Sunday, August 31, 2008

From Saturday Night Magazine

Canada is racist, says Bob White, a promoter of black athletes. But does he offer his kids a clean shot or a fast break to nowhere? By Gare Joyce

Woofin’, the ritual discourse on city basketball courts, consists of macho bluster, territorialism, contempt for an opponent, embellishment of fact, and padding one’s own legend. Before a game or a one-on-one showdown between neighbourhood heroes, each side bad-mouths, rags on, and runs down the opposition. Though a layman who can’t make a lay-up might mistake this for adolescent name-calling, sports psychologists would attest that the practice of woofin’ builds the woofer’s confidence and feeds doubt in the woofee. ‘Course Freud couldn’t hoop at all—when he looked at inkblots he probably saw guys jammin’ right in his beard.

On the asphalt playground beside the Negro Community Center in Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood, summer pick-up games usually start at 4 p.m. and the woofin’ at half past three. On this May afternoon, one seventeen-year-old is toasting an opponent with the blank verse of the blacktop. “You ain’t nothin’,” he says. “I’m gonna kick your ass, fatty.” He then offers in ribald repartee that this will be, roughly, the motherwhatever of all wars. Though the young man is six-foot-six and possesses a body builder’s torso, his cheeky forecasts are improbably brave. “Fatty” is not a corpulent schoolboy, but rather Basil Rose, a 230-pound fullback late of Southern University in Louisiana and the Montreal Machine, the city’s franchise in the World League of American Football. Rose grows angrier with every insult.

After the hyping and psyching the real contest begins, more fierce than polished. On every possession the defender pushes and beats up on the ball handler who responds with elbows swinging face-high. At the other end of the court a dozen young men, ranging in age from eight to eighteen and in height from four-foot-eight to six-foot-eight, have put an end to their shoot-around and for a few minutes will scope Rose and his tormentor. There will be a full-court game in an hour or so and it will last into the night. But this one-on-one challenge is entertainment. When the youngster jams the ball through the hoop and full force of Rose’s face, the audience bursts into laughter until silenced by the fullback’s glare.

On the sidelines stands Bob White. In his Brooklyn Dodgers hat and high-top sneakers the fifty-six-year-old White affects the look of a middle-aged Spike Lee. During the woofin’ he refrains from taking sides. He does not consider himself an arbiter but rather an advocate of the players on the court. “There’s more talent here than on any playground in Canada,” White says out of the side of his mouth as if confiding a hot tip. “There’s no telling what these kids could do with the right facilities, but the city of Montreal, the province of Quebec, the federal government, and all the Canadian sports associations would like to see us go away.”

According to Bob White, the conspiracy is motivated by racism. Bob White is black. The young men on the basketball court in Little Burgundy are black. Bob White submits that his playground heroes can’t get a break because of the colour of their skin. “Canada’s still a white man’s nation,” he says while the game rages in front of him. “It’s a racist fascist country. We’re still the underclass. My kids get better treatment in the States than they do here.”

More young black kids in high-tops file out of the row houses in Little Burgundy and congregate at courtside. Bob White calls them “his kids.” White is the founder and director of the Westend Sports Association. According to its mandate, the WSA encourages “grass roots athletic training programs through local clubs and provinces [sic].” In 1978 White obtained a federal charter to operate the WSA as a charity. Yet in fourteen years the WSA has not received any government grants. The outfit sometimes sponsors a team and occasionally offers coaching clinics, but it has no offices or athletic facilities.

White’s antogonists in the media have described the WSA as “nothing more than a letterhead.” Others suggest that White exaggerates his contribution to the local sports scene. One basketball official in Montreal says: “If you took ten kids White says he helped, one or maybe two actually benefited from his assistance.” One of his claims is beyond dispute: that he has been a mentor to Tommy Kane, a wide receiver with the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League. “Without Bobby I’d have never got out of Little Burgundy,” says Kane, “and there’s a good chance I could have ended up in jail like a lot of my friends.”

Though Kane calls White his “salvation,” coaches, the media and even the police have had problems with Bob White, self-proclaimed “activist and iconoclast.” In turn, all of them have had problems with kane and other athletes linked to the WSA. The difficulty is separating the athletes from their mentor and the facts from the woofin’.


Bob White was born and raised in Little Burgundy. His father was employed by the railroad and later owned and operated a grocery store. “It was the wrong side of the tracks,” White says. “A rough piece of turf. A black neighbourhood where a lot of rogues and rakes would do anything to get by.” White’s career in sport was, by his own admission, unusual for a black man at the time. “I was a swimmer and a water-polo player,” he says. “I competed in tournaments and in buildings that only a few years before banned Jews and blacks.” White says he left Montreal in the early 1950s to become “the acquatics director at the Harlem YMCA, another joint that had been restricted.” Among his treasured memorabilia is a photograph from a 1954 awards ceremony at the Harlem Y; in it, Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play major-league baseball in the modern era, is presenting White with an award. White says Robinson was “a bitter man, but he showed me you have to keep on keeping on, to hang tough, and not to take any bullshit.”

White returned to Montreal in the early 1970s and abandoned swimming pools for darkrooms. Today he bills himself as a freelance photographer. Though his client list is sketchy, he does mention that he is a contributor to the Amsterdam News, a black newspaper in New York, and that he receives support from “business investments.”

White explains that most of his time is dedicated to his work with the WSA. “My job is to work on behalf of the kids of Little Burgundy,” he says. His wide-ranging portfolio sometimes entails lobbying for athletic facilities or for hoops in a neighbourhood park; White’s style of lobbying is pure confrontation—heckling at city-council meetings broadcast on a local cable channel. Other times his job might require rounding up turkeys to give to needy families in the neighbourhood at Christmas. But White has gained notoriety as a playground head-hunter, one who finds talented athletes and hooks them up with U.S. college teams. As noted in Raw Recruits, the definitive text on U.S. collegiate basketball, the intermediary between young athletes and schools goes by a few names: “bag man, flesh peddler, broker, third party, street agent, confidant, guardian, family friend, recruiting aide, pimp, or ‘uncle.’” The most unscrupulous seek not only to bask in the warm glow of their proteges’ celebrity but also to get “juiced,” that is, to receive a kickback for safe delivery of the “product.”

For what he describes as “humanitarian reasons and compassion,” White has been an advisor to a generation of young athletes from Little Burgundy. On their behalf and, he maintains, on a strictly pro bono basis, he has solicited athletic scholarships to U.S. colleges. The athlete who made White’s reputation as a street agent and benefited most from ties to the WSA is Tommy Kane.

At twelve Kane was already a phenomenon in Montreal, dominating leagues in several sports. He desperately wanted to attend a basketball camp but it was beyond the means of his mother, Shirley, who was separated from his father. Shirley Kane, who worked two jobs to provide for Tommy and his two sisters, could not justify the expense. “I don’t know how Bob White heard about it,” Tommy Kane says, “but he found me and told me that he could handle the cost of the camp so long as I stayed in school and didn’t get into trouble. From then on Bob White would show up at my school and look in the classroom window to see if I was there or he’d find me in the streets to see if I was messing up. He made me feel guilty if I broke my promise. From then on, he was, y’know, my uncle, Uncle Bobby.”

White’s interest in Tommy was more paternal than avuncular. Like many fathers of athletes, White has the capacity to live vicariously through the accomplishments of a child. “This kid could do almost anything he had a mind to,” White says proudly and excitedly. “In midget hockey he was on Mario Lemieux’s team and he beat out Lemieux for the MVP award. In basketball he played on a Dawson College team that won a national championship. We sent him down to the Five-Star Basketball Camp in Pennsylvania [a showcase event for the best American high school players] and Tommy won the MVP award.”

Under White’s sage counsel, Kane attended Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, to raise his marks so he could attend a U.S. college. While at Fanshawe he played for the London Beefeaters, a junior football team. Though Kane’s experience in football was limited, Syracuse offered him a scholarship on the bsis of a videotape packaged and pitched by Bob White. Kane went on to garner All-American honours for his play with SU’s Orangemen. Subsequently he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks and is now a rising star in the NFL. “Everything Bob White says I will follow,” Kane says. “He put me on the right track and kept me out of trouble. He’s what you’d call an advisor or consultant or spokesman but to me he’ll always be my uncle.”

After landing Kane’s deal with Syracuse in 1983, White had no shortage of Little Burgundy athletes applying for status as nephews. Such an adoption was, they believed, a means of acquiring athletic scholarships to U.S. colleges and, down the road, pro stardom. Most of the were basketball players. According to White, he helped the two most prominent talents, Wayne Yearwood and Charles Rochelin,, land scholarships at the University of West Virginia and the University of California-Los Angeles respectively, two heavyweight programs in U.S. college basketball. “Bobby got in touch with West Virginia for me,” Yearwood says. “Years ago U.S. colleges thought no athletes come out of Montreal. With Tommy, myself and others, Bobby put Montreal put Montreal on the recruiting map.”

At a time when he was receiving praise for his good work on behalf of athletes, White chose to do battle with the Canadian sports establishment. He advised the best young basketball players in Montreal from the national and Olympic basketball program. Kane and Yearwood declined invitations to try out for the junior national team because of “prior commitments.” Other WSA players skipped national-team camps claiming they were on vacation. “Jack Donahue [the coach of the national team from 1972 to 1988] is a racist,” White says. “His teams had the same bunch of white guys playing year after year. Black kids never got a fair shot so I told my kids not to bother trying out.”

White substantiated his charges by pointing to an incident early in the coach’s career. In 1964 Donahue was coaching a high school team in New York, the Power Memorial team led by seven-foot centre Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). According to several published accounts dating back to the late sixties, at halftime of an important game, Donahue browbeat Alcindor, telling him he was “playing like a nigger.” “That’s the type of mentality we’re dealing with,” White says. “One of the great ballplayers of all time was just ‘a nigger’ to Donahue.” Donahue has long maintained that race had no bearing on the selection of the national team, yet he does not deny that he called Alcindor “a nigger.” Rather, he explains he “was only trying to motivate [Alcindor].” Bob White discounts Donahue’s story but it appears Abdul-Jabbar now accepts his ex-coach’s explanation or, at least, no longer harbours a grudge. This year Abdul-Jabbar appeared on “Donahue’s Legends,” Donahue’s series of profiles on The Sports Network.

Donahue need not invite White for a guest spot on his show. The street agent’s hostility has endured. “[Canadian] reporters let Donahue off the hook because he gives them good quotes,” White says. “”The media and the sports administration sanctioned his actions by their inaction. They’re as racist as Donahue. He got his job with the national team because no one checked up on his real record with Power Memorial.” Indeed today it’s hard to imagine how anyone who made a well-publicized, racially insensitive remark could have been appointed to a high-paying, high-profile job on the government payroll.


The WSA’s boycott of the national and Olympic teams was not the first sports protest motivated by the fight against racial injustice. White says he was inspired by American Harry Edwards and his Olympic Protest for Human Rights. Though White cuts a small figure on the Montreal sports scene, the six-foot-eight, 250-pound Edwards cast a giant shadow over the 1968 Summer Olympics. Edwards argued that racism in sports was symptomatic of injustice throughout society. Under his direction the best black players from U.S. colleges, Abdul-Jabbar among them, didn’t try out for the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Black athletes on the track-and-field team expressed their sympathy for Edwrads’s cause by wearing black berets on the winner’s podium and by giving the Black Power salute during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Though Edwards’s movement caused an international sensation, Bob White’s boycott was ignored by the national press. Still, the WSA stirred up emotions on courts across Canada. In 1984 the starting line-up for Donahue’s Olympic team featured four white players and one black, hardly refuting White’s accusations. But the WSA’s boycott was in fact only a symbolic gesture. It was unlikely that many of White’s players would have made the Olympic roster and even more doubtful that any of them would have improved Canada’s fourth-place finish. But White’s image was enhanced by the boycott. The erstwhile street agent had assumed the role of crusader, a champion for the disenfranchised minority. All this drew more athletes into the fold.

In 1988, Donahue’s last year before retirement, White told his players that they might as well give the national team a shot. Two of his players, Wayne Yearwood and Dwight Walton, made it. “Some of the people that had been picked for the team in other years were probably questionable,” Yearwood says guardedly. “But playing on the team was important for me. The Olympics helped me get a contract to play pro ball in Europe.”

Today White says that he didn’t consider another boycott for 1992, but he bristles at any suggestion that race doesn’t figure into the Olympic team’s selection. “I got a seven-foot-two kid from Haiti, Pascal Fleury, who didn’t even get an invitation to tryouts for the Canadian team,” White says. “I got Fleury a scholarship to Georgetown University [one of the top-ranked programs in U.S. collegiate basketball]. He works out against Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo, two of the best centres in America. My players run into obstacles in Canada, They build their futures in the U.S.”


In February 1989, the Black Business and Professional Association announced that it intended to bestow an award on White in recognition of his work with the youth of Little Burgundy. At the last minute, however, the Toronto-based BBPA changed its plans. The association had not been aware that White was facing charges of possessing stolen credit cards and possessing cocaine for the purpose of trafficking. White had been charged with these offences after police raided a Chinese restaurant in Montreal’s west end in 1986. Police officers testified that they found a package containing forty-two grams of cocaine and eight stolen credit cards on the floor under the table at which White and two associates were sitting. One officer said White was carrying $3,800 in cash. White was acquitted on the charge of hyolding stolen credit cards and, in turn, the charge of cocaine possession was withdrawn.

Still, those who would praise White’s work with the WSA cannot ignore lingering questions about his caharacter. Pat Hickey, the former sports editor of The Gazette, espouses the prevailing opinion among the Montreal media. “Bob White is an ex-con, a sleazeball,” Hickey says. “He makes claims that have no foundation in fact.” White counters: “As a black activist in a racist society I’m a magnet for insinuation and harassment.”

Robert Henry Richard White does, in fact, own a criminal record. In Montreal in 1966 he was convicted of passing counterfeit money and was sentenced to four years. In 1968 he was convicted on five counts of transporting persons for the purpose of prostitution. White says his detractors ignore his work with the youth of Little Burgundy and, as he puts it, “dwell on negativity.”

White’s criminal past does attract “negativity,” but so do his broad claims about his community work. Among the long list of athletes he professes to have helped are those who disavow his claims of assistance. “Tommy Kane isn’t the only kid in the NFL I’ve helped,” White says. “Brian Forde [a linebacker with the New Orleans Saints] and Alonzo Highsmith [a running back with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers] are two kids from Montreal I helped get started when I got them college scholarships.” Both Forde and Highsmith have denied any association with White and the WSA. “White wouldn’t recognize half the kids he claims to have helped if they tripped over him,” says Earl De La Peralle of Sun Youth, a Montreal group involved in social services and sports. “White brags that he got Pascal Fleury a ride to Georgetown but that’s mostly hype. De La Peralle maintains that Fleury attracted a lot of attention from U.S. recruiters when he played for Montreal’s Dawson College. “I was introduced to White and he made the initial contact with Georgetown,” Fleury says. But he suggests that White is stretching it when he claims that he “got Fleury a scholarship.”

In recent years, ever since stories of White’s legal troubles reached the recruiting circuit, many U.S. college coaches have been hesitant to pursue athletes linked to the WSA. “When we were trying to recruit Tommy Kane and Wayne Yearwood, we first heard some stories,” says Boston College coach Jim O’Brien. “We never tried to recruit his kids after that. We didn’t want to be involved. We never called up Bob White to see if he had any kids worth recruiting.”

In fact, White might be doing harm to kids he has never met. “White might read about a kid or hear about someone on the street,” says one coach in Montreal. “Without seeing the kid, White will send off letters to colleges claiming that he reprsents him. That might encourage some colleges to check out the kid. But the coaches who are leery about White might drop the kid from consideration.”


When White’s character is called into question, his constituency rallies around him and his us-against-them cant is vindicated. “People want to make Bob the issue so they don’t have to listen to what he says or act on what he suggests,” says Earl Devine, White’s close friend. But the personal attacks obscure White’s greatest failure: his unremitting endorsement of U.S. collegiate athletics.
“The U.S. system makes ours look sick,” White says. “Canadian university sports are a joke.” The best-known images of U.S. college sports are those of grand spectacle, whereas Canadian varsity sports are painfully modest. In the States college football bowl games are played in front of 80,000 or even 100,000 spectators; the Vanier Cup, the Canadian championship, draws 15,000 in a good year. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basketball championships eclipse all other sports for three weeks in March and generate $140-million (U.S.) in television revenues for sixty-four participating schools; in Canada, the Canadian university championships aren’t even televised.

For athletes the star treatment accorded them in the U.S. is particularly seductive. They are wined and dined on recruiting visits. College coaches enthuse about their big plans for the prized prospects and have famous alumni call both athletes and street agents to make a pitch for their schools. White brags about letters he has received from college coaches and about talking on the phone to Burt Reynolds who was lobbying for an athlete on behalf of his alma mater, Florida State University.

“In Canada there’s no recruiting,” White says. “The coaches don’t know they have athletes on their campuses until they show up for practice. And there aren’t any scholarships in Canada. Kids are expected to pay their own way—with no help—and lost of kids in Little Burgundy just can’t do that. The scholarships in the States are worth $80,000 [across four years] and athletes get the best coaching there is. What do you think is the better system?”

White offers the question rhetorically, but is he right? Even Harry Edwards, the avatar of black activism in sport, would dispute White’s boosterism of U.S. college sports. “[Black athletes in U.S. colleges] don’t get an education because their primary purpose is to compete,” Edwards told Sports Ilustrated. “Their primary responsibility is to the athletic department and at the end of four years they end up with no degree, no job and no references.” White, however, glosses over the flaws of the “better system.” When he and Burt Reynolds discussed the prospects of a local kid attending FSU on a football scholarship, they probably didn’t discuss the FSU football team’s graduation rate. According to the most recent NCAA statistics, only twenty per cent of balck athletes on football and basketball scholarships graduate. Only thirty-one per cent of black athletes on athletic scholarships believe that their coaches sufficiently stress academics.

The woeful academic record of WSA’s student athletes confirms Harry Edwards’s bleak assessment. A few graduate from the schools White solicits. For instance, Tommy Kane graduated from Syracuse with a degree in retail management and Wayne Yearwood graduated from West Virginia with a BSc in physical education. But the majority of athletes return home with degrees. Charles Rochelin’s story is typical of the “free ride” that star jocks on scholarship receive. As a member of UCLA’s basketball team for four years, Rochelin helped the athletic department earn millions of dollars in ticket sales and television revenues; yet after five years Rochelin left UCLA without a degree and, in the words of a transcripts officer, “under financial obligation to the university.”

Worse still are the stories of athletic vagabonds, kids who bounce from school to school acquiring a few credits but nothing close enough to those necessary for a degree. Trevor Williams, another of White’s proteges, frequently shows up at basketball games in Little Burgundy. Williams began his collegiate career at Dawson College, attended Laurinburg Preparatory in North Carolina, received a “boat ride” to Southern University in Louisiana, transferred to St Peter’s College in New Jersey, and finally landed at Montreal’s Concordia University (at his own expense) in 1989. He left the Concordia basketball team in the middle of last season after a run-in with the team’s coach, John Dore, a run-in instigated by Bob White’s branding the coach “a latent racist.” Dore says such charges are “ridiculous.” He adds, “I’m not sure why Trevor quit. He wasn’t doing well academically but I’m not—and our programs are not—racist. We not only have more black players than any other program in Canada—we graduate almost all of them. Trevor was just an exception.”

“A few of my kids had difficulties adjusting to life after college,” White concedes. Several have run afoul of the law. Tommy Kane, the pride of Little Burgundy, has been the centre of much turmoil away from the playing field. According to White, Kane was only in his teens when a policeman told him: “I have a bullet in here for you, Kane.” At Syracuse he was charged with assaulting a policewoman who had tagged his car. She alleged that Kane attempted to strike her with a car door. The charge was reduced to a misdemeanour and Kane was sentenced to 192 hours of community service. This past spring Kane was hit with a charge of assaulting a pregnant friend of his family. The alleged victim never showed up in court and the charges were dropped. The woman also filed a lawsuit alleging that Kane punched her. The plaintiff testified that kane yelled: “Fuck that bitch. I’ll kick the baby out of her stomach.” The judge ruled that Kane’s denial was more plausible than the plaintiff’s account and quashed the suit.

Other WSA-associated athletes have faced more serious charges. Peter Balfour, once a basketball player at County College of Morris, New Jersey, and later at Southern University, was charged with attempted murder after a dispute over a business deal in Little Burgundy. The charge was eventually dropped. Currently Balfour is facing a single of possessing cocaine. Last April Wayne Yearwood was convicted of dealing cocaine near his alma mater in Morgantown, West Virginia, and is now serving a fifteen-month prison sentence. Other athletes from Little Burgundy, disillusioned when their athletic careers wind down, get into different kinds of trouble. White admits that one ballplayer ended up homeless and later spent time in a sanitarium. “There just aren’t opportunities for a lot of young black people, even good ones,” he says. “This is a fascist, racist country.”

White is quick to credit Syracuse University for Tommy Kane’s success, yet loath to blame U.S. college sports for the disappointments of other WSA athletes. Then again, finding fault with the U.S. system would make White culpable in the most tragic cases. As a street agent, he may not have an official title or an affiliation with any university, yet he’s an integral part of the infrastructure of U.S. college sports. “I don’t dwell on the worst cases,” White says. “I have to give hope to the ten-year-olds, the twelve-year-olds. They have to see Tommy Kane and the good they can do.” As one U.S. basketball coach explained in Raw Recruits: “The street broker’s secret is controlling the product early. It’s just like … modern-day slavery.”


“These kids have dreams,” Bob White says while he watches Basil Rose and the six-foot-six teenager bang each other around the court. “All those dreams start here. A lot of work and sacrifice and determination and guts. And it can all pay off like it did for Tommy Kane.”

The one-on-one battle ends. The tall kid has won easily by backing into the key and shooting over the slightly-too-short Rose. “Unstoppable, I’m flat unstoppable,” the winner enthuses as he accepts the congratulations of the audience. Basil Rose, whose career in pro sports probably cannot be restarted, gets on his bicycle and forlornly rides off. Rose will not stay for the pick-up games. He has night class tonight.

White does not allow the dispirited state of the vanquished Rose to interrupt the street agent’s patter. “Basil could be in the CFL but he didn’t get any breaks,” White says. “The first bad break he got was being born with black skin. If Basil was white he’d be playing in the CFL or on the Olympic tracki team or the bobsled team or something.” Youngsters on the sidelines nod in agreement.

Across the street Tommy Kane walks out of the row houses where he still lives with his mother in the off season. The shooting-around dies down. The kids hush and watch him. Despite standing only five-foot-nine, despite a physique that is not overly muscular, Kane looks like an athlete. It’s his walk, his bearing, the way he holds his head. Anyone who has ever played a game would recognize it. It’s something Bob White recognized a long time ago.

Arriving at courtside, Kane engages in a whispered discussion with White. The media and the sports establishment in Montreal will never approve of this relationship, an old taboo: a professional athlete associating with an ex-con. But no matter what he accomplishes in the NFL Kane can’t forget where he came from and who made his athletic career possible. And now back on the streets of Little Burgundy Kane seeks the counsel of the man who, with no vested interest, looked out for him a long time ago. Kane remains the faithful nephew, White the unlikely guardian angel. After a few minutes, Kane motions to a youngster to pass him the basketball. “You know, we should get a team of guys from Little Burgundy and challenge the Canadian Olympic team,” White says. “We would lay a beating on those boys.”

Without a warm-up, without a change in his deadpan expression, Kane dribbles twice and then leaves the ground, soaring up to the rim. In the air he brings the ball behind his head, then slams it two-fisted through the rim, shaking the backboard. “It would be a serious embarrassment,” Kane says, while the ball bounces down the court. White retreives “the rock” and awkwardly passes it back to Kane. With kids looking on, Kane silently and effortlessly rises from a stand-still beneath the basket and jams the ball.

For that single moment, Kane’s physical gifts allow White the dignity no street agent deserves. After the pick-up game tonight the young me will return to the row houses in Little Burgundy. When they look in the mirror they will try to see Tommy Kane in their reflection. In a few years Bob White will hold the mirror for them and tell them how good they look. Then he will tell the world how good “his kids” look. He will write letters, make phone calls, talk up reporters. The best never have to woof for themselves. They leave it to their street agent, their uncle, the real pro.

RAISING KANE by Gare Joyce
Late last year, a decade after his NFL career ended, a drug-addicted Tommy Kane was charged with killing his wife. Football was supposed to be his ticket out of Montreal’s mean streets. What made him go back?

It’s an anecdote that Don McPherson has told more times than he can count, an anecdote that draws on his time as quarterback of the Syracuse University Orangemen in the ’80s. It’s the short story of a play remembered by many but understood only by McPherson and the guy who caught the most important pass McPherson ever threw. This is how McPherson tells it to me:

“We were undefeated, contending for a national championship, but Penn State was playing us tough. We were driving but trying to save time-outs. In the huddle, I called one play and told everyone to run it two downs in a row. We ran the play on the first down and we were just about do it all over again on the second down. But just before the ball was snapped, I looked at one of my receivers. He was looking at me. He didn’t say anything, but he was able to tell me with just a look that he had seen something on the last play. Because we had spent so much time working together over three years, we knew what the other was thinking. He was telling me that he was going to run another route and he was able to tell that I understood it. Nine guys on our team just went and did what they’d done on the previous down, but he ran a completely different pass pattern, got wide open in the end zone, and caught a pass for a touchdown that won the game.”

McPherson, runner-up for the Heisman Trophy that season, is far removed from the gridiron these days. He’s now a social worker at Adelphi University in New York. He specializes in domestic-abuse cases. He tells this anecdote to those he counsels. He uses it to illustrate how two people can be so close that they communicate without words.

Don McPherson’s story became a cautionary tale last November. That’s when the receiver who was on the end of that pass, Tommy Kane, was supposed to meet his estranged wife, Tammara Shaikh, at his mother’s house in suburban Montreal and, in the presence of a minister, talk about reconciling for the benefit of their four young children. That’s when, according to the accounts of friends, Shaikh tried once again to get Kane onto medication for depression and into rehab for drug use. That’s when Kane’s mother called the Montreal police, when officers arrived to find Shaikh badly beaten, when Kane was taken away in handcuffs. That’s when Shaikh died of her injuries in hospital, and when Kane was charged with second-degree murder. And that’s when newspapers ran a mug shot of Kane, staring a thousand yards away through a drug-addled fog, coming down and bathed in sweat.

“I had seen Tommy over the years,” McPherson says. “I only saw the Tommy Kane that I knew at Syracuse. I never saw this coming and it’s my job to be able to pick up red flags. He’s thirty-nine, but he looks ten years older in that mug shot – ten years older than when I saw him, less than two years ago. I thought I knew him so well.”


What ever happened to . . . ? It’s a fixture in sports sections and broadcasts, a way to mine nostalgia, drop a famous name. Whatever happened to Tommy Kane? Many were asking that question after the news of the murder charge. McPherson and his teammates asked a different question twenty-one years earlier, when Kane arrived on the Syracuse campus.

“‘Who is this kid from Montreal?’” McPherson said. “Nobody was coming down from Canada to the major programs in the States at that time.”

Kane was at first a mystery to his teammates, and then a revelation. “He was behind everybody recruited from the big football states,” McPherson says. “The others had just played a lot more than he had. But his athletic ability was so great that he caught up by the time he played his first game. He was a quick study.”

It took a little longer for Kane’s teammates to piece together the rest of his story. As a freshman, he didn’t volunteer a lot about Montreal. Like any major college program, Syracuse had its share of players who grew up in tough circumstances, but Montreal didn’t have a reputation. To the rest of the guys on the squad, he might as well have come from Paris.

Kane’s background started to emerge in interviews with the media. “Sure, I was in trouble with the law,” he told The New York Times in 1987. “Most of the kids I was with then are in jail or coming out of jail. It’s a vicious circle. They end up in jail, come out and go back again.”
Kane’s teammates learned in time that he had as much street in him as the hardest cases. It wasn’t just the punkish stuff: boosting cars or petty thefts. He had been in knife fights. He’d been in a scrap during which he took a baseball bat to a guy. He said that he would have gone to jail if he hadn’t met someone named Bob White, a “playground agent” who advised young black athletes in Little Burgundy, Kane’s neighbourhood in Montreal’s West End. White, Kane said, kept him in school, paid his way to sports camps, and even sorted through his scholarship offers.

“What he had been through earned him points with us,” McPherson said. “He had his stripes prior to coming to Syracuse. Going to school in the States could have been a cultural or social shock for Tommy, but he was never intimidated. No matter what the situation, he had seen worse. Tommy was cool, always cool.”

“I never saw Tommy even agitated, never mind violent,” says Deval Glover, another wideout on the Syracuse team. “He was not a hothead. He was just about the most relaxed guy on our team.”

Kane was a key player on Syracuse’s 1987 university squad that went undefeated and contended for a national championship. Several times that autumn, McPherson combined forces with Kane to pull Syracuse out of tight contests. He pulled down fifteen touchdown catches that year to lead the nation and set a school record with an average of almost twenty-one yards per catch, a record that is still on the books.

The NFL beckoned but, on the threshold of big things, Tommy Kane lost his cool. Two weeks before the 1988 NFL draft, Kane was scheduled to meet with scouts. On the way to this meeting, Kane got into a nasty confrontation over a parking ticket with a policewoman, Lisa Phelan. Kane was charged with second-degree assault, obstruction, and resisting arrest. Kane would eventually plead guilty to lesser charges, do 100 hours of community service instead of jail time and, years later, reach an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit filed by Phelan (who went on lifetime disability because of her injuries).

“Looking back on it, Tommy had to have been under tremendous pressure,” McPherson says. “He had given up his last year of school. He had everything riding on this. This was the big step up. Just for a moment something inside him snapped and he lashed out.”

Kane’s stock in the draft plummeted. Prior to the incident, some teams might have rated him first-round material, but he was still there when the Seattle Seahawks came up in the third round. The Hawks decided that he represented just too much talent to pass up.

Kane was never the star in the pros that he had been at Syracuse. By his own admission, he had been able to shine at Syracuse on athletic ability alone. That wasn’t going to fly in Seattle. He still had a lot to learn about playing his position, and his progress was interrupted by a spate of injuries, the worst a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in his second season.

In his third and fourth years with the Seahawks, Kane established himself as a starter. Each year he caught at least fifty passes. He had become an integral part of Seattle’s high-flying offence, one that was tearing up the league. And then, on the verge of big things and million-dollar contracts, it was over. Kane never played again in the NFL.

His fifth season was cut short by injury, and the next summer, the Seahawks cut him in training camp. It turned out that he needed surgery on his Achilles tendons. He never received another serious call from an NFL club. They believed either that his game was left on the operating table or that his injuries had made him a bad risk, considering the hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line.

Bob White always claimed that sports were the salvation of his athletes, but sports were over for Tommy Kane by age thirty. If you were writing Kane’s story as fiction, the unfairness of all this would break him, push him down a well of despond. Deval Glover says that just wasn’t the case.

“I don’t think that Tommy was down or depressed about the injuries and his career ending,” Glover says. “An average NFL career is only two or three seasons. Tommy beat the odds by lasting as long as he did. In high school and college, we played with guys whose careers were ended by injuries. You understand that going in, that it can all end in one game . . . on one play. I talked with him at reunions, and he never said anything that made me think he was bitter or broken [or] drug dependent.”

In Montreal, Kane’s friends knew that his athletic afterlife wasn’t all that easy. He never found a niche to settle into: a one-season stint doing radio commentary for Alouettes games; a job in sales with Universal Studios in Florida; a business investment here and there. “Other athletes would have doors opened to get into coaching or television work or business, but not Tommy,” said one friend from the playground. “Still, he didn’t really let it get him down, not from what I could tell.”

Bob White sent a package of newspaper clippings to Toro after Tommy Kane was charged with murder. Most of the stories dated back to Tommy Kane’s days with Syracuse and Seattle. Most touted White’s work as a freelance social worker and spiritual adviser. White also sent along an essay from the Montreal Gazette that, without much consideration for Tammara Shaikh, suggested Kane was a victim of racism in Quebec society. The package included a handwritten note from White, congratulating the magazine for putting together an interesting product but otherwise not explaining the mailing.

White has always welcomed media attention, so long as no one asks questions about his own past. I went to Montreal, to Little Burgundy, to talk to White and Kane in 1991 for a magazine story. Kane was then serving as the celebrity success story for the Westend Sports Association, a loosely organized charity that White had managed to register years before. White imagined that the story was going to be a straight inspirational piece, inner-city Horatio Alger stuff. It wasn’t.

The story detailed White’s recent brush with the law: charges of possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking and possession of stolen credit-card numbers. (The case was thrown out of court.)
The story also detailed the legal problems of several of WSA’s athletes. One ballplayer had been up on attempted murder, others on drug possession. Then there was Kane’s assault of the Syracuse policewoman.

White threatened to sue me and the magazine. Eventually, though, the matter was dropped without a correction, published apology, or cash settlement.

White has his act down. He paints himself as a mentor, advocate, and crusader. He says his athletes can’t get a break at home because of Canada’s racist sports establishment. He says they have to go to the States to get a fair shake. His message is as old as Jackie Robinson’s rookie card.

Still, some unsuspecting media types swallow White’s story without chewing. Reader’s Digest Canada recently commissioned a feature on White. In his finest rhetorical purple, White described the WSA as “an oasis that springs up every summer in the heart of the ghetto.” The profile was flagged as part of its “Remarkable People” series. The most remarkable aspect of the piece is the fact that Tommy Kane is not mentioned – a first in Bob White’s career. It’s like a history of Johnstown without mention of The Flood.

These days, White’s in a fix. He’ll seem less than loyal if he distances himself from Kane, who donated his entire $65,000 salary from his final pro season, a forgettable stint with the Toronto Argonauts, to the WSA. On the other hand, White lends credence to the notion that his charges weren’t quite angels if he’s too closely tied to an accused murderer and drug user.

So when the call is made to White, and questions are asked about Kane, he dissembles. “I don’t know what happened to Tommy Kane,” White says. “I wasn’t there.”

When other uncomfortable questions are asked, White blows up. “Fuck Toro,” the Good Samaritan says, before hanging up.

Fact is, there’s no connecting White to Kane’s murder charges. The notion that Bob White started any of his talents down a road to drugs or violence just doesn’t wash. It’s as fatuous as his claim that he alone rescued them from a life a crime. Tommy Kane or any other playground hero has to accept responsibility for his life.

Unlike Bob White, Wayne Yearwood knows that silence won’t make trouble or tragedy disappear. Like Tommy Kane, Yearwood was a star on the Little Burgundy playgrounds. He played four years at West Virginia University on a basketball scholarship. He got into worse trouble at WVU than Kane did at Syracuse, a cocaine-dealing conviction that landed him a fifteen-month jail sentence. But Yearwood toughed it out, eventually rejoined the national hoops program, and now coaches the men’s basketball team at Dawson College, where he and Tommy Kane led the team to a Canadian community-college championship in the early ’80s.

Yearwood makes it clear that he doesn’t doubt that Tommy Kane committed murder. “The evidence is overwhelming,” he says. “I don’t think anybody but Tommy will ever be able to explain what he did. Maybe not even him.”

Yearwood stayed close to Kane through the years. He knew Tammara Shaikh. He was around when the children were born. Last fall, Yearwood and Kane drifted apart. They stopped getting together, but, still, Yearwood kept in touch by phone. “The last time we talked was right before Tammara went over there to talk to him,” Yearwood says. “Tommy had been going through some very tough things. His marriage was in deep, deep trouble.”

Yearwood says that he would have been there for Kane if his friend had asked for help. Now he wonders whether Kane was bipolar. “I don’t know about depression, but there had to be something wrong, really wrong,” Yearwood says. “I’m not an expert, but I know Tommy. It’s just not rational to beat to death the mother of your children. I don’t know what it was that pushed him that far. I don’t know what could. It wasn’t the Tommy I knew that did that.”

Yearwood wants it known: He’s not about to offer excuses for Kane nor portray him as a victim. “I was a friend of Tammara, too, going back to before Tommy married her. I knew her, her family too. I know the children. I just never thought it would go like this – that if Tommy had to go out, that he would take away a mother from the children.”

When I was in Little Burgundy for that magazine story more than a decade ago, I went down to the basketball court where the neighbourhood’s best players gather on a daily basis. Writing about pro athletes over the years, I’ve come to expect meeting them in settings befitting their status: in plush locker rooms, in fancy restaurants, in ostentatious new homes. Kane remains the one athlete whom I met for the first time on the playground where he grew up. Our meeting wasn’t arranged. I dropped by the court to get a look at it and he just happened to be there. Kane was in the middle of a pickup game with a bunch of friends and teenagers. It was like your threesome picking up Mike Weir as a fourth at the first tee of a municipal course in Sarnia, or like Wayne Gretzky just happening by your street-hockey game in Brantford.

Kane’s athletic ability was breathtaking. Barely five-foot-ten, he could reverse jam the ball from a flat-footed start. What’s more, he could make it look easy. He could beat everyone up and down the court without breathing hard, without breaking a sweat, smiling. It was a glimpse of the coolness that his old teammates described.

Afterwards, I talked with Kane. He seemed to be an easy-to-like young man, quick to smile and laugh, neither simple nor slick. He said that he moved back into his mother’s home in Little Burgundy in the off-season. He said he looked forward to coming back to the playground. “It’s always good to come home. There are a lot of memories here. This is where I dunked a ball for the first time. And when it’s over for me, I’ll come back here.”

He said that a lot of the kids on this playground were like him, that they came from single-parent homes. He said that he was raised by his mother and had little to do with his father, even though he lived nearby. And he said that he took the ball given to him when he caught his first NFL touchdown pass and placed it in his father’s casket a couple of years before.

Bob White claimed that sports would allow his young men to escape tough circumstances. For Kane, however, something else was in play. When he had a world of options, he ran as fast as he could right back to the street. A patch of asphalt around the corner from his mother’s house was heaven. He was no different than the kids lining the court who had never travelled farther than the Metro could take them.

I tell my own anecdote to Don McPherson. “The Tommy I knew was a great guy,” he says. “I don’t think he was fooling all of us all those years. I don’t think there was a Good Tommy and a Bad Tommy. I do think that he was young for his age. A lot of guys struggle with the basic things after they’re finished with the game, growing up, growing old.”

Don McPherson realizes that he never understood what Tommy Kane had gone through to earn his stripes. He believes he might have been able to help if he’d been able to read the pattern Kane was running. It wasn’t a post, a corner, or an out. It was the pattern that many of Kane’s old friends ran: a vicious circle. Don McPherson couldn’t read it, but Tammara Shaikh sure did.

Footnote: Kane pleaded guilty to manslaughter. A court-appointed physician determined that he was suffering from depression.


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