Double Dribble: The Story of “The White Shadow” (Part 1 of 5)

Welcome Back, Kotter meets the fish-out-of-water theme.  That’s The White Shadow.

An NBA journeyman player has a career-ending knee injury, then takes a job as a basketball coach at an inner-city Los Angeles high school where he unwillingly, sometimes unknowingly, becomes involved in his players’ lives both on and off the court.  That’s The White Shadow.

The first ensemble drama on prime time television to feature a majority of African-American actors provides a launching pad for a young actor who, as a director, later challenges the status quo of 1980s television.  That’s The White Shadow.

Produced by MTM Enterprises for CBS, The White Shadow premiered on November 27, 1978.  It coincided with the high school basketball season, which traditionally starts after Thanksgiving weekend.  Bruce Paltrow wrote the pilot episode revolving around Ken Reeves, a pro basketball player with the Chicago Bulls.  Wearing #14, Reeves injures his knee when he falls to the court during a layup.  Jazzy music during the show’s opening theme provides the backdrop to a montage featuring Reeves’ transition from pro basketball player to high school basketball coach.

In the pilot, music accompanies a montage of shots featuring Reeves’ rehabilitation attempts around Chicago.  Given his injury, a return to the NBA is not feasible.  Leaving the locker room for the last time, Reeves starts towards the court, takes a thoughtful look around, and spots a basketball.  He picks it up, sinks a shot, and hears a voice shout, “You stink!”

The voice belongs to Jim Willis, Reeves’ teammate from Boston College.  Willis claims that he’s sightseeing in Chicago, admitting sarcastically that he’s not too bright as the time of year is Winter.  Reeves agrees, exclaiming, “I carried you through Boston College.”  The two friends reconnect, marking the kind of friendship that allows for an easy back-and-forth conversation.

“You still like being a high school principal?” asks Reeves.

“It beats digging gold.  You still like being a pro ball player?” responds Willis.

“It beats being a high school principal,” says Reeves.

Willis has an ulterior motive for being in Chicago.  He needs a basketball coach for George Washington Carver High School in Los Angeles.  So, Willis baits his former All-American teammate into using his teaching certificate for something other than a wall hanging.

John J. O’Connor heralded the show’s promise in a review for the November 27, 1978 edition of The New York Times.  “While CBS speaks confidently about its ratings future, the network’s programming belies a pronounced nervousness about tactics.  How simple-minded can techniques get without the overall schedule losing its much-vaunted claim to being the Tiffany of broadcasting?”

O’Connor answers his own question.

“If CBS decides to get a touch more confident about itself and its public, television could discover it has a nice new series.”

Ken Howard played Ken Reeves in The White Shadow.  Jason Bernard played Jim Willis in the pilot.  Ed Bernard played Jim Willis in the series.

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