PUCK SWAMI: Team Billups can help heal racial divides and unify our DU Community

PHOTO: DU Coach Rodney Billups (At Right) with his NBA star brother Chauncey (Center) and their father, Ray (at left). Photo: David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

LetsGoDU Publisher Tim Thompson wrote a very good article on this blog, entitled “5 Reasons to Care About 2016-2017 DU Hoops.” Every one of Tim’s reasons were very good reasons to support our basketball team, but I’d like to offer one more reason you should care, and as you’ll read, I think it takes on a bigger, deeper and even more important social dimension than the sport itself…

My reason is:

You should care because DU Basketball has a great chance to unify (and heal) our community.

Just before 7:00 pm on November 12, 2016, the Denver Pioneer men’s basketball team will come out of the tunnel at Magness Arena to start a new season. Waiting for them will the hometown hero, Rodney Billups, the fresh-faced, 33-year-old, highly qualified DU alumnus who will be breaking some new ground at Denver as the team’s new head coach. Billups also happens to be African American, which is not only his racial heritage, but a big part of his community credibility in the sport he coaches, as 60% of NCAA rosters are comprised of black players.

Being an African American head basketball coach isn’t new ground at DU. We have had African American head hoops coaches at DU before — stretching back into the 1970s and 1980s respectively, when Ben Jobe (who won over 500 college games at his 5 different schools) and coach Floyd Theard (who won nearly 75% of his games at DU before he died of a heart attack at age 40 in 1985) both paced the DU sidelines. We’ve also had Pioneer alumni as DU head hoops coaches before, such as longtime DU coach Hoyt Brawner in the ‘40s, ’50s and ‘60s and Bill Wiemar, the last DU alumnus to coach the DU team, nearly 40 years ago in 1977.

But NEVER has DU had a coach who is both an African American AND a DU alumnus, until now.

And for this University, the timing could not be better.

This coaching hire is about far more than just winning college basketball, as I pointed out here in detail in my blog post of March 15, 2015. As I wrote back then, this hire was a University-level strategy decision, designed to put a local, qualified and charismatic public face on DU’s renewed efforts to better engage with the City of Denver, which is a key part of Impact 2025, the University of Denver’s fantastic Strategic Plan — as directed by DU Chancellor Rebecca Chopp.

The Billups name is shorthand for basketball royalty in this town. Rodney grew up hooping in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood just like his big brother, University of Colorado and NBA legend Chauncey Billups.  Rodney starred at George Washington High School in Denver before signing as a player with DU, where he later became a team captain and point guard. Later, he would become an assistant coach at an NCAA-tournament caliber program at CU. On top of all that, Billups represents a great opportunity to open DU’s local “Ivory Tower” image to a more home-grown, more multicultural direction that better reflects the changing demographics of DU and of our city.

To achieve that direction, Rodney knows he can’t do it alone. He has built the new part of his coaching staff around two extremely experienced African American assistant coaches: Ricardo Patton (who was once head coach at CU, and who recruited and coached brother Chauncey, and took the Buffaloes to the NCAA Tournament); and Steve Snell, a very experienced assistant coach who has worked for 10 NCAA Division I programs. This coaching staff will almost certainly work to recruit more talented black players to DU, as the Billups name will open recruiting doors around the country.

But for all of them to be really effective, we DU fans need to do our small part to help rebuild the racial climate on our campus. Which brings me to the difficult part of this post….

Right now, some in DU’s black community are hurting. The causes for this are complex, multi-faceted and deep-rooted, but the bottom line is that some of DU’s African American students are angry…and some are leaving our campus forever. Despite extensive administration attention and millions of dollars spent to upgrade DU’s diversity staff, despite increased Inclusive Excellence programming and special outreach efforts to recruit non-athlete black students to our school over the last 10 years or so, DU’s undergraduate African American population is actually decreasing instead of increasing. According to the DU Fact Book, in the fall of 2011, there were 165 Black undergraduates on the DU campus, and by Fall of 2015, that number had fallen to 139. And that 139 number has been reduced further in 2016, with even more African-American undergraduate students transferring out of DU (the specific number won’t be known until the next accounting).

Certainly, the fraying racial climate all over America has played a role in the recent part of the decline of the broader racial climate, but there also have also been some racially-tinged incidents reported on the DU campus in recent months (some of which DU has classified as “hate crimes”) that have brought increased levels of anger, protest and frustration. Indeed, there have been open letters and protest events decrying the deteriorating climate on campus in recent weeks, and the atmosphere has been termed “currently tense” by some in the DU administration. This bothers me and it should bother you, too.

The fact is that we need to do better as a campus community.

Way better.

We need to respect each other. We need to support each other, root for each other, work together and understand together.

And we need to be unified, not divided. We are ALL Denver Pioneers, regardless of our skin color.

Unity can only begin with the common bonds we share. And sports events, more than any other campus activity, can bring us all together under one big, unified flag — perhaps far more than any diversity program or protest ever could. It’s been shown, time and time again, that sports can help drive racial progress and harmony.

We need that progress and harmony more than ever on our campus. And basketball, perhaps more than any other sport played at DU, has the power to bring groups from every racial and socio-economic group together. The numbers tell the story in this country: 351 NCAA Division I schools play basketball; 204 play soccer; 70 play lacrosse; 60 play hockey; and 29 schools have NCAA skiing programs. If DU becomes an NCAA tournament-level program in basketball, we could finally transcend our historically well-earned “country club” sports niche and become truly nationally relevant in a sport played by all D-I schools. That would also translate into making DU more attractive to the wider community fan base it craves in our own city, increase our national profile and could help to change some of the downside of the exclusive perceptions that currently hurt our local acceptance.

Our basketball program isn’t there yet in terms of national success, but I believe basketball needs all DU fans more right now than any other program on campus.

So here’s the pitch: If you value your school and the opportunity to work toward long-term racial healing in our community, you owe it to Rodney Billups, his staff, the DU team and the entire DU community to get your butt over to Magness Arena and be counted as a small part of the unity solution. Basketball could be a place where everyone can come together to not only have a great time, but also to support each other and build our common bond as Pioneers. We may be underdogs right now, but we can all build something great, together.

Call me an optimist, but what I see ahead can be about so much more than basketball.

This is about building the kind of unified, DU community I hope we all want to have.

And it starts this weekend. Go Pios!

Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a longtime DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views periodically here at LetsGoDU.