Thursday, April 11, 2002

Riots strengthened Basnight's resolve

Former Bengal still determined to give back

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's a new year, a new city, a new situation, but the events of April 2001 in Cincinnati are never far away for Michael Basnight.

        The then-Bengals running back was deeply affected by the uprising, and it reinforced his belief that he must use his stature as a professional football player and a well-educat ed black man to try to make a difference.

        “It opened my eyes even more to a lot of things,” Basnight said Tuesday night from Houston, where he lives and now plays for the expansion Texans.

        Waived Aug.27 by the running back-rich Bengals, Basnight signed as a free agent Dec.29 with the Texans. He is second on the team's depth chart, behind former Bears tailback James Allen, but Basnight has a chance to start.

        Cincinnati's race riots unfolded a year ago this week. Basnight was the only professional athlete in town who went into Over-the-Rhine to try to help calm protesters.

        “Michael Basnight is the type of player who has the courage of his convictions. He wants to help out,” Bengals president Mike Brown said. “A lot of guys do that, but it goes under the radar.”

        On the night of April 10, 2001, Basnight left his Northern Kentucky home and drove to Over-the-Rhine, a Cincinnati neighborhood torn by rioting. But it wasn't just a blur from the expressway for Basnight. He had been there before.

        It was the community where he would get his hair cut. It was the place he had recorded music in a Vine Street studio. It was home to some of his friends.

        Basnight, now 24, tried to appeal to angry young men he met on the street that night. He talked about a nonviolent approach to solving problems.

        They didn't listen.

        Basnight wished he had a higher profile with the Bengals; then, maybe, they'd hear him. Basnight had started only one of his 13 games and had missed the 2001 season because of a broken wrist.

        The night after he visited Over-the-Rhine, he participated in a voluntary workout with teammates at Paul Brown Stadium. Then he went searching for a radio or TV stump to appeal for peace.

        “I want to tell people to stop,” Basnight said that day when looters were reacting to the police shooting death of an unarmed black man, Timothy Thomas. “I want to say: "I know you're going through a lot. I know you're upset. But now is not the time to do irrational things. Two wrongs don't make a right.'”

        Basnight lived in the Tristate through February, when he moved to Houston. He has followed the lawsuits and the boycott playing out in Cincinnati.

        As a man of faith, he has a prayer for Cincinnati: “I hope they can get it together in timely fashion,” Basnight said. “I hope God will bless the city. We're all going to have to live together, so we may as well get it done. Nobody's going anywhere else.”

        Basnight has wasted no time getting involved in his new city. He has worked with the Houston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to register voters. He regularly visits schools, and, as a published poet, he reads to students. Or, he'll give a motivational speech. His alma mater, North Carolina A&T, didn't want to help him create a scholarship fund. So he's searching for another historically black college to help. Anything that creates positive energy.

        “Ten percent of what I make in football, 10 percent of what I make outside of football, I want to give it back,” he said.

        He is just as excited about the Texans' prospects. Basnight wore No.35 for the Bengals, and he was given a legendary jersey number in Houston — the 34 worn by Oilers Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell.

        Basnight has beefed up from 235 pounds to 249 but says he hasn't lost his speed. His opportunity in Cincinnati was limited by the presence of Pro Bowler Corey Dillon and solid second-stringer Brandon Bennett.

        But his disappointment with the Bengals has made him appreciate his new opportunity in Houston. And he can compare his football career in Cincinnati to what's happening here now in the larger society.

        “Sometimes, before you build something up, you've got to tear it down,” Basnight said. “There's always the chance to make things better. You've got to try.”


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