By David Aldridge NBA.COM
If you want to know why Harold Bell is the way he is, start with his hero and grandmother Amy Tyler Bell.
“My grandmother use to tell the grands, ‘A lie will change a thousand times. The truth will never change,” Bell said.
“If I leave here today or tomorrow, nobody owes me anything. What I’d like to do is pay back some of the people that have helped me to help others. The naysayers can’t say I stole from kids, did drugs or time in jail.” I was flawed like the next man or woman, but I was taught it was best to live and lead by example.
For five decades, Bell has told the truth as he saw it, on the airwaves and in print in Washington, D.C. He was the first black sports radio talk show host in DC. He has been a free-lance writer for the Afro-American, the New York Amsterdam newspapers, the Washington Post, Washington Times, and the Bleacher Report. He considers the most powerful vehicle in the media is the written ‘Word’.
He regularly calls out SCARED COWS who forgot who they are and where they came from. He honors those in the black community who often don’t get recognition—both sports figures and regular folks.
He has been the host for forums relating to Community Policing and Cops and Kids. He’s honored Ohio State football players, Cornelius Greene, Lenny Willis and Woodrow Roach. He was an advisor to Super Bowl XXII MVP winner, Doug Williams when he first arrived in DC. He honored Gary Mays, a multi-sport athlete in D.C. in the 1950s. Gary guarded high school superstar Elgin Baylor and held him to 18 points (Baylor average 35 pt). Gary was a catcher for Armstrong High School and almost made it to the major leagues despite having only one arm. It was in a major league baseball tryout at old Griffith Stadium home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Senators. He was selected the best player among hundreds would-be major league players. Gary was the only player to hit a homerun out of the stadium. No team offered him a contract or a tryout.
Bell advocated behind the scenes for the release of former University of Maryland basketball star Jo Jo Hunter from prison. Hunter had been convicted in 1997 of robbing two jewelry stores and was sentenced to serve up to 43 years in prison. Bell had several prominent sports stars and other Washingtonians write letters on Hunter’s behalf. He was paroled a summer later after serving eighteen years. Bernard Levi a DC basketball playground legend and NFL legend Jim Brown have also benefited from his social media and letter writing campaigns on their behalf. Bell campaigned for Brown’s early release from jail after charges of spousal abuse in 2007.
It was Harold Bell who campaigned to get NFL All-Pro Willie Wood and NBA pioneer Earl Lloyd inducted into their hall of fames after they were “Blackballed” by their leagues. Willie was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1989 and Earl was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2001.
“I’ve come to know Harold over the years,” says Brian McIntyre, who was the NBA’s longtime Vice President of Communications through 2010. “He’s a guy who’s reached back and touched an awful lot of people’s lives. He’s a fighter. He believes in what he believes dearly, and he’s not going to give an inch. You have to respect somebody who is as passionate as he is.”
For 45 years straight years (1968-2013), he and his wife, Hattie, led Kids in Trouble without grants or loans. The organization went into D.C. neighborhoods where Bell grew up while playing at Spingarn High School. NBA Hall of Fame player and Spingarn alumnus Dave Bing and NFL Hall of Fame player Willie Wood were the first pro athletes to reach back into the community via Kids In Trouble.
In 1967 there was a shooting after a basketball game between Spingarn and McKinley Tech. A Spingarn student was shot. Dave Bing was a NBA Rookie playing in his first All-Star Game in Baltimore. Bell working with the DC Recreation Department’s Roving Leader Program (Youth Gang Task Force) was assigned to the shooting. There was talk of revenge among the Spingarn students. The quick thinking Bell drove to Baltimore to solicit the help from Spingarn alumnus Bing. After playing in the game on national television on Sunday, Monday morning Bing walked into a Spingarn auditorium and got a standing ovation from the Spingarn student body. His words of wisdom and plea for peace were heard and further violence was averted.
Every reach-back program promoted today by the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL all started with Harold and Hattie Bell in Washington, DC. Thousands of children in the District, Virginia and Maryland (DMV) have benefited from Kids In Trouble, Inc.
During this reach-back experience Bell tried to improve the lives of at-risk youth by using pro athletes and judges as highly visible vehicles in his community programs. During the 1968 riots he walked arm in arm with co-worker NFL Hall of Fame player and Green Bay Packer defensive back Willie Wood. U. S. Marshall Luke C. Moore would join Harold and Willie as they walked arm and arm on the U Street and 14th Street corridors trying to quell the violence and save lives. Luke was the first modern day U. S. Marshall in-Charge since Frederick Douglas.
Harold and Hattie found Kids In Trouble, Inc. and the Hillcrest Saturday Program in 1968 shortly after the riots. The program served neighborhood kids and their families. They gave away Thanksgiving turkeys and were the host for Christmas toy parties. They coordinated the parties for kids that otherwise wouldn’t get any toys. The Washington Football Team players, Roy Jefferson, Larry Brown, Harold McLinton, Ted Vactor, Dave Robinson and Doug Williams have all been Santa’s Helpers. He and his wife have raised money to send kids to summer basketball camps in Winston-Salem, NC, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Kids In Trouble youth were often the guest of the Washington NFL pro football team for games in RFK Stadium.
Hattie and Harold organized tutoring programs and every Saturday a yellow school bus full of white youth from a Maryland suburb (Takoma Park) would arrive on 14th and W Street to tutor the kids. In 1971 they found the only halfway house for juvenile delinquents ever established on a military installation. It was called Bolling Boys Base located on Bolling Air Force Base in SE DC.
He was a multi-sport star athlete at Spingarn. Bell admits he spend many games in the coaches’ ‘Doghouse’ for his selfish play. He says, “My problem, I wanted the ball in my hands when the game was in doubt”.
He opened community centers that had previously been closed on the weekends to neighborhood residents. Washingtonian Magazine named him Washingtonian of the Year in 1980 and called him “A One Man Community Action Program.” He was the first sportscaster to receive the honor from the magazine.
Hattie and Harold have been honored at the White House by President Richard M. Nixon, and cited in the Congressional Record on three different occasions. First, there was Lou Stokes (D-Ohio), Bob Dole (R-Kan) and Congressman Walter Fauntroy for their work with at-risk children
He said, “The only reason I’m still standing strong today is because of my high school and college coaches, Dave Brown and Bighouse Gaines. They were there to prevent me from going to hell in a hurry”.
“It was not always financial when it came to helping people, he says. I made decent money as a talk show host, I had some high profile sponsors like the Md. State Lottery, and Coca-Cola for my radio talk shows”.
He was the first Sports and Marketing Rep for Nike and Anheuser Busch in the Nation’s Capitol. He moonlighted on the weekends as a wide receiver playing minor league football. “I tried to keep it real for my young people making sure they went ‘First Class’. I think I’m more proud of that than anything else. When I see my former youth today, it’s still Mr. and Mrs. Bell. They show respect because I never misled them and they remembered I was there during the good and bad times.
Bell says, “a man is only as good as his word and I made my word golden with my young people. Today in the black community a man’s word means very little. I not only talked the talk, I walked the walk”.
Bell and the late Petey Greene were close friends. Petey was a local legend who hosted a highly-rated radio talk show (and, later, television show) on WOL-AM. Bell met Greene while caddying on the weekends at the prestigious Burning Tree Golf Course located in a Maryland suburb. The same golf course he met his friend Vice-President Richard Nixon in 1957. In 1967 Greene would give Bell five minutes of air time on his Sunday show to talk sports on W-O-L radio and President Nixon would give him a Presidential appointment in 1969.
Petey would later tell him to get the hell off his show and get his own, WOL radio personality Bobby Bennett picked him up. Bennett was the No. 1 DJ in the country at the time and was known as The Mighty Burner. “I think Bobby was a closet sportscaster in waiting. We talked sports on Saturday afternoons the show was a big hit,” Bell said.
But a year later, Bell was ready to go it alone with Bennett’s blessings. Station WOOK-AM another black oriented station hired him as a talk show host, allowing him to express his strong opinions with no filter. The show was christened “Inside Sports,” the tag given to him by his wife and is now a part of sports media history.
For much of the next 30 years, Bell held court with a Who’s Who of sports figures. It was his relationships with Muhammad Ali and Red Auerbach that gave him instant credibility.
“Every sports talk show in the country now has a format similar to the original Inside Sports,” Outside the Lines? I was Outside the Lines long before Bob Levy. I was Real Sports before Bryant Gumble” he says.
He says, “I was Out of DC long before NWA (Niggers With Attitudes) was Out of Compton. NWA had to go underground with their music because the FCC would not allow their profanity laced lyrics to be played on radio stations. The FCC had their eyes on me, but their political hands were tied-no profanity!
“I was tackling the tough issues as it related to pro sports, racism, bad agents and bad politicians, when everyone else was just giving the scores, batting averages and telling you how much a player weighed and how tall he was. I played message music when no one dared to play it on talk shows. My music, Wake Up Everybody, What’s Going On, Black & Proud, the Revolution will not be televised, Who killed the Sheriff, etc.
“It was unheard of and now I can appreciate Inside Sports while transferring my old shows from cassette to CD. I can understand why people liked the original Inside Sports talk format. The show had no ‘Cut Card’ and there were no pom-poms and skirts allowed on the show. A media room deadline is still one of the most segregated hours in America, second only to a church on Sunday morning”, he says.
His interviews with Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Red Auerbach, Spencer Haywood, Harry Edwards, Sonny Hill, Don King, Bighouse Gaines and John Chaney were educational classics. He was the host for panel discussion shows with football players on the difficulties they faced after they retired, decades before it became a national issue. He was the first to convene a Media Roundtable with other members of the media. He gave John Thompson and Sugar Ray Leonard their first airtime when they could not buy their way on to a local TV or radio show.
He remembers his friendship with the late Red Auerbach and his wife Dotie they lived in D.C., they treated him and Hattie like family. His biggest regret, he didn’t tell Red about the rumors of drugs before he drafted Len Bias. He says, “I probably could have saved Bias’ life, but I made a mistake and took my street sense over my common sense.”
There are others who have reached back like former NBA referee Lee Jones and Jim Clemons, who played with the ’72 Lakers championship team. Clemons went on to be an assistant coach on the Bulls’ and Lakers’ title teams of the ’90s and 2000s. He said, “I owe them dearly.”
Former player/coach Al Attles of the Golden State Warriors says of Bell is a ‘Good Man’. He does so much trying to help others. He’s good people. We go back a long way. He’s just been outstanding. I grew up in New Jersey and went to school in North Carolina, of course, and moved out to the west coast. But I have always been partial to people who give back to the community. He has done so many good things. I’m a community guy and he always was. It’s not easy. As we get older, and new people come in and do things, I don’t think it’s that people don’t appreciate what you’ve done, it’s just that people move on.”
In 1975, Bell produced and hosted a half-hour sports special on WRC TV 4, the NBC affiliate in Washington. His special guest was Muhammad Ali. It was the first prime time a sports program was produced and hosted by a black man in America.
“I met Ali on the campus of Howard University in 1967, I was a Roving Leader (Youth Gang Task Force) for the DC Department of Recreation & Parks. Ali was there speaking to the students as a part-time comedian and community activist. He was talking about his problems with the draft and being black in America”.
“We hit it off and walked from the campus down Georgia Avenue to 7th& T Streets together. We talked about my working with young people and the challenges I faced. He was really impressed. I turned to see about 40, 50 people walking with us it was like a parade. I didn’t see him again for at least three or four years”, he says.
The late J.D. Bethea a sports writer for the Washington Star was contemplating on writing a story on him, he and Attorney Harry Barnett invited him to ride with them to Cleveland to see Ali fight an exhibition for a Cleveland Children’s Hospital. They didn’t have to ask him a second time. Barnett at the time was representing George Foreman. It was the best car ride ever when Muhammad recognized him during the press conference. He said, “Harold Bell, what are you doing this far away from home?” From that point on their relationship flourished and it was all down hill from there. It was there he became ‘The Chosen One’!
The carat in the relationship came in 1974 after Ali shocked the world when he knocked out big George Foreman in the 8th round. He became the undefeated and undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world. He had made a promise to Harold in Chicago before leaving for Zaire, Africa. He made fun of him, when he said, “Harold Bell since you are scared to fly over the ocean after I knockout George, I will give you the first interview.”
It was five nights after the fight. On a rainy night in DC Harold’s phone rang around 10 pm, it was Ali keeping his word (unheard of)). It has been four decades plus later and Harold says, “I am still amazed by that call. I was just a nobody trying to be somebody”.
Bell hosted Inside Sports well into the 1990s at different radio stations. He never compromised (he once gave boxing promoter Don King a five-figure check back after he claimed King reneged on his word). A man is only as good as his word and Don’s word has never meant very much, he said.
Harold has chastised those whom he believed didn’t give enough back to the communities from which they came. Players, media, coaches, it didn’t matter: if you were on Bell’s bad side, there was hell to pay. He says, “Radio is a special medium. I enjoyed taking calls from my listening audience (Bell, however, says he never hung up on a caller, and thinks many of today’s radio gabbers are “rude” to their listeners.)
“I discovered early you’ve got to be able to distinguish between constructive criticism and destructive criticism, I knew when people were trying to help me and when they were trying to play me. You always have to consider the source. When Red gave me advice, I knew he wasn’t trying to hurt me. Or when Al Attles pulled me to the side, I knew he was trying to help me.”
Bell is still working. He now has his own weekly Zoom Show every Sunday, Inside Sports Detoxx video show on You Tube, he is the most read and most popular blogger for Black Men in America.com. The website is one of the most popular black websites on the internet, ranked in the top 10 out of over 500 black websites. His collection of star maker interviews are still being developed with the likes of Ali, as well as Red Auerbach, Sam Jones, Al Attles, and Connie Hawkins. In February he will continue to work on his Muhammad Ali documentary to commemorate Black History Month. His work as the historian at D.C.’s iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant has come to an end. And he’s still telling the truth and calling it like he sees it. Its truth without the he say, she say, the lies that keep our community divided. There will be no hiding behind anonymity on his watch.
“If you know Harold,” McIntyre said, “and if you haven’t had a difference of opinion over something, then I don’t think you know Harold Bell.”
Earl Lloyd was the first black to play in the NBA described Bell best when he said on the late John Thompson ESPN 98O radio sports talk show, “Harold Bell maybe controversial, but I have yet to hear anyone call him a liar.”
Case closed–in 2020 the National Association of Black Journalist honored him with their pioneer award recognizing his media trailblazing efforts. He thought it was “April Fool”!