Friends regard the incident as pure Jack McCloskey.
A prospect from New Jersey was in town and, as happened on other recruiting visits, the head coach arranged a three-on-three scrimmage to test the young man’s mettle. The youngster was guarded by McCloskey, skeptical of his game. As Doug Gemmell drove to the basket, the coach in his mid-40s “low-bridged him, and Gemmell went up in the air and came down on his neck,” Billy Packer, a McCloskey assistant, recalled last week.
Packer was aghast. The workout wasn’t strictly kosher under NCAA rules, and now “the kid’s not going to be able to walk again,” he says. “My life was over in that split second of time.” Happily, Gemmell was fine and eventually signed with Notre Dame, where he was team captain in 1971. But before the player could recover, McCloskey stood over Gemmell and yelled, “ ‘Packer says you’re tough! Let me see you get up!’,” Packer remembers with a chuckle. “I’m just glad he’s alive, and Jack’s demanding that he gets up off the floor.”
McCloskey died earlier this month at age 91. Most obituaries focused on his 12-year tenure as general manager of the Detroit Pistons, when McCloskey assembled the relentlessly physical “Bad Boys” squads that won NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. His Pistons made nine straight playoff appearances, reached the NBA Finals three times, and produced four Hall of Famers – coach Chuck Daly and players Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas. “He loved to compete personally,” Packer, the long-time TV basketball analyst, says of McCloskey, “and he was a very brilliant basketball mind.”
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Nearly lost in media accounts of McCloskey’s life were his years as coach at Wake Forest from 1967 through 1972, when he not only roughed up young opponents in pickup games but became an unintentional pioneer on a journey into America’s racial wilderness.
McCloskey took over at Wake during the same 1967 season Norwood Todmann, the school’s first African-American basketball player, joined the freshman squad. Both were recruited to Winston-Salem by Packer, a Demon Deacon alum who previously worked as an assistant to coaches Bones McKinney and Jack Murdoch. McCloskey came south after a successful decade at the University of Pennsylvania. At Wake he posted a cumulative 70-89 record with three winning seasons in six before leaving to coach the NBA’s recently established Portland Trail Blazers. Todmann came from New York’s Power Memorial Academy, a Catholic high school where the 6-3 guard broke the single-game and single-season scoring records of center Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Their paths converged at the dawn of athletic integration in the ACC. For years league coaches took note of regional talents like New Bern’s Walt Bellamy, Atlanta’s Walt Frazier and Greensboro’s Lou Hudson but, dissuaded by segregationist norms and stymied by academic barriers, watched them bypass the ACC for the CIAA or leagues farther north and west. Only Maryland and Duke had added black scholarship players before Todmann and his fellow Harlem product, North Carolina’s Charles Scott, joined the ACC.
Tapping this rich vein of excluded talent, in and beyond the classroom, occurred slowly among North Carolina’s historically white ACC schools and their league brethren. “North Carolina’s progressivism consisted primarily of its shrewdness in opposing racial change,” wrote William Chafe in his 1980 book “Civilities and Civil Rights.” South Carolina and Virginia were worse. Gil McGregor, Wake Forest Class of 1971, says he never faced another African-American big man during his college career.
Wake did become the first major private college in the South to integrate its student body. The small Baptist-affiliated school, which long banned dancing on campus, also was years ahead of North Carolina’s other ACC schools in signing black football players and in starting a black quarterback.
Enter McCloskey, hard-nosed and at times physically intimidating, from a small town in anthracite-rich eastern Pennsylvania. His father and grandfather were coal miners; a visit to a mine shaft that “was dark and it was wet, damp, dirty, cold” convinced McCloskey he wanted to go to college. The multisport star attended the University of Pittsburgh on a football scholarship before the school integrated that sport, served in the Pacific in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then completed his degree work at Penn. McCloskey said he finally “played with and against black players” in the semi-pro Eastern League, even as he coached a high school team in New Jersey that included Bucky Waters, the future N.C. State guard and Duke coach.
Race apparently was not an issue for McCloskey, but it was for others. In the early days of integration there were unspoken quotas, limits on the number of black players simultaneously deployed on teams in college and the NBA. Regardless, McCloskey started a pair of African-Americans at Wake in 1969: sophomores Charlie Davis, the team’s scoring leader, and top rebounder McGregor. In 1971 Davis, a three-time All ACC selection, paced the league in scoring (26.5-point average) and became the first black ACC Player of the Year. When the pair appeared alongside Todmann, the Deacs became the first ACC school to place an African-American majority on the court.
“I still have a card that I got from a woman who was incensed that we had a couple of black players playing on the floor representing Wake Forest,” McCloskey told me in a 2003 interview at his lakeside home in a planned community north of Savannah, Georgia. “She didn’t have an address. I would have written back to her, not a nasty letter but a letter stating that times have changed.” (N.C. State’s Jim Valvano reported receiving 10 letters a week from fans expressing similar outrage as late as 1983, a season that culminated with a Wolfpack squad that started five black players winning the ACC and NCAA titles.)
The change noted by McCloskey included the abandonment, often driven by student pressure, of playing “Dixie” and displaying the Confederate battle flag at athletic events. More broadly, while society was roiled by opposition to the Vietnam War and demands for civil rights, Americans groped to bridge racial divides. In that setting it was perhaps inevitable that the no-nonsense McCloskey clashed with Todmann, a natural leader moved by the imperatives of blossoming black pride. “Protest was the order of the day in the late sixties,” recalls McGregor, now retired and living in Charlotte.
“Black Power,” wrote Chafe, a Duke history professor, “was revolutionary precisely to the extent that it rejected traditional white definitions of success, achievement, political dialogue, and social manners.” The coach demanded obedience and discipline. Inspired by a larger mission, the player challenged authority
Charlie Davis admired McCloskey’s basketball knowledge but questioned whether outside forces influenced the coach’s diminished use of Todmann. “There was no way that we weren’t going to be a better team if Tod had been playing rather than sitting on the bench,” he said of the big guard with post-up skills that complemented Davis’ outside touch.
The issue drove a wedge between African-American squad members and McCloskey, who insisted he simply employed the best players available. “I just didn’t think he was an outstanding player,” the coach said. “That’s the only thing I had against Norwood Todmann.” Unfortunately, as became evident during that era, few matters are so simple when race is involved.