Kid from Beaufort was ready when UCLA needed a launch into basketball history

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comApril 5, 2014 

Kenny Washington's fast break into history began on North Street in Beaufort.

It zipped through a playground around the corner on Greene Street, and took off in the rugged street basketball games of Philadelphia.

It took him by Greyhound bus to UCLA, where half a century ago the skinny sixth-man from Beaufort scored 26 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Coach John Wooden's first national championship game.

As America turns its eyes to another NCAA basketball championship Monday night, the undefeated UCLA team of 1964 remains the granddaddy of them all. Sports Illustrated calls it the most influential team of all time. Among other things, that team helped turn a little-known coach into the "Wizard of Westwood" who won 10 national championships in 12 years.

Washington's break from the segregated South, where a small "News of Interest to the Colored Community" column was stashed near the back of his local paper, also led to a degree in economics from UCLA, a law degree from Loyola, a career working with juveniles on parole, and a lifetime friendship with one of the most revered coaches in American history.

Wooden, as it turns out, was just like Washington's real heroes: his late parents, U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Fred S. Washington Sr. and Sheldonia Haynes Washington of the Broomfield community on Lady's Island; brother Fred S. Washington Jr., former chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Education; and five sisters -- Delo, Fredrica, Roslyn, Alice and the late Louise, grandmother of Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward. All the Washington children earned college degrees.

"Coach Wooden and I were both small-town people and he had the same values my father did," Washington said. "I don't know if I could have made it otherwise."

THE BIG TIME

Washington is now 70. His dream is no longer to escape the Lowcountry, but to come home from California and live where his spirit never left.

As a kid, Washington slept with his basketball and was scolded for bouncing it at the dinner table with one hand while eating with the other.

His first coach was Arnold C. Mitchell Sr., who started at the segregated Robert Smalls High and ended up having the gym named for him at Beaufort High School.

Washington said he was influenced by Thaddeus "Ag Man" Coleman and Daniel "Big Dan" Robinson, whose wife, Carline, taught him in fifth grade. He looked up to Toby Wright, Russell Dortch and Bobby "Little Big Baby" Jenkins.

Washington says: " 'Big Dan' Robinson would come and say, 'Hey, you can do it. You can make it.' "

Washington got his big break while spending two summers in Philadelphia with his sister, Delo Washington.

He played pickup games all day, and by the light of the moon. It was survival of the fittest, with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and UCLA All-America Walt Hazzard running and gunning for the chain nets. Hazzard saw the kid from Beaufort working harder than most -- playing one-on-one, full-court, at high noon while wearing ankle weights. He saw a kid who always got picked to play, when any loss meant you were done for the day.

Hazzard recommended Washington to Coach Wooden. He was given a scholarship sight unseen.

But Hazzard had said Washington was larger than his angular 6-foot-2, 165-pound frame. When the Lowcountry kid got off the Greyhound in LA, his brand new suitcase holding brand new pajamas, he saw the assistant coach searching the crowd for a different physical specimen.

While Washington tried to explain things, someone ripped off his new suitcase.

Welcome to the big time.

'NEWS FROM THE MOUNTAIN'

The first time Washington's father saw him play was in Kansas City.

Washington didn't know his father was there, but his rare scoring outburst helped Hazzard, Gail Goodrich and the team whose tallest player was 6-foot-5 beat Coach Vic Bubas' Duke Blue Devils for the 1964 NCAA crown.

It wasn't because the old Montford Point Marine who charged to the top rank available to an enlisted man disliked his son, or sports. He loved them both. But his focus wasn't on ball. It was always on education, duty and work.

As a child, the elder Washington came to Beaufort County from rural Colleton County to attend the old Shanklin school in Burton, created to bring opportunity to the descendants of freed slaves. He became a butler at Beaufort's Gold Eagle Tavern until the Marine Corps offered a better option for men of color.

Kenny Washington's parents had eighth-grade educations -- until they went back to school as adults to get high school degrees.

But, because of their insistence, their son had the academic record to get into UCLA.

Wooden coached his players with his "pyramid for success" and pithy lessons on life.

But the stately old "Wizard" had nothing on Fred Washington Sr.

Children of the man known as "Top" can still hear his drill:

"The early bird catches the worm."

"Manners will take you where money won't."

"Those who are content to stay in the valley will get no news from the mountain."

"You put forth the effort, you'll get results."

Kenny Washington put forth enough effort to win a second national championship, represent his country in the FIBA World Championship and become the first coach of the UCLA women's basketball program. He has seen the bright lights, and the mossy oaks. He has been molded by the sergeant and the wizard. And this is what he has to say to today's kids, who have much more opportunity than he did.

"You've got to be prepared. When opportunity comes, you've got to be ready.

"You've got to stay in the books. You've got to have an education.

"You have to have faith and hope.

"And you have to be willing to work. There's an old saying, 'If you're looking for a helping hand, look at the end of your arm.' "

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Sports Illustrated: 1964 UCLA Bruins crowned college hoops' most influential team, Oct. 23, 2012

New York Times: UCLA link stays intact over decades, March 26, 2014

The official site of Coach John Wooden

The Montford Point Marine Association

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