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Last week, Harold Bell, the talk-show host, sportswriter, do-gooder, and all-around rabble-rouser, threw a party to honor Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first black player. In a crowded ballroom at Bolling Air Force Base, folks who remembered Lloyd from his days across the river at Parker-Gray High School in Alexandria in the mid-’40s mingled with those who just wanted to be near the alarmingly obscure athletic pioneer, who broke the color barrier as a member of the Washington Capitols in 1950. Lloyd, for whatever reason, never got his due around his hometown through the years, and, sadly, he still isn’t likely to after this function. Local daily newspapers and television stations, along with major local sports figures, all stayed away from the tribute.
“They all got press releases, so why didn’t they come? Why didn’t they come for Earl?” asked Bell.
Deep down, Bell knew the answer: The mainstream press and jocks didn’t come because of him. Plenty of people, including some of the biggest names in town, want no part of Harold Bell or anything that he is associated with.
Though he started on local radio more than 25 years ago, Bell remains essentially unknown among D.C.’s white residentsexcepting speakers and a single writer, the crowd at Lloyd’s tribute was entirely black. But in the city’s African-American community, Bell is at once among its most beloved and disdained media figures.
He’s also one of the most compelling. Now 59, Bell grew up poor in the Parkside projects in Northeast, the son of an absentee father and a loving but mentally ill mother. As a kid, he spent his weekends caddying at Burning Tree, a Bethesda country club, and it was on the links in 1957 that Bell met then-Vice President Richard Nixon by chance and quickly became Nixon’s favorite caddy. Though he excelled on the ballfields, Bell wasn’t much in the classroom: He bounced from school to school, hitting the books only enough to stay eligible to play ball. Without his passion for sports, which Nixon encouraged, Bell probably never would have gotten a diploma.
“Whenever I’d see him, Richard Nixon would say, ‘Harold, I see you scored a touchdown last week,’ or something to let me know he was following me through the papers,” Bell says. “He was the first white man that ever acted like he cared about me.”
After high school, Bell went to Winston-Salem State
University to play football for coach Bighouse Gaines, but he had to quit school when his mother was committed to St. Elizabeths for what would turn into a 30-year stay. Bell then hooked on with a minor-league club, the Virginia Sailors, which played its games in Reston, and he spent his off-seasons working as a youth counselor at D.C.’s recreation centers. While he held that job, Bell and his new wife, Hattie, started throwing annual Christmas parties for disadvantaged kidsa tradition that, like their marriage, is still intact. Also while a counselor, Bell ran into his old golfing buddy, now known as President Nixon, when the chief executive toured city neighborhoods that had been gutted during the 1968 riots. Soon enough, Nixon invited the Bells over to the White House and appointed him to the President’s Commission on Physical Fitness.
As a civil servant, Bell had duties that included putting unused military outposts in the area, including some sections of Bolling Air Force Base, to use as halfway houses for juvenile delinquents. He brought local athletes, mainly Redskins, to the base to mentor the troubled teens. His run as a federal government employee ended before Nixon’s did, but the connections and confidence he developed during that time helped prepare Bell for his first journey into journalism. In 1973, he became a sportscaster for WOL, starting a media roundtable and call-in show named Inside Sports. He bounced with the show and an increasingly controversial reputation to other local stations with mainly black audiences, including WOOK and WUST. On Inside Sports, callers weren’t afraid to rail about Marion Barry’s legal problems and Doug Williams’ benching, and maybe even establish a link between the two. And the host, well, he
wasn’t afraid to rail about anything or speak up against anyone.
“We just told the truth,” says Bell.
A lot of people, apparently, couldn’t handle Bell’s version of the truth. In the early years of his radio days, Bell established an unsettling pattern: befriending or being befriended by media and sports bigwigs and then watching those relationships implode.
“Harold has had feuds with some of the most famous people to come through Washington,” says former Redskins receiver Roy Jefferson, a longtime 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 and won’t have anything to do with him.”
The list of people who would rather eat glass than take Bell’s calls is impressive: Redskin great Larry Brown, Sugar Ray Leonard, John Thompson, Dave Bing, Rock Newman, Jim Vance, Glenn Harris, and Don King. Any and all would have been welcome additions to the Lloyd tribute.
Bell’s controversial bent eventually left him without any local station willing to broadcast his show, so he concentrates on print diatribes now. Not that he’s changed his style. At Bolling, next to a display in the foyer dedicated to the guest of honor, Bell posted photocopies of columns he’d written for the Washington New Observer blasting some of the higher-profile truants. In one, Bell accuses Thompson of hiding assets from his estranged wife and betraying his blackness by letting a white man replace him on the Hoyas bench. He also lambastes Leonard as a chemically addled domestic abuser, alleges that Newman mismanaged Riddick Bowe and mishandled the boxer’s money, and writes that Don King doesn’t support black media enough and hasn’t lived up to a promise to fund Bell’s radio shows.
Exactly why Bell brought the stories to the event is unclear. Unless he wanted to show that he’s still as brutally honest as he used to be. Or to explain why some people who could have really helped spread the word about Lloyd stayed away from the proceedings. In Bell’s world, the absences couldn’t be just written off to the vagaries of scheduling and the passing of time. In his world, there is always a story behind the story.Dave McKenna