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Waite Bellamy transformed himself from football standout to basketball great

Lincoln Legend: Waite Bellamy

Waite Bellamy says Ray Bellamy was perfect person to knock down racial barriers.
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Waite Bellamy says Ray Bellamy was perfect person to knock down racial barriers.

Waite Bellamy was destined to be a standout football player, but did what many people would consider the unthinkable. He fell in love with basketball and switched sports.

A highly touted center and offensive tackle on Lincoln’s successful football team during his sophomore and junior years, Bellamy decided he couldn’t turn way from his true passion though he admits the transition was not easy.

Bellamy (no relation to Lincoln great Ray Bellamy) turned himself into one of the greatest basketball players to ever come out of Manatee County. Some even consider him a step above Clifford Rozier, the county’s only first round NBA draft pick.

Bellamy was also an excellent student and president of the Lincoln Student Body when he walked the through the graduation line in 1959.

Ray Bellamy, who broke the color barriers for major college football players in the Southeast in 1966 said Waite Bellamy was one of those guys who made it happen.

“He was also captain of the football team and student body president. You don’t do things like breaking down those barriers alone. It takes a lot of people,” Ray Bellamy said. “He was an excellent student and set an example for all of us both in the classroom and in athletics. He was an inspiration for me.”

Waite Bellamy went to Florida A&M where the coaches gave him the choice of playing football or basketball. At 6-4 and possessing a variety of skills, he chose the latter

Waite Bellamy went to Florida A&M where the coaches gave him the choice of playing football or basketball. At 6-4 and possessing a variety of skills, he chose the latter, which arguably turned out to be the right decision.

In his senior year at FAMU, he averaged 28 points and 17 rebounds and was a two-time small school All-American. There were only nine NBA teams at the time, which made it difficult to make a roster, but he was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks in the fourth round (33d overall pick, which today would be the third player chosen in the second round).

There were less than 100 jobs available and this was the time when the NBA was dominated by the Boston Celtics and Bill Russell. The Hawks were among the better teams. But they had their stars, including Hall of Famers Bob Pettit, Lenny Wilkens and Clyde Lovellette.

“That team was pretty much set and was difficult to make,” said the 76-year-old Bellamy. “If I have one regret it’s that in those days they were not taking many black players to the big time college basketball programs and that might have hurt my chances.”

After college Bellamy signed with the Wilmington (Delaware) Blue Bombers of the Eastern League, which is the oldest professional basketball league in the country and was considered the next best league behind the NBA at the time.

62 Bellamy’s single-game career high points

He was an immediate success and held all of the franchise’s scoring records in its eight-year existence including averaging a career 32 points per game with a single-game career high 62 and leading the team to back to back league titles in 1966 and ’67.

The EBL was no slouch. Bellamy went up against and did well against players who would eventually earn acclaim in the NBA such as Bob Love. John Chaney, Hal Lear, Paul Arizin and Wally Choice whose 41.3 ppg average in 61-62 is still the EBL record. It was formed six weeks before the Basketball Association of American that would eventually become the NBA

The money was not good and considered peanuts to what NBA players make today, but Waite Bellamy is proud to say he got better every year and at every level.

“We played on the weekends and everybody had jobs. I started out getting paid $50 per game and when I finished was getting $150 per game, which was about the highest,” he said.

Bellamy was an EBL icon. He won three scoring titles, was league MVP and during that time was invited to NBA camps and had numerous tryouts including those with Philadelphia, the Baltimore Bullets and as a 30-year-old had a memorable experience with the New Knicks who were coming off their NBA title season and featured Hall of Famers Walt Frazier and Willis Reed.

“Me and Phil Jackson were roommates. He was a rookie coming off of back surgery,” Bellamy said. “He was a quiet guy, liked to read a lot and didn’t say much. I didn’t know at the time all the Zen stuff he was into. I was like a practice dummy and I didn’t make the team.”

If he was born in another time, in another era and perhaps in a different part of a country Bellamy might have realized his dream to play in the NBA. But he describes his youth growing up in Palmetto as a enjoyable time.

We were pretty happy with what we were doing competing against the other segregated schools. At that time we just wanted equality.

Waite Bellamy

“We were pretty happy with what we were doing competing against the other segregated schools,” he said. “At that time we just wanted equality. We were not thinking about integration. If they had a nice football field we wanted a nice football field, If they had nice school we wanted a nice school. Integration was not goal.”

Bellamy and his friends had their own form of integration. He says they would sneak into McKechnie Field and play against a white team unbeknown to the outside world.

“We used to do that a lot and never had any incidents,” Bellamy recalled. “We jumped the fence and nobody knew about it. We just came together and had a lot of fun. There were no incidents, just fun. It was just us kids, there were no adults there and if the police came we would just run away.”

Bellamy received an honor he coveted in 2008 when he was inducted in the National Negro High School Basketball Hall of Fame. He received his degree from FAMU and taught and coached basketball in Sarasota County for more than three decades.

Who makes your list of Lincoln’s Legends?

Send us your list of legends and why they make the cut to sports@bradenton.com and we may include some submissions with later parts of this series.

About this series:

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of Ray Bellamy’s recruitment by and signing with the University of Miami, breaking the color barrier for African-American athletes in the Southeast.

To commemorate the anniversary, the Bradenton Herald is publishing “Lincoln’s Legends & Legacy,” a recurring series of articles throughout July on some of the top athletes from Lincoln High School, the pre-integration era high school for African-American students in Manatee County. Upcoming subjects include:

Henry Lawrence

Eddie Shannon

Ed Dick

Willie Lee Jones

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