The New York Times.

For Eric, the proposition for a higher education was a junior college scramble following his graduation at James Madison High School. It meant two years spent at Lassen Junior College in Susanville, Calif. Eric was unwavering in his commitment to attending the University, which had actively recruited him while he was in high school.  He played spectacularly at Lassen, which made his decision to remain true to the Wolf Pack all the more admirable. Several major, higher-profile basketball programs took notice of Eric during his second season at Lassen. They tried to woo him from his decision to attend our University.

I remember a phone call to then-Lassen coach Brian Katz. I asked Katz if it was surprising to him that Eric had remained true to the Wolf Pack and had come to play for the Wolf Pack.

"If you think it's surprising," Katz said, "then you don't know what kind of person Eric Morris is."

Katz was right. Eric was the type of person who cared about others. He lived loyalty, believed in it whole-heartedly. In conversation, he would listen carefully as you spoke, weighing what you said, balancing it against his own experience. He was 6-foot-5. In basketball parlance, Eric always played much taller than his height, and typically guarded players who were four and five inches taller. As a person, he was much the same way - always far exceeding the norm. He was the best kind of person, generous with his praise, always encouraging others before thinking of himself.

Eric was a leader in every sense.

When I asked Eric if he would like to see "Malcolm X" with me, he quickly agreed.

We went to the old Century Theater, which a few years later would be torn down and turned into a parking lot at the Peppermill. Together we munched on buttered popcorn, drank Cokes and took in an amazing movie. Denzel Washington delivered a thought-provoking and wonderfully probing performance as Malcolm. Spike Lee's skill as a filmmaker came to full flower, particularly in the beautiful, moving moments when Malcolm made his famous trip to Mecca. The trip to Mecca transformed Malcolm into the most dangerous type of figure - one who took societal protest away from the dead-end limits of physical violence and placed it firmly into the untold possibilities of the mind, transforming it into a great notion.

I still remember the long conversation I had with Eric, in my car in the Century's old parking lot, how our words lingered and challenged both of our expectations. How the conversation kept going, deeply and richly, even humorously at times, as we drove down Virginia Street and carried on for more than an hour as we sat together parked near the ramp leading into Lawlor Events Center.

This sounds obvious now, but in my discussion with Eric, I came to realize that being black in America is not easy. Eric shared his own experiences at James Madison High School, a predominantly black high school where not many of his classmates had the opportunity to even think about, let alone attend, college. So many of them worked a couple of jobs in high school, rather than play sports or engage in other school activities. Many had younger siblings to care for, along with numerous other grown-up responsibilities - a precocious weight that most teenagers never have to bear. Eric remembered how some of his classmates, with no hope for a more prosperous future, had gone down the wrong path. Some ended up in jail. Some were killed. Some never graduated from James Madison.

He was lucky, he said. He always knew what he needed to do - go to college.

"That's a lot to handle when you're in high school," I remember saying.

"It was, and it is, but you learn as you go along," Eric said. "You learn from your experiences and you grow."

At the beginning of Keown's story, he captures the scrum of Kaepernick talking to the media, the hard questions being posed and Colin working just as hard to bring some understanding and some thought to his stance, "a well-timed snapshot in a world in which reasoned debate has dissolved into a screeching band saw of argument and discord."

Colin at one point tries to smooth the discord. He says: "I think in a lot of cases there are barriers up because you don't know my background and I don't know yours. You just assume things based on race, based on where you're from, based on what I've heard your past is."

Eric had touched on similar themes during our long discussion following "Malcolm X."

"Malcolm was a product of a lot of different environments," Eric said at one point. "He learned, and he grew based on his own experiences. Even when his life was cut short, he was still learning, still growing. He was still becoming the person he was meant to be."

I will always remember my own well-timed snapshot from nearly a quarter century ago. A young black man and a somewhat young white man discussing the issues of race in our country, critiquing the merits of Spike Lee as a filmmaker, sharing what it felt like to hang onto an elusive dream of a college education, even if it meant feeling as if for a couple of years you'd been placed on a dusty book case, your life's narrative to that point shelved and perhaps forgotten, as you spent time playing ball in Susanville, Calif., before you could transfer to the University of Nevada, Reno, what it had meant to know that another black man, John Thompson, had been courageous and had caught the collective wrath of a predominantly white country and a predominantly white media for walking out on his duties as a coach so that Thompson in actuality was elevating his profession, becoming less a coach and more a teacher, emerging as an individual worthy of our collective praise because he had taken a stand and had stood for something more - something greater than himself and something far, far greater than the game in which he coached.

"It always helps," Eric said, smiling optimistically as we exchanged handshakes before he stepped out of my car, "when you know you aren't in this life alone."

Once Eric had exited my car, I remember watching him hurry into Lawlor for practice that night. Here he was, playing for a school he had always wanted to play for, even if it had meant a circuitous and challenging route from Houston, Texas, to Susanville, Calif., to Reno, Nev. It was hard for me to imagine what it had been like for Eric. On one level, little had changed following our viewing of "Malcolm X." Eric was still black. I was still white. And this hadn't changed, either: As hard as I tried to understand, any inequalities I would feel in my life would somehow not quite be the same as the inequalities Eric had felt, and was going to feel, throughout his.

And yet, looking back on it nearly 25 years later, maybe that realization meant everything.

As I watched Eric disappear into Lawlor Events Center that night, it dawned on me that for perhaps the first time in my life, I had begun to question what it meant to be white, and what it meant to be black, and thanks to a young man's perspective that he had shared with me, it was OK, too, to wonder about his experience, and my own experience, and to question if there was an answer in the mysterious tangle of it all - an enormous answer that could ultimately help us all.

Nearly twenty-five years later I am still questioning, and still wondering what it all means.

There are no easy answers. Perhaps this is why we still struggle with the question of race in our country.

I do know this, however, and Tim Keown's piece on Colin Kaepernick's maturation makes this abundantly clear: Of all the freedoms we have in our country, perhaps the most important one of all is the ability for all of us to evolve, to grow, to strive for insight and to attempt to better understand the experiences, feelings and thoughts of our fellow human beings.

To read Tim Keown's story, go to: http://theundefeated.com/features/colin-kaepernick-is-a-real-american/

(Note: John Trent is a former two-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year who covered Wolf Pack basketball for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 1990-93.)

John Trent