At first, Brookville seemed idyllic to the young African-American basketball player from Harlem.
Bill Chamberlain had come to the north Nassau village in 1965 to attend high school at Long Island Lutheran.
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“It was like a new world,’’ said Chamberlain, 66, who later helped pave the way for Michael Jordan and other black athletes at the University of North Carolina.
“You’ve got to picture this. I’m from a concrete-and-steel neighborhood; out there was a 36-acre campus with rolling grass fields. My classmate rode a horse to school. I was like, ‘What is this?’ It was awesome to see kids my age driving cars. It was like, ‘Wow. This is happening 45 miles from where I was born?’ It opened my eyes to the fact that there was a whole other world very close to where I thought the whole world was concrete and steel.’’
Chamberlain, now an emergency management training officer for the state of North Carolina, soon would learn that other world wasn’t quite so perfect.
While attending LuHi, Chamberlain stayed with the family of Rev. Ed Visscher, the school’s headmaster and basketball coach. Visscher’s residence was on school grounds, not far from Tam O’Shanter golf course. Visscher had five children, but there was always room for one more. “I thought most people had 6-foot-6 older brothers,’’ said Jon Visscher, whose father died in 1999.
Chamberlain and Bobby Cabbagestalk, a black player from the Lower East Side of Manhattan who also lived with Visscher’s family,
stayed close to the house. “We weren’t out and about all over the area,’’ he said.
The neighbors didn’t approve.
“A lot of people were very touchy about us being there,’’ Chamberlain said.
Criticism was leveled against Visscher for recruiting players, and to Chamberlain, it had racial overtones. “A lot of boosters and people out there in the community thought he was doing a bad thing,’’ Chamberlain said. “Essentially, when racism is a factor, folks who are in power enjoy the status quo.’’
Jon Visscher, now a financial planner in Florida, said of his father, “He was aware that people would sometimes consider him, quote unquote, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I think to a degree that bothered him. There were times when we had kids living with us that had nothing to do with athletics.’’
Some students at Lutheran considered minority recruits outsiders. “There were some kids who just didn’t like that at all,’’ said Gretchen Patti of Chicago, Chamberlain’s classmate at the time. “It was ‘we don’t know these guys, we don’t know where they’re from, what are they doing here?’ These kids [the basketball players] were the best in speech club, the best in basketball and all-around the best kids.’’
Chamberlain became a favorite. “He inspired me to play,’’ said Paul Hinch, who was cut as a sophomore from the junior varsity but came back and made the varsity the following year. Hinch’s father was a pastor at Lutheran and Chamberlain lived with his family for a time as well.
Chamberlain said he attended Lutheran because in the city, “I was held back in the seventh grade for conduct and acting like a knucklehead. My parents wanted me out of New York City schools.’’
His mother was a teacher and his father managed a rent control office in uptown Manhattan. They paid full tuition for him to attend Lutheran. “They were both solid financially,’’ Chamberlain said.
Lutheran, then and today, provided a great opportunity to showcase talented players and position them for college scholarships. In Chamberlain’s time, the opportunity existed, but the path contained obstacles.
Lutheran had no home court and played many of its games at college venues such as C.W. Post and Farmingdale. Lutheran was a lightning rod for conversation because its basketball teams usually were superior to those at public schools. Add the racial tinge and it could become volatile. “There was one particular hostile game,’’ said Ken Pforr, Chamberlain’s former Lutheran teammate. “Remarks were made and I got between the two players. I was a football player on the basketball team. I was a pretty big guy. I basically told the guy if he said anything again, I’d beat the crap out of him.’’
Welcome to the South
That was just a taste of what was to come for Chamberlain when he decided — out of what he said were 120 offers — to attend North Carolina, where he played on the freshman team in the 1968-69 season alongside current Tar Heels coach Roy Williams.
The Atlantic Coast Conference was in the early stages of integration. Chamberlain became only the second black player behind Charlie Scott to be offered a scholarship from the same school that 12 years later would welcome a freshman named Michael Jordan.
Chamberlain’s recruiting process had rough moments. The head coach of one institution invited Chamberlain and his father to dinner but didn’t speak to them throughout the meal, letting his assistant do all the talking. “At the end, the [head] coach says to my father he’ll buy me a watch. My father said, ‘I’ll buy him my own damn watch’ and walked out.’’
Chamberlain did not want to take the path of least resistance and play at a more racially temperate institution. His parents wanted him to attend Princeton after famous alumnus Bill Bradley came to their apartment to make a recruiting pitch. Another coach came to Harlem with his wife and children and Chamberlain told him, for safety’s sake, to get back in the car.
When he selected North Carolina, primarily because he believed coach Dean Smith shared the same religious values and advocacy for civil rights as Lutheran coach Visscher, Chamberlain said there was negativity from his friends in Harlem. “The Black Panther movement was strong, so was the civil rights issue,’’ he said. “Guys are saying to me, ‘Why you going down to play with the whites?’ ’’
The “Jim Crow laws’’ enforcing segregation had been struck down just three years before Chamberlain arrived at North Carolina, but compliance was slow.
Chamberlain said he heard everything “the South had to offer, including racial epithets. I got into fights. I wasn’t a peaceful person. [In a game], a guy hit me in the mouth with an elbow and called me the n-word. I chased him to half-court and punched him in the face in front of 12,900 people. We fought against South Carolina, we fought against Virginia. Not just pushing and shoving; straight up bare-knuckle fighting. I even heard the n-word in Chapel Hill, but that was the nature of the space and time.’’
Bob McAdoo, Chamberlain’s North Carolina teammate and a future basketball Hall of Famer, added, “You saw Ku Klux Klan at games. Students used to run through with the Confederate flag. Black students finally made them take it down. Jordan and [James] Worthy didn’t have to go through that.’’
Chamberlain, who is married with two children, said he never regretted attending North Carolina. It all seemed worth it in 1971 when he was named MVP as the Tar Heels won the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden. In a first-round game, Chamberlain held famed Roosevelt High School and later Nets star Julius Erving — Dr. J — to 13 points.
“I ended up a collegiate All-American with the opportunity to graduate from college and play professional ball,’’ said Chamberlain, who averaged 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds at North Carolina. He played briefly in the ABA with Memphis and Kentucky and in the NBA with Phoenix.
Chamberlain has remained close to those he knew at Lutheran. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2008, and his feelings remain strong toward Visscher.
“He gave somebody a chance,’’ Chamberlain said, “regardless of the color of your skin.’’