The GameChangers Story

How an unlikely reunion recorded
an assist for Chicago-area youths

 

More than fifty-five years ago, two Chicago-area basketball teams met in what would have been – under ordinary circumstances – just another playoff game in the local high school Super-Sectionals. But the circumstances were far from ordinary: The year was 1966, and the teams involved were an all-white team from New Trier High School in the suburb of Winnetka, and an all-Black team from Marshall High School on Chicago’s west side, facing each other in the postseason state tournament for the second consecutive year.
 

For the players and fans involved, it was a high-stakes game against formidable opposition. For others, it was inescapably linked to the racial and socioeconomic tensions of the time. The 1966 game ended in an ugly spectator brawl that left it, for better or for worse, as an emblem of a troubled time in our nation’s history.
 

In 2016, fifty years after their final encounter on the court, members of the two teams gathered for an unlikely reunion, to watch footage of the old games and share stories about life. That meeting led to the filming of GameChangers, a documentary chronicling the two teams and the players’ lessons of understanding and respect that are maybe more important today than ever before.
 

Tom Anderson, Digital Check Corp.’s current CEO, played shooting guard for the New Trier team in both the 1965 and 1966 games. He participated in the creation of both the documentary and the GameChangers Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to building bridges through community-based grants and initiatives. Anderson and filmmaker Joe Dondanville sat down to remember Tom’s experiences in playing the games and Joe and Tom’s side-by-side journey while telling this remarkable story over the past several years.
 

Anyone who lived through them will tell you the 1960s were one of the most remarkable – and turbulent – decades in a generation. But many will also say that one of the most fascinating things about the Sixties is that any two people might remember them for completely different reasons. For some, it might be about music, drugs, and Woodstock. Others’ memories will take them to the Vietnam War, the space race, or nuclear scares and the height of the Cold War. And all of it was played out against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle – sometimes violent – for equality that underscored the decade.
 

Even as a high school student in the Midwest, it was impossible not to notice what was going on in the world around you. But at the same time, the perspective from which one saw those historic events at that age depended, for the most part, on the luck of the draw.
 

“On the one hand, my teammates and I were very aware of it. The Watts riots had just happened; the nation was on fire with racial unrest similar to what we saw across the country last summer, in 2020. An all-Black team playing against an all-white team was, of course, a big deal.”
 

“But Winnetka, my high school hometown just north of Chicago, was pretty isolated from it all. Martin Luther King actually preached in Winnetka in 1965, and the Chicago West Side riots happened the summer after our 1966 game against Marshall. But because of the location and the circumstances under which we grew up, we weren’t connected to it in the same way that someone else might have been. Then, as an adult, you can look back, and you can understand more about the context of these incredibly historic events that you only experienced one part of or one side of – and THAT, wanting to learn more, is why I loved being a part of this documentary.”

— Tom Anderson

Being a basketball player, Anderson recalled, may have lent him and his teammates a somewhat different perspective on the racial issues surrounding the games than many others may have held at the time. They had some of the all-time greats of the game to look up to: Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Sloan, and Bill Russell were all among their boyhood idols, and the color of their skin didn’t make any difference.
 

“You have to realize, the NBA was integrated in 1950, and college basketball even before that, in 1947. Nobody cared about black or white – we were just basketball players.”
 

“So regardless of what other people were saying, we were just playing basketball. Before that first meeting, all we knew about Marshall was that they were a powerhouse from Chicago’s inner city, multi-year state champs. That might have intimidated us more in ‘65, but the second time around we had the experience of the previous year’s loss to build on.”
 

When viewing footage of the Marshall-New Trier contests, one could be forgiven for thinking he or she is watching a replay of two Division I college teams facing each other. The crowd of more than 8,000 – almost unheard of for a prep game today – lends a big-time atmosphere to the event, and the players possess size and speed that are decidedly un-high-school-like.
 

“We were very big for a high school team back then, or even now: Our center was 6’11”, and our two starting forwards were 6’6” and 6’7”. I was 6’4”, and I played a sort of ‘power guard’ position; strong rebounder, scored when I needed to,” Anderson remembered. “The Marshall team was a match for us in size and athleticism – and they were very well-coached.”
 

“I had the job of guarding their star, Richard Bradshaw, both years. He killed us in ’65 with 27 points, and our coach told me to do better before the ’66 game – I tried but again he had 27! He was an incredible player, an All-American who played for Kansas University the next year.”
 

As was the standard practice at the time, the spectator seating was divided into blocks, with the fans of each team assigned their own half the arena. While racial segregation wasn’t the reason for this arrangement, in this case it produced a similar result, with all the Black fans on one side and the white fans on the other.
 

No one knows for certain whether that unintentional layout contributed to the events that followed, but as time wound down with New Trier leading in the fourth quarter of a tense ’66 game, tempers flared in the crowd, and words were exchanged that led to an all-out brawl that spilled onto the court. The game was called early for the safety of fans and players alike – a confusing and awkward ending for both teams, Anderson recalled.
 

“We felt terrible after the ’65 game that ended our season, and when we saw the same team again in ’66, we wanted revenge. I wouldn’t say there was any animosity, but it felt like a rivalry game – very intense, very physical. We weren’t as intimidated that time; in 1965, we could not break their press, but in ’66, we could! It was an awful feeling after the first game, then joyous but also confused after the riot ended the ’66 win. My whole family was there, and my mom and dad were very happy, but also with three daughters in the crowd they were scared amidst all the commotion.”
 

“What were people saying about the game afterward, around campus? Not too much, since we were focused on going ‘downstate’ for our next game. Our fans were talking about being at the game as an unbelievable win, the best in our school’s history!”
 

“At the time, it didn’t really affect our attitude toward the racial issues going on. It was just another basketball game – a big one where the fans got too unruly. But as I look back at that game, the Watts riots, the Vietnam War, the Summer of Love, they were a part of a life experience and a moment in time that helped shape my life. I was 18 years old.”
 

“What were people saying about the game afterward, around campus? Not too much, since we were focused on going ‘downstate’ for our next game. Our fans were talking about being at the game as an unbelievable win, the best in our school’s history!”
 
“At the time, it didn’t really affect our attitude toward the racial issues going on. It was just another basketball game – a big one where the fans got too unruly. But as I look back at that game, the Watts riots, the Vietnam War, the Summer of Love, they were a part of a life experience and a moment in time that helped shape my life. I was 18 years old.”

— Tom Anderson

Going on fifty years later, those events resurfaced for an unlikely reason: Anderson, by then the CEO of a company that made digital imaging equipment, remembered that some of the team’s games had been captured on film by parents of the players. His interest was piqued, initially, partly by his memories of the games, but mostly by the recordings themselves.
 

“A parent of my teammates took the films, so I knew they existed. At first, I just wanted to digitally scan them to preserve them. … But what was it like watching it after all those years had passed? It all came back immediately. I showed the documentary to my ’66 classmates and they loved it! And then the project expanded from there.”
 

As luck would have it, a mutual friend had introduced Anderson to a local filmmaker named Joe Dondanville not long before. The two talked about the games, and Dondanville thought they would make a great subject for a documentary – but only if they could tell the whole story.
 

That’s when a radical idea was born: Organize a reunion of everyone who had played in those games – not just from New Trier, but from the Marshall side as well. As one may have expected, in some cases, that task was easier said than done.
 

“Had I been staying in touch with my teammates over the last 50 years? Very little. Had the Marshall players stayed in touch with each other? Not too much, but more than New Trier players. Fifty years is a long time. I thought I could find my teammates and coaches, because you have things like yearbooks and reunions and alumni organizations. Marshall was tougher, and when we did find some of them, trust and motivation became the big issues. After 50 years, why were we interested in doing this documentary?”
 

Dondanville recalls a similar story unfolding during those first, tentative steps:
 

“Tom tried to find the New Trier players, and he asked me, ‘Do you think you’ll be able to find the Marshall players?’ and I said sure. But when I first began reaching out, I found that a lot of them, particularly some players from the ’66 team, weren’t necessarily eager to revisit it.”
 

“You realize at that point, the events and the game were not quite the same experience for everyone. For the Marshall team in ‘66 – first they lost the game, and then the brawl ended it on a sour note. Why did we want to make a film about that, what were our intentions? From that perspective, it’s only natural to have those kinds of questions. But over time, as we reached out to these former players, I think it slowly became apparent that our desire was to collaborate on the project. Although the end of the game and the Sixties had some ugly twists and turns, the documentary generated some beautiful teaching moments. It was inspiring to watch it all unfold.”
 

“Nate Byrd, the point guard on the ’65 Marshall team, was the first person we met. That meeting was instrumental in moving the project forward. But “Brad” – Richard Bradshaw, the star player for Marshall both years, was the one person we absolutely had to have to make the story “pop”. At first, he shared some of the same apprehensions, until it became clear this was a chance to do something very positive and meaningful. Once Brad was on board, we were all pulling in the same direction! And since then, Brad has become a really good friend of Tom’s, and of mine.”
 

The work was far from done at that point: It first became apparent the project was coming together in February of 2016, and the goal was to get everyone from both teams together in mid-March, exactly 50 years after their final meeting on the court. Some of the former players still lived in the area, but others had to travel from all over the country.
 

Oddly, a mix-up on start time caused most of the New Trier players and their families to show up early on the night of the reunion. That led to some apprehension in the room about how the Reunion dinner would go over – which thankfully turned out to be unfounded concerns – It was a terrific evening for all of us.
 

“On the night of the reunion, even right up to the day of the event, you’re wondering, is anybody going to show?” Anderson remembered. “And even as they did show up, as the room was filled with New Trier people, there was still a hesitancy. We were standing around thinking, ‘ I just hope this isn’t awkward.’”
 

“Then as soon as the first Marshall players arrived, it was completely different. From the time they walked in, to the time they walked out, it was like seeing old friends – which was amazing, because no one had seen each other in fifty years. And for most of us, there was really no connection other than these two basketball games, but as we “broke bread together” we found we had so much in common. That first night, it was magical … and we have it all on film!”
 

The interviews started the next day and two years later the film premiered. With a successful film in the can, the foundation came together in 2018 as well. But it all stemmed from that first night as the two teams had dinner and watched the films of the games together, and the larger opportunity became clear as they had more than enough to talk about to fill up an evening – and then some.
 

“One thing that made this story so unique is that in fifty years, everyone had lived a full life. There were some great stories, some sad stories, sometimes not what you’d expect. The ‘60s were defined by race, by Vietnam, by drugs … all of these overarching themes of that turbulent decade touched different members of these teams in some way.”

— Joe Dondanville

Said Anderson: “Both the Marshall and the New Trier teams had, I guess, not surprisingly what you would describe as different people who had all different experiences in life. You had many people who were doing well – attorneys, successful businessmen, lots of decorated military veterans. There were surprising stories, like Brad Sham from the New Trier student radio station in our class of ’66, who went on to be the voice of the Dallas Cowboys for 40 years. And some who were not in the room, like our starting point guard for New Trier, Bill Birkenfield, who had lost his life in the 1970s in a tragic situation. So many different stories, and it would be impossible to tell all of them – but it reminds you, as is said in the documentary, regardless of the color of your skin, we all bleed red.”
 

The filmmaker’s curse is that there’s never enough time to tell a story as thoroughly as you’d like. It’s commonly said that for every minute of a finished non-fiction film, there’s an hour of footage that there wasn’t room for. GameChangers was no exception, with Dondanville estimating he shot at least 50 hours of individual and group interview footage over several months, as well as going through about 10 hours of game film and hundreds of photographs. It wasn’t always easy to find the right balance between all the different angles, and with so many story threads – athletic, personal, racial, historical – while at the same time staying true to all of the participants’ intentions. But in the end, it was a gratifying effort, and one that felt like he’d given everyone an honest shake, he said, likening the experience to putting together a puzzle.
 

“First off, there’s no way it would be possible to capture the entirety of the GameChangers story in the 77 minutes we had, or in 90 minutes, or in three hours. It’s rare to find so many people with unique stories and perspectives – some of which are incredible stories in their own right. Like Malcolm Hemphill, the Marshall assistant coach, who married Jesse Owens’ oldest daughter, Gloria, and also broke the color barrier for basketball referees in the Big 10. He was 85 or 86 years old when we were shooting the film, and we probably could’ve made an entire documentary just about him.”
 

“We had a really phenomenal response from the people who got involved in the project, and of course everyone had a lot of enthusiasm about what they wanted to see in the film. Some wanted more basketball and less about the ‘60s. Some wanted less basketball and more about the players’ lives. Some wanted to see more of the reunion. And of course, then, as now, you had the issues around race, and how to include that without sensationalizing it.”
 

“You have to remember, at the time we were making the film in 2016, racial issues were a hot-button issue then too. This was not too far removed from the Ferguson riots, from Baltimore and Freddie Gray, and so it was an emotional time. In fact, I had one cameraman who I’d worked with before, when I asked him about making this film, he didn’t want to touch it. He said that if Marshall had won, he would have considered helping out, but this had the potential to be too much of a sensitive issue.”
 

“So we get back to the controversial aspect … how to acknowledge it meaningfully, yet still respectfully – that’s not an easy thing to do. But in this case, I think we were fortunate to have a story that speaks for itself. The events, the people in them; they’re all genuine, and they don’t need a lot of interpretation. The fact that we’ve shown it in many different venues, and it hasn’t mattered whether the audience is Black, white, young, old, rich, poor, urban, suburban – it’s a testament to the power of their story.”
 

Since the making of GameChangers in 2016, it’s been shown many times around the Chicago area and the Midwest: At film festivals; in theaters; on television; at churches and community events; and at high schools, including Marshall and New Trier. But even in the relatively short time that’s passed since then, there’s no denying that dramatic changes have taken place in the political and social landscape. But surprisingly – or perhaps not – the film has continued to receive universally positive responses to its message.
 

In the tense climate of the present, many attempts at addressing racial issues have been made, with no shortage of those that have come across as insincere or superficial. But the GameChangers story is one that began fifty-five years ago and took place over a lifetime, across a whole spectrum of different experiences. That’s one reason why Anderson believes audiences can feel that its message is genuine, and hopefully, one worth listening to and embracing.
 

“One of the questions that the film begs, and one that we’ve heard from the audience in almost every one of the question-and-answer sessions we’ve done after a screening, is: ‘It’s been fifty years – how far have we come?’ Some can argue a long way, some would say not. But I think we can all agree we’re not there yet.”

 
“I think it’s natural for people to look at what’s going on around them today regarding interracial tension, and ask, ‘How does this compare to the 1960s?’ Because in that respect, the Sixties are remembered as a rather dark time in our history. And maybe because there are fewer people around now who lived through that, and experienced it in a meaningful way, that’s made younger generations more willing to listen to a story like this and take the positive messages to heart.”

— Tom Anderson

“Sometimes we’ll get asked about the timing of the film and the foundation – either that we couldn’t have picked a better time to do it given the current state of things, or that it was a bold move to make it when we did, given the current state of things. But really, we had one chance to make it. In just the last three years, we lost Larry Rosenzweig, our big 6’11” center, and Calvin Triplett, Marshall’s center. Chet Coppock, the interviewer, tragically died in a car accident. That’s three people who were critically important to the story; we couldn’t have done any of this if we’d waited.”
 

“What sticks out to me is when people say to me that this documentary, Gamechangers, should be shown at every high school in Chicago because the story is timeless. That’s what we hope people take away from it – we were a bunch of boys who happened to meet at a particular moment in time, but took away an experience that, as we have gotten to know each other, has changed our lives forever! Remember “we all bleed red”!
 
 

The GameChangers film and more details about the foundation can be found at:
 
 

www.gamechangers.film