Under the light of an incandescent lightbulb illuminating the inky sky of Oakland, Califonia, a young Paul Silas played basketball with fellow future Celtics great Bill Russell, his brother Charlie, and his cousins Fritz and Aaron Pointer in the sweet heat of a late summer evening. On the sidelines, the Pointer sisters — still a decade away from being The Pointer Sisters — were enjoying the show.
Basketball played at 18th and Adeline’s DeFremery Park in the early 1960s was the axis their world revolved around. It was a quiet but poignant testimony of what the families who had migrated to Oakland in the 1940s built for themselves as they fled the brutal, institutionalized repression of Jim Crow in the southern United States.
From the bitter legacy of Jim Crow, the Silas, Russell, and Pointer families (and many others) created a community where greatness was more than a dream, and a space to simply enjoy the heat of a sultry summer evening with friends became possible.
But it wasn’t just pickup basketball in the park that it made possible in a separate but upwardly-mobile community on the margins of white spaces in the Bay Area. A tight-knit community of Black excellence provided role models and opportunities that did not exist elsewhere with few exceptions.
It made for a staggering concentration of greatness, almost as if to make up for the artificial obstacles of structural racism– and that excellence was not just manifesting on the basketball court.
Just across the street from DeFremery Park lived Silas’ family in a home they shared with the Pointer family, the basement converted into a separate apartment.
Linked by a grandparent who, as did many, came to the city on the transcontinental railroad that would make it a destination for Black families departing the south in the Great Migration of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the household was a testimony to what the power of community can create when coupled with individual greatness.
That home, nestled between two families of Italian immigrants, would not only produce a Celtic great in Paul Silas, but a Major League Baseball player in Aaron Pointer, a scholar of African history (and a hooper) in Fritz Pointer, and one of the most popular pop groups of the twentieth century in Pointer Sisters Ruth, Anita, Bonnie, and June.
Zoom out to McClymonds High School, their alma mater, and the list of politicians, scholars, and athletes rises to a nearly unbelievable number, including the likes of trailblazing NBA athlete Bill Russell, MLB star Vada Pinson, MC Hammer, and many others.
“Me and my brothers were reminiscing and remembering,” shared Ruth with the Celtics Wire after her cousin Paul’s passing.
“Especially the summers, because we lived right across the street from a park, and they would played basketball at night,” she added.
A founding member of the Pointer Sisters, Ruth painted a picture of carefree life where the fame they all would become known for — save, of course, Boston star Bill Russell, making the trek home to keep in touch with his roots — was still in front of them.
“It was just so thrilling to be watching these guys play basketball just for the hell of it, for the fun of it — just for the joy of it!”
Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell checks out the new Wall of Fame and other upgrades to the athletic facilities at McClymonds High School, Tuesday, March 26, 2013, in Oakland, Calif. Russell, a McClymonds graduate who won 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, said he rode the bench while playing at the high school. (AP Photo/Bay Area News Group, D. Ross Cameron)
“We didn’t even know how fortunate we were to be in that neighborhood,” she continued. “To be teens during that time of history. We didn’t have gangs and drive-bys, guns, and all that stuff — we just had fun.”
“At that time, the park had lights around the basketball court,” recalled Fritz, echoing Ruth, “and man — we played into the evening!”
“Full court, half court, whatever it was, and people would be sitting in the stands waiting because you had to choose the team and the winning team stayed on the court.”
“Playing under the lights at night is something that Paul and I both just thought was just a remarkable time in our lives,” he added.
The home they shared with the Silases on the corner of DeFremery Park was itself a magnet for community life, Paul’s railroader grandfather cooking up massive breakfasts for all the Pointer and Silas children’s companions who would of course drop by to avail themselves of the delicious plenty.
“He would make a whole slab of homemade biscuits from scratch,” recalled Ruth, the scent of the biscuits almost palpable through the joy in her voice recalling those moments.
“He’d fry up a bunch of ham steaks and the kids would stop at our house because it was on the way to McClymonds and have breakfast there,” she continued.
“They’d be sitting on the stairs in front of the house, eating their food (with) my brothers, and then — this would usually take place on a Friday because we knew that there was a big game going to be that evening — and the cheerleaders were stopping by on the way to the school.”
“My grandfather just loved feeding everybody,” Ruth recounted.
“In hindsight, we just weren’t even aware of how fortunate and how lucky we were at that time,” she said of a time years before the Pointer sisters would teach young children (such as the author) to count on Sesame Street, or to provide the soundtrack to Eddie Murphy’s “Beverley Hills Cop”.
“We were just enjoying our lives and being kids,” offered Ruth. “Of course, me and my sisters didn’t even have a notion that we would be who we become — oh god. It was all about my brothers, you know?”
But, as she would later learn, it was not — at least not entirely.
This is the first in a series of articles dedicated to the memory of Paul Silas and Bill Russell and the community that helped made their and so many of their peers’ rise to prominence possible. Special thanks to Ruth and Fritz Pointer for their time, and story — more coming soon.
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Story originally appeared on Celtics Wire
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