Fran McCaffery’s Background Shaped His Fight for Racial Equality
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Fran McCaffery was raised in a Philadelphia neighborhood that changed as he grew up.
“It went from predominately white to predominately black over about a five-year period, I’d guess,” McCaffery said.
Across the street from the McCaffery home was Samuel Pennypacker School, where his love for basketball blossomed.
“At first we were just going over there to mess around,” said the University of Iowa’s men’s basketball coach. “When I went over there a few years later, I was going over to hoop. And it was all black kids in the school yard.”
McCaffery was recently named to the Big Ten’s Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition. And his background makes him a wise choice.
McCaffery stood out on the basketball court because of his skill, and the color of his skin. He was often the only white player on his team. Sometimes the only white player in the gym.
“I grew up in the city and I grew up in a predominately black neighborhood playing in schoolyards with nothing but black kids, and I had a game that reflected the city,” McCaffery said. “And it was a city game. As opposed to a kid who grew up shooting in his own back yard. To be truthful, that’s the reason I never developed a great jump shot. The two baskets we played on across the street (at Pennypacker School) didn’t have any nets. So we were taking everything to the hole.”
His city skills earned him a nickname, “White Magic.” It was given to him by Julius Thompson, a black sportswriter in Philadelphia. Lewis Lloyd, a Philadelphia hoops legend who played at Drake, was nicknamed “Black Magic.” McCaffery and Lloyd would spend some time as teammates in one of the many leagues and all-star events they played in.
Jack and Shirley McCaffery wanted their sons, Fran and Jack, to attend private school.
“They believed in that,” Fran said. “So we went to private school.”
When Fran was in fifth grade, his school team played against a team coached by Sam Rines.
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“He said, “You know, you’re pretty good,’ ” McCaffery recalled. “I’m taking some teams here and there to play. He asked my dad if it would be OK if I played. (Rines) said, “We’re going to find out how good he is. We’re going to challenge him.”
Jack McCaffery gave his blessing.
“So we went down into North Philadelphia to play,” Fran said. “That’s where a lot of great players came from.”
McCaffery’s game passed this test in Philadelphia’s inner city, and opened many more doors. Rines, who is black, told McCaffery he wanted him to try out for an all-star team sponsored by the Philadelphia Youth Organization. Two all-star teams were picked: one from Philadelphia, one from New York. They’d play a home-and home series. There were different age groups – 12-14, 14-16, 16-18 and the pros.
More than 150 players tried out for the 12-14 team.
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“They cut to like 30 players,” McCaffery said. “Then it was like training camp. We practiced three-and-a-half to four hours for three or four weeks before they made final cuts.”
McCaffery became the first white player to make the team.
“It was great,” Fran said. “The intensity, the talent, trying to see how good you were, and playing against the best players and developing confidence, that kind of thing.”
A few years later, McCaffery was playing in Philadelphia’s famed Sonny Hill League.
“I was in the Futures League, which was for eighth- and ninth-graders,” McCaffery said. “I was the only white player in the league. By the time I got in the high school league there were more. But it was very competitive. The best players in the city played in it. Some white kids wouldn’t play in it, but some would.”
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Fran found it a perfect test of his basketball skills.
“The bottom line is if you wanted to see how good you were, you needed to go down there and play,” McCaffery said. “You needed to find out how good you were. Your game was going to be challenged. So was your toughness. The coaching was spectacular. The guys just knew the game. It was a lot of fun.”
McCaffery made the Philadephia Youth Organization all-star team every year through high school. He and Lloyd were teammates when Fran was a high school senior.
McCaffery traveled the city to test his game against the best. Sometimes it was on the Temple campus. Or maybe the Bright Hill Baptist Church in North Philadelphia.
“You just drove down to the game,” McCaffery said. “You parked your car and walked in. We’re playing that team. These are my guys. This is my coach. Now if you stop and think about it, “OK, I’m the only white guy here right now. There might be a few others. Maybe Herm Rogul, a local sports writer. Bob Johnson was a white coach in that league.’ ”
McCaffery remembers friends asking him, “You’re going to Bright Hill Baptist Church to play?’ I’d say, “Yea, that’s where the best players are. I want to get better. I could go and play against Gene Banks, and Lewis Lloyd, and Larry Gainey, and Keith Parham. Or I could stay in the suburbs and beat the guys I’m better than.”
McCaffery was all about improving his game. The color of someone’s skin was never an issue.
“It’s not like you thought about it,” McCaffery said. “It’s just how it was. Others would ask you questions like, “Wow, you’re really going to play there?’ I said, “What’s the big deal? It was no big deal. It was hoopin. I’d tell them, “I love the game, and I want to get better.’ ”