Excerpt: Why Basil Shabazz, Arkansas’ Greatest Athlete, Wasn’t a Razorback

shabazz

At last, the elusive legend has found a home.

Photo taken by Arshia Khan; courtesy of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. 

 

Imagine you’re 12 years old.

Like most kids, you crave acceptance. Unlike most kids, the acceptance you want the most isn’t from classmates. It’s from your own parents.

You rarely see your father, but over time that kinda, sorta becomes O.K.  Some of your friends are in the same boat and nobody’s drowned yet. What gets you – what at a certain level will never stop getting you – is your mother’s rejection. Your mom, a gambling addict, up and left you and your siblings in Pine Bluff and headed to her hometown San Diego with the excuse of finding work. Two Greyhound bus tickets and a few nights later, you and your older brother are knocking on her door.

It doesn’t work out. She isn’t any more ready to provide for her children now than she was in Arkansas. Soon enough, you’re on that bus again, heading to a home with no parents.

The pain is there, always will be. You can’t run from it. But soon enough, you find you can run from just about everything else.

***

Shabazz.

Say the word in most states, an image of a genie, magic lamp, or young basketball pro with the last name ‘Muhammad’ springs to mind.

But here in Arkansas, the name conjures visions of our  greatest all-around athlete. The guy who was the very definition of “natural” – who, instead of lifting weights in the off-season, annually lifted the fortunes of his football, then basketball, then track and baseball teams. The guy who to this day remains the only Arkansan to win the National Sports News Services’ USA High School Athlete of the Year award. And, to this day, remains one of the most tantalizing “What-if” stories in Razorback lore.

If you want to better understand how Basil Shabazz rose to the top of the prep athletic world, read Nate Olson’s article in SYNC this week. In it, we learn how Shabazz’s lack of parental guidance might have fueled early success but derailed his chances of sustaining it. For instance, young Shabazz developed a form of “cross training” most children wouldn’t be allowed to even attempt:

He chased and caught rabbits with his bare hands. His strategy was to steer the rabbit to the pavement, where it lost traction, then scoop it up. Shabazz also worked out on the railroad tracks, running from tie to tie without his feet hitting the gravel in between, and running on the rails.

Both of those exercises could have resulted in injury, but Shabazz claims he rarely fell. “When I ran on the rails, I tried to see how fast and far I could go. I made a game out of it and tried to beat my record each time,” Shabazz says.

His other favorite pastime was swimming in the Safeway loading dock. After a heavy rain, water collected in the dock, and Shabazz swam laps.

“I think all of those things helped,” he says. “It helped me get quick feet and gave me lateral quickness and kept me in shape.”

Seriously: what kind of kid spends hours and hours alone on train tracks, tempting fate with every bound? Who runs to a nearby grocery store during thunderstorms, only to jump into its overflowing loading dock?

It’s clear Shabazz was a kid seriously in need of distractions, no matter how ill-conceived or dangerous, and didn’t have parents to steer him elsewhere.

He found a home in sports,  and in the love of the families of his best friends/teammates Torii Hunter and Carlos James. But it cannot be forgotten that our state’s most gifted athlete was playing with a severe handicap – no strong parental guidance to push him in academics, or help him navigate the series of critical decisions he faced as high school graduation drew near.

For the rest of this story, visit Sporting Life Arkansas.

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Basil Shabazz Memories: An Unexpected Christmas Gift

I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, so I no longer expect to wake up on Christmas morning with treats stuffed in my stocking.

I do, however, believe in longtime Arkansas sportswriter Walter Woodie. And Woodie recently left an email in my inbox that made me smile as much as any snow-dusted Snickers bar from the North Pole could have.

He sent me the following game report from an Arkansas high school football final in 1990. I consider the game’s star, Basil Shabazz, to be an Arkansas version of Bo Jackson. This game represented his finest moment:

Shabazz Texarkana REAL

 

 

 

 

Here are some immediate impressions:

1. Texarkana quarterback Mike Cherry would end up as a highly touted freshman for the Arkansas Razorbacks. As Barry Lunney’s perpetual backup, however, he never could carve out consistent paying time. Houston Nutt, then a UA assistant, coached him at the start of his college career. In 1993, Nutt left to become head coach of Murray State. Two years later, Cherry transferred to that same Kentucky school and led Nutt’s teams to two conference titles.

Read the rest of this entry »


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