By David Aldridge, NBA Analyst
If you want to know why Harold Bell is the way he is, start with his grandmother.
“My grandmother used to tell me, ‘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. They can’t say I stole from any kids, or done drugs, or anything like that.” I was not perfect but I was taught it was best to lead by example.
For four decades, Bell has told the truth as he saw it, on the airwaves or in print in Washington, D.C. He was the first African-American sports radio talk show host in DC. More recently, he’s been a no-holds barred Internet columnist who regularly calls out sacred 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.
In February, he was the host of a forum honoring his father-in-law, the late Dr. Charles H. Thomas, Jr., whose family led civil rights demonstrations in Orangeburg, S.C., in the early 1950s, before Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and Rev. Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963. He’s honored both Doug Williams, the Super Bowl XXII MVP winner, and Gary Mays, a multi-sport athlete in D.C. in the 1950s who guarded Elgin Baylor. Mays played catcher for Armstrong High School and almost made it to the majors despite having only one arm.
Bell advocated behind the scenes for the release of former University of Maryland basketball star Jo Jo Hunter from prison last year. 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 last summer. Bernard Levi a DC basketball playground legend and NFL legend Jim Brown have also benefited. Bell campaigned for Brown’s early release from jail after charges of spousal abuse in 2007.
“I’ve come to know Harold in the last few 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, he and his wife, Hattie, ran Kids in Trouble without grants or loans. The organization went into the D.C. neighborhoods in which Bell grew up while playing at Spingarn High. NBA Hall of Famer and Spingarn alumnus Dave Bing was the first pro athlete to reach back into the community. In 1967 there was a shooting after a basketball game between Spingarn and McKinley Tech. A Spingarn student was shot. Bing an NBA Rookie was 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 of his friend Spingarn alumnus Dave Bing. After playing in the game on national television on Sunday, on Monday morning Bing walked into a Spingarn assembly and got a standing ovation from the Spingarn student body. His plea for peace was heard and further violence was averted.
Bell tried to improve the lives of at-risk youth by using pro athletes as a vehicle in his community programs. During the 1968 riots he and NFL Hall of Fame Green Bay Packer defensive back Willie Wood walked the 14th U Street corridor trying to quell the violence and save lives.
He was a multi-sport athlete at Spingarn, Bell has remained active in D.C.’s community as an adult. He and his wife have raised money to send kids to summer camps and coordinated Christmas toy parties for kids that otherwise wouldn’t get any toys. The Washington Redskin’s players Roy Jefferson, Larry Brown, Harold McLinton, Ted Vactor, Dave Robinson and Doug Williams often played Santa’s Helpers. They started and found Kids In Trouble, Inc. and the Hillcrest Saturday Program for neighborhood kids and their families after the 1968 riots. They gave away Thanksgiving turkeys and organized tutoring programs. In 1971, he founded the only halfway house for juvenile delinquents ever established on a military installation. It was called Bolling Boys Base at Bolling Air Force Base in the Nation’s Capital.
He opened community centers that had previously been closed on the weekends to neighborhood children. 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.
Bell and his wife Hattie have been honored at the White House by President Richard M. Nixon. He has been cited in the Congressional Record on three different occasions by Lou Stokes (D-Ohio), Bob Dole (R-Kan) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) for his work with at-risk children.
“I think you’ve got to live by example. The only reason I’m still standing strong is because my high school and college coaches, Dave Brown and Bighouse Gaines were there for me when I was going to hell in a hurry. It’s not always financial when it comes to helping people. I made decent money as a talk show host with The Maryland Lottery, Coca-Cola and Nike as sponsors of my radio talk shows. Plus, I 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 youngsters today, it’s still Mr. Bell and Mrs. Bell. They show respect because I never misled them” Bell said.
Working in the streets, Bell came in contact with Petey Greene, a local legend who hosted a highly-rated radio show (and, later, television show) on WOL-AM. Bell had met Greene while caddying on the weekends at the prestigious Burning Tree Golf Course located in a Maryland suburb. It would be years later when Greene would give Bell five minutes of air time on his Sunday show to talk sports.
“It was a short lived honeymoon, Petey would later tell me to get the hell off his show and get my own show. Waiting in the wings was WOL radio personality Bobby Bennett, he picked me up. Bennett was the No. 1 DJ in the country at the time and was known as ‘The Mighty Burner. We talked sports on Saturday afternoons and the rest is sports media history” Bell said.
But within a few months, Bell was ready to go it alone with Bennett’s blessings. Station WOOK-AM another black oriented station hired him for a solo host job, allowing him to express his strong opinions with no filter. The show was christened “Inside Sports,” and for much of the next 20 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 this country is now formatted after the original Inside Sports,” he says. “Outside the Lines? I was Outside the Lines long before the show. I was real sports before Real Sports. I was discussing tough issues when everybody else was just giving the scores, batting averages and telling you how tall a player was. I played message music when no one was playing message music (Wake Up Everybody, What’s Going On, Black & Proud, etc). That was unheard of and now that I’m transferring my old shows to CD, I can understand why so many people liked the Inside Sports talk show format.”
His interviews with Jim Brown, Spencer Haywood, Sonny Hill, Don King and John Chaney are classics. He did panel discussion shows with pro 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 buy their own (and fell out with both).
I asked him if any of the high profile athletes he called out on his radio show had ever confronted him on any issues. He said “No, because there is no defense for the truth just like my grandmother had told me.”
“My friendship with the late Red Auerbach and his wife Dotie who lived in D.C. was like family” he said. There are others who have reached back like former NBA referee Lee Jones and Jim Clemons, who played with the ’72 Lakers championship team and 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.”
“Good man,” former player/coach Al Attles of the Golden State Warriors says of Bell. “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 did so many 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, the NBC affiliate in Washington. His special guest was Muhammad Ali. It was the first prime time sports program produced and hosted by an African-American.
“I met Ali on the campus of Howard University in 1967, when I was a roving leader,” Bell said. “He was there speaking to the students. He was going through all 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. He was really [impressed. We had 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. The late J.D. Bethea a sports writer for the Washington Times and was contemplating on writing a story on me, he and Attorney Harry Barnett invited to ride with them to see Ali fight an exhibition for a Cleveland hospital. Barnett at the time was representing George Foreman. And damned if Muhammad Ali didn’t recognize me during the press conference. He was like, ‘Harold Bell, what are you doing here?”
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 a promise). He 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. “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.)
“You’ve got to be able to distinguish between constructive criticism and destructive criticism,” he says. “I knew when people were trying to help me and when they were trying to hurt me … you always have to consider the source. When 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, not to hurt me.”
Bell is still working. He now has his own YouTube channel, which airs his collection of star maker interviews on his radio shows with the likes of Ali, as well as Auerbach, Sam Jones, Attles, and Connie Hawkins. He sometimes can be heard on Sirius XM’s Maggie Linton Show, co-hosting a two-hour special on Sirius (Channel 110) last Friday to commemorate the end of Black History Month. He still has historic events at D.C.’s iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant. And he’s still telling the truth and calling it like he sees it.
Earl Lloyd the first black to play in the NBA described Bell best when he said on the John Thompson ESPN 98O radio sports talk show several years ago, “Harold Bell maybe controversial, but I have yet to hear anyone call him a liar.”
“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.”
Harold Bell is the Godfather of Sports Talk radio and television in Washington, DC. Throughout the mid-sixties, seventies and eighties, Harold embarked upon a relatively new medium–sports talk radio with classic interviews with athletes and sports celebrities. The show and format became wildly popular. Harold has been an active force fighting for the rights of children for over 40 years with the help of his wife through their charity Kids In Trouble, Inc. To learn more about Harold Bell visit his official web site The Original Inside Sports.com.