Old Westbury's Tomlin sharing black history

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Black History Month prompts reflection for Bernard Tomlin, the SUNY-Old Westbury men's basketball coach. He gives his players a lesson in history, some of it very personal.

"Athletics today is not the way it has always been," said Tomlin, 56. "I grew up in a time when a lot of my friends went to predominantly black schools. That was their best option."

In many cases, the only option.

Tomlin tried bucking that trend, going from Malverne High School to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City in the early 1970s. He was the only African-American member of the freshman team.

"When we went on the road to certain schools, you would hear things," Tomlin said. He need not elaborate. He later transferred to Hofstra.

Tomlin has set up workshops in which his players learn about not only their heritage - and ordeal - in athletics but in this country's civil rights movement.

In years past, although black and white athletes had the same aspirations - playing college basketball - few blacks had the same opportunity.

"I wasn't aware of the struggle they went through," junior forward Hakiem George said. "Growing up as a kid playing basketball, I was just having fun. You have to give thanks, you have no choice. It was like a civil rights movement for basketball. There were times when we couldn't use the same bathroom or water fountain. People have to think and know what it was like then and now. To think you had to look at a sign to drink water or use the bathroom."

George watched the movie "Glory Road," which chronicled the 1965-66 Texas Western University team. That's the team that included numerous black players struggling for acceptance in an area of the country that was largely segregated - and a team that started five black players and upset all-white Kentucky to win the national championship.

"It showed what people went through just to be on the court," George said. "I don't know too many athletes now that would put their life on the line to play the sport. It showed how much athletes before us went through just to show their talent."

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Junior guard Dwayne Messam said: "Some people take it for granted. Some people don't know what happened back in the day. One black person on a team. Sometimes they couldn't get anything to eat because they were black. He'd sit at the counter and ask for something to eat, but nobody would serve them."

Tomlin's lessons are open to the entire athletic department, and the workshops and movies are attended by all races.

"It gives you the opportunity to learn about what individuals from other cultures went through," said women's basketball player Carlie Moore, who is white. "I really don't see a difference [in the races]. Then again, I don't look for a difference."

Women's basketball star Pamela Robinson believes the message needs to resonate beyond this month, saying, "It should be incorporated throughout the year because it is part of American history."

Tomlin said the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president has made Black History Month all the more significant.

"It was like a team at the bottom that finally put it all together and wins the championship," he said. "It gives us all hope."

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