Penn basketball legend David ‘Corky’ Calhoun still “vividly” remembers an incident that brought racial tensions from the world stage all the way into his dorm room during his freshman year in 1968.
On Oct. 17 of that year, during the Mexico City Olympics, two black track stars, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, finished among the top three in the 200-meter sprint. After they stepped on the podium to receive their medals, each lifted his fist in the air while receiving his award. The “Black Power salute” was a unique form of protest against the unequal treatment of blacks during that era, and it left Calhoun and one of his white roommates with diverging opinions.
“I believe [my roommate’s] attitude was, ‘Well, how dare these athletes embarrass the United States?’ exposing maybe an issue that he didn’t want the world to see,” Calhoun recalled. “And my opinion was, well, this was a platform where if this was really the reality, then exposing it — hopefully for the purpose of correcting it — was probably the right thing.”
And yet, in the midst of such a volatile period in American history — Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated just months earlier and the Vietnam War was still raging at home and abroad — an African American led Penn basketball to extraordinary heights.
Calhoun, a 6-foot-7 forward, starred for three years on the varsity team, during which Penn compiled an astonishing 78-6 record (41-1 Ivy). The “Quakes” were so dominant during that stretch, they finished his junior and senior seasons ranked third and second in the nation, respectively, advancing to the Elite 8 both times.
With Penn basketball rocking, the racism that pervaded America in the late ’60s and early ’70s apparently didn’t make its way into the Palestra.
“For me personally, I didn’t feel any particular discrimination,” Calhoun said. “In fact, because we were successful as a sports team, I think we were accepted pretty readily, at least for myself.”
Two decades later, it was Jerome Allen, the team’s current coach, who became the face of the program.
Allen arrived on campus as a student in the fall of 1991 and made an impact on the hoops team right away. After his freshman year, the 6-foot-4 guard led the Red and Blue to three straight Ivy League titles, picking up two Ivy Player of the Year Awards along the way.
Even with all his success — he went on to play 117 games in the NBA and enjoyed a decade-long career playing in Europe — Allen still faced discrimination. The coach, who said he embraces his race, believes that even today, discrimination is an issue.
“[It] is prevalent; it’s out there everywhere you go,” he said. “If I was in uptown New York and I needed a taxi, who’s to say that one’s going to stop or not?”
Calhoun and Allen — Penn basketball past and present — converge again in their assessment of the biggest issues facing black college athletes today.
“You kind of wonder sometimes whether they’re putting all their eggs into the athletic basket. And for all the superstar athletes that you read about that make millions of dollars, there’s probably ten times that many that had talent early on, but maybe didn’t develop in other areas, education-wise or skills-set wise,” Calhoun said. “Injuries can come, opportunities can evaporate, [so] you kind of have to have a plan B.”
Allen made a nearly identical point — quite appropriate given that such a small percentage of collegiate student athletes andgo on to play professionally.
“I just think there needs to be a shift in focus. There are so many delusions of grandeur in the sense that a lot of black athletes play this game, but really allow the game to play them,” Allen commented. “They don’t necessarily take advantage of the resources that they have at these universities. They get caught up in thinking that they’re all on the track to be a professional athlete … I think there needs to be more of a focus on preparing themselves for the game of life as opposed to the game of basketball.”
But the two offer differing opinions when it comes to financial aid, which affects all student-athletes, regardless of race.
Calhoun believes he went to Penn at an “ideal” time, when, according to him, financial aid was more abundant.
“I think you contrast that with today, a black athlete that would be considering Penn, his grades may be there, and even if he gets financial aid, the amount of money he would have to come up with is kind of prohibitive,” he explained.
In contrast, Allen feels the state of Penn’s financial aid is in a good place for all student-athletes.
“I think nowadays the beauty, especially here at Penn, is that aid is distributed on a need-basis,” he said. “Our financial aid offices have done a tremendous job in still affording this opportunity to these kids.”
“I’m excited about just being able to deliver this product to individuals who may not otherwise be able to a) afford it or b) may not know about it,” he added.
With Allen at the helm, the hoops team appears to be headed in the right direction, as the 2010-11 Quakers have already nearly doubled last season’s win total.
The history of black athletes at Penn, enriched by the likes of Calhoun and Allen, has had a lasting impact on the basketball program. And with freshmen Miles Cartwright, Cameron Gunter and Dau Jok, the future looks to leave its own mark.
“I’m very supportive of [Allen],” Calhoun said. “I root for him.”
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