By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

One of my favorite people died Thursday. Since he affected my life, I thought you needed to know about him.

Bruce and Gwyneth Paltrow
Bruce Paltrow might be more well-known as Gwyneth's father, but he was a true TV pioneer.

His name was Bruce Paltrow. The last name probably rings a bell, since he was Gwyneth's father and all. And you might remember seeing his name all over the credits for "St. Elsewhere" -- his baby, the show that made him famous, maybe the most influential TV drama of the '80s. He captured a bunch of Emmys, made some money, reached the top of his profession. Even if he never reached those same heights again, only a handful people in Hollywood know what it feels like.

But that's not why I liked him. Back in 1978, Paltrow created my favorite TV show, "The White Shadow." Created it from scratch. Thought up the characters. Gave them names and histories. Gave them a premise. Wrote the pilot episode. Slapped his imprint on every facet of the show. And it became the only meaningful sports-related TV show of my lifetime.

Like anything else, you had to be there. For instance, when you watch those old "Saturday Night Live" re-runs from the '70s, the ones they show on E!, you can't help but think to yourself, "We really thought this stuff was groundbreaking?" Well, it was. You had to be there. They were pushing boundaries, crossing lines, pulling things that nobody had ever seen. We were just along for the ride.

The "White Shadow" was like that, too. Back in the '70s, most African-American characters on TV were relegated to sitcoms, and only under mitigating circumstances. "The Jeffersons" were spun off from "All in the Family," given some money and thrown into a wealthy high-rise. In "Diff'rent Strokes," two poor black kids were adopted by a rich white millionaire. In "Sanford and Son," a wisecracking old man owned a junkyard with his son. A splendid sitcom called "Good Times" featured the Evans family struggling to survive in Chicago's toughest projects ... and that show became overshadowed by Jimmie Walker, the goofy actor who played the oldest son and shouted out things like "Dy-no-MITE!"

White Shadow
Coach Kenny Reeves (actor Ken Howard) interacts with a team of mostly black players in "The White Shadow."

As for TV dramas, African-Americans appeared mostly as criminals, pimps, drug dealers and thugs, with networks hesistant to cast blacks in starring roles. The three most memorable black characters from that era were a super-cool undercover cop with a mushroom afro (Linc from "Mod Squad"), a charismatic pimp who dressed like a cartoon character (Huggy Bear from "Starsky and Hutch"), and a gregarious, monosyllabic bartender (Isaac from the "Love Boat"). Looking back, the TV landscape was whiter than an Albino convention.

Then the White Shadow came along.

Here was the premise: Former NBA player Kenny Reeves (white) moves to L.A. to coach Carver High's basketball team (mostly black). Reeves (played perfectly by Ken Howard) was the only major white character in the show. The principal (his college buddy, Willis) was black. The assistant principal (Cybil Buchanan, Kenny's foil on the show) was black. Most of the team was black, including Hayward (leader of the team); Coolidge (the blue-chip center and comic relief); Reese (token good guy, the Bob Horry character); Jackson (the head case, a recovering alcoholic); and Thorpe (the wise-cracking point guard). There was also a Mexican guard named Gomez, a Jewish kid named Goldstein (the team whipping boy) and a punk named Salami (a white kid with a racial identity crisis). And that was the team.

I can guess at CBS's reaction when Paltrow pitched the show: "Ummmm ... wait a second, where are the white people?"

He stuck to his guns. Made the pilot. People loved it. Maybe the ratings never reflected it, but few shows garnered more die-hard fans and critical acclaim.

More importantly, I loved it. As an only child watching way too much television at the time, I was patiently awaiting my own show, the one that spoke to me and only me. I loved the "Brady Bunch," "Gilligan's Island," all the aforementioned sitcoms, "Charlie's Angels," "Three's Company," "The Incredible Hulk" ... but this was different. It felt like they created "The White Shadow" just for me.

For one thing, I loved basketball as much as anyone could possibly love basketball. Loved playing it, loved watching it, lived for it. And much like Salami, I was undergoing a little bit of a racial identity crisis. I loved the Celtics so much, wanted to play for them so badly, was obsessed with it ... and I couldn't help but notice that there weren't too many white guys on the team. Or in the NBA in general.

White Shadow
Curtis Jackson's drinking problem was one of the serious issues the show tried to tackle.

So when they asked us to draw pictures of ourselves or our family in elementary school, I started coloring in my face. When that stopped getting the message across, I gave myself a Muslim name and started calling myself "Jabaal." I was 7. I'm not making this up.

Well, once I decided that I would only answer my teacher if she called me, "Jabaal," that's when they called my parents in. These days, they would have diagnosed me with some mutant form of ADD, loaded me up on Ritalin and turned me into a zombie. Back then, I ended up spending free periods with my own personal teacher, who played tic-tac-toe with me and picked my brain. I thought that made me special, that I was so smart that I needed my own teacher. Little did I know that it was my school psychologist (I found this out much later, after my Mom had a little too much wine at dinner one night). Thankfully, it was just a phase.

So this was the climate in which the "White Shadow" arrived into my life. It knocked me over like a ton of bricks. Monday nights, 8 p.m. Everything stopped.

In the pilot episode, Willis lures Reeves to L.A. to coach his high school's team. They lose his first game by 30 points. During halftime, Reeves nearly puts Hayward through a locker for talking back to him. Hayward quits the team. Coach Reeves heads over to his house to smooth things over. They end up betting on three games of one-on-one, with Coach throwing each game so he could give Hayward money. Eventually, he ends up getting Hayward back in school, just in time for Carver's first win of the Reeves Era. After the game, in the joyous locker room, Coach tells the team not to rest on their laurels, that he'll be dogging them every step of the way.

"Like a white shadow," Thorpe says.

The end.

That was the pilot. Funny, interesting, likable, absorbing, well-acted, well-written ... and I have I mentioned that there wasn't a single show like it? I mean, even remotely like it? Needless to say, I was hooked.

White Shadow
The Sports Guy could really relate to Salami, front right, who was in the midst of a racial identity crisis.

The next few episodes revolved around Coach -- a meddling, sarcastic, Bobby Knight-type who wasn't afraid to stick his nose in everyone else's business -- winning the trust of his players. In Episode No. 2, he catches on to Jackson's drinking, so the team stages an intervention. In No. 4, he saves Coolidge from turning pro early. In No. 6, he nearly salvages the career of local playground legend Bobby Magum, convincing him to enroll at Carver for four glorious days before everything falls apart.

One of the finest early episodes was No. 3, when a yummy TV anchor falls for Coach, woos him towards broadcasting, and shakes his perspective just enough that he hangs up on Gomez (for calling the Coach's house too late). One catch: It was Gomez's one phone call from jail. So the team rebels against Coach before the next practice, and Coach takes their verbal abuse, finally asking, "You finished?" And Hayward (played by Thomas Carter, a terrific actor) rips off his jersey, stares him down, and hisses, "We all finished." Great moment. Eventually, Coach becomes Gomez's legal guardian, stays with Carver and turns his back on a lucrative TV career. Another happy ending.

Not every show ended with a smile. Episode No. 5 revolves around Reese's girlfriend conning him into thinking she was pregnant, just so they would get married. Episode No. 9 features a transfer student who turns out to be gay. In No. 10, Reeves punches out a student. In No. 15, Thorpe dates a white girl and causes full-scale pandemonium. In No. 19, a new player on the team dies. In No. 23, Thorpe gets VD and gives it to Coolidge's girlfriend. In No. 26, Jackson's old girlfriend ends up becoming a call girl ... only he doesn't know it.

White Shadow
Goldstein added to the racial dynamic as the team whipping boy.

In No. 24, the best of the bunch, Hayward's cousin dies of a drug overdose. A distraught Hayward seeks revenge, quitting school, buying a gun and heading undercover to find the dealer. With his teammates desperately searching the streets to find him, Hayward locates his man, ending up in a hotel room with him, pinning him to the ground, holding a gun to his head. "Oh, please, let it come," Hayward says, searching for the strength to plug the guy. He can't do it. Finally, he jumps off and scurries away, warning the dealer, "Your time is gonna come."

But here's the beautiful thing: "Shadow" relied on unexpected laughs much more than typical dramas, mainly because of the interactions between the characters -- somebody was always busting on someone else with lines like, "You chumpin' us off for a girl who ain't even worth loose change!" and "Look, this is not the Swiss Family Gomez!" I always enjoyed the little nuances, like the episode where they're flying to a Christmas tournament and going through an airport metal detector, which Hayward sets it off, so they ask him to step aside ... and he struts over to the wall, spreads his legs and presses his palms against the wall, like he's under arrest.

The funniest episode revolved around Coach taking Salami, Thorpe and Coolidge to the golf course, just a barrage of one-liners and putdowns for one solid hour. I love when they're all standing on the first tee, waiting for the Coach to tee off:

    Thorpe (speaking into a fake mike): "We're standing here at the first tee of the Morris Thorpe Ghetto Open ... all proceeds will benefit the Warren Coolidge Foundation for the prevention of rat bites and bullet wounds."

    Coolidge (grabbing the fake mike): "First prize will be a check for $50,000 ... or $50 in cash."

    Salami (playing along): "Anyone getting a hole-in-one will receive a new car -- year and model to be determined later tonight."

Later in that show, Coolidge cracks one down the center of the fairway. When someone asks how he hit the ball so far, he answers: "Easy. It's white."

White Shadow
Coolidge, right, was the team's star and joined with Thorpe to provide comic relief.

I'm telling you, this was groundbreaking stuff back in the late-'70s ... maybe a little too groundbreaking. Because CBS wouldn't stop tinkering with the show. Responding to lukewarm ratings instead of the critical groundswell, they quietly started softening the show for Middle America (against Paltrow's objections). First, the players started singing in the shower. Another white guy (Salami's cousin, a New Yorker) joined the cast. Every show started to feature an "After-School Special"-type theme (somebody does PCP, somebody does speed, somebody's getting beaten up by their Dad, somebody has an affair with a teacher). You could feel the wheels coming off.

Near the end of the second season, right after a superb episode in which Jackson (an innocent bystander) was murdered during a robbery, the show finally jumped the shark. Suddenly, there were celebrity cameos, improbable ideas (like Coolidge becoming a TV star for one episode), and clichéd plots (Salami punching an opponent; Thorpe getting mistakenly shot by a police officer). More importantly, five of the players "graduated" after the second season, including Hayward, the rock of the show. The new cast never worked. You could even argue that the third season never happened.

SPORTS GUY'S NFL PICKS
Atlanta (+1) over Tampa Bay: Brian Finneran officially supplants Easy Ed McCaffrey as the best Caucasian receiver on the planet.

Buffalo (+3) over Oakland: Vegas still isn't buying The Bledsoe Redemption.

Miami (+3) over New England: Too much traveling, too many injuries for the champs.

Chicago (-1½) over Green Bay: Home team, Monday night. Learned my lesson last week.

(Last week: 2-2. Overall: 9-5.)
Whatever the case, it was a good run: three seasons, 54 episodes, and official "Groundbreaking Show" status. Paltrow parlayed his experiences into "St. Elsewhere," finally achieving mainstream success. He maintained ties to "Shadow" by bringing Coolidge with him -- as a janitor at St. Elsewhere's hospital (his college career having ended prematurely by a knee injury) -- even casting the guy who played Salami (Tim Van Patten) in a recurring role as a different character. Of course, that new character ends up sharing an elevator with Coolidge, who screams, "Salami!" before realizing that it's the wrong guy. I always loved that moment.

Meanwhile, "The White Shadow" gained a second life for me in college. During the summer before my sophomore year, a local TV station graciously showed the re-runs, so I was able to tape every episode. I brought them back to school that fall, and we broke them out whenever we were looking for a good time-waster. The show lended itself perfectly to a peanut gallery setting, especially those moments when Coach and Cybil were bickering and you could cut the sexual tension with a knife.

Now more than two decades have passed, with Hollywood still searching for ways to create the Next Great Sports Drama (a topic explored in this space last October). "Shadow" even remained in the limelight, hooking itself up to the Juvenation Machine last year, with re-runs unveiled on ESPN Classic for a whole new generation of viewers. They finally stopped running them this summer, before I had the chance to polish off my "Idiot's Guide to the White Shadow" column, something I had been planning for months. I never got around to it.

Even after the cancellation, I still thought about writing that column ... partly because I wanted to express how much I loved this show, partly because I wanted Bruce Paltrow to read it. It was an outside chance, a long shot, but because of the visibility ESPN.com provides, it wasn't an impossibility. Stranger things have happened. Maybe he would stumble across it, maybe he would e-mail me, and maybe I would have the chance to e-mail him back, just to thank him for creating my favorite TV show of all time. That's what I thought, anyway.

And that's the weird thing about life. Days pass, weeks pass, and you tell yourself, "I'll get around to doing that next week," and sometimes you never do ... and then the window closes, just like that.

Rest in peace, Bruce Paltrow. I wish you could have read this column.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.



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