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Harold Bell’s been trying for years to get attention for folks who never got their fair share.
That’s why Bell, for example, threw a welcome-home party at Bolling Air Force Base in 1999 for Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first African-American player with the old Washington Capitols. Lloyd was a basketball star at Alexandria’s all-black Parker-Gray High School in the 1940s. He made his NBA debut in 1950. Despite his local roots and pioneer status, Lloyd had received virtually no recognition around here before Bell’s soiree. Lloyd, who retired in 1960, was finally inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
And in 2009, Bell brought together Dan Droze and Dave Harris, the white passer from Anacostia and black receiver from Cardozo, who combined on the first integrated touchdown pass ever thrown in D.C. schoolboy history. Droze and Harris’ fourth-quarter heroics won the game for the bi-racial D.C. Public Schools’ all-stars over undefeated and all-white St. John’s in the first integrated football game in the city’s history, the 1954 City Championship at Griffith Stadium.
Bell’s latest efforts to herald the underheralded have led him to put together a Black History Month tribute to Gary Mays on Monday at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Mays was a multi-sport star at all-black Armstrong High and a local playground legend despite having lost his left arm in a childhood gun accident. Among African-Americans of a certain age, he’s remembered as the One-Armed Bandit, the guy who shut down Elgin Baylor as Armstrong won the 1954 city basketball title. That was the last segregated hoops competition in D.C., months before the integration of the city’s schools and playing fields.
During his days at Armstrong, Mays was also the best baseball player in the city—of any color. As a catcher, he threw out every runner who tried to steal a base on him, catching and throwing with the same right arm, and he has the vintage newspaper clippings to prove it. After high school Mays joined Baylor, a future NBA Hall of Famer, and Dunbar’s Warren Williams on the basketball team at the College of Idaho. The trio turned an unknown program into what Sports Illustrated in 1955 termed a “powerhouse.” Their Western migration came at the beginning of a wholesale exodus of local black basketball talent to colleges across the country. (Full disclosure: Mays is a personal hero and friend of mine.)
Everybody around here, and everywhere, should know about Gary Mays. But in Mays’ day, major media outlets only covered the white schools. Ebony and Jet, a pair of national magazines aimed at a black audience, gave Mays more ink than The Washington Post ever did.
Bell, 71, knows how wrong that is.
“Gary’s story should’ve been a movie a long time ago,” Bell says. “I was there, watching him in high school and on the playgrounds. And when he’d flip that ball up in the air and take his glove off and throw out runners. I had a chance to see him do it all. I want him to get some attention.”
Bell’s own story should be better known, too. A sixth-generation Washingtonian, he caddied as a teenager at Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda. There, he began a friendship with club member Richard Nixon. Bell once told me the future president “was the first white man that ever acted like he cared about me.”
After a brief stint playing football at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, Bell came home and joined the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation as a “roving leader” at city playgrounds. In that capacity, he walked the streets during the 1968 riots with Green Bay Packer veteran (and NFL Hall of Famer) Willie Wood.
“I remember being at the corner of 9th and U with Willie and we heard Martin Luther King was shot,” says Bell. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Man, it’s gonna be hell!’ And it was! I got called in by [a D.C. police official] who said, ‘Harold, I need you! Take this badge and you can get through the police lines!’ I said ‘I need a gun and a vest, too!’ He told me to get out.”
Nobody knows more about D.C. sports than Harold Bell. As a youngster in the mid-1950s, he hung around the Kelly Miller playground. He got to see Baylor, Willie Jones, and, for a short time, Wilt Chamberlain showcase their games there.
In the late 1960s, via his Nixon ties, Bell was appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. He ran recreation centers and mentoring programs for troubled youth at area military installations. He recruited Redskins, including Over the Hill Gangsters Roy Jefferson, Larry Brown, and Harold McClinton, to mentor kids.
Bell’s reputation was such that Petey Greene, the coolest cat this town ever produced, began putting Bell on his WOL radio show in 1969 for sports segments. A few years later, Bell got his own show, Inside Sports, making him the city’s first black sports talk host. The show ran for decades on WOL and WOOK. In 1975, he became the first black TV sports host in the market by producing a show on Muhammad Ali that aired on WRC-TV.
But for all his longevity and pioneering status, Bell’s renown remains as limited as that of the local athletes for whom he organizes tributes.
Muhammad Ali’s business manager, Gene Kilroy, once told Bell: “Harold, if you were white, you’d be a millionaire!” Bell agrees he should be more famous and have more money. But he uses fewer words than Kilroy to explain why that hasn’t happened.
“I don’t kiss no ass,” he says.
I’d heard about Bell’s fetish for feuds even before I met him in 1999. Then Bell raged at me because in my write-up of his tribute to Lloyd I referred to him as a “do-gooder.” Bell told me those words demeaned his deeds. I couldn’t change his mind.
When I called him up recently to talk about the Mays tribute, I asked if he’d gotten any less feud-oriented in the years since we last talked.
He still tells a story about how he helped John Thompson promote Georgetown basketball on his radio show back when Thompson first became the coach in the early 1970s. At the time, nobody cared about the Hoyas. But then somebody else—“A white guy!”—was hired to call the team’s games. And Bell, by his own account, helped get Sugar Ray Leonard inspired for a return to the ring following the 1976 Olympics. But he remains miffed that Leonard ignored D.C. after he turned pro. Don King, meanwhile, is still on Bell’s bad side for a variety of perceived slights, including Bell’s not getting media credentials to a title fight in Las Vegas and not being part of a sponsorship deal.
Over the years, Bell told me he’s also been on the outs with Larry Brown, Dave Bing, Rock Newman, Jim Vance, and Glenn Harris, among others. “I told Don King I wasn’t kissing his black ass,” Bell huffs.
Ex-Redskin Jefferson once divulged his theory about why his friend’s name wasn’t better known.
“Harold has had feuds with some of the most famous people to come through Washington,” said Jefferson, an unwavering Bell supporter. “He helped a lot of these people out when they weren’t so big, and they acted like they forgot about him when they got big. He won’t let them get away with that, so he calls them on things, and they don’t like it, so they have a falling out.”
Bluntly: Bell’s fallen out with almost everyone who could have helped bring his media career to another level.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If you want somebody to bow down and kiss up, I ain’t your man,” he says. “It’s not anger or rage. It’s just the truth.”
Harold Bell’s tribute to Gary Mays, “The Original Inside Sports Moments in Black History,” will take place Feb. 14 at 6 p.m. at Ben’s Chili Bowl. For information call 202-667-0909.