“Most people would kill…to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.” – Hoosiers
Bibb County, AL– A long time ago, in a stuffy gym in Centreville, Alabama, a god walked among them. He stood six-foot-five, his lean, heaven-carved frame gliding and slashing like a deer on parquet. The spectators, decked in their itchy 1970s polyesters, would cram shoulder-to-shoulder just to see him, fixing their stares on the greatest show the little town had ever seen. Has not seen since.
It must have been something to behold, this flash of greatness, this eyewitness sign of the supernatural, as he breached half-court, took a dribble or two, and lofted the brown sphere toward the rusty, well-worn rim, thirty feet away. Then to see the high, rainbow-like arc of the ball, to gaze wide-eyed at the majesty of it, to trace it as it flirted with the rafters before descending, descending. Then—oh!—the gallant sound of the snapping of the net, the pure hot unbridled energy of the gym, swaying, buckling, offering its maximum praise. Yes, few will forget the two short years that Charles Cleveland drifted into their lives and gave them something to celebrate. But few will understand the ache when the gods fall mortal.
Son, Change is Comin’
In the 1950s, the twin towns of Brent and Centreville sat quietly near the banks of the Cahaba River as residents grew up happily and modestly. The axis of activity was the square in downtown Centreville. Pulsing with an array of shops, a service station, a doctor’s office, a jail, and two churches, the square featured the lion-colored Bibb County Courthouse with its Romanesque architecture and onion dome tower rising valiantly into the sky. At night the square transformed into a cruising ground for teenagers, who crept by in long sedans and parked underneath the stars. Just off the square, the faces of Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, and Errol Flynn flashed from the reel at the Ritz Theatre. Further down, Walnut Street boasted a trio of eateries. There was the Twix-N-Tween, a favorite respite for travelers passing through on their way to a ballgame; Dairy Queen, a beloved hangout for youngsters; and the Southern Belle, a motel and restaurant with a swimming pool, where boys and girls would splash unceasingly through the furnace of summer. An assortment of Baptist and Methodist churches dotted the area, and most residents were churchgoers who took their faith seriously and attended often. For most, it was a delightful place to live. But behind this enchanting portico was the slum of Jim Crow, segregation protracting almost without notice.
The towns went on like this for quite some time. Schools, restaurants, and public businesses remained segregated. If whites interacted with blacks, they did so as recipients of service. A mop boy at the Southern Belle, a nanny who cooked, cleaned, and helped raise children. At the Ritz Theatre, whites enjoyed floor seats while blacks sat in the balcony. Restrooms and water fountains were marked “white” and “colored.” At some restaurants, blacks had to receive their meals through the back door. As he would grow older, Everlina Cleveland’s son, Charles, failed to understand this humiliating dynamic, but she would lean in and assure him, “Son, change is comin’.”
As the tumultuous decade of the 1960s came to a close, many Alabama towns were forced to deal with the looming issue of integration, and Centreville-Brent was no exception. Soon persons of a different color would share classrooms and toil beside one another on athletic fields. Sport, generally undervalued in its impact on race relations in the American consciousness as a whole, provided no greater factor for the amalgamation of races in Bibb County in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Because when Everlina’s son walked onto the floor at Bibb County High School in 1969, people began to forget about race.
Charles Edward Cleveland was born on April 25, 1951, in a community on Old Bear Creek Road in Brent. The family lived in a modest wooden house, and to make ends meet, Everlina performed housework—cooking, cleaning, ironing, washing, and sewing—for several families in the area. Charles was the second child of Everlina, a widow who had decided to keep the Cleveland name after her husband—with whom Everlina had had a child, Jimmy Charles Cleveland—passed away. After Jimmy and Charles, Everlina welcomed four more children into the household: Ray Charles, Ruby Jean, John Thomas, and Sara. It was a loving household.
Growing up, Charles knew that his father was still alive, but his identity remained largely in obscurity. Until older male influences came into Charles’s life during his adolescent years, Everlina remained the sole parental authority and the lone source of guidance.
Around the time Charles was 7 or 8, the family moved to a home in the “On the Hill” section of Brent, an area with ramshackle houses and mobile homes displayed in a flamboyant array of colors. The house had a front porch and a little yard to grow vegetables or raise chickens. Mules and pigs tromped over the property. As the family grew, the house became crammed. Charles’s bedroom was small and plain, and he shared the room with the rest of his brothers. But he could look out through the window and see the sun set.
More than anything, Charles and his brothers loved to play ball, but poverty often required them to make up their own games. Equipment was of the patchwork variety. They would spend the days tossing the football in the side yard or lofting a rubber ball at a coal tub—the boys’ makeshift basketball hoop that was a product of ingenuity. Bats were constructed from oak limbs; balls from socks. They developed their arms by throwing rocks at cans stacked up like a pyramid.
“Charles got so good at it that he began knocking the can off the top,” Ray Charles said.
Eventually, the boys graduated to moving targets: rabbits, squirrels, and such.
Charles and Ray Charles would play ball at the local housing projects or sometimes hitch a ride to Faucett Jr. High and gather up a game on the dirt court.
“We played on dirt all the way up until we went to Davidson,” said Ray Charles.
If Charles was wayward in any manner, his proclivities involved absence from school. Charles had a tendency to play hooky, and often the principal would have to locate him and to drag him to class. “His momma would tell me he was playing hooky, and I’d find Charles out behind the housing project playing marbles or just goofing off,” said David Harris, principal at Faucett during the time Charles was growing up.
Basketballs were prized commodities for families like the Clevelands. Charles would practice until late in the evening and toss the ball on Mr. Harris’s front porch to make sure it remained in a safe place. As much as extra practice would benefit Charles in later years, not everyone was enthralled with his nighttime habits. Lawrence Barron, a childhood friend, recalls an evening when Charles was shooting hoops until at least 10 p.m. When Charles came home, his mother wasn’t pleased. “I remember one night I stayed with him—and he wouldn’t want me tellin’ this on him—but his momma gave him a whuppin’,” Barron said.
Aside from these minor rebellions, Charles was a model kid.
Charles attended Faucett until the seventh grade, when he transferred to H.D. Davidson, a school located on the edge of town. By the late 1960s, schools in the Centreville-Brent area had not integrated, and the only faces Charles saw as he looked to his left and his right were black. Coach Wallace Miller, who was an assistant football coach and the head basketball coach at Davidson, caught an early glimpse of Charles’s potential. “He was an exceptional athlete then,” Miller said. “You could tell. He played football and he was outstanding.”
But Miller didn’t sense there was something truly special about Charles until he witnessed him on the hardwood. “Then I knew he had the makings of a great one,” Miller said.
Cleveland tossed in 20 points per game in both his freshman and sophomore seasons at Davidson.
Miller grew to be a father figure for Charles and stressed education as a way out. On Sundays, he would pick Charles up from his home and take him to church.
Charles reciprocated by being a well-behaved young man; no prima donna or braggadocios gene existed with him. He was coachable, respectful, and his heart pulsed for basketball.
“He would always do what you told him to do,” Miller said. “He’d do it and wouldn’t have any qualms about it.”
Word began to spread of Charles’s exploits. One night when John Ed Belvin, a junior at nearby Bibb County, was riding around with a friend, his curiosity piqued. When they drove by the Davidson gym and noticed the lights were on, Belvin suggested, “let’s go in!”
“My buddy was like, ‘you’re crazy,” Belvin recalls.
The pair circled the building three or four times before mustering enough courage to walk inside. As they swung open the door and walked through a foyer area to pay for their tickets, Belvin and his friend felt a barrage of odd looks. “Everyone looks at us like,’ What are y’all doin’ here?” Belvin said. “It made us feel uncomfortable.”
As they approached the gym doors, they were greeted by a “big husky black man,” Belvin remembered.
“You boys come on in!” the man said. “Come on in and have a seat. Sit anywhere you like!”
Taken aback by this kind gesture, Belvin scanned the gymnasium, packed front to back with bodies. Inside his mind, he noted that, save for one of the referees, he and his friend were the only Caucasians in the gym. Belvin picked out two courtside seats in fold out chairs and sat down. During warm-ups, Belvin mentioned to his friend that Cleveland, due to his height and length, had to be the team’s center. He was grossly mistaken. At tip off, Charles caught a pass, pulled up from twenty-five feet and launched a jumper. As the ball passed through the net, the entire crowd in unison yelled, “BOOM!”
“It was like the roof was going to blow off of that place,” Belvin recalls. “I was just blown away.”
As Miller worked to improve his basketball I.Q. and instill in him a never-quit attitude, he polished Cleveland’s raw materials into a sparkling gem of a basketball player. “When I got there, he already had his playing ability. I wanted to teach him to adjust to different situations,” Miller said. “I wanted [my players] to develop the mentality not to give up, to keep fighting until the game is over. I had them playing hard. I’m hoping that I taught him how to be a better winner.”
But the coach-player relationship between Miller and Cleveland was severed in 1968 as Bibb County forced integration and students at Davidson melted into the student body at Bibb County High. Not all of the Davidson teachers—including Wallace Miller—were so fortunate. After failing to find work in the Bibb County school system, Miller was forced to look for gainful employment elsewhere. Fortuitously, he landed on his feet at Tuscaloosa County High.
It was a narrative being told in all corners of the South.
Charles greeted white teammates for the first time in his life at Bibb County High School. He had a new head coach, Joe Elliott Jr., and new assistant coaches, John Pratt and Jerry Bumpers, also white. But despite the challenges inherent to integration, there were few racial conflicts at the school and none on the basketball team. The players soon found that the mixing of the races under the banner of competition facilitated racial harmony. Friendships budded. Many of the players—black, white—would pile in the beds of pickup trucks and ride down to the Dairy Queen. Because of these newfound amities, racial comity didn’t seem taboo, and the rest of the student body took from these cues.
And oh, how the Bibb County Choctaws loved to play ball. It wasn’t uncommon for a pickup game to be going on two, three, four nights a week. The boys were gym rats, would play for hours. Coach Elliott, the recipient of such gusto, employed a freewheeling, up-tempo offensive philosophy that featured his inherited stars. “And up-tempo may be an understatement,” Belvin says. “Coach Elliott realized he had some racehorses. And Charles was the head of the pack.”
By January 1970, the Choctaws were hitting their stride. A 10-team midseason tournament would test their mettle, and in the first round of the tournament, Bibb drew North Sumter Training School. Word had gotten back to the Bibb County players that the North Sumter coach was spouting off about how his team was going to win the tournament. “Our coach gave us the word,” Belvin said. “That tickled the heck out of us. We thought, let’s just go out here and bust their chops and see how bad we can beat these guys.”
By the end of the first quarter, Bibb County had already hung 39 points on the their hapless opponents. By halftime, Bibb had 74 on the scoreboard. “We scored 134 points that night,” Belvin said. “It’s hard to believe we scored that many points with eight-minute quarters. The other teams, they didn’t want to be on the court with you. We were darn good, but we didn’t know how much farther ahead we were.”
After an early season loss on a last-second shot, Bibb ran off thirty in a row. The team coasted through the state playoffs, defeating Marshall in the first round, 94-66, and Eufaula in the semifinals, 107-78. On February 28, 1970, Bibb won the Class 3A State Championship after an 87-76 victory over 28-1 Pell City.
For the season, Bibb was 33-1. They breached the 100-point-mark on nine occasions. Cleveland was named Class 3A MVP and MVP of the state tournament.
Although Cleveland was the most feared player, a very capable group of individuals surrounded him. A multisport athlete otherwise known as “The Hammer,” Leon Hester was a 6’2” guard with handles and the team’s second leading scorer. There was Willie Cash, Belvin, Charlie Bristol, Charles James, Carl Lawrence, and Clemmie Russell. Cleveland averaged 29.9 points and 23 rebounds per game, while Hester tossed in 26.1 a clip and grabbed 17 boards. “He possesses amazing physical equipment for a junior—very strong and fast enough to play in the backcourt,” Post-Herald sports writer Herby Kirby said of Cleveland.
By 1971, Hester had graduated and moved on to the University of South Alabama and it was now solely the Charles Cleveland show. That splendid year, Charles pumped in 36 points per game and snatched 20 boards en route to a 25-6 season for the Choctaws. But the team did not repeat as state champions, losing in the state semifinals to Colbert County.
In a playoff game against Fairfield, Cleveland got 53, hitting his last 11 shots in a row and tying a school record. As writer Mike Goodwin opined, “Cleveland could do anything with a basketball except make it laugh.”
But the argument could be made that Cleveland was as good in baseball and football as he was in basketball. A rangy right-hander, Cleveland brought thunder from the mound with his live arm. At wide receiver, he utilized his tall frame to snatch balls out of the air from any angle. “When Charles asks for the ball, you throw it to him,” was Coach John Pratt’s philosophy. At safety, Cleveland was a menacing presence. When the situation required, he played quarterback.
“There were not many players that had his size and speed and quickness,” Pratt said.
Charles performed so artfully on the field and court that many of the stories about him have been elevated to the level of tall tales. Or are they? Supposedly, Charles was once streaking through the end zone after he caught a pass, and, unable to put on the breaks, leapt over the chain-link fence that surrounded the field. On another occasion, Charles snagged a pass and just kept running, a la Forrest Gump. It seemed as though nothing could stop him—even himself.
But mostly, those who saw him speak of his remarkable shooting range. “When he crossed half court,” or “I saw him hit eight in a row” were frequent references to Cleveland’s deadly accuracy from long-distance. Unfortunately for him, no three-point line existed at the time; that the shots were long twos make his scoring stats even more remarkable.
Unlike many of today’s elite athletes, Charles always kept an attitude of humility. And from time to time, he demonstrated his ability to make others laugh. One particular story emanates from the time the Bibb County baseball team traveled to Tuscaloosa for an afternoon game against Tuscaloosa County High. On this day, school at TCHS had been let out, and the stands were packed with students. Charles, the cleanup hitter for the Choctaws, was taking swings in the on-deck circle when several girls from County high walked up to the fence and said giddily, “Hit me a home run, Charles!” Charles, never one to let his fans down, promptly stepped up to the plate and clocked one to centerfield. As Belvin recalled, the baseball field at TCHS did not offer a rounded outfield wall, but rather took on a V-shape that resembled one of the parks in the dead ball era of baseball—about 450 feet to dead center.
“Charles hits one a ton to centerfield,” Belvin said. “And it just rolled for miles.”
Charles hit it so far that he jogged around the bases for an inside-the-park home run. After crossing home plate, Charles hadn’t forgot about his fans. He trotted over, grabbed one of the young ladies by the hand, and kissed it.
“Just for you, baby,” Charles said. “Just for you.”
The young lady nearly melted, and Belvin and the other players in the dugout nearly fell out laughing. This was completely unexpected from the normally mild-mannered, aw-shucks Charles.
“Us guys in the dugout, we were just rolling,” Belvin said. “It wasn’t something he planned. It just fell in place.”
The hardware and interest followed. While at Bibb County, Cleveland earned All-American honors in both basketball and football, and was selected All Southern, All Conference, and All Dixie.
Offers. Cleveland got plenty of them. Letters poured in from over 200 colleges, as Charles caught the attention of football powerhouses Southern Cal, UCLA, Florida State, and Alabama. Coaches in three sports showed up in turnstile fashion to talk to Charles. While one walked out of the gymnasium, another walked in.
Charles eventually referred all potential suitors to Coach Miller, who, serving as his de facto proxy, was soon flying all over the country to talk about Charles. “Really and truly, about all the people that came to see Charles, he referred them to me,” Miller said. “You can’t imagine how many phone calls I received. I think it’s quite interesting that a lot of the schools offered me jobs as a graduate assistant, so I could work on my masters and coach some, too.”
Charles was even offered a $35,000 contract to play baseball for the Cincinnati Reds, a team that employed both Johnny Bench and Pete Rose and were on their way to constructing the famous Big Red Machine.
But perhaps the most tantalizing offer came from only thirty miles away, when Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant came a-calling. When Bryant came to see Cleveland play one night in Northport, Ala., he left uncertain of Charles’s potential. “The night I saw you [at Holt] they couldn’t get the ball to you, so I didn’t know if you were a prospect or not,” Bryant told Charles. Eventually, Bryant was convinced.
So he kept his eye on Charles and worked through an intermediary, Olan Belcher, a Centreville resident who was a teammate of Bryant’s in the thirties. “I know Coach Bryant wanted him to play football,” Miller recalls.
In the end, Bryant’s greatest competition was not Southern Cal or Florida State. It came from within the same athletic department.
Wimp Sanderson was an assistant basketball coach at Alabama and an indefatigable recruiter. The first time Sanderson laid eyes on Charles Cleveland was at a game in Clanton, Ala., when Charles was only in the ninth grade. Sanderson had come to recruit another player, but he could tell that Charles was going to be special. So for the next few years, Sanderson burned up Highway 82 to lure the Choctaws’ star to Tuscaloosa to play basketball for head coach C.M. Newton. On his way out of town, Sanderson would always “[backtrack] to the Southern Belle or Dairy Queen for a couple of hamburgers and a malted.”
“Charles Cleveland was a heck of an athlete,” Sanderson recalled from his home in Birmingham. “He could do everything. Wasn’t a very good student. He lived in a really bad environment at home from what I remember. It was work to get him and it was also work to see if we could get him in school because we had to monitor that all the time. The basketball coach was a friend of mine. Joe and I were close. I wanted him. Everybody wanted him. It was a struggle trying to get him.”
At one point, the chance to play football and basketball at Alabama was discussed, but Charles eventually concluded there was no way he could compete in both since the seasons overlapped. Although playing for a storied program such as Bryant’s was alluring, basketball eventually won out.
Charles narrowed his decision down to two finalists, Louisville and Alabama, while Bryant backed away. In the end, the proximity of Tuscaloosa and the recruiting savvy of Sanderson led to the decision to sign with Alabama.
It came time for Charles to sign and Sanderson met him at the front of the Twix N’ Tween restaurant in downtown Centreville. “And they won’t let him sign,” Sanderson said. “So I asked them if I could take him to the back and sign in back. They said no.”
This is where Sanderson’s memory trails off. He cannot remember where Charles signed exactly, just that he signed. And at some point, the signing was made public.
A newspaper clipping from the Centreville paper shows Cleveland signing with Alabama. C.M. Newton, the head coach of the Crimson Tide, is seated to his left, and Charles’s mother, Everlina, is seated to his right, face averted but happy. Coaches John Bostick and Sanderson are standing in the back. Sanderson, leaning over Charles, exhibits a mischievous grin, as if he stole something.
Entering school that fall, Charles was part of the slow trickle of black athletes to don crimson colors at the Capstone. Head Coach C.M. Newton had begun the methodical transition of his basketball team from all-white to indiscriminate on race, and was soon faced with the stereotypical backlash: crosses burning in his yard and threatening letters. But Newton remained undeterred.
Newton was a smooth customer who came to Alabama in 1968 from Transylvania University, a private liberal arts college affiliated with the Disciples of Christ in Lexington, Kentucky. From 1949-51, Newton played basketball at the University of Kentucky for the renowned Adolph Rupp, and it was during this time that Newton’s and Bryant’s paths first crossed.
At the time, NCAA rules prohibited freshman from competing in varsity competition, so Charles would vie on the frosh team for Coach John Bostick in ’71-’72. By the end of the season, Charles had rewritten the freshman record books—averaging 25.8 points per game and pulling down 15.9 rebounds—and was named SEC Freshman of the Year. To the Ole Miss squad he was particularly unkind, scoring 46 on both occasions the Tide met the Rebel frosh. Against Tennessee, Charles went down with an injury late in the second period, but emerged during sudden death overtime. Charles won the tip, hauled down an offensive rebound, and stuck a 15-foot jumper to win the game. Versus the Kentucky freshmen, a gang of blue chippers otherwise known as the “Super Kittens,” Charles brought the ball up the court and promptly hit four straight bombs from inhuman distances.
Often the varsity players would stand in one of the portals at Coleman Coliseum, find a way to watch Charles play. He was a man among boys, and there was no telling what Charles might do. A no-look pass that would beckon blood from the nose of an unsuspecting teammate. A jumper from nearly Cottondale. “You never knew where the ball was going to be shot from,” said Glenn “Goober” Garrett, a 6’9” power forward who was an upperclassman that year. “A couple or three dribbles from half court when the ball was launched.”
It was also during this time that Charles received a nickname that would stick with him the rest of his life: “Duck.” One day the freshmen were practicing in Coleman when several of the upperclassmen, including Garrett, walked in. Garrett and the other varsity players were inclined or stretched out on the front row of chairs, eager to see Charles perform. As they inspected the action, someone mentioned that Charles’s hair that particular afternoon resembled that of a mallard duck. “Cleveland goes down the court and somebody says, “Quack! Quack! Quack, quack!” Garrett recalls. “This goes on for a couple of minutes. We’re quacking and Coach Bostick, who was tougher than tough, blows the whistle. All you could hear was that ball bouncing on the floor and he turns and walks toward us. We were about to get up under the chairs ‘cause he’s gon’ kill us. All he said was, ‘There’ll be no more of that’ and he walked to the other end of the court.’ From then own, it was Duck forever.”
Forasmuch grief as his teammates gave him, no one was as likable as Charles. “The first day he got there you couldn’t do anything but like him,” Garrett said. “The quality of the person equaled the quality of athlete.”
In ‘72-73, Duck joined the Alabama varsity, a squad imbued with top in-state talent. There was Wendell Hudson from Parker High, who broke the color barrier by becoming the first African-American to participate in intercollegiate athletics at the University of Alabama; Raymond Odoms from Carver-Birmingham; Leon Douglas from Colbert County; and Paul Ellis and Glenn Garrett from Selma. It was as if Newton drew a border around the state and refused to allow the best players to escape to Kentucky or North Carolina. His philosophy was that his apostles must not only be good players, but also high quality individuals. In a world and at a time where race had become the American crucible, the Alabama basketball team was yet another exception. “If you let some outside influence creep in and create some problem, you are not going to be able to play ball,” Garrett said. “There was never, ever the first problem. Not the first racial slur. We played ball. End of story.”
In 1973, Alabama traveled to Madison Square Garden to compete in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). In the first game, the Tide defeated Manhattan 87-86 on a last-second shot by Garrett. Coach Bryant had famously attended the game, and sat at the end of the bench wearing a houndstooth hat and hurling invectives at the referees. In the second game, Bama was slated to play Minnesota, a team that featured a multisport athlete of its own, Dave Winfield, who would later go on to glory with the New York Yankees. Bama won 69-65 but lost to eventual champion Virginia Tech in the semifinals.
In ’73-74, Alabama would ramble through the SEC with a 15-3 mark and pulverize Kentucky, but the team did not participate in postseason play. Finally in 1975, Alabama reached the NCAAs, but were bounced in the first round by Arizona State and guard Lionel Hollins.
Across those seasons, Cleveland pumped in 14.9, 17.1, and 15.6 points per game and averaged over 7 rebounds. Injuries plagued him frequently, and because Charles would play second fiddle to stars Hudson and Douglas in his sophomore and senior years, observers have been critical of Newton’s system as an obstacle to the full flowering of Charles as a basketball player. Critics of this system will point out that Charles’s per game average plateaued, that his shooting percentage bottomed to .416 his senior year, that maybe he lost confidence, and that he could have averaged over twenty points per game had Newton turned him loose. One writer suggested that Charles had become “lost in the shuffle.” “His last year he became a secondary figure again,” Mike Goodwin wrote for Current. “The Alabama offense consisted of getting the ball to Leon Douglas and letting him shoot. It worked good enough, until the teams around the league wised up and realized this was all Alabama would do. Cleveland could’ve provided an outstanding game to complement Douglas, but outside shooting was “alternate plan B” of the Alabama offense. It was only used as a last resort.” Others have suggested that perhaps Charles would have been a better fit in another type program. Say, for instance, Louisville. But in the process of analyzing stats and his “fit” within the system, what is overlooked is Charles’s development into the more complete player. Charles hadn’t placed great value on defense while in high school, and developed in this phase of the game under Newton and Sanderson. Having the ability to go way up high to retrieve the carom, Charles became a terror on the backboards. “If he got his hands on the ball, it was his rebound,” Garrett said. Charles also became a master at theft, stealing the ball frequently and charging into the open court, where he found bliss. If there was a nagging habit, it was his tendency to get out of control and draw a charging penalty. Charles’s game had, historically, gravitated to more of a street-ball-type method of play and Newton’s tutelage helped him to become more fundamentally sound.
Charles was at first disillusioned that he was not able to play his game, but in the end bought into Newton’s ideology and became a selfless player who didn’t mind getting rid of the rock. “I want to do the things that help the team,” Charles once said. “What that means is hitting the open man, leading the break and working on defense. There’s no reason for me to score 40 or 50 points a game.”
Newton and Sanderson were charged with viewing their team from thirty-thousand feet; that Charles was not the top dog was not necessarily as important a consideration as what was best for the overall play of the team. “Charles was a really good player,” Sanderson commented. “He was flashy good. He was athletic, could shoot it, run, do it all. Some people thought we used him well, some people thought we didn’t use him well.”
If Charles was undervalued by Sanderson and Newton, you wouldn’t have guessed it by reading the papers. “Charles Cleveland has been the key factor in turning our basketball program here around,” Sanderson was once quoted.
Regardless of opinions, Charles was selected to the SEC All-Conference team three times—the first player in the history of the Southeastern Conference to achieve such a feat. Although he was experiencing remarkable success, Charles managed to stay grounded, detached from the accolades and mania surrounding his play. “National prominence has not seeped in to destroy the level-headed visions and behavior of Charles Cleveland,” wrote Jim Dailey for The Sports Page: Probing Sports in the State of Alabama. “There have been no court antics, no raised fists, no irate outbursts, no rash, raving predictions. He has remained aloof from the often head-swelling pen of the press. His answers are brief and in good taste.”
Charles may not have been the leading scorer in all of these years, nor was he always the first option, but no one was marveled at for their athleticism, physique, and ability to wow more than Charles Cleveland. “He was chiseled out of stone,” Garrett said. “He was rock-solid hard. If you were going to hit him with your fist, you were the one that was going to get hurt. He was like granite. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do. Run, jump, had unlimited range. He had ‘It.’”
Garrett says that Cleveland was not the best basketball player he’d ever seen—that denotation goes to Pete Maravich—but was one of the most athletic.
“Charles had as much all-around talent as anyone I ever saw,” Garrett said.
Charles was Alabama’s version of Bo Jackson before Bo was ever a thought. In the spring, Charles switched jerseys and competed for the Alabama baseball team under Coach Hayden Riley. In one game, he threw a one-hitter.
While Charles was in school at Alabama, he stayed in constant touch with Coach Miller, who was coaching at Westlawn Junior High and living only a few miles from the University. It was good to have a mentor close by who could steer him away from the threatening temptations of college life, and Charles would often drop by for dinner and to visit with Miller and his wife, Ruby. Miller continued to counsel Charles as if he were his son. “He was a constant member of our family,” Miller said. “He was around us all the time. He was like an adopted son. A member of our household.”
Basketball, for Charles, came to a close in the spring of 1975. Assuredly, he would be drafted into the NBA and enjoy a long career, just as he had always planned. Charles had majored in social work, but this was far and away the second alternative to a becoming a pro athlete. He had worked hard toward graduation, a goal he accomplished by the end of the summer. “I was really proud of him because he went [to class], he got on the first row, and he got his degree,” Sanderson said. “And that wasn’t easy to do. That was all part of us pushing him, but he took the push.”
The University honored Cleveland that spring in appropriate fashion. In March, the Tuscaloosa TipOff Club held a banquet in the Ferguson Center on campus. Cleveland and Douglas were honored with captain’s plaques and seniors received a watch. In addition, May 12 was designated “Charles Cleveland Day” by the University. Cleo Medders of Bibb County was the Master of Ceremonies, and in attendance were Coach Bryant and Coach Newton.
There was no question about it: Charles Cleveland was headed to the NBA.
It’s Not Always Sunny in Philadelphia
As expected, Charles was drafted. On May 29, 1975, he was taken by the Philadelphia 76ers as the 41st overall pick. Cleveland was Philadelphia’s fourth pick of the afternoon: Darryl Dawkins was taken at 5, World B. Free at 23, and Jimmie Baker at 39.
In those days, the complexion of the NBA was much different than today’s league. When Charles was drafted, there were only 18 teams, and the cities of Buffalo, Seattle, and Kansas City hosted franchises. The team in Washington was known as the Bullets and the team in New Orleans was known as the Jazz. The ABA, with stars such as Julius Erving and George “Ice Man” Gervin, would not merge with the NBA until 1976. The NBA was still the most coveted league in which to play, but the ABA was no slouch, either. It wasn’t infrequent for a player to be drafted in both the NBA and the ABA, and soon the Kentucky Colonels, an ABA franchise, came into the picture, drafting Cleveland in the fifth round.
Cleveland weighed his options while taking summer school classes. Philadelphia was the preferred choice, but if Charles was given a chance to contribute early, Kentucky was an enticing option as well. At this point, playing somewhere—whether Kentucky or Philadelphia—seemed to be a mere formality, and Charles began a delicate poker game of negotiations that summer, sans agent. Charles was hoping that a high draft in the ABA would give him leverage with Philadelphia. After being drafted low by Kentucky, Charles told the Tuscaloosa paper on June 17, “All I wanted was some bargaining power, and I’m not sure this will give me much.”
That same summer, the red-hot Cincinnati Reds were plowing through the National League, en route to an 108-win season that would conclude with a World Series matchup with the Boston Red Sox–a series now considered one of the best in baseball history. Title IX, federal legislation that outlawed discrimination based on sex in federally funded athletic programs, went into effect in late July. Joe Frazier provided bulletin board material for the third installment of his vicious boxing ring trilogy with Muhammed Ali, stating he wanted Ali in the “Thrilla in Manila” like “a hog wants slop.” Joe Namath, who originally signed a three-year contract with the New York Jets in 1964 for a sum of $400,000, inked a contract that summer for $450,000 per year. And Gene Bartow, successor to John Wooden, was heading into his second year at UCLA with a target on his back after—God help him—a three-loss campaign.
Publicly, Sixers General Manager Pat Williams seemed to be high on Cleveland—“He’s a terrific prospect because of his size. Charles can be a big guard or small forward,” Williams said. But another statement was a portent for things to come: “Some of the first-round picks will get no-cut contracts but that’s about it. If Kentucky offers Cleveland a no-cut deal, I advise him to take it.”
Negotiations went on throughout the summer. Charles had planned on participating in the pro summer league, but lengthy contract discussions stifled those plans. Harvey Pollack, the 76ers’ Director of Publicity who had once tallied the stats in Wilt Chamberlain’s famous 100-point performance, feared that Charles’s nonparticipation in summer league would hinder his chances of making the team, since he would be unfamiliar with the Sixers’ style of play.
Charles eventually chose the Sixers over Kentucky. Gene Shue, head coach at Philadelphia, saw Charles fitting into his team’s scheme at swingman. “I saw him play several times last season and I was very impressed with him,” Shue said. “I was eager to see him perform at our preseason training camp.”
Charles reported to camp on September 22 at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. He would work out with the rookies—all of whom were under the critical eye of evaluators—for the first three days before the veterans arrived.
In ’74-’75, the Sixers finished fourth in the Atlantic Division (seventh in the Eastern Conference) at 34-48. The team played its games at the vaunted Spectrum, an 18,276-seat, state-of-the-art coliseum erected in 1966, and was owned by Irving Kosloff. Pat Williams had been brought back to the franchise in 1974, two years removed from a 9-win season, the worst in the history of the NBA. Several of the remaining players in 1975 were members of the team during that abysmal year.
Kosloff was a rags-to-riches story himself. The son of Russian immigrants, Kosloff worked in the traffic department of a Philadelphia container company before founding Roosevelt Paper Company in 1932.
In addition to the new draftees vying for a spot, the Sixers squad featured a young Doug Collins at the shooting guard position and a seasoned Billy Cunningham—“The Kangaroo Kid”—at small forward. This pair was complemented by Fred “Mad Dog” Carter and Steve “The Mayor” Mix, and with the recent addition of ABA veteran George McGinnis at the small forward position, the Sixers were in the process of moving from the realm of mediocrity to formidable contenders.
In training camp, Charles would be competing with 21 other players for a spot on the 12-man roster. “Among the players Cleveland will be battling for a berth on the roster is George McGinnis, one of the premier forwards in pro basketball. McGinnis, formerly with the Indiana Pacers of the ABA, reportedly signed a $3.2 million, multiyear contract with Philadelphia,” wrote Jim Furlong. In 1974-75, the 6’8”, 230 lb. McGinnis averaged 29.8 points, 14.3 rebounds and over six assists for Slick Leonard’s Pacers. Good luck, Charles.
The Sixers went through a series of cuts, whittling down their team systematically throughout the fall. Charles survived at least one of these cuts, but in the end, the Sixers chose to release him. According to Ray Charles, Charles was the last player cut from the 1975-76 Philadelphia 76ers team.
“When you are cut that late, it’s hard for other teams to bring you in for a tryout. They’ve got their teams pretty much set,” Ray Charles said.
In retrospect, eleven of the players had no-cut contracts, and making the squad would have been almost impossible for Cleveland. Fourth rounders typically did not enjoy the luxuries of such agreements, and unlike today, Charles had no agent to represent his best interests. He was essentially a lone wolf in a wilderness searching for one scrap of meat.
Williams, the Sixers GM who was in charge of the final cuts, is now the Senior Vice President of the Orlando Magic. Across forty years of basketball, Williams has seen more than his fair share of players come and go. When asked about a man who drifted in and out of his life briefly in the fall of ’75, Williams says he vaguely remembers Cleveland—“Charles, as I recall, was a 6’5” swingman”—but recollects advising players who didn’t make the team to “get on with the rest of their life—quickly.”
“Players hang around, try to play here, play there, go overseas,” Williams said. “Get on with the rest of your life. Get an education, move to the next field, rather than chasing an empty dream that is not going to bear fruit.”
For Williams, telling a young man “we don’t have a spot for you” and wishing them well on their journey was the worst part of his job. “Very unpleasant,” he said.
Such is life in the NBA. Such was life for Charles Cleveland.
The Philadelphia 76ers would continue without Charles. The next season, another swingman, Julius Erving, helped the city to forget about him.
But to make matters worse, four days after the Sixers’ season started on October 18, the Cincinnati Reds won Game 7 of the World Series, 4-3 over the Red Sox.
While the city by the river was celebrating, Charles Cleveland was realizing a vicious twist of fate.
Charles tried to get on with his life quickly. After being cut by Philadelphia, he returned to Tuscaloosa, but had few options. Since the season had already begun, the possibility of signing with another NBA team was gone. The Kentucky ship had sailed, and playing basketball in Europe was out of the question, primarily because the money wasn’t particularly good and the Eastern Bloc offered little allure beyond an Iron Curtain coldness. Charles began work at the West Alabama Planning and Development Council, but pined to get another crack at the pro game. His mind wanted to adjust to the ordinary life, but his heart wouldn’t allow it.
Another year went by with no offers, and Charles began to wonder if he’d ever get another opportunity to make the pros. By 1977, the cards seemed to be stacked against him as his window of time narrowed. But Charles had one play left, and an ace-in-the-hole.
Understanding how good an athlete Cleveland was, Coach Bryant, who had attempted to get Charles on the football field at Alabama, arranged a tryout for Charles with John McKay’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL. No matter that Charles hadn’t played a down of football in the last four years, he was good enough to play on somebody’s roster, Bryant argued. Unbelievably, the Bucs took him sight-unseen, and were prepared to install him at tight end.
“At Bryant’s urging, McKay and Vice President and Operations Director Ron Wolf signed Cleveland to a free agent contract,” wrote Bruce Isphording for the Sarasota Journal.
But after Charles reported to camp, he was immediately traded to the New York Jets, led by first-year head coach Walt Michaels. While in New York, Charles boarded with Ray Charles, who had been living in the New York area for the last several years. Ray Charles remembers going to practice and that Charles wore number 98 for the Jets.
But unfortunately, Charles’s time with the Jets was short-lived. During camp, Charles suffered an eye injury in the second practice and had to be hospitalized. Two weeks later, he was cut from the team.
“He would have made that team, but he had some nagging injuries,” Ray Charles said. “When you’re trying to get a position, it’s hard to not to say that you’re hurt. The trainers and coaching staff noticed and released him.”
Banished now to live out a life as a regular human, Charles returned to Tuscaloosa dejected and melancholic. Life had a new authenticity to it. Rawness. “It got me down, no question about that,” Cleveland later told The Tuscaloosa News.
In the detritus, Charles witnessed the divorce of allegiances. Friends such as Dr. Richard Thigpin and Joe Hunt rallied around Charles and stood by him, while critics—many of whom had once supported him and claimed to be his biggest fans—were unrelenting. Some even suggested he didn’t make it in the NBA because of his own personal failures and not the failure of the system. Ray Charles says that Charles turned to the bottle during this time, commencing a lifelong clash with alcohol that was a constant backdrop to his public persona. “He had started getting an alcohol problem, pretty much during the time he got cut by the 76ers,” Ray Charles said.
Soon Charles got a job working as a security guard in the university police force. He was one of the guards who helped to usher coaches off the field. “He had his own office and everything,” Ray Charles said. Wallace Miller says he is certain Coach Bryant had a hand in procuring this employment. “Coach Bryant loved Charles and looked out for him,” Miller said. “He had lots of pull.”
By 30, Charles was working at the Health and Safety Department as a building inspector. He had faded largely out of the public eye. From time to time, newspapermen would write sad pieces about him as a “falling star”—the one who missed a chance at glory. In the papers and in front of friends, Charles seemed to handle the disappointment relatively well, and many felt that Charles wasn’t really bothered about not making the pros. How much he internalized his pain is a matter of conjecture, and only Charles knew the true psychology of this dynamic.
After his athletic career was over, Charles married a couple of times, had children, and was a frequent attendee of University of Alabama sporting events. He still loved to watch Alabama basketball and relished in teaching others the game he knew so well.
Life continued like this for Charles through the decades. There wasn’t much fanfare, few newsworthy events in his life. At one point, he played semiprofessional ball for the Centreville Dragons. He worked at Brewer Porch Children’s Center and helped coach a basketball team for underprivileged children. “They called him Coach Cleveland,” Ray says proudly. “That particular job had him traveling different places. Mostly to Florida. He loved working with children. Talking the game and teaching the boys to play the game to the best of their ability.”
From time to time, Charles was honored at different events. In 2003, Charles was recognized by the Birmingham Tip-Off Club as one of the thirty outstanding basketball players hailing from the state of Alabama over the last thirty years. Former NBA stars Robert Horry, Gerald Wallace, Derrick McKey, and Charles Barkley were other selectees.
One year, Coleman Coliseum hosted “Charles Cleveland Night” and he was recognized at the gym that once made him a legend.
In 2010, Charles was honored at the SEC tournament. Selected as a Crimson Tide legend by the National Sports Council, Charles was recognized on the floor during Alabama’s first round game versus South Carolina. Ben Davis, a volunteer assigned to the Cleveland family during their time in Nashville, was responsible for making their trip to the Music City as pleasant as possible. He helped the Cleveland family to stay on schedule and offered suggestions on where to eat, places to visit. Davis says that he and Charles hit it off “almost instantaneously.”
But a cold and Charles’s lingering issues with diabetes forced him to be confined to a wheelchair during his time in Nashville.
At halftime of the game, Charles shed the wheelchair and walked ever so slowly, with a slight limp, onto the court. He humbly received his plaque and waved to the crowd, who stood to honor him.
It would be Charles Cleveland’s last public appearance.
Later during the trip, Charles had an episode and had to be rushed to Vanderbilt hospital.
Charles could barely function after the Nashville trip. The cocktail of diabetes and alcohol put his health in serious decline. He was in and out of the hospital. Eventually Charles’s siblings confronted him about his drinking. Ray Charles threatened that if Charles didn’t seek help, he was no longer going to come see him.
Charles begrudgingly agreed to enter a treatment facility and even signed the entry papers. Just before he was about to submit to treatment, however, he told them, “I can do this on my own.”
But Charles couldn’t handle it. As winter approached, he continued to drink. And in December 2012, he laid down for the last time.
Charles Cleveland died quietly and unremarkably in his apartment in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He was 61 years old.
A celebration service for Charles was held on Thursday, December 27, at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa. Family, friends, and teammates stuffed the little sanctuary to remember their beloved Charles. Honorary pallbearers were C.M. Newton, Wimp Sanderson, and Wendell Hudson. Rev. Wade A. Lewis performed the eulogy.
Inside the funeral program, a poem was written for Charles. It was entitled “Going Home.”
Little did we know that evening, God was going to call your name
In life, we loved you dearly; in death we’ll do the same.
It broke our hearts to lose you; you did not go alone,
For part of us went with you the day God called you home.
You left us beautiful memories; your love is still our guide;
And though we cannot see you, you are always by our side.
Our family chain is broken and nothing seems the same.
When God calls us one by one, the chain will link again.
Charles was later interred at Hopewell Cemetery in Brent. A newspaper article entitled, “Former UA basketball star dies at age 61” was published in The Tuscaloosa News. Hudson, his former teammate was quoted: “Charles may have been the best athlete to ever come through Alabama…Aside from basketball, he was also a good friend for many years. He was really a great person.”
On an overcast autumn day, Ray Charles Cleveland is sitting on the rickety porch of the Cleveland home in Brent, Alabama. He is midway through a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy when he breaks down in tears thinking about his brother. “I would give it all again just to have him here,” he says, brushing his eyes. “He was my best friend and I love him. I enjoyed talking about sports and life. He helped others. Others benefited from him. That’s a true fact.”
Ray Charles reveals Charles’s story in direct proportion to his trust. He has been a bit close-to-the-vest about his brother, until now. “Yes, Charles had a serious alcohol problem,” he says, opening up. “I don’t think he ever overcame it. I know for a fact he didn’t. It’s important that things need to be told for the future of other athletes. I encourage anyone if they cannot handle it by themselves to seek out and get help. I truly believe that if he could have overcome that, God would have blessed him being here a little bit longer than 61. And I pray that by me telling the story—and a true story—that it’ll help someone else.
“I know in my heart that he was a very in-shape athlete to be able to accomplish what he did. But you still have to try to take care of yourself to see if you can stay here as long as you can. God didn’t give us but one body and that body belongs to God. God is in charge of the final decision of when we leave, and where we leave, and how we leave.”
It is quiet now, as the cars have stopped passing on the street. The birds have ceased their small tunes and nature has paused to listen. Ray Charles looks off into the distance, as if he is summoning the lost, but then the cruel reality sets in that he will not talk to his brother again in this life. His only solace is found in the staccato memories that flash by like nightbirds, and the hope that he will one day see his brother again. “One thing I do know is that Charles Edward Cleveland brought entertainment to Faucett Junior High School, Davidson, Bibb County, and Tuscaloosa,” Ray Charles says. “As an athlete, he gave us something to look up to and look forward to. Thank God he gave him the talent to do those things. But I do know it hurt him a lot when he didn’t make the pros. I tried to talk to him about it. I said, ‘Charles, everybody can’t make the pros.’ But at the end of day the University of Alabama looked after my brother until he died.”
Charles Cleveland could have made pro in any of three sports. He made it in none. Few can understand the internal torment and the psychology that accompanied this life narrative. To be so great, to be adored by fans, to be the subject of hero-worship, and to be reduced in later life to anonymity and normalcy. To come up from nothing, from the island of poverty and dearth, and for his ship to sail, full-mast, as it did, through the choppy breakers of life, and to almost reach the shores, to smell its salt and see the waves lapping against it before the vessel plunged into the cruel waters of the commonplace, must have been awfully hard on a man. But, no matter the pain this must have caused him, no matter how harshly the anguish appeared as the cards to his life turned over, Charles Cleveland wasn’t a failure.
No, Charles, you weren’t a failure.
Although he never overcame those demons, Charles put his faith in someone who did. Starting at Haysop Baptist Church in Brent, Charles made church attendance a mainstay on his weekly calendar. “Every Sunday morning, he got up and went to church, that’s a true fact,” said Ray Charles. Charles’s warm spirit was a by-product of his Christian faith. He was a kind man, a humble man, and those around him who knew him best said there was no evil in him. He may not have made the professional ranks, he may have had his own struggles and torments like the rest of us, but in the end how Charles treated others will surpass these demerits.
Perhaps Charles’s greatest struggle stemmed from how he measured his life. How he dealt with failure, or, at least, was jarred by the illusion of it. For Charles, the reality of a normal life could never seem to equal the fantasy of stardom and celebrity. And because of that, he was forced to confront a brutal truth:
When the gods fall mortal, life is all we have left. HA
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