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Ken Howard, coach on beloved but doomed ‘White Shadow,’ dead at 71

🕐 6 min read

He was a tall white man from Long Island nicknamed “the white shadow” who grew up playing basketball with African-American players — and then starred in “The White Shadow,” a once beloved, but often overlooked show about a former NBA player who coaches a mostly minority team in South Central Los Angeles. The show was to have a hard edge and no gimmicks.

“It’ll just be good,” Ken Howard told The Washington Post in 1979. “No murders, gang fights or car chases. It can be colorful, true to life, and still have action. The basketball games will be our car chases. We can deal with some difficult social issues. Sports is a terrific metaphor that’s hardly been touched on TV. It’s an open-ended premise. Your only limitation is your imagination.”

Now, Howard is gone. His death was announced in a statement from the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union which he served as president starting in 2009. He was 71; though Howard had battled kidney problems in the past, no cause of death was given.

“Ken was an inspirational leader, and it is an incredible loss for SAG-AFTRA, for his family and for everyone who knew him,” SAG-AFTRA acting President Gabrielle Carteris said in a statement, as the Los Angeles Times reported. “He was a light that never dimmed and was completely devoted to the membership. He led us through tumultuous times and set our union on a steady course of excellence. We will be forever in his debt.”

George Clooney, who said Howard gave him a ride early in his career when the future superstar didn’t have a car, also offered a tribute to People.

“Today his obituary read that he was 6 foot 6, but he was so much taller than that,” Clooney said.

Howard was born in California in 1944, as the Associated Press noted, and grew up in Long Island. His early life as “the white shadow” helped him prep for “The White Shadow” — as did a stint at the Yale School of Drama cut short for Broadway, where he won a Tony playing a gym coach in “Child’s Play” (1970).

“I grew up playing for Manhasset High on Long Island on a team with six black guys,” Howard said. “I loved that outrageous, creative style of city ball. ‘Logic is the death of art,’ they taught me at Yale. Maybe in basketball, too.”

Though “The White Shadow” aired from 1978-1981 — an era of television more remembered for “The Love Boat” than for social drama — it didn’t pull punches. Sure, the show had a funky theme song and the Harlem Globetrotters guest-starred, but it wasn’t afraid to get heavy. Steven Bochco, later of “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law,” even wrote an episode: “Pregnant Pause,” in which a player gets a girl pregnant and, when she initially says she doesn’t want an abortion, must decide whether to give up basketball.

“Quit basketball?” Howard’s character — Coach Ken Reeves, with whom he shared a first name — incredulously intoned. “Which we both know is your ticket out of here?”

The director of the show’s pilot won an Emmy, and it was nominated for Outstanding Drama Series — just some of the praise heaped upon it in some quarters.

“It has whites and blacks confronting each other in sometimes hostile situations and, unlike such programs as ‘Diff’rent Strokes,’ doesn’t gloss over the conflict with sentimental and unrealistic solutions,” the Globe and Mail wrote in 1979. “Certainly not the type of show that normally survives in the ratings.”

With the story of a white man saving — at least in some sense — black teens came unavoidable questions of authenticity. Was “The White Shadow” merely exploiting young men of color to tell a white man’s story? “The danger of Reeves patronizing his young inner-city kids, or of the show exploiting them for stereotypical racial jocks is a constant problem,” The Post noted at the time. The paper even asked a lauded basketball coach not known for shrinking from racial controversy to weigh in.

“I’ve only watched the show twice, ” said Georgetown University Coach John Thompson. “I’m a little jittery and undecided about it and I think a lot of other blacks are, too. It’s good entertainment but I’ll reserve judgment on whether it’s good social education or not.”

Howard said the show was at least, to mix a sports metaphor, swinging for the fences.

“Of course, we’re aware of the problem,” said Howard. “Reeves represents what we aspire to be, not what we are.”

When the show, after a schedule change, was canceled, Jet’s headline was “Popular Among Blacks, ‘White Shadow’ cancelled.”

“The television series ‘White Shadow,’ which showcased a majority Black cast, has been cancelled despite favorable ratings,” it noted. “The popular show, which focused on the lives of the predominantly Black Carver High School basketball team and their White coach, was reportedly hurt by being labeled ‘a Black program.'”

Whatever the politics of the end of “The White Shadow,” Howard’s career went on. His long list of credits included appearances in “The Office” as well as “In Her Shoes” (2005) and the Clooney vehicle “Michael Clayton” (2007). In 2009, the same year he took up the SAG presidency — a position once held by James Cagney, Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston — he won an Emmy for his appearance in the HBO film “Grey Gardens.”

“We actors are so thrilled with the amazing success of cable television and the advent of new media,” he said during his acceptance speech, “and can barely wait to renegotiate.”

As SAG president, Howard was known as a moderate. He narrowly won re-election in 2015 as actors fretted about how video streaming affected their royalties.

“This election is critical to your future as a performer and as a union member,” he said during his campaign. “There are those who want to lead our union who are making lots of empty promises … promises squarely at odds with the divisive positions they have taken for years. Worse, they want you to believe their hollow rhetoric is the same as actual results.” He added: “At this moment in our union’s history – a time of profound change – it is more crucial than ever to elect leaders who deliver tangible results, not just empty promises.”

During his Emmy speech in 2009, Howard also thanked Jeannie Epper, the “Wonder Woman” stuntwoman who donated a kidney to him in 2000 after he had battled health problems for nearly a decade.

“It’s very humbling when someone gives you a part of themselves to keep you alive,” he said. “Thankful doesn’t seem to quite make it.”

Video: SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard died on March 23. Tributes poured in to him, remembering the actor who captured hearts as the coach in “The White Shadow” and the union president who oversaw the merger between SAG and AFTRA in 2012. (By Jenny Starrs / The Washington Post)


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