Magazine Feature / People

Lapchick stands for unpopular causes

Epiphanies of injustice shaped the racial conscience of University of Denver alumnus Richard Lapchick, molding him into a champion for equality in sports and society. DU recognized Lapchick’s lifelong commitment March 9 by awarding him the 2007 Founders Day Professional Achievement Award.

Lapchick’s first realization of racism dawned in 1950, when his father, New York Knickerbockers coach Joe Lapchick, signed one of the first black players to the National Basketball Association. Richard was 5 and remembers looking out his bedroom window to see his father’s effigy hanging from a tree. He remembers people picketing his home and recalls answering the telephone to rants of “nigger lover.”

From those first scenes of injustice, young Richard saw both the hopelessness of inequality and the hope that men of integrity could overcome racism through the teamwork of sports. He followed in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a basketball career and playing pick-up games with the best players in the neighborhood, who happened to be black.

When genetics limited his height and his basketball career, he looked for a university that would support both academics and activism. Professors at DU’s Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) encouraged his advocacy and helped him put together a dissertation on apartheid in South Africa.

“I looked for a place that welcomed both academics and activism,” Lapchick says. “The University — and especially the faculty at GSIS — gave me the grounding I needed.”

Building on a foundation of academic advocacy, Lapchick went on to lead a 20-year boycott of sports in South Africa to end apartheid. It was during this time that he suffered another, more brutal realization of racism. In 1978, Lapchick traveled to Nashville to announce, on behalf of several African governments, a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics if the all-white South African team were allowed to participate.

Upon his return to Virginia, two masked men beat him to unconsciousness and carved “niger” [sic] in his stomach with a pair of office scissors.

That same year, Lapchick’s experience with injustice came full circle: His 5-year-old son was answering the phone to the same chorus of “nigger lover” that he had heard nearly 30 years earlier.

Lapchick was, by this time, used to the violence that surrounded race relations, but was stunned at the intensity of the anger directed at him. He later discovered that he had nearly as many detractors as supporters in sports and that South African security forces had a dossier on his activities from 1968 through 1981.

“Richard has stood for unpopular causes and he never abandoned his principles,” says international studies Associate Professor Arthur Gilbert, who taught Lapchick in the 1970s and has remained close. “He stands for justice.”

The South African boycott gained momentum and international support during the 1980s and by the early 1990s, apartheid had ended and the all-white government had been replaced by one led by President Nelson Mandela. Just two hours before Mandela’s inauguration, Lapchick stood with him in the presidential box at a soccer game. Although Mandela could have been attending any number of diplomatic receptions in his honor, he chose to attend a soccer match to demonstrate his gratitude for his people’s sacrifice in sports that hastened his return to power.

At that moment, Lapchick says, “I knew anything was possible.”

Lapchick has continued to fight for equality in sports. He’s authored 12 books, been a constant fixture in the national media and led several sports-related organizations, including the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, Project TEAMWORK, the National Consortium for Academics and Sport, Mentors in Violence Prevention and the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

And despite the slings and arrows of activism he’s endured, Lapchick still believes in the ability of sports to pull different people together. As evidence of progress, he points to two black coaches who competed in this year’s Super Bowl — a first — and the growing numbers of black coaches in nearly all sports.

“The miracle of sports happens in the huddle,” he says. “Race, religion and gender don’t matter when everyone’s pulling together as a team.”

Janalee Card Chmel contributed to this article.

This article originally appeared in The Source, April 2007.

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