Class of 2016
Walking tall: EMC's first black athlete awed Billings on, off court
Back in the day, Harvey Munford wasn’t merely different for Billings. He was freaky, mercurially, stuff-of-legends different.
It had little to do with Munford’s coal-black skin, though certainly that was a first -- athlete or otherwise -- at what was then Eastern Montana College in the early 1960s. Nor was there much ado about his sinewy 6-foot-7 physique, though such a towering presence wrapped in ebony swiveled heads when he’d stroll down 27th Street from Apsaaluke Hall to south-side clubs for his Motown music fix.
What made Munford such a curiosity – what captivated people from miles around – was his sky-walking on the basketball floor and his uncommon grace off it despite the burdens that come with cultural trail-blazing.
Never had Billings seen anything like him. Nor, for that matter, had anybody else across the western college basketball landscape in a waning era of crew cuts, short shorts and set shots.
And nobody understood that better than Joseph S. “Shorty” Alterowitz, then the athletic director and former basketball coach at EMC.
“Harvey,” Alterowitz had told Munford upon meeting him in the fall of 1962, “you will be a legend out here – not only for basketball but as a man.”
The basketball part came first.
For before there was the Sultan of Swat, before there was The Human Eraser, and before there was Dr. J., there was Harvey Munford.
Munford was a man among boys, an athlete so gifted he would eventually be signed as a free agent by both the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association and the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League.
The alley-oop and dunk, now a basketball staple, quite possibly was an invention of those heady days when Eastern Montana routinely qualified for the NAIA national tournament. Point guard Joe Rinella, all 5-6 of him, would fling the ball anywhere near the basket, Munford would gracefully gather it in above the rim and slam it home with ferocity.
Munford defied gravity while swatting opposition shots, too. Though his official statistics are lost to the dustbin of history, nobody has approached his whopping eight blocked shots per game in 1963-64.
“The highest jumper I’ve ever seen,” remembers Mike Harkins Jr. of Billings, then a teen-ager and son of the EMC coach of the same name who used an exaggeration -- or three -- to coax Munford west from Akron, Ohio.
Munford, now 75 and living in Las Vegas, Nev., since 1966, remembers his three years here with great clarity. Small wonder, given their enormous impact.
“It touches you really deep,” he said during a recent phone interview. “Without the opportunity, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Before Billings, Munford was a gym rat with little interest in academics, a chip on his shoulder from being cut from his all-white high school basketball team, and an uncertain future after eschewing college for a year and then flunking out of the University at Akron his freshman season. Since Billings, he has been a dynamic educator, a 16-year Nevada state legislator, and a champion for the predominantly African-American section of Las Vegas known as Westside.
He was friends with former NBA great Wilt Chamberlain. He has Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s private cell phone number. Hillary Clinton met with him twice. President Obama calls him “The Big Fella”.
Munford’s spacious white home on 1½ desert acres just a long outlet pass from the Vegas Strip is a magnet for area children, including the 800 who showed up for free food and horseback rides at his annual neighborhood Halloween party.
All these experiences, Munford reiterates, wouldn’t have been possible were it not for Billings -- specificially Harkins, Alterowitz and two female instructors at Eastern who “took me under their wings” and guided him through the academic and social challenges that came with being EMC’s first black student and, ultimately, black graduate.
“You are a really special young man and you endured all this,” he remembers them all telling him, “and we’re going to make sure you beat this.”
Munford couldn’t have felt more out of place when he stepped off the train from Akron in the fall of 1962 – especially after discovering that Billings was nothing like his future coach had promised.
Munford had grown from 6-2 to 6-6 in a single month after leaving high school. He and fellow Akron-ite Gus Johnson, another of the new breed of freakish athletes about to take over the NBA, would wear each other out with acrobatic one-on-one contests. Gus Johnsonbrought National Basketball Association fans to their feet with his backboard-shattering dunk shots. “Gus was probably one of the roughest players I have ever played against,'' Dave DeBusschere, the former Knick forward, said yesterday of his classic matches against Mr. Johnson. ''He was not a dirty player. He was one of the most tenacious competitors ever to play the game.''
The duo imagined themselves galvanizing their city at Akron, but it never materialized. Johnson ran afoul of the academic code of conduct and never played a minute. Munford flunked out a year later.
Harkins, who had been Akron's leading career scorer, saw an opportunity. He gave both Munford and Johnson train fare to Billings.
Johnson spent his elsewhere and eventually wound up at the University of Idaho before his memorable 10-year NBA career. Munford was more intrigued, in part because Harkins' descriptions of Billings.
He showed Munford a brochure image of the rimrocks and compared Billings to Sun Valley, saying students skied to class. Munford noticed two jagged blue lines on a campus map and said Harkins told him it was the Yellowstone River, where students had beach parties.
Finally, Munford asked if any black people lived in Billings.
“Oh yeah,” Harkins told him with a straight face, “they’re all over the place.”
Munford laughs as he recalls the story and the response when he confronted Harkins about the embellishments.
“I had to find some way to get you out here,” Harkins replied.
While Harkins focused on Munford’s basketball, Alterowitz brought him into his office for larger philosophical conversations. Munford was shattering racial barriers, but the slightest misstep could impact future enrollment of black students. He was told flatly not to date white women.
Munford said he experienced both extraordinary compassion and blind hatred in Montana. He occasionally heard the ‘N’ word, especially on road trips. A restaurant in Butte refused to serve him, and the entire team subsequently walked out. He remembers western bars refusing entry.
“He had a lot on his shoulders,” the younger Harkins recalled.
On the flip side, Billings had just enough ethnic diversity for comfort. Munford eventually married a student from the Flathead Indian Reservation. And then there were those regular walks down 27th Street and across the tracks to listen to Chuck Berry and The Temptations.
“I don’t know if I’d have lasted if I didn’t have that outlet on the south side,” he said.
Of course, Munford always had basketball. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Eastern Montana basketball packed its new arena, now Alterowitz Gym. Munford, who also played a year of football as a receiver and safety, was a star.
Before games, Munford would ask the younger Harkins to predict his number of dunks. Five, was the usual answer, and Munford would show his fingers at Harkins as he’d run down the floor after a slam, sometimes needing two hands.
“My dad would get mad as hell,” Harkins said with a laugh.
Munford still holds the school record for field-goal percentage in a season (65.8). He says he never took a jump shot in three years; everything he did was at the rim.
His incomparable leaping – he often walked around in 20-pound leg weights to enhance his jumping – exacted a toll, though, and eventually he needed two operations on his right knee to remove damaged cartilage. Because of the surgeries, he eschewed overtures from the basketball Lakers and instead went to camp in 1965 with the football Rams, where he cracked pads with a defensive line known as the Fearsome Foursome.
“I didn’t know if my knees could take an NBA schedule,” he said.
The Rams cut Munford, asking him on the way out to try again the following year. But he was ready to put his Master’s degrees from EMC in counseling and political science to work. He accepted a teaching job in Las Vegas in 1966 and has never left.
For five years, he also played for a traveling Amateur Athletic Union team. In the winter of 1970-71, the Lakers, who had just traded five players to acquire Chamberlain, needed bodies. They saw Munford at a tournament in Barstow, Calif., and signed the 27-year-old as a free agent.
“They didn’t care about my age,” he said. “They wanted a seasoned player.”
Soon after camp started, Munford reinjured a knee. He never played a game, though he says with a hint of pride, “the Lakers never cut me.”
Munford knew he had a teaching job to fall back on because racial tensions in Las Vegas were high. Westside students demanded black teachers. For 36 years, he taught high school government classes.
“My presence in Las Vegas was really sort of something they needed,” he said.
Twelve years ago, Munford ran for the Statehouse. He has won six elections since and ranks as Nevada's oldest legislator. He'll be term-limited in 2016 and is mulling his next adventure.
At 75, he remains freakishly different. He routinely drops and does 20 pushups. He eats fruits and vegetables, and takes no medications. He says he’s never once tried alcohol, coffee, nicotine or drugs.
His first wife broke his heart by moving back to Montana. He has been married to Viviana, third wife, for 20 years.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said.
Yes, but for three years, say those who remember the trail-blazing 6-7 stuff of legends, so was Billings