Saturday, December 11, 2010

A forgotten star's time to shine, finally

On Thursday morning, at Charlotte’s oldest country club, Paul Grier swapped his work jacket and corduroys for slacks and a pullover shirt. He walked past the stately clubhouse columns to the main ballroom. Handshakes and backslaps were waiting for him.

Grier has worked at Charlotte Country Club since 1972, when a friend recommended him for a job on the maintenance crew. He’s done some caddying through the years, and he’s done some landscaping on the side for members. On this morning, about 50 of them were hosting a luncheon in his honor – not because he was retiring, but because they wanted to tell him what they thought of him.

And if you think 38 years is a long time to wait to do something like that, well, a lot of us have been overdue with Paul Grier.

He is, some think, the best basketball player Charlotte ever raised, which is what the Observer noted when it featured Grier in 1987 – 31 years after he graduated from West Charlotte High. We waited almost another quarter-century before writing about him again – this time on Thanksgiving 2010, as the lead story in a package about black basketball players in the era of segregation.

We called the package the Forgotten All-Stars, and the stories chronicled ballplayers across North Carolina who were ignored by local media and shunned by the state’s major college basketball programs. Fifty years later, we could give them recognition, at least.

And so, at 74, Paul Grier is getting his moment, finally – in the paper, on the radio and, on Thursday morning, at the Charlotte Country Club, where he shared a room with people he called “Mister,” and they lunched on chicken and barbecue near a framed copy of his newspaper story.

In basketball terms, it’s a “make-up” call. Grier has been gracious through it all – and more than happy to talk about his playing days. But when the topic of missed opportunities comes up, he falls quiet. “I never thought about it much, then or now,” he told me for our story. Not long after, when WFAE’s Mike Collins and his radio show guests explored those injustices, Grier shook his head. “No,” he said politely. “I really don’t want to join in.”

Maybe he realized the conversation wasn’t so much about Paul Grier being recognized, but about those doing the recognizing.

When we tell these stories and relive that era, it’s not only about acknowledging our errors (or making ourselves feel better by doing so.) It’s about reminding ourselves that this isn’t ancient history, that every day we sit among people like Grier, who felt the blunt of discrimination. Those experiences, and those scars, still shape the discussions we have about things more important than basketball.

But sometimes, it’s good just to talk about the games.

That’s what Grier likes best, and it’s what he got to do Thursday. When lunch was finished, club members raised their hands to share a story about Grier. Some knew he was a Charlotte playground legend. Some had heard about his high school accomplishments, quite possibly from Grier himself.

“My one regret is that I never got see Paul play ball,” said one.

“It was something to see,” Grier replied, and everyone in the room laughed hard.

They talked more, however, about the Paul they knew. The one who made people smile. The one everyone wanted for a caddie – not only because he knew golf about as well as he knew basketball, but because of his infectious laugh, his good spirit.

Grier, flanked by his daughter Paula and grown grandson DeMario, nodded proudly and laughed some more and, finally, stood to accept an envelope from the members. And when they all rose to applaud and shake his hand once more, he bowed his head and covered his eyes with long fingers. This time, it was their turn to wait, and they did so gladly – not for the basketball player who had been forgotten, but for the good man they know.

•  Forgotten All-Stars: Read the full series


Anonymous said...

I graduated from NMHS in 59. At the Derita school there were some outdoor baskets by the gym. We use to play pickup games there on weekends. One day some blacks came by and wanted to know if we wanted to play them. We did and all seemed to have a good time. A couple of days later the outdoor baskets disappeared.

Anonymous said...

The Observer continues to push the stereotype if you are black, you must be athlete, criminal, or entertainer. To be a good student and black appears to heresy to the Observer.

pstonge said...

Anon, 2:16: I'm sorry that's your perception of Observer stories. I'd be happy to cite dozen of recent examples that show otherwise.


Anonymous said...

"...BRUNT of discrimination"

Anonymous said...

Are you saying that this man's life was a waste of talent? I don't think that's the case, sounds like he is happy and you are unhappy.

Anonymous said...

Please do cite the recent examples and please compare the number and size of articles about outstanding students vs. articles about high-school and college sports.

pstonge said...

Anon, 7:27: I don't think the Observer need apologize for writing about athletic accomplishments, no matter the ethnicity of the athlete. But Anon, 2:16 notes that to be a good student and black appears to be heresy to the Observer, and there are plenty of examples of stories we've published that celebrate blacks students succeeding - or blacks succeeding in places other than entertainment and athletics. Happy to do a little research...


Anonymous said...

Pete, have you ever written a piece that you didn't have to defend? Find something else to do, you must be able to afford not to earn a living.