It was hot as hell.
And it was July in Tulsa and I was on the wrong side of town. At least that’s what my friends in Jenks said when I told them I was heading to McLain High School for the annual Pig’s Pop Off basketball tournament with my family to watch the most entertaining ball $3 could buy. Current and future professionals came back to Tulsa every summer to connect with friends and try to win local bragging rights by playing seven to ten games in three days. All of Tulsa’s greats played at some point: Wayman Tisdale, Lee Mayberry, Clint McDaniel, Timmy Gill, John Starks, and even Southeastern’s Dennis Rodman. Not all were black, but I don’t remember University of Tulsa bigman Brian Rahilly ever playing, or Jenks standouts Steve Hale and Kevin Pritchard. They may have, but I doubt it.
By special invitation, ringers were brought in—like this particular year, when UNLV’s Larry “Grandmama” Johnson joined a few weeks after being drafted into the NBA. This was serious basketball. The Pop Off wasn’t exactly promoted on the south side, so it took on a cult-like word of mouth process—there was no Twitter in 1991—to hear which stars were coming to town. The Tulsa World would write something, but no one from my neighborhood outside we basketball mavens took much notice.
It wasn’t much past ten in the morning as we entered the already-sweltering gym. The first game was underway. In an instant, I understood what many people of color live with each day in Tulsa when they venture south of Admiral. Unfortunately, in Tulsa and many other cities in America, neighborhoods and parts of town remain segregated. We were the only white people in the gym and it was uncomfortable, and not just because it was hot. Kids ran around in plain white Fruit Of The Loom t-shirts and wifebeaters, dirty from hours of playing basketball outside in one of North Tulsa’s mostly pitiful parks.
The gym smelled of stale popcorn and wet leather. A makeshift concession stand was in place with soft drinks and candy bars for sale by some of the ladies in jumpsuits, all dressed to impress. There weren’t any healthy options, but when does a concession stand ever offer healthy options, especially in an area of town considered a food desert? A trip to Sam’s was the most economic option because stores without “convenience” in front of their name were a rare find. Petty’s Fine Foods was not considering a north-side grocery—nor was Skaggs or IGA—because the business model would be darn near impossible with abject poverty and crime everywhere.
I can’t blame the many businesses that have shunned or abandoned North Tulsa. There are so many complicated factors that play into poverty from lack of well—paying jobs to access to basic healthcare services to the intergenerational problem of out-of wedlock births among African Americans at an astonishing 69 percent, as reported in The Atlantic and elsewhere. This fact makes it so difficult on the children to escape the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
But we were not there to think about poverty. We were there to watch basketball and although most in the gym were poor, no one was asking for any sympathy that day; this was their life. The tournament was an escape. Or was it just basketball? McLain’s longtime coach, Luther Pegues (Coach Piggy) was on the mic doing play-by-play just like you see on those street-ball shows that used to run on ESPN. He was an entertainer ahead of his time.
“It’sssss GOOOOD,” Coach Piggy yelled as a three swished through the net. “Hey, Derrick,” he said to a young helper. “Get those kids out of the ball closet. We trying to play ball here.”
The play-by-play and editorial comments made it over the PA system for all to hear.
“D, can you get me a Coke? It’s hot up in here.”
Our collective eyes shifted to see if D had corralled the kids and was going to get Coach Piggy a Coke. D responded dutifully and scurried out to the stand for what was presumably free Coke for the man whose name was printed on the bright yellow t-shirts that were also for sale.
Heads turned as our family of five made our way through the gym. Coach Piggy gave my father a warm head nod, as if to say, “Come on in and pick a seat.” Dad and Coach Piggy were cool, a respectful relationship that had developed in recent years since my father had brought professional basketball to Tulsa. His Tulsa FastBreakers won the Continental Basketball Association, a forerunner to the NBDL, championship in 1988–89. The team, like the gym we were in, was made up almost exclusively of people of color.
The game was sparsely attended, but it was still early. The crowd was alert and everyone looked like they were in it for the long haul. Games would be scheduled to start on the hour all day, but anyone who had attended before knew that games never ran on time. By two o’clock, the gym would be packed.
I was 13 years old, my brother 12, and my sister was 10. I’d give anything to see a picture of what we were wearing and what our North Tulsa brethren must have been thinking as we searched for seats. The bleachers at McLain were pulled out and Dad led us to the middle section, which was conspicuously empty. We sat down in choice seats and Dad looked satisfied. Mom tolerated his Saturday morning excursion, happy that he was taking time off from his hectic work to spend with his family.
“TIIIMMMMEEEOOOUUUTTT,” Coach Piggy yelled as the quarter ended.
Next thing I knew, “BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!” Rap music replaced Pegues’ highpitched voice and blasted from the huge speaker located at the top of the bleachers, a few rows behind us. People began dancing in the aisles and bobbing heads up and down. The five of us instinctively grabbed our ears. The choice seats were open for a reason. Laughter broke out all around us, in response to our poor seat selection and obvious reaction to the loud music. Dad and Mom didn’t exactly play much rap music at home.
As the games went on, we settled into our seats, bought some candy bars, marveled at the spectacular play, and made friends with our neighbors. We lived in different places, had different education levels and I suspect saw the world differently. Our lives would not intersect often. We all enjoyed basketball, but we didn’t all play at the same level.
Race issues in Tulsa are as ingrained in the city’s consciousness as a Brownie’s Hamburger or a jog down Riverside Drive. They are not going to go away, even though most of us would like to never hear about the Race Riot of 1921—now 91 years ago—ever again. The recent shootings in North Tulsa, though tragic in every sense of the word, offer another opportunity for Tulsans to discuss race and celebrate our progress as a community while continuing to recognize that our history always follows us. But history cannot define Tulsa. The great cities learn to embrace the pain of the past. In time, they learn to suffocate the air that blows in the sails every time a tragedy happens that makes us remember things that we don’t like about ourselves.
Tulsa is making progress and one day won’t need Jesse Jackson to intervene on our behalf. Because that day, our community will be strong enough to keep outsiders outside in our moment of grief. We are not there yet, but we are closer than ever before. We must make progress one tragedy at a time.
In 2000, after I graduated from the University of Oklahoma where I played basketball and where our team won a lot of games, I came back to finally play in Piggy’s Pop Off. There were a few more white people in the gym then than a decade before, but I was still in the minority. After playing with African-Americans, Hispanics, and even a Ukrainian national at OU, I was no longer uncomfortable in a north Tulsa gym. In some ways, I felt more comfortable there than in the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, where basketball is played in a much more structured environment.
At McLain, I was a baller and able to compete against anyone, with no coach telling me how to play or when to shoot. That summer, my team won the Pop Off and I was named to the first team all-tournament. I don’t know if I was the first white kid ever to make all-tournament, but I was proud anyway.
After four years of college basketball I can recite a few Biggie and Tupac songs word for word. I can’t say for sure, but the same kids running around in dirty t-shirts then were probably playing alongside me. Some had made it out of north Tulsa’s cycle of poverty and some had not. None of it mattered on the court. Our team won that year. We were ballers, equal in every respect, and we now had Tulsa bragging rights.
Renzi Stone is the CEO of Saxum, a public relations and advertising agency based in Oklahoma City. The agency opened an office in Tulsa’s Brady district in 2010 and employs 32 people.