Sunday, February 22, 2009
Ritchie Nichol, basketballer (1921-2008)
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 21, 2009
Ritchie Nichol's first meeting with the Harlem Globetrotters came at age 15 on a basketball court in his Vancouver Island hometown.
The strapping lad – he would reach 6-foot-2 as an adult – faced the famous barnstorming troupe in a mismatch reflected in a lopsided score in the visitors' favour.
That game, in 1936, would lead to an improbable friendship and an even more unlikely cameo appearance for Mr. Nichol, who was invited a few years later to become the first white player to wear the Globetrotters' famous jersey.
During the Depression years, basketball was a much different game than it is today. The ball had less bounce and the lack of a shot clock made possession a key part of strategy, leading to low-scoring and often dull affairs.
The sport, devised by Canadian-born James Naismith as a winter recreation, was barely past its own adolescence by the time Mr. Nichol and his teammates challenged the Globetrotters. Basketball made its debut at the Olympic Games that summer. The final match was played outdoors on a sand court in the rain, with the Americans defeating the Canadians, 19-8. The silver-winning team included Doug Peden and brothers Art and Chuck Chapman, all from Victoria.
Then as now, Vancouver Island was a hot spot for hoops. The all-black Globetrotters travelled the continent playing exhibition games against local all-star quintets. While today's team is known for comedy routines, often at the expense of their patsy rivals, the showdowns of the 1930s were hard-fought affairs.
Mr. Nichol's squad at Nanaimo was a callow but not untalented group, including Norm Baker, a 15-year-old who would later be voted Canada's basketball player of the half-century.
“It was a real slapdash affair,” Mr. Nichol once reminisced about his first game against the Globetrotters. “They got the surprise of their life. We played lacrosse in the winter, you see, and we had a more rugged approach to the game.”
The roughhouse play didn't prevent the local side from taking a spanking on the scoreboard, though. After the game, Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein, a stocky, cigar-chomping impresario, visited the dejected Nanaimo players in their dressing room. He offered some playing tips and words of encouragement.
“You did a fine job, son,” he told Mr. Nichol, before telling reporters that he and Mr. Baker were fine prospects.
The Nanaimo boys played – and lost to – the Globetrotters again when the team passed through the next year.
By the time of the 1939 tour, Mr. Nichol had joined Mr. Baker in Victoria with the Dominoes, a club that won the national championship that season. The Trotters rolled to victory again, but by this point, a fast friendship had formed among the players.
“We just worshipped the Harlems,” Mr. Nichol said.
The bonhomie developed despite the unwritten rules of segregation, a sort of Jim Crow North, that did not encourage intermingling of the races. Because of their skin colour, the Globetrotters were barred from the region's finer hotels. An unexpected room shortage in Vancouver once forced them to kipper down in an abandoned downtown store, a sheet over the window as a nod to privacy.
Even the newspapers offering praise did so in terms not particularly respectful of their athleticism. The dailies called them the “merry melon maniacs,” “hi-de-ho hoopsters,” and “coloured casaba comedians.”
By 1941, Mr. Nichol had enlisted and was attending a radio engineering course in Vancouver when the barnstormers came through on their annual tour. He looked up Mr. Saperstein at his hotel and was invited to accompany the team on an upcoming overnight visit to Woodfibre, a mill town on Howe Sound about 45 kilometres north of the city.
The town was accessible only by boat or plane. The Trotters, including such stars as Duke Cumberland and Babe (The Cleveland Comet) Pressley, caught a tug at Horseshoe Bay with 19-year-old Mr. Nichol tagging along. He noticed Mr. Pressley walking with a limp from a swollen ankle. Once they were on the water, the owner talked to Mr. Nichol.
“You know, Rich, that uniform of Babe's will fit you,” Mr. Saperstein said. “I think this would be a good time to try something.”
Mr. Nichol joined the Globetrotters for two games against the mill's best. More than 400 townspeople jammed into the gymnasium, filling the upper balcony. As he stepped onto the floor, he heard a voice yell, “Where's the shoe polish?”
The substitute was keen to take part in the slick comedic routines for which he had so often been a foil. The Trotters had a different idea.
“Abe called a timeout,” Mr. Nichol recalled. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen, Rich, you'd be better to play it straight. The crowd here wants to see the coloured guys do their thing.' What Abe said in those days was the bible.”
He was told to stand under the basket to wait for the ball.
The only known written account of the game was composed by Bruce Lowther of Victoria, shortly before his death from brain cancer in 1999. Mr. Lowther, born and raised in Britannia Beach, a mining town across the sound from Woodfibre, talked his way into being the official scorer. He was just 14.
“No sooner had things started than the Woodfibre gang got mad at the usual Trotter tactics,” wrote Mr. Lowther, who became a prominent Vancouver Island journalist. “They wanted to play seriously and showed it.
“After a few minutes of hacking, chopping, pushing, the Trotters decided to fire back. They utterly demolished Woodfibre, playing most seriously all the way.
“I know the Trotters scored 103 points because the gang on the bench kept rooting for more than 100; I forget if Woodfibre got 25 or 35. Probably the latter.”
After the game, Mr. Saperstein pressed $50 into Mr. Nichol's hand.
“A thank you,” Mr. Nichol said. “Abe wasn't small in that way. He was small in stature, but nothing else.”
Harlem players began entering the U.S. military with America's entry into the Second World War. The team signed Bob Karstens, a fine dribbler from Davenport, Iowa, who is recognized as the first white player under contract with the Globetrotters. Mr. Karstens died in California in 2004.
Mr. Nichol never played another game as a Globetrotter, but he did play against them.
On Jan. 11, 1946, the road-weary barnstormers faced a rare noon hour tipoff against the Varsity Thunderbirds at the University of British Columbia. The students deliberately chose an early game in the hope the visitors would have enjoyed some of the delights on offer the previous night in the city.
The students came out storming. Barely eight minutes into the game, Zack Clayton of the Trotters suffered a broken rib in a skirmish under the basket and had to be replaced by Silent Silas Phelps.
The Thunderbirds rolled to a famous 42-38 victory. Mr. Nichol notched five points on a pair of field goals and a free throw. Pat McGeer led the students with 14. (Dr. McGeer later served as a provincial cabinet minister in Social Credit governments. The team's manager, Garde Gardom, served in the same governments before being named lieutenant-governor.) Mr. Nichol turned professional, playing guard for the Vancouver Hornets, a forgotten entry in the city's sports teams. The Hornets lasted just two seasons in the postwar years, playing in a circuit along the Pacific Coast.
The 1945-46 Thunderbirds were inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. They were named to the university's sports hall of fame in 1997. The Dominoes basketball team was named to the Victoria Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.
Away from the basketball court, Mr. Nichol became a successful businessman. He reported daily to his remanufacturing plant in the Vancouver suburb of Delta until he was in his 80s.
Sometimes, Mr. Nichol was teased by friends as the “Jackie Robinson of basketball.” But he always said the colour line he crossed was nothing like the one faced by his friends on the Globetrotters.
Richard James Nichol was born on Dec. 15, 1921, in Nanaimo, B.C. The resident of the Vancouver suburb of Delta died on Dec. 26, 2008. He was 87. He leaves Joan, his wife of 37 years; three daughters; three stepdaughters; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
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