When the Game Springs Forward

As Tiger goes for his fifth Masters, remembering the rites of passage for black athletes.

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It’s April again, and Tiger Woods is in the hunt for his fifth Masters title at Augusta this weekend, 12 years after he became the first person of color to win at a previously whites-only golf course. Tiger’s chase comes at the end of a week in which we marked the 35th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s historic 715th home run, the one that broke what many still consider the Holy Grail of sports, Babe Ruth’s 39-year run as the home run king.

Spring has long been a metaphor for change; new season, new flowers, rebirth. And in sports, the rites of spring have also included important rites of passage for black athletes.

It was 25 years ago this month that John Thompson became the first African-American coach to win an NCAA championship in Division I basketball. Later that year, Thompson and his star player, Patrick Ewing, posed with President Ronald Reagan on the cover of Sports Illustrated. This year’s NCAA winners didn’t get a historic magazine cover, but they got a call of congratulations from the black president.

Barack Obama’s presence in the White House may tend, these days, to overshadow the significance of previous African-American “firsts.” But each new pinnacle is achieved by climbing on the shoulders of the last hero, and that makes them worth remembering.

Next week marks 62 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and 34 years since Frank Robinson became the league’s first black manager.