Smells Like Team Spirit

Here’s an intriguing sidelight to last week’s big story about racial taunting at a Thornton-Brother Rice basketball game. Taylor Bell, the Sun-Times sportswriter who broke the story, hadn’t attended the game. Reporters who did had trouble recognizing it from Bell’s article.

“In the gym,” Bell wrote on Thursday, “the atmosphere was described as a tinderbox, a time bomb waiting to explode.”

“I didn’t feel there was a tinderbox,” says Mark Potash, who covered the Tuesday game for the Sun-Times. “One proof of that was that after the game there was no big outcry from the Thornton people.”

“I didn’t feel anything like that,” says Joe Yovino, sports editor of the Beverly Review. “We talked with the coaches after the game, and it wasn’t even a topic.”

Tinderbox? “That’s not true at all,” says Ken Karrson of the Hammond Times. “After the game people filed out. The writers were around another 20 or 25 minutes. When we came out [of the locker rooms] the lights were out and people were gone. The parking lot was pretty empty. If that was a tinderbox I don’t know the definition of it.”

“It was tense,” says Tony Baranek, prep sports editor for the Daily Southtown. “It didn’t become a tinderbox mostly because of the behavior of the Thornton fans. The Thornton fans were very controlled. The only major reaction they had to any of the [Brother Rice] cheers was when they started cheering ‘Buckwheat.’ They just booed very quietly. It probably could have been worse had the Thornton fans reacted differently.”

Baranek sat at the press table a few feet from the Brother Rice cheering section. Like the other reporters, he heard Brother Rice students chanting “Buckwheat” at a Thornton player with frenzied hair and “ACT” and “Hooked on Phonics” at Thornton star Melvin Ely, who’ll be playing for a Division One college team next year if he makes his grades. Baranek wrote a column last Saturday calling the conduct of those students “rude, insensitive, and mean-spirited.”

But when Baranek read the Sun-Times article he discovered that in addition to “Buckwheat,” Bell claimed “other racial epithets, including ‘nigger’ and ‘coon,’ were heard.”

Not by Baranek. “If you read the way it’s written,” he says, “it sounds like they were chanting those other things. And that wasn’t happening. And I was right there!”

Bell stands his ground. “I got a lot of phone calls. The editors got phone calls, the sports editor got phone calls, the prep editor got phone calls. We took it from there,” he said. “The day we wrote the article I talked to the principal of Brother Rice. He did not deny much of what happened.”

Did he deny that “nigger” and “coon” were directed at Thornton players?

“He didn’t want to discuss that part of it,” Bell said. “But officials and Thornton players claim they heard isolated incidents of these remarks made.”

By all accounts, the Brother Rice crowd was not on its best behavior–not an uncommon phenomenon at standing-room-only high school sporting events. Before the game even began someone in the Brother Rice crowd taunted Ely by pretending to hand him a warm-up ball that had rolled off the court, then sending it in another direction. Mark Potash mentioned the incident in his Sun-Times game story. “It got me pumped up,” Ely said after the game. “I got everybody pumped up. They shouldn’t have done that.” Thornton jumped out to a quick 11-0 lead and won by 12 points.

If Ely had been further pumped, or agitated, or infuriated by racist chanting during the game, the postgame interviews would have been the natural time to bring it up. He didn’t. “It never came up in postgame conversation,” Yovino says. “If anybody would have thought it was a big deal, most definitely [Thornton coach] Rocky Hill would have been talking about it after the game.”

This week Yovino felt a need to go back over what was said when by whom. Did the Brother Rice-Thornton game, he asked in a Beverly Review column, “cross the sometimes thin line between good-natured ribbing and blatant racism?”

Of course there is no line between good-natured ribbing and blatant racism. Between the one and the other lies a broad gray realm of gleeful taunting. At any rate, the 200-some Brother Rice students “spent the better part of the second half emitting chants.” These began, Yovino reported, as cries of “overrated”–as Brother Rice climbed back into the game against a Thornton team ranked third in the nation.

“But the ‘Overrated’ chants turned to jeers of ‘Hooked on phonics,’ ‘ACT’ and eventually ‘Buckwheat’ which were directed at select Thornton players,” Yovino wrote. “The [much smaller] Thornton student body responded with less discernible chants of ‘Opie.'”

Taylor Bell’s article reported that the principal of Thornton, William O’Neal, had asked the Illinois High School Association to reprimand Brother Rice for its students’ conduct. O’Neal subsequently demanded that Brother Rice publicly apologize at Thornton’s next basketball game, and he rejected two written letters of apology from Brother Rice’s principal. Coach Hill, who apparently didn’t think the behavior of the Brother Rice crowd worth mentioning after the game, took a different view later in the week. The Thornton players “were humiliated, and they were able to still show a lot of class and character,” he told Mark Potash. “I’ve been trying to build an us-against-the-world mentality. This controversy will help me sell them that message.”

Brother Rice officials could be forgiven if they came to believe that the Thornton powers that be were guided by motives not strictly limited to healing and forgiving. Jim Casey, Brother Rice’s director of admissions and older brother of the school’s principal, Brother Daniel Casey, spoke to the Daily Southtown and let his skepticism show.

“We want to get at the racism,” Jim Casey told reporter Phil Arvia in a story that ran this Monday. “Whether that means we have to look at the blatant inconsistencies as a form of racism, where someone’s punching that race ticket without any merit to it, or whether it’s a student who actually did this…we want to find out the truth about where the racism lies.”

Wherever racism might lie, Brother Daniel Casey didn’t think it lay with “Buckwheat.” He wrote O’Neal that what he heard from the Brother Rice bleachers that night was certainly “insensitivity,” but it wasn’t racism. Looking on the bright side, he told O’Neal, “As one of our faculty members said today, we couldn’t have made up a better opportunity to squarely address the problems of insensitivity, intolerance, and racism. So if we can get past this initial ugliness, I am anxious to get to it.”

O’Neal wasn’t mollified.

Taylor Bell told me, “Obviously Brother Rice is no more racist than any other mostly all white high school. And Thornton has had other problems. It has a real chip on its shoulder. Whenever something like this jumps up they’re going to make something out of it.” Bell reminded me that after Thornton lost a football playoff game last fall O’Neal accused the officials calling the game of racism.

But Bell argued, “When they put all those Brother Rice students on TV saying ‘What do you think about “Buckwheat”?’ and they say it isn’t racial–that’s nonsense. And it wasn’t chilled at the game site the way it should have been. The minute it came out of their mouths it should have been stopped.”

TV crews descended on the two high schools after Bell’s article appeared, and I find it hard to believe that “Buckwheat” is what got them there. “Coon” and “nigger” do have the malign charisma to galvanize the media, and on their behalf I wish I could say I found a single reporter covering the game who heard either word. “A despicable display of racist jeering,” pronounced a Sun-Times editorial, certain of its ability to penetrate the confusion.

Bustin’ Buttons at the Sun-Times

The following list isn’t necessarily exhaustive.

Last Monday:

“Stanley’s deal is similar to one that former state Sen. Ted Lechowicz (D-Chicago) got after he spent only six weeks on Ryan’s payroll in 1993, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in 1994.”

And “GOP legislators took aim at Hynes by banning straight-ticket voting and trying to force him to keep every possible piece of paper on each piece of property reassessed in Cook County. But Hynes said Sunday none of that had anything to do with his unexpected resignation, first disclosed by the Chicago Sunday Sun-Times.”

Last Tuesday:

“Accidents are down on Cook County expressways since Feb. 1….The stepped up enforcement followed news that the number of fatalities on the Dan Ryan Expy. had risen 214 percent, from seven in 1995 to 22 in 1996. The Chicago Sun-Times also revealed that trooper staffing on area highways had plummeted.”

And “A prison guard and two former guards have been charged with having sex with female convicts at the Dwight Correction Center officials said Monday….The Chicago Sun-Times reported last year on sexual contact between guards and female prisoners at Dwight.”

Last Wednesday:

“Ald. William Banks (36th)…said Tuesday that he plans to run for Cook County assessor next year, setting up a confrontation with Thomas Hynes’ chosen successor….Hynes said he was in the process of notifying his fellow politicians when the Chicago Sun-Times reported his decision to resign on Sunday…”

And “Mayor Daley wants to modify the so-called ‘me too’ clause that has allowed Chicago firefighters to automatically receive pay raises and benefit increases granted to other city unions….The Chicago Sun-Times reported Jan. 3 that Daley wants to bolster minority representation in the Fire Department.”

Last Thursday:

“Mayor Daley on Wednesday promptly replaced the head of Chicago’s troubled 911 command center….The Chicago Sun-Times reported Sunday that the Fire Department was still dispatching emergency vehicles manually.”

Last Friday:

“House Democrats on Thursday called for Attorney General Jim Ryan to investigate how a former state lawmaker was able to more than double his pension by working briefly for Secretary of State George Ryan. The push comes after the Sun-Times reported that George Ryan hired former state Rep. Roger Stanley (R-Streamwood) to upgrade driver’s license computer equipment.”

And “Benjamin Reyes, a point-man in the search for waste at the Chicago Board of Education, is in line to head the city’s Public Building Commission….[Jeff] Boyle’s surprise decision to resign was disclosed last month by the Chicago Sun-Times.”

On Friday afternoon a faithful Sun-Times reader threw up his hands and called me. The Sun-Times is a wonderful newspaper, he said, but this chest thumping is getting to be a little too much.

I hadn’t noticed. Braggadocio’s part of the game, and my eyes slide on by. But now that he mentioned it…

Last Saturday:

“A McDome vote would be easy for state lawmakers this spring, but a deal with the Chicago Bears has yet to be worked out, Gov. Edgar said Friday. The Chicago Sun-Times reported Friday that Edgar, Mayor Daley and Bears President Michael McCaskey are on the brink of an agreement for a $465 million domed stadium.”

Last Sunday (lead editorial):

“‘The possibility of a new domed stadium for the Chicago Bears, linked to the McCormick Place complex is back–proving once again that there’s nothing new in the news business.’ We wrote those words in 1995.”

News Bites

Nothing comes harder in journalism than the value-neutral thumbnail description of ad hoc naysayers. Describing the six stories of parking garage plus theater intended for the middle of Navy Pier, the Tribune’s Jacquelyn Heard reported that plans are going ahead “even though some architectural purists have decried it.” “Purists,” as everyone knows, are as simpering as they are unworldly, marginal figures capable of nothing more serious than a good “decry.”

Last week I wrote that the Sun-Times had scooped the Tribune on a big political story–meetings Governor Edgar had held in Washington to discuss a possible run for the U.S. Senate. I was wrong. Inc.’s Mike Conklin called to say his column mentioned the meetings the same day the Sun-Times revealed them. And a mention in Inc., Conklin asserted, was all the story was worth. No doubt.

Since I’m on the subject, on March 3 Inc. commented that Chicago’s Laura Hartigan had raised money for the Clinton-Gore ticket but stayed out of scandal’s way until March 2. That’s when the New York Times published a 1994 memo from White House social secretary Ann Stock reprimanding Hartigan; the subject was Hartigan’s attempt to get some local heavy hitters wined and dined by the Clintons.

Unfortunately for Inc., on February 28 the Sun-Times’s Lynn Sweet published the Stock memo in her Washington Notebook column. On March 1 Sweet put Hartigan on page one.

In other words, Hot Type doesn’t faithfully read Inc., and Inc. doesn’t faithfully read the Sun-Times. Guilt all around.

Sometimes a Cigar is just a cigar.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Taylor Bell photo by Nathan Mandell.