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Oregon basketball team’s first out-of-state black player paved the way with his struggles and success

The Ducks’ majority-black roster didn’t always look that way — but my father is part of the reason it does

It’s a team picture I’ll always cherish, even though I’d never seen it until 11 years ago, shortly after my father died.

It shows him as a young man, in the early 1950s. He was in college then, at the University of Oregon, where he was a fixture on the basketball team. In the photograph he’s No. 11, sitting in the front row, a familiar gleam in his eye. His teammates were all white. My father, Mel Streeter, was the only African-American player on the Ducks.

As much as I love this photograph, it also presents a mystery. My dad didn’t talk all that much about his playing days, or what it was like to be a dark-skinned, 6-foot-4 black guy in a virtually all-white town and a virtually all-white state in the years of Truman and Eisenhower. I can’t stop wondering what those days were really like for him.

Time has its way with us. It’s hard now to imagine that era. Hard to imagine, with the glitter of another great college basketball season nearing the peak of its shine, an era like my father’s, when black players were either completely excluded from many major college basketball teams or kept to no more than one or two per squad. Not only are the Oregon Ducks of the 2017 Final Four dominated by young black talent, but most of those players come from out of state, and some from Canada. My dad, who grew up in Riverside, California, wasn’t just the fourth black athlete to ever suit up for a Ducks basketball team — he was the first to come from outside Oregon.

Hard to imagine? Think of this. In the Eugene of the early 1950s, there were only a half-dozen or so black students on the Oregon campus.

Even though he mostly kept it to himself, that kind of isolation left its mark and its sting. He was a man who came of age just before the civil rights movement and the dawning of a new kind of racial awareness. His way was the old way: Hold inside the anger and the self-doubt caused by prejudice. Sometimes completely cast those kinds of hard feelings aside. For all the open-hearted joy my dad showed the outside world, all the success he had — he moved to Seattle after college, raised his family and became a noted architect — I came to see that his upbeat exterior masked deep pain. The existential pain of not being seen for his full humanity, of having had to fight for his dignity daily, in small moments and in large. An existential angst that he, like black folks have always done, knew how to hide from the rest of the world.

Mel Streeter goes for a layup against St. Mary’s.

University of Oregon

But whenever I asked about the specific difficulties of that era, my father tended to get quiet and deflect. What was it like, I used to ask, in 1949 or ’50 being the only black player going against a rival school in Pullman, Washington, or Corvallis, Oregon, or the other small, conservative college towns in which the Ducks played? He’d find a way to turn the conversation in another direction.

He’d be 86 now. What I’d give to have him here. I’d press him for answers in a way I could never bring myself to do before. I’ve tried to track down surviving teammates. I’ve found out that most have died. The one I did speak with said his memory was dwindling and he simply couldn’t reliably recall specific moments anymore. But he did allow that my father had a remarkable toughness — and a talent for blending in.

That makes sense. But it wasn’t really the basketball team he blended with. Away from the court he didn’t hang out with his teammates much. He got married while still at Oregon. None of his teammates attended the wedding ceremony or reception. Instead of having a lifetime bond, in the decades after his college years he almost never talked to any of them. There wasn’t animosity, but there certainly wasn’t much in the way of brotherly love.

On the Oregon campus, the crowd he fell in with consisted largely of art students and a crew at the architecture school, from which he’d graduate. They were the out-of-the-box thinkers, bent on changing the world. Among this group were my mom and aunt, a rare duo: a pair of young white women with enough gutsy pluck to leave their small Oregon towns, head off for school at the state’s biggest university and, in the early 1950s, go directly against one of American society’s most deeply entrenched taboos by marrying two of the small cadre of black men on campus.

If you want to get a sense for what Eugene was like back then, consider these couples. When my aunt began seeing De Unthank Jr., the talented architecture student whom she’d later marry, a cross was burned on the front lawn of her sorority.

When my parents began going out, a campus dean pulled my mom aside and sternly announced, “There is no dating of Negroes on the University of Oregon campus.” Not much later, my folks become one of the first mixed couples to legally wed in Oregon. There was more. Much more. Relationships severed, opportunities lost, a constant battle against stigma.

Jim Nau of Oregon State College falls over Mel Streeter of Oregon while trying to gain control of the ball.

University of Oregon

My dad wasn’t just a basketball player. He was a member of the campus ROTC who went on to join the Army. When he drove from Eugene down to Southern California, he insisted on wearing his well-pleated Army uniform the entire ride. He thought it just might keep him and my mom safe from harm if the car broke down or they ever had to stop, especially in southern Oregon, known in those days to the African-American community as a hotbed of racism. There wasn’t any air-conditioning in their little green Chevy, and in the summers the temperature soared. But dad wore that form of armor, his heavy uniform and his officer’s cap, all through Oregon.

“He wasn’t going to take it off, no matter what, no matter how hot it got,” recalls my mom, now 85.

No doubt there were hard times and daily slights, tearing at humanity. But I know my dad wouldn’t want me to write about his experience without mentioning the good and the positive. That was his style. He’d want me to note how deeply he loved the University of Oregon. It was his pathway to success as a professional. It was the campus where he grew up, gained his independence and met his wife. Today there’s a scholarship in his name at the architecture school. He’d want me to mention how great it was to play at old McArthur Court, the raucous tinderbox of a stadium that the team played in from the 1920s until 2011. He’d tell me to make a big deal about the way Oregon’s fans embraced him. Even decades after he left Eugene, I recall being all throughout Oregon with my dad and watching people approach, wide-eyed, as they gushed about seeing him play. Often these fans had been kids when the Ducks of the early ’50s played at “Mac Court.”

His teams were very average — nothing like the fast-breaking team of today. But the impression he made was profound and lasting. For a lot of people of a certain generation in Oregon, my father was one of the first prominent black athletes they ever saw play in person. He felt like he made a difference, like he helped blaze a trail that opened up opportunities for the black Oregon athletes of future generations. That’s all he ever wanted.

Oregon Ducks coach Bill Borcher claps on the benches while flanked by Mel Streeter, Bob Hawes, Bud Covey and Jim Vranizan.

University of Oregon

Yes, he’d want me to write about the goodness in people. There was so much of that, he would swear. That’s what matters, not the pain. I’ll think about all of this on Saturday night, watching my dad’s Ducks battle against North Carolina. And I will think, too, of that team picture from 1952. I will cherish it for its mysteries. The way time changes everything, era to era, and the stories from my father I will never fully know.