Sherman White rebuilt a life and left a legacy
By TARA SULLIVAN
The repetitive thud of a bouncing basketball is the afternoon soundtrack to so many hometowns, a sports cadence that forever echoes within our playgrounds and parks. At Mackay Park in Englewood, that percussive beat is joined by the whispered reverberations of a human voice, too.
Sherman White’s physical presence left us Thursday, when the 82-year-old former Englewood basketball phenom passed away. Yet his legacy lives through the generations of basketball stars who learned so much of their game from him. His deep, rich, confident voice echoes not only in their heads, but on the very same Englewood court that bears his name.
“He was a giant of a man and he showed that by how he helped develop so many young boys into men,” recalled Melvin Drakeford, a fellow Englewood athletic standout who spearheaded the 2010 effort to dedicate the court in White’s honor. “Mackay Park was the only event, the only location we had in the Fourth Ward. Ninety percent of the Fourth Ward was black — that park was our oasis and Sherman was our pioneer.”
White was a 6-foot-8 big man with a little man’s agility and quickness, an all-around player ahead of his time, a dominant force who led Dwight Morrow High School to a perfect season in 1947. Arguably the greatest player ever to come out of Bergen County, he would go on to lead the nation in scoring as a senior at Long Island University in Brooklyn.
That would prove to be his last appearance in the basketball limelight.
That White never enjoyed his seemingly destined NBA career was his own well-documented doing; he was banned from the league after serving an eight-month jail sentence for his role in the infamous point-shaving scandals that rocked metro area college basketball programs in the early 1950s. White never got to fulfill his all-but-assured career with the Knicks, and his anticipated addition promised to put New York over the championship hurdle.
White deserved to pay a price for his cheating, but so should have the many other players, mobsters, coaches and street agents who either were involved or looked the other way. Life didn’t work out that way, but rather than dissolve into a sad, post-prison life, White found a place in the Eastern Pro League, outclassing his competition for years. He found his place on the playgrounds — talking, mentoring or coaching the young players in his shadow.
He made a life and he left a legacy.
Drakeford is a living example, so inspired by White’s abilities that he would become the first black quarterback in Dwight Morrow history, leading his team to a state championship in 1958. His work with the Mackay Park Legacy Committee was responsible for that cold afternoon last fall when Mackay Park officially became Sherman White court.
It had long been Sherman White’s court.
“Should have happened 50 years earlier,” Drakeford said in a phone call Monday. “When I first approached Sherman, he said, ‘I’m 80 years old and they haven’t retired my jersey at Dwight Morrow.’ Then he said, ‘You know, I’ve traveled all around the world and I always say Englewood is my home.’ He was so proud.”
He also was determined. After what he considered an unacceptable 13-8 record as a junior at Dwight Morrow, White spent his summer walking across the George Washington Bridge with little more than a jelly sandwich and a subway token in his pocket, making his way to the famed courts of Harlem to improve his game.
He brought the lessons back to Mackay, coaching anyone who would listen, getting down on his hands and knees to dig irrigation trenches when rain poured down on the then-dirt surface. He instilled the game plans that would lead to an unforgettable 28-0 senior season.
Whatever team he played for, he was heard.
“He’d communicate because people listened to him with that deep, clear voice,” said Hank Morano, a Hillsdale resident and onetime Eastern League opponent of White. “He could do everything on the court and plus be a leader. That’s who he was.”
The news of White’s death brought images of his soaring, graceful frame to Morano’s mind, memories of a time as Eastern League All-Star teammates when White volunteered to spend the second half of the game guarding sharpshooting guard Chet Forte, whose deadly set shot had torched them in the opening half.
“Not only did he not score again, he couldn’t even get a shot off,” Morano said.
White never got to bring that all-around game to the NBA, having paid the steepest price for his criminal mistake. He knew it, admitting his regret in many interviews, but he never let it define him. When players pass the plaque that bears his name at Mackay Park, when they tap it on their way to the court for good luck, they learn not just of him, but from him.
“Read it and understand who this giant was,” Drakeford said. “As Vince Lombardi said, it’s not a question of did you get knocked down, it’s a question of if you got back up.”
Sherman White knocked himself down, but never out.