On the long walks to and from school, Arshay Cooper thought God existed everywhere except the West Side of Chicago. So Cooper wasn’t going to let one of his teammates on the nation’s first all-black high school rowing team walk alone.
For three years in the late ’90s, Cooper and Alvin Ross navigated a daily route riddled with regular gunfire and a different gang on every other block, talking passionately about their unconventional sport.
“I didn’t want him to fall in any kind of trouble,” Cooper, 38, told The Washington Post this week. “To have two guys from the West Side walking on the way to Manley talking about boats was crazy.”
What started as a group of boys, many of whom didn’t know how to swim, giving the predominantly White and historically stuffy sport a chance as an after-school activity turned into something much more. Together, Cooper, Ross, Malcolm Hawkins, Ray “Pookie” Hawkins, and Preston Grandberry became not just the country’s first all-Black rowing team but did so against a backdrop of poverty, racism, and death. The 20th anniversary of their unlikely journey is presented in “A Most Beautiful Thing,” a documentary based on Cooper’s self-published memoir that is available to stream on Xfinity On Demand on Friday. The film, executive produced by rapper-actor Common and NBA legends Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade, comes at a time when athletes and reopening professional sports leagues in the United States are using their worldwide platforms to address racial injustice and police brutality.
The experiment began in the Manley cafeteria with a boat and the promise of pizza in 1997. It was there that Ken Alpart, an options and futures trader, hoped to recruit Black students to form a competitive crew team to help shatter some of the homogeneous stereotypes of a predominantly White, affluent sport only shown every four years at the Olympics.
“No one in the sport looked like me, so I wasn’t going to do it at first,” Cooper said. “Sports that don’t require a ball, like those on the water or in the mountains, weren’t for us. The conversations among us were like, ‘White sports get you killed.’”
But Alpart, then a 30-something White former crew team member at the University of Pennsylvania, convinced the guys, many of whom had abusive and drug-addicted parents at home, that the squad would give them skills and discipline they needed. On the West Side — where the question of “What college are you going to go to?” was replaced by “What gang are you going to join?” — they each decided crew was worth the risk.
At first, there was tension. The teammates didn’t know each other, and some were from different gangs. The crew, opting to wear basketball shorts instead of the sport’s traditional trousers, flopped mightily. The people around their neighborhoods clowned the boys and said they “were rowing boats like we were in a slave ship,” Cooper said, and the regatta crowd from the wealthy prep schools did not make them feel welcome either. The tough-guy front each put up at school to survive gave way to fear once they were on the water. Yet, being away from the West Side was revitalizing in a way they had not expected.
“When you’re on the water and there aren’t any police, sirens or gunshots, you can just focus,” Cooper said. “That serenity was therapeutic for us.”
They were quick learners and got better — and raised eyebrows in the process. A 1998 Chicago Tribune story proclaimed that the Manley crew program had “shattered stereotypes about Black athletes” at a school where “you’re supposed to dunk basketballs, not coxswains.” Grandberry, then a sophomore, told the Tribune that “people don’t expect this on the West Side of Chicago.”
That feeling was echoed recently by Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) at an online event to promote the film this month.
“To see Manley break out and see what took place and what can take place, no matter the circumstances and how difficult they are … I’m so delighted it came from the neighborhood where I live and work,” said Davis, whose district includes the West Side.
The story took on extra meaning when the team reunited for the documentary to race again 20 years later. After using the experience to become entrepreneurs and launch their careers following high school, they all had different reasons for getting back in the boat. Malcolm Hawkins returned to show his son there was another way to live than in a gang. Grandberry, who had faced jail time, wanted to reset his path. And Ross, who also faced jail time, was happy to still be alive.
Cooper wanted to go one step further: He wanted to race with members of the Chicago Police Department. The setup was initially uncomfortable — Cooper said he often had his head pressed against police cars — but filmmaker Mary Mazzio said the exchange between the Black team and the White officers was eventually cathartic.
“I nearly cried behind the camera at the extraordinary kindness that Arshay and the guys showed these officers, patiently teaching them how to row, hands on hands, working together shoulder to shoulder,” Mazzio said in a statement. “It was as if time and space stood still for two hours.”
The film’s hopefulness, and the team’s heartening relationship with the officers, is particularly poignant in the wake of the police-related deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the nationwide protests that have followed.
After Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May, Cooper, who now works to help people start boating clubs in inner-city neighborhoods, texted the officers he and his teammates had connected with through rowing. Their response gave him hope.
“They said, ‘This is painful,’ ” Cooper said. “When they saw George Floyd’s face, they saw our face.”