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MBB : Breaking barriers: Breland paved way for Syracuse University black athletes

first_imgCORRECTION:  The year Syracuse started three African Americans in a game against Niagara in Madison Square Garden was previously misstated. The teams played during the 1954-55 season. In a house up on a hill in Syracuse, Manny Breland sits in his dimly lit living room surrounded by photographs of children and grandchildren. Breland looks around and picks up another framed picture — one of him dribbling a basketball in his Syracuse Orangemen jersey. He turns his head in the direction of the other familiar Hill, Syracuse University, remembering his life nearly 60 years ago.On the eve of a racial breaking point in American history, Breland became one of the first African-Americans to receive a scholarship to play basketball at SU in 1953. Today, SU’s freshman class contains a 32 percent minority demographic. Breland recalls a time when just a handful of faces weren’t white.When Syracuse played Niagara at Madison Square Garden during the 1954-55 season, both teams started three African-Americans, he said. The crowd noticed.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text‘We could hear a buzzing and people saying, ‘Hey, look at this,” Breland said. ‘There were still schools that wouldn’t even play teams with blacks on them.’SU ended the season with its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1957. The team overcame Connecticut and Lafayette, navigating through its bracket before falling to eventual national champion, No. 1 North Carolina. Despite the loss, the team set a precedent for Syracuse basketball.Jon Cincebeaux, Breland’s teammate, described him as a ‘tremendous guy.’‘I didn’t associate him as being black, just one of the guys,’ Cincebeaux said. ‘He was a good ballplayer but a better person.’Breland was a trailblazer at a time when Syracuse needed one. He paved the way for normalcy at a school that would soon host legends like Ernie Davis and Dave Bing.Breland grew up less than a mile from SU and credits the Dunbar Community Center for helping him develop his basketball skills. The center served as a hub for African-Americans, hosting events and offering recreational activities. There, Breland met his mentor, Isaiah Harrison, who encouraged him to enroll in college prep courses, an atypical move for African-Americans.‘Historically, blacks weren’t scheduled to go to college,’ Breland said. ‘That just wasn’t the culture then.’Breland’s high school basketball coach, Ken Beagle, played for Syracuse in 1928 with then-SU coach Lew Andreas. Nine years later, Andreas became SU’s director of physical education and athletics. Beagle approached Andreas and advocated for Breland to play on the team, but Andreas answered with resistance, saying, ‘We’re not ready for a black kid.’‘But because of their relationship, he came around,’ Breland said. ‘Andreas said, ‘OK. I’ll take a chance on your kid.”George Hicker, a former SU basketball player, said after a while schools needed to look beyond color and assess talent. Hicker, who played from 1964-68, said it’s clear programs do that today.‘You see this progression 45 years later, where now more than 90 percent of great teams are dominated by African-American players,’ Hicker said.Breland was the freshman team’s leading scorer and was nearing the height of his athletic career. Before reaching that point, though, his health took an unpredictable turn. He and four athletes were diagnosed with tuberculosis.At the ripe age of 21, Breland braced himself for a hard fight for his life.‘I was young, I was devastated,’ Breland said.Fortunately, doctors created an experimental medication that Breland aptly described as the ‘silver bullet’ to TB. After undergoing a ‘pioneering’ procedure that removed the upper right lobe of his lung, Breland survived.While his life wasn’t over, Breland thought his basketball career was. SU athletic officials decided to judge his condition day by day. If Breland earned his strength back and showed no signs of relapse, he could play again. After a smooth recovery, Breland was back on the court during his senior season.‘I was fortunate to even play after that,’ Breland said. ‘I look upon it as a godsend.’Breland then took his bachelor’s degree in physical education and science to his alma mater, Madison Junior High, and began teaching. A few years later, the superintendent brought Breland into his office and asked him if he had ever considered coaching.Breland was hired as the first-ever African-American varsity coach in the Syracuse City School District and led Central High School to an incredible 21-1 season. Roy Neal, the leading scorer of that team, first met Breland as his eighth-grade math teacher, and the two reunited during his senior year. Breland was a great role model for the team because he had grown up in the community and graduated from SU.‘He had a knack of bringing the best out of each player,’ Neal said. ‘He made everyone feel like they were part of a unit.’Breland mentored his players at Central amid a heated civil rights movement in the ‘60s. It was a very turbulent time, Neal said, and when Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968, ‘a couple fires were started in the school.’ Kids would fight, throw things — even rocks — and make nasty comments. When things got ugly, Breland was always positive, always in control, and he instilled the same in his team, Neal said. Breland’s leadership earned him the civilian title of lieutenant in the community relations department within the Syracuse police force. Breland was promoted to vice principal in 1975, ultimately spending 34 years in the district.Floyd Little, who played football at SU from 1964-66, said it was ‘a very challenging time.’ When Syracuse traveled to Louisiana for the Sugar Bowl, Little said he had never witnessed that degree of racism and discrimination. But pioneers like Breland made it possible for other African-Americans to view SU as a welcoming school.SU has been a front-runner in recruiting students of diverse backgrounds. It’s something head basketball coach Jim Boeheim has noticed since he played in 1966.‘Syracuse has always been that kind of school,’ Boeheim said. ‘As a coach, you just look at your team. You don’t look at black players versus white players.’Little echoed Boeheim’s statements, noting SU’s diversity in leadership. Athletic Director Daryl Gross and Chancellor Nancy Cantor are two exceptions to overall Caucasian-dominated athletic departments and primarily male administrations, respectively, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports 2010 report.Breland, now 77, still reflects on his colorful career. He hopes he has made a difference to the kids he mentored, just as he was years ago at the Dunbar Center. Breland’s modesty, kindness and inspired spirit make SU and the city of Syracuse proud of his valiance.‘He never talked down, never demeaned you, always encouraged you,’ Neal said of Breland. ‘And when the opportunity arose, he always did the right thing.’[email protected] Comments Published on February 28, 2012 at 12:00 pmcenter_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img read more

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