Basketball: The pride after the prejudice - Positive force in negative world

Alan Hubbard talks to an official changing the face of basketball
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The Independent Online
THE MESSAGE left on Patricia Fairclough's answering machine was a three-minute racist rant, full of threats and obscenities, and concluding with a stomach-churning message. "Get out, black bitch. You are meddling in a white man's world."

She heard it when she returned from church one Sunday morning, shortly after her appointment as chief executive of the London Basketball Association and, she says, it gave her the inspiration to fight racism. "I was frightened because I had a young family, but I was determined not to give in, not to let these people win."

Fairclough is that rarity in British sport - a black admini-strator. Fifteen years on, she is now director for women of the English Basketball Association, having fought her way though hedgerows of prejudice and jealousy to become one of only a handful of sports leaders from an ethnic minority. And she is still fighting.

She is known as "Miss Basketball" - although she is a 47-year-old mother of two grown-up sons and "happily divorced". Two-and-a-half years ago she was head-hunted by the organisers of the Olympic tournament in Atlanta to be overseer of the Games' basketball officials.

She has made it to the top after a lifetime's commitment to the sport as a player, coach, referee and administrator, devoting every spare moment to basketball and raising the profile of the women's game. Yet hers is still an honorary appointment. She works as a reference librarian in Hammersmith, west London, after being made redundant as a draughtswoman.

"I've learned how to handle racism both in my career and in sport," says Fairclough, who came to England from Barbados 32 years ago. "Education and communication are the real keys. You have to be positive, never give up, always look forward and never back.

"At first I didn't notice it because I didn't look for it. But I was really made aware of it in sport through people of my own culture. They called me lazy because they always saw me sitting at a table as an official. `Black people aren't supposed to sit around and write things down,' they told me. `You are supposed to run up and down.'

"They obviously didn't realise I was also a player, referee and coach as well as general dogsbody. Then, after a time, I began to notice that some of the other officials I had helped to train and qualify were getting the plum appointments at the big tournaments, like Wembley, and I wasn't. My friends said they were surprised because they felt I was the best official in London, and the inference was that I was being overlooked because of my colour.

"Then someone - it wasn't me - complained to the Equal Opportunities Commission and things started to change." Even so, at one stage, Fairclough was dropped as the national representative of basketball's table officials because, she was told, the organisation needed a `change of face'. "The problem was, my face was a different colour to the rest. And I even heard the question asked: `Why should a black person represent us?' "

So it was inevitable that her Atlanta appointment would cause controversy. "There was a great deal of jealousy. Some even wrote damaging letters to the association. It was very hurtful." At one stage Fairclough says she was told by the chairman of the Basketball Players' Association: "You have got two negatives. One, you are a woman. Two, you are a black woman."

The way Fairclough persevered to overcome these twin obstacles will no doubt have the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, applauding, for, whatever his faults, no one can question his commitment in attempting to advance the sporting cause of ethnic minorities and females - as Tessa Sanderson will testify.

Fairclough says that while leadership in sport is now less of a closed shop to minority groups, equality is still a long way off. "In America, 40 per cent of the staff of the NBA are women. In this country we are lagging way behind. Things are changing, but not quickly enough.

"Black people are still not encouraged to put themselves forward for administrative posts. Ideally, colour should not come into it, but sadly it still does. Some of those in charge don't want to know what you've achieved or how you've achieved it, it's simply the colour of your skin, and being black or from an ethnic minority means you always have to prove and push yourself that much harder."

Recently Banks berated the Central Council of Physical Recreation, whose 24-member executive does not include a single black person. The CCPR's Nigel Hook says strenuous efforts are being made to address this imbalance and admits that many potential black administrators are deterred because they don't see too many welcoming faces in what they perceive as white, middle-class sports institutions.

Basketball, where some 30 per cent of participants are black, is now something of a flagship thanks largely to Fairclough. She is now in her third year of an elected post and is heartened by the fact that the sport has just appointed its first black national development officer, and two black regional development officers. Elsewhere the governing bodies of sport are largely anachronistic, aged and some remain racist.

As a role model, the softly spoken, church-going librarian from west London is a most unlikely militant. Her favourite quotation comes from the American author and poet Ntozake Shange: "Where there is a woman, there is magic." In the case of Miss Basketball, a little black magic, too.