Campus & Community / DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alumni use basketball to bridge race, mentor at-risk kids and launch an NBA superstar

Harry Hollines and Rick Callahan were unlikely friends in 1964.

Hollines was a high school All-American who had been recruited to play basketball by every major American university — except those that didn’t allow blacks on their teams. After traveling the country visiting campuses, he decided the University of Denver topped them all. Though DU was in his hometown, it felt very far from the North Denver neighborhood he’d grown up in.

Callahan, meanwhile, was a basketball star in his small town of Galesburg, Ill. He’d been considering DU for its academics and mountain backdrop. When he heard Hollines (BS ’68) had been recruited there, he was sold. “I knew him by reputation,” Callahan says. “He was ranked as one of top high school ball players in the country.”

Getting Past Race

The two became fast friends. Toward the end of their freshman year, they decided they wanted to room together. At that time at DU, whites roomed with whites and blacks roomed with blacks. They went to their coach’s office to ask about sharing a dorm room, a little unsure of how he would react. But Troy Bledsoe had something on his mind he wanted to ask them first.

“We could see he was a little uncomfortable,” Callahan recalls. “‘I have a problem,’ [the coach said]. ‘I don’t know how to approach you guys … Would the two of you consider possibly rooming together next year?’”

They busted out laughing, “Coach, that’s why we’re here.”

“It was the first time I ever roomed with a white roommate and same for him,” Hollines says. “We hit it off so good. Boy, we went in there, it took us about a week and we were great friends. A match made in heaven so to speak. We’ve been the best of friends ever since.”

They had some great seasons — Hollines is still DU’s all-time leading scorer — and their senior year, Hollines recruited a Horace Kearney (DU’s 14th leading scorer) to DU after he led Denver’s Manual High School to a state championship. Kearney had grown up with Hollines and he soon became close friends with Callahan, too.

More than any win or loss, Callahan (BS accounting ’68, JD ’72 ) remembers the insults that were unleashed on his teammates from all-white stands at away games.

“It was just incredible to hear the stuff they would yell at our black ball players,” he says. “For me to see that and watch how Harry and Kearney would handle that. They’d say, ‘Rick, this is something you’re just learning about. We’ve had to put up with this all of our lives. That was the most meaningful experience I ever had, learning what black men had to endure on an everyday basis. That affected me.”

Giving Back

After graduation, Callahan was awarded an NCAA post-graduate scholarship, which he used to attend law school at DU. He settled in Denver and worked as a tax attorney. Hollines’s dream had always been to work in — and give back to — the community where he grew up. He got that opportunity working for Denver Parks & Recreation. After several years, he became the director of the Skyland Recreation Center, now called the Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center. Kearney became his assistant director and Hollines recruited Callahan to volunteer-coach a basketball team.

Hollines had started seeing gang activity in his neighborhood. Mandatory busing laws at the time contributed to the gangs because after-school sports programs for junior high kids had been eliminated. He proposed that Callahan and other coaches, Kearney included, each take a group of fifth graders and stay with them four years, keeping them off the streets and in school using basketball as the carrot. Callahan ended up coaching for 15 years while Hollines and Kearney worked there for nearly 35 years.

“We just thought if you got kids interested in sports, they would do well in school,” Hollines says. “They would get the grades because they have to get the grades to be eligible. Our goal was to get them into college, and I don’t think I’d be out of line to say 85–90 percent did well, went to college … I loved every minute of it.”

“We sent a lot of kids to college,” Kearney says. “We were right in the middle of the gang area, mostly where the Bloods were. There were a lot of killings during that time. We had to double up teams because it was better for kids to be here than in the street.”

“Really where it was rewarding to me was when you look at television and see them playing on college teams,” Kearney says. “Then when they went to the next level, to the pros, then we really got a kick out of it. Our first one was Chauncey.”

Seeing Results

Denver Nuggets star Chauncey Billups grew up not far from Skyland and was coached for years by Callahan.

“Rick was a coach I played with for the longest when I was young,” Billups says. “By trade, he was a lawyer. He’s a white guy and where he coached at was all black in our community. He was a great example of someone who had made it, done well.”

And now he was giving back, which made Billups take an interest in leadership and mentorship. Even at a young age, Billups and his friends would talk about how to better themselves. Meanwhile, Kearney was his first coach — who he credits for introducing him to and instilling in him a love for the game — and Hollines was a constant presence at the center and “one of the nicest people you ever want to meet, always smiling.”

“We were like a close knit family, the group we had,” Billups says. “All of them came from different backgrounds and they all had a passion for kids, inner city kids in particular.”

And Billups is just one of the success stories. Callahan says Hollines and Kearney deserve credit for thousands of kids, one of whom is Billups’ younger brother Rodney, who was Callahan’s ball boy at the age of 5 and later attended DU.

Rodney Billups (BS management ’05) says those three were the reason he started to play. Kearney was his first coach, too, and the fact that they had all gone to DU made them huge role models.

“No doubt about it,” he says. “That’s the only thing that kept us out of trouble. All of the kids [from the neighborhood] that made it out of high school, college, that have good jobs, they all went through Skyland. They were a huge pillar in our neighborhood. They’re very caring, very educated, very humble, just great human beings.”

“I’m a tax lawyer,” Callahan says. “Nothing I’ve ever done in my life comes close to being as important or rewarding as the volunteer work at the rec center with these kids. I would not have done that without my relationships from DU. They opened my eyes.”

Keeping in Touch

Today, Callahan runs the Bear Paw Inn with his wife in Winter Park. Kearney is an assistant coach at Manual High School, and Hollines is enjoying retirement. The Hollines, Kearney and Billups families are all frequent guests at the Inn, too.

Leaving the rec center four years ago wasn’t hard, Hollines says, because he’d done everything he wanted to do, including lobbying successfully for $1 million to build a new state-of-the-art center in the neighborhood. Despite how proud he is of his work there, he says his crowning achievement was being inducted into the first class of the University of Denver Athletic Hall of Fame in 1996.

“That just shocked me,” he says. “It was something I never expected. I went in with some people I admire. That was the highlight.”

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