On November 30, 1971, ABC Television aired one of the most popular made-for-television movies of all time, “Brian’s Song.”
While it was a fairly inexpensive and campy production, the story has resonated for years and remains one of the most popular sports movies of all time.
It tells the story of 1960s-era Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Sayers, a No. 1 draft pick from Kansas and one of the greatest backs of all time, was played by a young Billy Dee Williams. Piccolo, an overachiever and an undrafted free agent from Wake Forest, was played by a young James Caan. The movie helped launch successful careers for both actors.
Because they played the same position, Sayers and Piccolo were placed together as roommates. Sayers was black and Piccolo was white. Interracial roommates were not that prevalent in the mid-1960s.
Piccolo became sick and died of cancer on June 16, 1970. Through his illness, his friendship with Sayers grew stronger. When “Brian’s Song” aired just after Thanksgiving of 1971, there was not a dry eye in the country.
Many in our state may not realize it, but we had our own version of “Brian’s Song,” and it took place several years before the movie came out.
In the academic year of 1966-67, Danny D’Antoni from Mullens was a sophomore point guard for Ellis Johnson’s Marshall basketball team and George Stone was a sharp-shooting junior forward from Covington, Ky. D’Antoni was white. Stone was black.
Stone went on to score 1,723 points in his career, still good for seventh on Marshall’s all-time scoring list. While no assist records were kept, we can bet that D’Antoni assisted on many of those points.
The two became national figures when Stone lit up college basketball’s biggest stage of the time, the old Madison Square Garden in New York, and scored 46 points to lead Marshall to a 119-76 win over Nebraska in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
In that 1966-67 year, D’Antoni and Stone became roommates in South Hall on the MU campus, something very unusual during the height of the Civil Rights movement. They played ball together, hung out together, ate meals together and had heated daily games of Scrabble.
In the summer, Stone would take D’Antoni into inner-city Cincinnati, where they played summer-league games. There were many times that D’Antoni was the only white player in the league. Even in the heat of summer competition, with racial strife ripping the country apart, Stone and his friends always assured D’Antoni that he would be safe.
In late January of 1967, the entire Marshall team encountered a tense racial situation. The Herd had traveled to Tallahassee, Fla., and came away with a 77-71 win over Florida State. It was an important win in what would be a 20-8 season. After the game, the team returned to its hotel and one van was dispatched to get post-game food. In the van were Johnson, Stone, D’Antoni and teammates Jim Davidson, Bob Redd and Dallas Blankenship.
While at the restaurant, the Marshall group was taunted by a group of eight white local college-aged antagonists. They yelled racial slurs at the black players and taunted D’Antoni, Blankenship and even coach Johnson for being with the black players.
In a scene reminiscent of the movie “Porky’s” in white, redneck Florida, the truck tried to ram the van and run it off the road as the group headed back to the hotel.
Upon returning to the hotel, Davidson, a tough, physical player from Logan, and Redd, an ex-Marine, jumped out of the van and began eagerly going after the local gang. Before long, the rest of their teammates joined in and the group of antagonists left battered and bruised.
Former WSAZ-TV sportscaster Bob Bowen was on the trip. He used to tell the story that while most of the Marshall team was fighting, Stone went to a maid’s cart and began throwing rolls of toilet paper at the gang. It made for an amusing anecdote to a tense story.
The incident only helped make the friendship between the roommates stronger. D’Antoni went on to a long career in coaching, while Stone played in the ABA for the Utah Stars and Carolina Cougars, winning an ABA title with Utah in 1971. His friendship with D’Antoni remained strong until Stone’s death of a heart attack in 1993.
I doubt Stone and D’Antoni realized they were making social history in our state in 1967. They were just two college kids and two friends who chose each other as roommates. They truly were “Brian’s Song” before the movie — and without the tear-jerking ending.
Reach Frank Giardina at firstname.lastname@example.org.