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April 25, 2007

The Big O

Last year, Disney released "Glory Road," about the victory of Texas Western and its all-black starting five over all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA championship game.

In 1955, more than a decade before Texas Western beat Kentucky, all-black Crispus Attucks High School broke through to win the state title in basketball-mad Indiana. Behind its star player, Oscar Robertson, Crispus Attucks repeated the trick in 1956. (The film "Hoosiers" is based on the exploits of Milan High, which won the state title in 1954.)

Now, filmmaker Betsy Blankenbaker has produced "Something to Cheer About," a documentary about Crispus Attucks' historic hoop wins. The film opens in limited release on Friday; it's scheduled for a week-long run at Laemmle's Grande 4 in downtown L.A.

I spoke with Blankenbaker from her home-base in Miami.

LA Observed: How did you get interested in this subject?

Betsy Blankenbaker: My father was best friends with the coach at Crispus Attucks, Ray Crowe, and I grew up knowing the players, the coach, and the story. When the movie "Hoosiers" came out, I thought it was a great, feel-good movie, but I couldn’t understand why they didn’t do the Attucks story. That's an even better story. I thought, "Some day, someone's going to make this film," and I kept waiting and waiting.

After my father died, I went out to visit Mr. Crowe. I realized that he was getting quite old, and if I didn't start making the film, an important part of history was going to be lost. I started in 2000 and finished a pretty final version in 2003 that Mr. Crowe was able to see. The last four years, I spent raising money for archival footage and a soundtrack and racking up credit-card debt.

LAO: How segregated was Indiana after World War II?

BB: The heart of the Ku Klux Klan was in Indiana during the 1940s and 1950s. The school in the film, Crispus Attucks, was founded by the Klan to segregate blacks from whites. The Klan helped build Attucks because they didn't want their children going to school with black students. So, I love the irony of it that the school the Klan built to segregate blacks ended up rising above everybody else.

LAO: We've heard a lot about Texas Western's victory in 1966: why was Crispus Attucks' victory so important?

BB: The players there helped to integrate the sport. Not just in high school: some of these players went on to integrate college athletics. Beyond that, their games brought blacks and whites together for the first time. A lot of white people hadn't had the experience of being around black people. So, when fans started coming together, they're not only coming together to watch sports, but they're accepting these athletes – not just as black athletes, but as athletes. I had more white people in their 60s and 70s come up to me and say, "We used to love to see Attucks play – they were so incredible."

LAO: In his autobiography, Oscar Robertson wrote that the team didn't get a victory parade in Indianapolis after they won the title. Is that true?

BB: Two years in a row they didn't get a victory parade. The year before they won, which was the year Milan won, people lined the roads to see the players. Downtown Indianapolis was shut off, and everybody stood around this beautiful circle they have downtown and cheered the team on. They did this every year, but when Attucks won they decided not to do it there -- even though they were the first team from Indianapolis to win the state title. They moved it to the black community because they felt there'd be trouble.

LAO: There've been several excellent documentaries about high school basketball, including "Hoop Dreams," "The Heart of the Game," and "Through the Fire." What makes these stories so compelling and were you inspired by these docs?

BB: Any story of overcoming adversity can be inspirational for all of us. Even though they seem to be the same story, they're all different. And, I think it's important that they all be told.

The documentaries that really inspired me were Spike Lee's "4 Little Girls" and "When We Were Kings" [about Muhammad Ali's fight against George Foreman in Zaire]. Those were defining for me about the power of documentaries.

LAO: The poster for "Something to Cheer About" shows Oscar Robertson leaping high in the air: was that image from his high school days or from college?

BB: The photo is actually from his college career [at the Univ. of Cincinnati]. I had used a team photo [from Crispus Attucks] for my poster, but when the distributor bought it, they chose that one. It's a team story, but we're also trying to sell a film, and that's an amazing photo. People really identify with it.

LAO: Why didn't Robertson go to Indiana University?

BB: Because the coach at Indiana University [Branch McCracken] was not known to put black players on the court. So, Oscar went where he felt comfortable.

LAO: What was it like to work with Oscar Robertson?

BB: I had known him since I was a little girl. I thought it was important to have him attached to the film because it's his story and it's his team's story. He was a little hesitant to give me the rights as a filmmaker, just because it's such an important story. But he's been very supportive of the film, and today we're working together on the feature film.

LAO: So, you have plans to turn the doc into a feature film?

BB: I've been developing the film for eight years. It's a combination of getting the right actor attached and finding funding. I've gone through that process three or four times already, so I think the documentary will help put that deal in place.

April 23, 2007

Chicago won the right to bid for the 2016 Olympics . . .

Even as the Los Angeles Times faces drastic staff cuts, their Tribune Co. brethren, the Chicago Cubs, are 7-11 and last in the N.L. Central. This, after Tribune's "off-season spending spree" of almost $320 million (!), including the contract for manager Lou Piniella. You gotta wonder just how many staff editors and writers $320 million dollars represents. According to published reports, Tribune Co. will sell the Cubs after this season; meanwhile, the Cubbies come to Dodger Stadium for a three-game series May 25-27.

April 18, 2007

USC professor Todd Boyd joins ESPN.com

Dr. Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (and hard-core Detroit Pistons fan), makes his "Page 2" columnist debut at ESPN.com today. Boyd's first column for the Worldwide Leader concerns the the firing of Don Imus after his derogatory comments regarding the Rutgers University women's basketball team. The bio at the end of the column notes that Boyd has a forthcoming book entitled "The Notorious Ph.D.'s Guide to the Super Fly '70s." Also, here's an interview I did with Boyd back in 2003, for the Amateur Athletic Foundation's "SportsLetter," upon the publication of his book "Young, Black, Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion, and the Transformation of American Culture."

April 17, 2007

Jerry West resigns

Press reports from Memphis confirm that Jerry West, the Lakers' Hall of Fame guard who then served ever so successfully as the general manager for the club, will leave his current post as the director of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies on July 1. The Grizzlies had the worst record in the NBA this season amid reports that the club is for sale.

April 15, 2007

Why L.A. lost the 2016 Olympic bid

My first clue that L.A.'s bid for the 2016 Olympics was doomed came in February, when I interviewed Barry Sanders, the bow-tie-wearing attorney who served as the head of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, for LAObserved. My first question was the obligatory softball: "What was your favorite memory from the 1984 Los Angeles Games?" After stammering for a sentence or two about the Opening Ceremonies, Sanders proceeded to wax eloquent about the mega-dollar sponsorship deal he helped put together with Coca-Cola. I'm not sure what surprised me most: that an attorney of Sanders' reputation seemed flummoxed by such a basic question or that he wasn't able to summon the wherewithal to mention something about, say, Mary Lou Retton or Carl Lewis or Michael Jordan or Greg Louganis or Joan Benoit.

Sanders and SCCOG treated the bid as a business deal to cinch. And, that's where they went astray. They marshaled the better arguments –- unlike Chicago, L.A. wouldn't have to spend much money to build new facilities; unlike Chicago, L.A. has a proven track record -– but their bid completely ignored the emotional, creative soul that defines the Olympic Games. Let's face it: any time you bring in "Hollywood" to add pizzazz and capture the youth demographic, you're in trouble. Not to mention the stiflingly boring "re-imagining" of the Coliseum.

As the Times' Helene Elliott so accurately wrote: "[L.A.'s bid] wasn't lacking in numbers. It was lacking in spirit, devoid of the innovation, enthusiasm and imagination for which Los Angeles was famous."

April 11, 2007

USOC will bar media from proceedings on 2016 bid

The Chicago Tribune's Phil Hersh has been doing yeoman's reportage regarding the Los Angeles-Chicago showdown for the right to bid for the 2016 Olympics. In today's paper, Hersh writes that "the United States Olympic Committee intends to keep from the media and public two key parts of the decision on its 2016 bid city. The USOC will not allow media to watch the final presentations that Chicago and Los Angeles make to its 11-member board Saturday in Washington, D.C., and the announcement of the winner will not include the vote tally."

Hersh notes that, of the eleven USOC board members who will cast votes on Saturday, four live or work in Southern California: "[Peter] Ueberroth, who was CEO of the 1984 Los Angeles Games; and IOC members Bob Ctvrtlik (chair of the bid city evaluation commission), Anita DeFrantz and Jim Easton."

April 9, 2007

U.S. Olympic decision due Saturday

This Saturday, the USOC will make its long-awaited decision: either Los Angeles or Chicago will be named the American bid city for the 2016 Olympic Games. Delegations from both cities will travel to Washington, D.C., this weekend to give their final, 40-minute pitches before the USOC. The showdown pits L.A.'s climate, Olympic tradition and existing venues versus Chicago's enthusiasm for what would be its first Olympics (it was robbed of the 1904 Games by St. Louis) and its compact footprint for the venues. The IOC will select the Olympic city in 2009.