Hanging Out in the NBA TV Green Room With ... Ken Howard
Posted Nov 10 2005 6:50PM
White Shadow star pays a visit to the NBA studio
By Alex Tarshis
In 1978, Ken Howard took on a role on a television series that would continue to resonate with basketball fans around the country nearly 30 years after that series first aired. As coach Ken Reeves, on the popular television series "The White Shadow", Howard played the part of a former NBA player whose career was cut short by injuries, leading to his taking a job as high school basketball coach in an inner city school.
There have been very few sports themed TV shows, and even fewer that have the cult following that "The White Shadow" has enjoyed. Why do you think that is?
Ken Howard: I think it is because it was home made. I had an idea and I went to Bruce Paltrow and he was a friend of mine who I had worked with, worked with his daughter [Gwyneth] as well. And I said, ĎHow about me as a coach?í You know, I played ball a lot, I played on a high school team where I was the only white guy, so I had this idea in my head. Thatís a pretty good image, isnít it? A guy who was in the NBA, a white guy, and now heís a coach, and he really knows the game. Heís coaching in a racially mixed inner city school, heís got to deal with all his kidsí stuff, and that was it.
We went to CBS, we pitched it and they said, "We donít have anything like that. I donít knowÖall right, weíll take a look at it." Then they gave us the commitment, and we had the go. We were kind of finding our way as we went though, if you know what I mean. The whole show, although CBS was supportive, it was a battle right from the beginning. They wanted us to be a half-hour sitcom, and we said, listen, we are going to be funny, but we want to deal with all these various issues. Well, it canít be all about basketball, they said. No, it wonít, but the basketball has got to look real. People have to think, 'OK, we believe that he is really a coach, that he is really a player.' And then we can go everywhere, and the everywhere was where they really didnít want us to go. Please stay away from sex, drugs, crime. And we said, ĎWhy do you think we are doing the show?!? Thatís all the stuff that is out there, the demons, that these kids are dealing with.í And we were figuring out what we wanted to do as we were confronted with this stuff, with the ĎWhy?!? Isnít that what we are doing?í So the next thing you know, we are breaking all kinds of ground. I mean, we were dealing with VD (venereal disease) and teenage pregnancy and drugs and gambling ... we figured, why not?!?
So, you were one of the few white players on your high school team? Thatís where this whole idea originally came from?
I was from a town called Manhasset, very nice town out on the North Shore of Long Island, New York, but there was a little area, predominantly black population, and it was a small school. I played on the basketball team when I was a junior and I was the only white guy on the starting five, the top seven actually, and we were really good. But, it wasnít the ghetto, there werenít exactly racial tensions really, but we ran into it more when we played in other places.
What we did have, though, was four guys, five guys really, who were really quick. And once the game started we would go into a press and I would be in the back and the four guys who are pressing are the state track champions. I mean talk about fast, they were quick too. Quickness, quickness, quickness. And funny guys too, very cool, so when this show went on the air everybody in my hometown just knew it was about that team. The colors were orange and blue, I was dressed just like Fritz Mueller, our coach.
So while a lot of the stories had to do with things from the ghetto, they were not from my own life. However, all kinds of little pieces, little jokes, little behaviors, like singing in the shower, all kinds of things like that, totally came from my memory of playing high school basketball. And these guys were really funny. I mean, they could have been the Temptations. So I really did have that stuff in my head that would have seemed like a crazy leap if someone was creating a show like that, but I was there, Iím telling you, so it canít be that absurd to have a bunch of brothers who are funny and singing in the shower and being cool about it, because I saw it!! I was there, so I know it happened!! And also the coach, who was a wonderful man, not quite as cocky as Reeves was, all wise guy and smooth and such, but in a way the same idea, real ... color blind. You know thatís what good coaches are. All they care about is talent and what you are made of and thatís it.
So, what qualities of coach Ken Reeves did you take from coaches that you played for?
I mean thatís No. 1, what I just mentioned, and also, there are two things that you hear when you are a kid, usually in Junior High, when you just start playing. And Fritz was a junior high school teacher at the time so I was already getting coaching without knowing it, and I remember him saying, Ďthese are 2 things you can take to the bank about the game of basketball, the way it works. One is, no matter how fast you are, you can always move faster without the ball than with the ball. And no matter how fast you are, the ball can always move faster than you.í Now you put those two together, and itís a way of saying itís not just pass because you want to be the next guyís best friend, it just works better. You can not beat that, it is physics, and therefore, we can get out there as a team and beat guys who individually are better than we are because we know that while I canít beat that guy, I know where I am going and he doesnít. I know where the ball is going to be, he doesnít, so you beat him.
About the DVD, other than the episodes, is there anything else on there we should know about?
Timmy Van Patten and I, the guy who played Salami, he is a big-time director now, he directs "The Sopranos," we just sat around and talked a lot on it about one of the episodes where he is fighting in clubs to make money on the side. That was actually one of my ideas for a show, I said, "Lets take Timmy and let him be Rocky for a while." This is a very street thing, you know, guys who fight on the side for money. Nonetheless, I know people have told me that they like hearing our commentary over the episodes about what it was like shooting it, and that is part of the fun of DVDs, the commentary.
Do you have a favorite episode from season No. 1?
Does it have to be from season No.1? Because usually I talk about the episode where I go back to New York and deal with my father, who was played by James Whitmore, because I thought it was so cool to be back in New York, being that it was such a New York show. Letís see, aside from the pilot, there was one show that I thought was very daring and so interesting, I couldnít tell you what it was called, and it was about a kid who was a little confused sexually, and his father had decided to put him in a tougher high school to see what he was made of. Maybe this wasnít the first season, Iím not sure, regardless, I wound up having a conversation with him, and I was playing a guy from Queens who was an NBA guy, who was probably not the most sensitive to these types of issues but was trying his best to do the right thing. Here we are, in a gym, me and this player and he breaks down telling me this, and I remember thinking, 'This is so real.' I just thought, for 1970-something, it was just amazing television. I mean, this was a quarter of a century ago and we were dealing with stuff that I donít think they would touch now.
So what was it that made you guys think, letís not just knock down one barrier, letís knock them all down, touching on all these various topics that nobody else wanted to go near?
Mostly, it was my relationship with Bruce [Paltrow]. (Laughing) He was always challenging me, saying, "Come on, what are you made of?" And we were from neighboring towns, we kind of had this New York sensibility, it was like, "Why not?" Not that we had a disdain for the networks, it wasnít that, more just an idea that we were going to do this. You could shut us down if you wanted to, but we were going to do this. We are not going to turn this into "Welcome Back, Kotter." Itís not going to happen.
Any basketball coach out there, college or pro, past or present, who reminds you of Ken Reeves?
Thatís an interesting question. I always thought Ken Reeves was like Bobby Cremins. You know, he was kind of street, kind of a wise guy city guy, with a good heart, who really knew his stuff. Bobby Cremins really knows basketball and he is a good man, too.
All right Ken, thanks for the time.