La Salle men’s basketball coach Ashley Howard knows many of his Explorers players are in pain. They’ve told him so.
“I can feel it,” Howard said. “They are angry. They are confused. They are scared. And they want to do something, but they just don’t know what exactly they can do, and what to do.”
If there was a La Salle basketball game tonight, then maybe the Explorers would be following the lead of the professional leagues and taking the night off. Howard knows that. He gets that. It’s not his job, Howard said, to suppress their energy, just maybe help channel it in a direction where they can even start to attempt change.
Maybe he can also tell them a little more about his own family, where the pain hits personally. Howard’s family story is usually told in terms of basketball lineage. Howard had been a Villanova assistant for both recent NCAA titles. His father, Mo Howard, had started the family business, starring at St. Joseph’s Prep, then starting for great Maryland teams, then briefly playing in the NBA. Mo was a teammate of Pete Maravich with the New Orleans Jazz. He has basketball tales.
Ashley tells his own story noting his privilege to have such a lineage. It opened doors.
“We have always tried to be the truth-tellers of our own story,” Mo Howard said.
You see Mo, you often see him smiling, especially if he’s around his son’s basketball team. But a phone conversation the other day immediately turned to the subject of personal pain.
“So much,’' Mo Howard said. “So much.”
Howard got instantly emotional, relating a conversation with his five-year-old granddaughter, Ashley’s daughter. “She was explaining to me what she saw in the George Floyd murder. Five years old. I don’t recall at five years old having to process something like that. It’s in her head, in her mind. When I was young, talking about race, it was always about inclusion, it was fairness, equality, trying to be the best we could be.”
Mo went back in time. He’s 67 years old.
“We came up, there was a lot of civil rights activism,” Howard said. “Any successes that we made were huge. My parents were from the South, came up in the Great Migration. My mom was from Florida, my dad was from Georgia. My dad’s family, they were sharecroppers. I visited their farm.”
If you don’t know the family lineage of a typical Georgia sharecropper’s family, then you really don’t know your American history. Had Mo ever dug back further?
“I have not,” Howard said. “I kind of don’t want to dig that deep.”
“A lot of the culture we had growing up was Southern culture,’' Ashley Howard said. “The food we ate — call it soul food. My grandmother was a great cook. My grandfather was just a hard-working man. He was a janitor, was the head custodian at Pep Boys corporate headquarters at 32nd and Allegheny, same thing [working at] Temple at night. He worked as a chef in the summertime.”
“To have what I thought were the advantages of being in the big city,” Mo Howard said. “Going to Catholic school. I just thought this was the gift my family and all Black families struggled for, to be able to do this.”
It was Ashley who had pointed out to his father a few years back that Mo may have been the first Black high school basketball player to play at a predominantly white university in the South. Mo had never thought of it that way. He’d worked at the University of Maryland high school camp as a counselor while in high school. He hadn’t thought of it as the South. At St. Joseph’s Prep, he’d been the only Black player on the team. He got to Maryland, there were eight.
“It was really comfortable, until we went on the road,” Mo Howard said.
His coach, Lefty Driesell, had made it so.
“I’m sitting here, I’m having like an out-of-body experience,” Mo said of a trip to the University of Richmond, the lights dimming, suddenly the whole place singing Dixie.
“They were going wild,” Howard said. “Coach Driesell ordered us off the court — I loved Coach Driesell. We get in the locker room. He looks at us, stomps his feet. He’s red as a beet. ‘Are you going to let them do that to you.’ ”
Nope, they won big.
“I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of pressure Coach Driesell probably had from bringing in all those Black players,” Howard said. “It must have been the grandest social experiment in the history of ACC basketball.”
Because they won a lot, he said, and big. Beat Clemson, no Black players, but then Tree Rollins and Skip Wise, future pros, got there quickly. “Everyone had to catch up,” Mo said. “We weren’t touted as any kind of heroes. Our coach had the foresight to see the future.”
This comes up in the context of the greater progress Mo believed he saw in his lifetime.
“So now we can do all this stuff, even to a higher degree, and it’s like nothing,” Mo said. “These times remind of the times my parents told me about, going to segregated schools and segregated bathrooms, not sitting at the front of the bus.”
Mo Howard got emotional again.
“I’ve always wondered, what have Black people done that’s so bad that we can’t be forgiven?” Howard said.
He told of the fear felt by family members … yes, he meant fear of the police. Worse than fear of COVID-19, he said.
Mo isn’t giving up on anything. He talked about conversations with Ashley, about his son helping people become the best version of themselves.
“In doing that, you will be the best version of you,” Mo said.
He thinks about going to a conference one time, nothing to do with sports.
“I could have been a Rhodes Scholar, had five PhDs — I could have cured cancer,’' Howard said. “When I walk in, it’s, ‘Who’s the Black guy?’ ”
He admits he is tired.
“How do you dial back all this stuff?” Mo Howard said. “The rancor and the fury and the rage. How do you dial all that back? Is this a defining moment?”
Kenosha was the latest. Howard was talking the day after Illinois teenager Kyle Rittenhouse was arrested in the slaying of two protesters, with Jacob Blake in the hospital after being shot seven times in the back by a policeman in Kenosha, Wis. Details would keep coming, but this is what he knew, all he’d heard, and Mo’s pain oozed through the phone.
“I was taught to just keep moving,” Mo said. “You can’t let one thing stop you. Fear will paralyze you. At age 67, I’ve moved a lot of miles. It seems like I’m back to square one.”
Mo is one of the founders of the Philadelphia Black Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s gotten asked, what’s the need for that? He wonders why there is never the same question about Irish Halls of Fame and German Halls of Fame and Jewish Halls of Fame.
“The white guys do it,” Mo said. “When we do it, it’s controversial.”
This Hall of Fame, by the way, includes white people who have contributed to local basketball and helped Black players along the way. It always includes players unrecognized by other Halls of Fame, Howard said.
“It’s easy to relax,” Ashley Howard said. “It’s easy to get comfortable. But you have to consistently remain intentional in your quest to create change. For me, in the position I’m in, it’s all about developing leaders.”
He understands sports hold enormous power.
“Without sports, there’s really no reason for Blacks and whites to ever come together,” Ashley Howard said.
If that sounds cynical, you’re reading it wrong. Howard believes he’s in the hope business.
“Athletes, we’re all privileged in our own right,” Ashley said. “But we can’t turn a blind eye to the issues that impact Black people as a whole.”
He doesn’t know where all this leads. La Salle will continue these talks. His father brought up a white friend who wanted Mo to speak on these issues. He told him maybe it was time for more whites to be talking to each other about these issues.
Don’t get him wrong. He’ll reveal his own pain. He’s just tired of talking into the wind.