|Ken Howard in a classic pose as basketball coach|
Ken Reeves in "The White Shadow".
For three years, I tuned in every Monday night to see what a white high school basketball coach was doing to help his predominantly black players at Carver High in Los Angeles.
His name was Ken Reeves and he literally acted like a “white shadow”. One of his players even gave him that nickname in the show’s first episode.
Ken Howard played the white shadow, and I was reminded of so many great memories when I heard he passed away.
In the beginning
Although “The White Shadow” debuted in 1978, it was still going strong when the 1980s began. I just happened to see the pilot on CBC, and was hooked immediately. It became my favourite show.
Ken Reeves had played professionally for the Chicago Bulls but, as is illustrated in the opening credits, he suffers a knee injury that ends his playing career.
Enter his old friend Jim Willis, principal at Carver High, who offers him a job coaching basketball. However, not everyone is a Reeves fan. Vice-principal Sybil Buchanan was against Reeves’ hiring and frequently clashed with him.
Initially, Howard wants to win, but he discovers quickly that standing in the way of his players accomplishing anything is often the lives they live away from school and the basketball court.
In the pilot, he discovers Thomas Hayward, who is the smartest player on the team but is often in trouble with the law, has a complicated home life. He is essentially trying to provide for and raise a littler brother. Reeves quickly sees if Hayward can stay in school, he will likely get a scholarship and get out of the ghetto he lives in. Reeves convinces his sister and her husband, who he is living with at first, to babysit. They quickly fall in love with Hayward’s brother, and Thomas begins to achieve in school and on the basketball court.
That was just the first player whose life Reeves influenced.
Hayward was always my favourite, because he was so smart and the natural leader of the group. I always thought he should be the captain of the team, but for whatever reason Reeves gave that title to Salami. He was one of the only white players on the team, which turned some heads initially, especially because he really was not a leader like Hayward.
Coolidge was the star of the team, a big force in the middle, seven feet if memory serves, who was gifted athletically but could barely read, if at all. Still, Reeves had a soft spot for him, partly because he was so talented.
Thorpe was another player who had some leadership skills, but was just as much a con man. He was not the most talented player, but for whatever reason he thought he could play college and maybe even pro ball. He thought so, his parents did, and at one point Reeves tried to help him by giving him extra weights to wear on his arms while he practised.
Jackson was the epitome of cool, wearing mirror shades whether inside or outside, and a kind of tam hat. He walked like he was dancing, and always acted cool. He would battle a drinking problem in the first season, then get killed in a liquor store hold-up in the second season. He probably had the most eventful time on the show.
Reese was another player who I liked, always sporting a head band during games, and one of the leaders in the shower when they sang. I always remember the episode where he was recruited by a rival high school, although that was illegal. That was actually the theme of the show, a commentary on recruiting. He would go on to play college ball, which we discovered when he returned for an alumni game.
There were two other white players, Goldstein who was Jewish, and Gomez, who was Hispanic, to round out the diversity on the team. One episode I recall had Gomez being recruited by a gang, while in another Goldstein contemplated joining the armed forces and being deployed to Greece.
Tackling the tough stuff
The first season of “The White Shadow” was only 15 episodes, but it already showed signs of tackling tough issues. In one show, they tackled the theme of teenage drinking as Thomas Jackson had a drinking problem. He eventually would be killed in a liquor store robbery in the second season. In another episode, there was a gay player, and a hearing-impaired player in another episode.
“The White Shadow” would go on to tackle a lot of other issues – race relations, death, drug use.
The lighter side
It also tackled the lighter side of sports. The team was on a winning streak, and the players were getting more and more cocky. So Reeves set up an exhibition game with a group of players. These guys show up in mismatched uniforms and shorts. They don’t look like much of a team. Seven-foot centre Warren Coolidge even makes fun of the other centre who is bent down on one knee tying his shoe. Then he stands up and is taller than Coolidge. This is the first indication the fix is in – courtesy of Coach Reeves. That centre wins the tip and Carver High has no idea what hits them as they get schooled by this group of mismatched ball players in the first half. They lick their wounds in the dressing room, and Reeves talks to them about humility. When they emerge, the ragtag team they were playing are in uniform now – they are the Harlem Globe Trotters.
It was inspired.
We used to get the TV Guide every week. There were a few covers, for whatever reason, that I always remember. One was a picture of Ken Howard and Blythe Danner posing for their new show back in the 1970s called “Adam’s Rib”.
It turns out that was where Howard met Bruce Paltrow, who was married to Blythe Danner. It was Paltrow who cast Howard in “The White Shadow”. It can be such a small world.
A few years after “The White Shadow” went off the air, I noticed the guy who played Coolidge was in the show “St. Elsewhere”. I paid a little closer attention, and it was not only the same actor but he was actually playing the same character. Warren Coolidge had re-located to Boston and was working at St. Eligius. That was confirmed by a little blurb in TV Guide.
Not much of a surprise really. Bruce Paltrow was behind “St. Elsewhere” too.
The bouncing ball
One of the odd things I recall was the closing credits. The show was made by MTM Productions who had a cat meowing to end their shows. For “Newhart”, the cat meowed in Bob Newhart’s voice. In “Remington Steele”, a pipe Sherlock Holmes would use fell out of the cat’s mouth.
And for “The White Shadow”, the cat dribbled a basketball.
I could honestly say “The White Shadow” was my favourite show. I lived to see it Monday nights, and saw all but a handful of episodes. One year I played floor hockey, so I missed a few episodes during the season, but saw all of them in summer re-runs. The only episode I never saw, was when I fell asleep and was so tired my mom could not wake me, then just let me sleep and sleep. They talked about it on the bus then at school the next day, but I never did see it, not even in re-runs. Maybe on DVD.
The show was so well-written, I recall so many episodes, which explored issues and ideas.
The fact it was about basketball, my favourite sport to play, was almost secondary. Besides, I did not get into the sport until “The White Shadow” went off the air.
Ken Reeves was the first character I encountered who tried to change the lives of the people around him for the better.
I always remember feeling good at the end of each episode. They did not always end happily, and the conflict wasn’t always resolved, but it was such a good show. The only thing that made me sad was seeing the cat dribbling the basketball, because that meant the show was over.
And what a great show it was.