"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Book Review: Nolan Richardson biography: Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson

Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson
by Rus Bradburd

Nolan Richardson - from El Pujido to Glory
Book tells tale of African American coach from El Paso's Segundo Barrio

by Raymundo Eli Rojas

I was very excited when I saw that Nolan Richardson's biography Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson (Amistad 2010 ISBN-10: 0061690465) by Ray Bradburd had been published. This is due to my fascination with El Paso's barrios and of course, being a Kansas alum, I'm a big fan of college basketball.

Overland Av. (Ladrillo Pl) in El Pujido, El Paso. Can you believe this 
part  of Overland  was not paved until the 21st Century
Photo (c) Raymundo Eli Rojas 2003

El Pujido

Nolan Richardson grew us in the barrio of El Pujido in South El Paso. In many stories about Richardson, some writers confuse El Pujido with Segundo Barrio. Segundo Barrio gets it name from the Second Ward, in which early El Paso politicians split El Paso in to different political wards.

Officially, El Pujido would fall out of the Second Ward's political boundaries, but it has always been considered a part of Segundo, if not on the edge.

If one exits I-10 at Exit 20 at S. Cotton Street and goes south, turn east at San Antonio Avenue, right before the overpass going over the railroad tracks. If you know the California Cafe at San Antonio and Cotton, just run across the street. Behind the Economy Cash and Carry, which use to be a Farah plant, are S. Lee St., Hudspeth Pl, and Ladrillo Pl. (Overland Avenue) in a deep little pocket. Pushed in from all sides, thus El Pujido, although in the book and in articles interviewing Richardson, he translate pujido as “tough and rugged.”

Unfortunately, if you are looking for a grand description of growing up in El Pujido, Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson will not provide it.

Nevertheless, it will give you a good introduction and maybe more tales of El Pujido can be told later.

What Forty Minutes of Hell does give the reader is an immersion into the racial world of college basketball.

Nolan Richardson coached the 1994 University of Arkansas Razerbacks to the NCAA Men's National Championship. He played both at Bowie High School and Texas Western (now UTEP) under legendary coach Don Haskins.

Despite not living up to my expectations on growing up in El Pujido, Forty Minutes of Hell is an journey into the life of an African American breaking barriers, calling racism for what it is -- of an African American blending into the Chicano culture of El Paso -- with it own racism against Blacks, and of a pioneer into the White world of college coaching.

Most of the book revolves around his controversial firing in 2002 from the University of Arkansas, despite delivering the university a NCAA championship in 1994.

The chapter “Black Boy” describes his childhood in El Paso. Giving some history of African Americans in El Paso the author goes into some description of Frederick Douglas Colored School. After Richardson's mother died, his father moved the family to El Paso to live with their grandmother in El Pujido on Overland Ave. Richardson's father would be in and out of El Paso, leaving the children to be raised by grandmother, “Ol' Mama.”

Lot near corner of Lee Street and Ladrillo Pl (Overland)  where Ol' Mame lived 
Photo: Raymundo Eli Rojas (c) 2003

“O'Mama” was from Louisiana. In El Pujido, the family lived in a three-room house on Overland and it was O' Mama, Richardson says, who kept everyone in line. Richardson credits his grandmother for keeping him in line and seldom wanted to leave El Paso for fear that O'Mama would be gone when he returned.

Being Black among Chicanos in El Paso

Richardson says he was the only black kid around in that neighborhood. He learned to slip between the cracks of El Paso segregation laws. Not allowed to swim in the Armijo Park pool in Segundo Barrio, he was allowed at the pool at Washington Park – at lease once a year -- right before they drained the pool. He wold often escape to Cd. Juarez where there was no segregation.

Pool at Armijo Park in El Segundo Barrio, El Paso

© Russell Lee Photograph Collection, Center for American History, 

University of Texas at Austin, Swimming pool at Armijo Park, El Paso, Texas, 1949

At Douglas, which was the school for African Americans, there were lack of resources, space, and teachers as often seen in the separate but equal era. Other areas that were “hubs” for African Americans in Richardson's time were Shiloh Baptist Church, Gillespie Steak House, Rusty's Playhouse, and the Square Deal Barbershop. 

 Shiloh Baptist Church
from church website

“The Mexican kids treated me so well,” Richardson says who went on to be a star athlete at Bowie High school.

The biography describes the different theaters and which ones were segregated. African Americans could enter the Mission Theater, but had to sit on the balcony. The Alcazar was open to African Americans. Richardson hung out with many Chicanos and his biography states that his friends had to remind him -- there were places that he could not enter.

Though Richardson says he was treated differently by Chicanos then Whites, there was still some things lacking. However, Richardson as a young man idolized local athletic heroes like Rocky Galarza and Nemo Herrera, the Bowie High School baseball and basketball coach.

On one occasion, when Bowie made the state playoffs, the team went to play a game in Abilene, Texas. Richardson was not allowed to stay at the same hotel as the team. He would later visit this hotel later in his athletic career. Richardson would later play with the basketball team of Union Furniture owned by Saul Kleinfeld.

After attending a junior college in Arizona on a baseball scholarship and getting married, Richardson, but with a baby on the way, he knew he need to return to El Paso and he enrolled at Texas Western.

At Texas Western

He joined the basketball team playing through the coaching transition from Harold Davis to Don Haskins, enduring the style change to the Henry Iba-influenced defensive game. Since El Paso was home, he did not live on campus. Richardson would live on Tularosa Street during this time.

In one occasion, city alderman Bert Williams took Richardson to the Oasis on Copia Street. This was 1961, and Richardson reminded Williams that he would not be served at the Oasis. They went anyway.

They sat, the waitress came over. The waitress told them she could not serve Richardson. The Oasis restaurants were owned by a former El Paso mayor, Fred Harvey. Williams and Richardson would leave, but this prompted Williams to draft city legislation officially banning segregation in El Paso.

During college Richardson worked hauling wood in a lumberyard and parking cars at First Methodist Church.

Rus Bradburd does good to tone the reader into basketball history and trivia describing such personalities as Henry Iba, John McLendon, and the like.

This history is needed because Bradburd shows how white the college coaching world was, and still is. The history is also needed because Richardson needed to develop his own style of coaching basketball, thus the full-court press -- 40 minutes of hell style.

After a successful career at Texas Western, Richardson would coach at Bowie High School in El Paso's Segundo Barrio. Bradburd describes Richardson exploring other coach's styles to hone in on developing his own.

But Richardson quickly notice no matter how many game he won as a high school coach, El Paso's remote location, nobody noticed. He had to enter the world of college coaching.

Enter College Coaching

He landed the head coaching job at Western Texas College in Snyder, Texas and became a town hero taking Western Texas to the championship for the junior college division before taking the helm at the University of Tulsa. At Tulsa he would gain several NCAA tournament entries.

Richardson would see success here despite initial response that they hired “that ni$$#^ coach.” He was always straight up about racism, not just the in-your-face discrimination, but Richardson called it like it was in response to institutionalized racism.

Again, Richardson would see success at Tulsa during a turbulent time in his life when his daughter came down with leukemia.

Bradburd point out many things about Richardson's style and that of other black coaches. The criticism they would receive. The failure to give them credit, but when a white coach did the same thing later with success, the praise would fall on the white coach. Or the coach explosions that got White coaches fired, but later rehired, yet since Richardson's firing, no college has come calling.

The book follows Richardson to the University of Arkansas and Bradford immerses us into the the history of desegregation in Southern college sports. Much of this surprised me, especially the information about the University of Texas and the reluctance to desegregate and include African Americans in football and basketball even well after Brown vs. The Board of Education and Texas Western's 1966 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship victory, and the end of official Jim Crow in Texas.

Even UTEP does not escape criticism for the lack of people of color in their athletic department over the last 40 years (not much different from tenured professors).

While at Arkansas, Richardson would lose his daughter to leukemia and almost lose his job. The incumbent athletic director scoured nooks and crannys to find some hidden causes to fire Richardson.

This was before Richardson's team won the 1994 NCAA Men's Championship. Bradburd follows the glory that followed and Richardson's struggle through the 1990s still flooring teams with winning season. Bradburd shows how Black and white coaches were viewed differently during a bad basketball season. 

Nolan Richardson holding 1994 NCAA Basketball Champion Trophy

Despite a national championship, Richardson felt his job was always in danger, much different from what a white coach with a national championship under his belt would have experienced.

Bradburd's book is a good read and kept me turning page. The immersions into college basketball history and it confluence with race has never been covered so well. With most historians focused on “firsts”: first black players, first black coach, etc., the real racial analysis is sometime lacking. 

Race and institutions

Much prior analysis focuses on in-your face racism, while not criticizing the institution racism that keeps racism flourishing. And when institutions desegregate or admit the first person of color, the institutions are celebrated as Civil Rights heroes despite decades of in-your-face racism through admission denials, and despite existing institutional racism.

Richardson has several children, some with his first wife who was his highschool sweetheart, and his daughter with his second wife, a Mexican-American women from El Paso. Still living in Arkansas, he says he's the only coach that's been fired and didn't leave town. Former players visit, Mexican food is served.

Richardson would go on to coach Mexican Olympic team, spending time in El Paso as he coaches the team in Cd. Juarez yelling at players in his Segundo Barrio Spanglish. It's not everyday you get a story about a black kid growing up in El Paso's Segundo Barrio.

Forty minutes of Hell will keep readers tune in and maybe the reader will learn something about college basketball that they did not know before -- the Black and the White.

(c) Raymundo Eli Rojas, 2010

Raymundo Eli Rojas is the editor of Pluma Fronteriza a newsletter highlighting Chicano writers from the El Paso region and Libros, Libros, a newsletter of new Chicano(a) literature. He is graduate of UTEP and the University of Kansas School of Law; former director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center; and former director and founder of the Kansas City Worker Justice Project.

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1 comment:

Bill Kruse said...

It's called that to illustate that the sport isn't supposed to be fun. It makes the point well, I think.