You don’t know him. But if he had failed, the game would have been different.
Coal miner go home
The shouts came down from the stands, filling their ears. Searing a moment into their memories that would linger for 40 years.
Coal miner go home.
There was no time to be offended; being offended got you nothing. There was only the struggle, and there was only this game. The starters of the Alabama basketball team strolled out onto the hardwood. They were black, all five of them, and they were the first team to attempt this in the SEC.
“We weren’t intimidated,” he says now. “All we wanted to do was play ball.”
But why coal miner? That insult is not familiar to 2015. What did it mean back in ’74?
“What it means is… it’s a racist slur,” he mutters. We are sitting in an otherwise empty gym. His frame is folded into the bleachers in a way that seems unnatural, like a man his size was forever meant to be on the court, not sitting in the stands. His long, weathered fingers stretch out and cascade down over his kneecap like a brown waterfall. Now and then he shuffles and taps them restlessly. His eyes turn to the rim in the distance; to the motionless net.
Now, a sly smile, as if the memory of a drained jumper just flashed before him like a vision.
“Like I said, all we wanted to do was play ball.”
He is old now, and the dreams have all but stopped. When he was younger, though, back when he still played, he would dream about the game.
“I’d be playing a game where I’m lighting it up, and the goal looks like it’s five times as big.
“And I can’t miss.
And there’s a full house…and I wake up.”
But he is old now, and all that remains of the game is his story. He shows me now, here in the gym, what it felt like to wake up from a basketball dream. He raises his palms, the way you’re supposed to do when you curl off a down screen.
“I’m looking for it and my hands are out here, saying pass me the ball.”
Breaking the Quota
His name is Charles Russell, but he’s always been Boonie. And everywhere Boonie went he was a winner. As a prep star at rural Morgan County High School in north Alabama, he led his team to a state championship. In two years of JC ball at Alabama Christian College (now Faulkner University) he averaged 24 points and 13 rebounds. In one game at Alabama Christian, he shot 19 of 21, raining down buckets from all over the floor. In the stands that night was University of Alabama coach CM Newton, who was looking for an athletic forward. Nineteen of 21 got Boonie a scholarship, and in 1973 he enrolled at Alabama to play his junior and senior seasons.
In 1973 the Southeastern Conference was in a state of racial unease. Some schools had integrated their sports teams while others had not. To complicate matters further, in basketball there was a sort of informal handicap on playing black players together. A coach had to think about these things: If your best players were black, you might have to stagger their minutes creatively to avoid having too many of them on the floor together. There is a saying in Alabama, though.
In the gym, Boonie looks at me and smiles. The phrase on the tip of his tongue is misleading, it is complicated, and it is true, all at the same time:
“Winning fixes everything.”
With the addition of Boonie, CM Newton now had five supremely talented, home-grown Alabama players. And they all just happened to be black. There would be no staggered lineups.
In two seasons, the Crimson Tide went 22-4 and 22-5, respectively, and won the SEC title both years. Boonie averaged double figures in both campaigns, but he no longer had to be the primary option. On a team with multiple scorers, he morphed into a do-it-all swingman. The Pippen glue. Scrap and rebound on the block; chase the other team’s best player around screens; push the break; create shots for others; take over the game when needed.
“We ran,” he says now. “Man, let me tell ya. We got out and ran.” He shakes his head as the memories flood back.
“They couldn’t stop us. Vanderbilt would run up underneath us on the outlet passes and fall over, trying to take charges. Then everybody else started doing that. They were just trying to slow us down.”
He is old school. Strong, with a quiet pride. Noble. There are forks in the conversation where Boonie could choose to focus on the discrimination of the ’70s, but he does not. He could exaggerate his experiences and I would never know. He could craft a victim’s tale, but he does not.
Did the white players in the SEC treat him poorly?
“No,” he says flatly, and that is that.
Did the pressures of George Wallace and segregation-era Alabama affect his play on the court?
He swats this idea away like an ill-advised layup. The game was the game. No excuses.
But there is more here than he gives himself credit for. Breaking the color quota was not a given. When Boonie and his four teammates took the floor 42 years ago, the stakes were incredibly high: What if they had lost?
Wouldn’t it have set basketball’s civil-rights progress back? He just grins, like he knows the secret and I don’t. What if that 1973 Alabama team had gone 4-22 instead of 22-4? What would that have done to the next generation of young African American players?
“Well…” he finally says, his deep Southern drawl stretching on and on. Quiet pride. “We weren’t losing.”
One on One
Now we are on the gym floor. When you interview a basketball player, there are things you will only learn if you take them on the hardwood and put a ball in their hands.
Boonie dribbles around the free throw line, the ball effortlessly leaving and finding his fingertips like it was on a yo-yo. The years are melting off him now. He is alive.
Did he have a sweet spot on the floor?
“Nah, man. You get me the rock and I’m good.”
What was his go-to move?
He pulls me into the paint and posts me up. We are both 6-foot-8, and this feels like a matchup that would have happened in a game. He walks me through it, slowly.
“I’d go hard right, and get my man leaning.” He dips his shoulder into me and dribbles one way, only to wheel around and rise up into a smooth right-handed jump hook. Even in his 60s, the footwork is impeccable.
He can’t recover. Once he’s leaning I got him.
We are at midcourt, side by side. Sweating now. He holds the ball in his big hands, turning it over and over. Now, at the end of our interview, he is opened. The thoughts flow out of him in a staccato rhythm, like dribbling.
“Why,” he wonders aloud. This is a nice facility and it’s empty. Late in the afternoon and it’s empty. He is looking for the next generation, but they are nowhere to be found. He wants them in this gym, wants to know that they love the game as much as he does. But we are alone.
He continues, and his words are poetic, bending the line between literal and symbolic.
“It’s an empty space and I wish there was some way I could fill it. I just look at the goal, I just look at the backboard. Man, I used to get to the top of that backboard.”
“Now I have to get on a ladder to change the net. And I think, ‘man, I used to be able to get up this high.’ ”
A long pause, filled with things only he can see. “There’s some weird feelings you get when you walk in your house.”
Our time is at an end. Boonie shakes my hand and ambles off, with the sort of ginger, knee-dipping walk of a man who has bled his youth into the hardwood.
The sun is setting. And the man who broke the color quota goes one day further into the twilight.