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Monday, September 5, 2011

The King and his Children

(Published December 2004)


ST. DENIS, France -- "King," as the kids call him, sits at a sidewalk cafe in the shadow of a 12th century basilica on a sunny late-summer afternoon.

 
A new, white Nebraska basketball T-shirt hangs from black shoulders that have narrowed considerably since he last dunked in the Coliseum.
 
Since he left Lincoln and the winter winds of the North American heartland.
 
Since he said goodbye to the rural Texas woman to whom he had made a solemn promise.

 
Down the cobblestone from where he sits, a large woman in a purple dashiki buys bananas from Cameroon.
 
A Moroccan waiter serves steaming platters of couscous. Everywhere, men in white meander to the mosque, their long cotton robes revealing the depths of their devotion from a block away.

 
It's been two years and a lifetime of violence since the kids in this Paris suburb began acting peculiar around him. Finally, an 8-year-old Algerian boy confronted him on the playground with a simple syllogism:
 
Mom and Dad say all Americans hate us. You're American, Leroy. Why do you hate us?

 
"Ahhh, that's just politics, man. You can't mix politics with friendship."

 
Leroy Chalk, who once snatched cotton in an east Texas hamlet and record-breaking rebounds off Husker backboards, folds his 6-foot-9 frame, extends his meathook hands, snatching the boy like an errant jumpshot.

 
"I love you."

 
Leroy Chalk, who grew up dreaming about the Celtics and the Lakers, spent a lifetime using basketball as a vehicle to get to places he'd never been.
 
To Nebraska, where he quickly became a crowd favorite.
 
To Europe, where he played professionally in Belgium and France for 17 years.
 
To St. Denis, and the kids -- children of poor Muslim immigrants from their North African homeland.

 
Leroy Chalk might have moved back home but for that summer night 25 years ago when he lost the one whom he owed everything.
 
He still thinks about her when he teaches preschoolers English -- ball, red, car, bear. When he teaches his basketball teams the bounce pass and the pick and roll. When he walks onto a playground, and his eyes meet an 8-year-old boy's, and he smiles.

 
"What I remember is everyone loved Leroy, no matter where he went," said Cliff Moller, a teammate for four years at NU who now lives in Alexandria, La. "He has the personality where he can fit in anywhere."

 
He drives under the public housing projects that soar 13 stories into the blue, past one of the schools where he teaches physical education.
 
Red light.
 
There was a drive-by shooting a year ago at this restaurant on the corner. Cops don't even bother with the drug dealers and thieves anymore. When a camera crew wants to shoot a documentary, they call in Leroy to keep the peace.

 
He pounds his fist against the steering wheel, once, twice, thrice. Beep, beep, beep.

 
"Hey!" he shouts at five boys on the corner. They wave.

 
He came 13 years ago to St. Denis, a communist, predominantly Muslim community. He wanted to start a professional basketball franchise.
 
The communists didn't go for it. Didn't want to privilege one kid over the next. So he got a job with the schools. His mother always valued teaching above all else.

 
He walks inside the school, past a newspaper photo of Mike Tyson pasted to the window. Into a gymnasium. It's Friday afternoon. Girls run and scream and throw balls into soccer nets.

 
How many hours of his 55 years has he spent in gyms like these? Thousands? Tens of thousands?

 
Glenn Potter, a former Nebraska basketball assistant who now coaches at Brigham Young-Hawaii, remembers the gym in Big Sandy, Texas. A rickety old building that creaked when Chalk stamped his size 16s on the floor. When he dunked.
 
If Big Sandy scored 50 points on that floor, Leroy had 30.

 
One game his white teammates stopped passing him the ball. Once, the football team went out to eat and the restaurant owner told the black kids they'd have to sit in the back.

 
He grew up the only boy in the house, playing dolls with his four sisters. His father drove an oil pipe truck through Texas and Louisiana and Mississippi and came home only on weekends. Leroy wondered where he'd been.

 
He always told mom he was going to get out.
 
When a cousin died in Houston, Leroy, who was in grade school, wanted to go to the funeral. He wasn't that close to the cousin; he just wanted to see the big city. He wrote down the name of every town they drove through on that 220-mile journey.

 
Henderson . . . Lufkin . . . Livingston . . . Kingwood.

 
Leroy was in high school when his dad got sick with tuberculosis and had to quit trucking. The boy got a job at a dairy farm. He milked cows before school and after.
 
Sports remained his outlet, though. She used to yell at him when he'd play football with his sisters and go Butkus on them.

 
Coach Potter showed up at a track meet in the spring of '67, Leroy's senior season, and watched the tallest boy on the field throw the shot and run the 800. He went to the old gym and watched him jump and run and dunk. His arms hung to his kneecaps.

 
When Potter pulled up to the farmhouse seven miles outside Big Sandy in his fancy rental car, Leroy's mom fed him fried chicken, black-eyed peas and cornbread.
 
She begged Leroy to stay close to home, then relented. He headed to Nebraska.

 
Wichita . . . Concordia . . . Hebron . . . York.

 
At Nebraska, Chalk almost didn't make it his freshman year. And not because the weather was "so cold it hurt." The school work hurt more. He stuck with it, though.
 
If he quit, he would've wasted all she'd done for him.

 
Flossie Mae Hayes grew up in rural Texas and dropped out of high school to get married. She had five kids in nine years and expected them to get A's. She dreamed they'd all go to college.

 
"I didn't care about no school; I was going to the pros," Chalk says.

 
After her husband got sick, she left home at 4 a.m. every day to clean the town doctor's house. On Christmas morning, she'd cook dinner at home, drive to Doc's house, cook, clean, then come back home in time for presents.
 
She always made certain Leroy had a good pair of basketball shoes. Cost half a month's wages.

 
She drove to Lincoln just once to see him play. It was during his sophomore year. He begged Coach to put him in.

 
"You wouldn't see Leroy outside practice without two or three people at his side. They just wanted to be in his presence," Moller said.
 
"He had a little crew, what they'd call a posse nowadays, white people from Nebraska that just sought him out. They drew some sort of energy from him."

 
He picks up a rubber ball, lumbers up to a girl half his height and throws it into the net. He smiles. Pats her on the head. In one of his classes, he's got 24 kids from 14 countries. And none see why that's an issue.
 
A Chinese boy doesn't look at a Tunisian girl and think about 9/11. A Portuguese girl doesn't look at a Jewish boy and think about Israel.

 
But Chalk can't control what happens when they get home. Still, he sees change.

 
Ten years ago, these Muslim girls wouldn't be wearing shorts. They wouldn't be playing sports in an after-school program. It's a male-dominated society, and girls in St. Denis get raped and abused for leaving their veils in the dresser drawer.

 
"That's like going outside with no clothes on; it's a big deal," Chalk says.

 
But because of the school programs that Chalk helps coordinate, his boss, a Muslim man from the Ivory Coast, says the girls don't view westernization as evil. Then there are those in school who said 9/11 wasn't, either.

 
The ideas that America professes aren't welcome in the homes of many of Chalk's students. Democracy?
 
"They don't want no democracy," he says. Oppression of women? "Women accept it; it doesn't bother them. It just bothers people in the West."

 
He arrives at school at 10 a.m. on weekdays and the kids stop recess to say "Bonjour." Little girls want to give him a kiss. The boys want to hold his hand.

 
As they run off to play, Chalk asks himself the question: Where will they be in 10 years? Will some be suicide bombers? Will they be peaceful? Will they hate America and the West that tries to conform them to a set of values different from those they hear at home?
 
He's seen kids he considered friends suddenly change.

 
"They're wearing the long dress-looking things and the thing on their heads. I saw two or three the other day I knew.

 
"As far as me working with the kids, they might be terrorists, too. But it's hard for me to see kids like that. You can't classify people on who's good and who's bad. You can't look at people and say, 'I hate all Arabs.' You know? There's a lot of good ones, too. I don't think I hate any of 'em.

 
"They're just kids as far as I'm concerned."

 
He's in a different gym now, this time barking orders in French to his high school basketball team. se depecher, un, deux, trois. The slow Southern drawl remains. He gives his whistle a quick blow. Tweet.

 
The kids circle and sit at his feet on a rubber floor. Most won't play after Chalk is finished with them. Not the kid in the McGrady jersey. Not the one in the Webber jersey and Nike shoes and baggy shorts.
 
But they know where Chalk has been.

 
They know about the Celtics, the franchise that drafted Leroy in 1971 after he grabbed a school-record 782 rebounds in three seasons at Nebraska -- a record Venson Hamilton finally broke in 1999.
 
Chalk says he would've scored more points, but the NCAA outlawed dunking before his freshman year.

 
"I worked on so much dunk material. Man, I had so much, Woooo. I would dunk on my mother if she got in the way. And I get to school and we couldn't even dunk. So I think that's what really kept me out of the pros.
 
"You just try to finger roll; guys were throwing that stuff back into the stands, you know?"

 
After Boston cut him in '71, Chalk signed with a Belgian team in '72.

 
Brussels . . . Seneffe . . . Cambrai . . . Paris.

 
He was MVP of his league in '74, often compiling 30 points and 30 rebounds a night.

 
"I will never forget, one game in the European Cup, I had the ball, like three seconds left, in the corner, fake, this guy gives me baseline, and I come under the thing and I throw it, Bam, a really hard dunk like that, you know?
 
"And the referee said I stepped out of bounds. And we lose the game."

 
Headline the next morning: The King lost the crown and the victory.

 
He didn't realize until he came to Europe that his name in French, Le Roi, means "The King." He laughs when he hears the kids say it.
 
Chalk signed with a French team in '77, retired in '90, and has lived in Paris ever since.

 
He misses American basketball -- the Husker T-shirt was a gift from American friends, as were three boxes of Hamburger Helper he requested. He misses his sisters in Texas.
 
But the allure of Paris, a girlfriend and an 18-year-old daughter make it hard to leave.

 
Besides, home wouldn't be the same. Hadn't been since he came back that summer of '79.

 
Mom had been sick the year before but was doing well now. One June day, he spent the whole afternoon with her.
 
They drove 20 miles to Tyler in her new black Ford LTD. They shopped. They talked about the sisters, all of whom have graduated from college -- three went on to be teachers. Instead of going out with buddies, he took her to church.

 
"We had a lovely day."

 
They came home that night and she went to bed. See you in the mornin'. He sat down in front of the TV.
 
Fifteen minutes passed.
 
He heard Dad holler from the bedroom. He ran to her side. Tried to bring her back. She was 54.

 
Seven summers before, he had returned to Nebraska after a year of pro ball to finish his degree in political science and history.

 
"My mother, that was my motivation. I could not fail her. I always wanted her to be so proud of me."

 
He's in a grade school now, setting up a table and chairs built for 6-year-olds, not 6-9 power forwards.
 
Today is registration day for English classes. He'll teach simple words and phrases -- tomato, airplane, car, water.

 
A 4-year-old girl of Eastern European parents walks to the table wearing a long white dress and red glasses.
 
She turns with curious brown eyes to her new teacher, of different skin and size and accent. Her long brown hair hangs over her cheeks.

 
He swivels around in the chair. Their eyes meet.

 
"How are you? How are you? What's your name?"

 
He wraps his arm around her and plants his lips on her forehead.


The girl stares for a moment at the large black man from Texas with the gray whiskers. She doesn't understand, but she smiles back.

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