Bill Nunn has played basketball with
those who broke racial barriers. He has written about those who have broken the
same type of barriers. And he helped break barriers himself.
Nunn, a member of the Steelers
scouting department, grew up in the Homewood section of
Pittsburgh. He attended
School, the same school where his father
became the first African-American football player years earlier. And even by the
time he got there, only about 15 percent of the school's enrollment was
Unlike his father, Nunn pursued
basketball at Westinghouse. He had planned to stay close to home after
graduation, possibly play at Duquesne University, but World War II made it
impossible for the school to field a team. So he decided on
University, a chance to step into a new
culture and do what he wanted.
The problem was, his father William
G. Nunn wanted something different, and in this case father did know
"My father called and told me I am
not ready for New
York and I need to go to a black school
for at least two years because I knew nothing about my race and I needed to
learn about black history," said Nunn. "There were no black teachers in the city
of Pittsburgh at that time. He wanted me to go to
a black school for two years.
"I told him I wanted to go to
I didn't want to go to a black school. He then asked me where was I going to
live. I wasn't quite ready for that one. He told me if I lived at home I would
have to get a job and start paying to live there."
So Nunn went out into the working
world, but not for long. He soon realized that school was the best bet for him
and headed to a college where he could learn about his African-American
It was at
Virginia State where Nunn would play with Chuck
Cooper, the first African-American to be drafted by an NBA team, and Earl Lloyd,
taken in the same draft class in 1950 but the first African-American to actually
play in a game.
"I really played basketball with two
of the first three guys who made it to the NBA," said Nunn.
After college the Globetrotters
wanted to sign Nunn. While it was intriguing, traveling on a bus with their full
schedule was not something that appealed to him. Instead, he followed in his
father's footsteps and joined the staff of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the
nation's top African-American newspapers, becoming a member of the sports staff
under Wendell Smith.
"It wasn't one of the first, but at
the time it was the largest black newspapers," said Nunn. "It was the Pittsburgh
Courier, but really it was a national newspaper. We had 17 different editions.
We had our Detroit edition,
Florida, one in
York. What we would do is have certain
stories that ran nationally, but then we would localize it to a
With Smith at the helm of the
department he used his columns to campaign for the desegregation of Major League
Baseball, something that Nunn was proud to be a part of as well.
"We campaigned at the Courier about
integrating living conditions in the South during spring training, which is one
of the reasons why the Dodgers ended up with Dodgertown where everybody stays,"
said Nunn. "When the black players went south for spring training they stayed in
black neighborhoods. They couldn't stay in the same hotel as the other players.
We fought that and helped break some of that stuff down."
It wasn't just the athletes who
faced that segregation. Nunn himself faced it when traveling to the south to
cover spring training and other sports.
"I would go down there and have to
get on buses and go to the back," said Nunn. "I was at spring training camp and
got on the bus early one morning with the white driver. I sat near the front and
we got to talking and I kind of dozed off. When I woke up all of the blacks were
in the back and the whites were in the front all around me. I asked him if I
should move, and he told me to stay there. One time I was going to
Carolina with some soldiers. We got to
talking. We were going to the same place and we were going to get a cab
together. But the cab driver couldn't take me. The same thing used to happen
even at the hotels. It would even happen in Washington, D.C."
After he was at the Courier for two
years, Smith left and Nunn took over as sports editor. He worked closely with
baseball superstar Jackie Robinson, penning a column for the Courier titled
Jackie Robinson Says, where he would turn Robinson's thoughts into exceptional
Nunn also took over the duties of
selecting a black All-American team for the Courier.
"That was the only exposure that the
players from the black schools got," he said. 'There was a guy from the Chicago
Defender that picked an All-American team too, but theirs faded. We would have a
banquet in Pittsburgh and bring the guys to
Pittsburgh and have the black national
champion, player of the year, coach of the year."
It was his penchant for finding
talent and bringing it to the forefront that helped him land where he is today.
Nunn joined the Steelers on a part-time basis in 1967 in their scouting
department and then came on board full-time for the 1970 season under Chuck
He was one of the first African-American
scouts in the NFL and Art Rooney, Jr, who headed up the scouting department
then, had concerns when he was sent out to scout schools, especially the
predominately white ones. But Nunn never had a problem.
"Chuck always said he wanted me
going everywhere," said Nunn. "Art was concerned about my treatment at white
schools. I wasn't that concerned, but Art was a little reluctant. But my
treatment at the schools was really good. Blacks were starting to go to these
schools in small degrees so it was becoming more common. They were very
Nunn used his background as a
journalist to build relationships with college coaches like Bear Bryant and
Woody Hayes, coaches he could sit down and have conversations with instead of
just being a scout standing on the sideline watching practice.
But it was his knowledge of the
African-American schools that helped him find some of the diamonds in the rough,
players who hadn't found their way onto the Steelers roster until Nunn pushed
hard for them.
One of the shining stars that Nunn
brought to the team was wide receiver John Stallworth from Alabama A&M, the
team's fourth-round draft pick in their incredible class of
"Bill Nunn just went
on and on about him," said Noll. "I hadn't seen him at all. But Bill was one of
those guys when he was high on somebody, you had to listen."
And while Noll listened to Nunn,
there were times when they didn't agree as well. But they had a close
relationship, one built on respect and football knowledge.
"Chuck Noll was the guy who really
made me feel comfortable as far as scouting," said Nunn. "We didn't agree on Mel
Blount. I thought Mel should have been a safety because he was so tall. Chuck
went and got film and said he was going to play corner. What I didn't take into
consideration was the bump. Mel could control it.
"Chuck and I used to get into it. He
told me don't worry about all the things, just find athletes and it's our job as
coaches to teach them. I knew I could spot athletes, but there were a number of
guys who couldn't."
Nunn was an integral part of
bringing talent to the team that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s, but as the
late 80s rolled around, he decided it was time to call it quits. He officially
retired in 1987.
"I was going to retire two years
earlier than that," said Nunn. "I was spending so much time on the road and
flying everywhere. They told me they would cut back, and the first year they
did. The second year they asked me to go back to the old schedule. We were
almost into the season so I said I would do it and then
A funny thing happened on the way to
the rest and relaxation that follows retirement. Dan Rooney convinced him to
stay on, even in a part-time basis. And as a result, 20 years after he called it
quits, he still comes to the Steelers office on a regular basis as a part of the
scouting department and one of the few to now have five Super Bowl rings.
He doesn't go out on the road and
scout schools, but he intently studies film and offers his opinion on prospects,
an opinion that is just as valued today as it was back in the
"It was the best thing I could have
done," said the 82-year old Nunn about remaining with the team. "I might have
been dead by now. It has given me a little something to do. I just told Dan this
week that I am really through. He told me I wasn't going anywhere. But during
the winter, what would I be doing if I wasn't here."