Question: I saw you answer a question about whether John Houseman was a real law professor or not, so here's a more sporting question. Wasn't Ken Howard, the lead on The White Shadow, a real NBA star who had that nickname when he was a player? Thank you. Justin M., Wolfeboro, N.H.
Televisionary: Two questions, two answers, Justin: No, and sort of.Howard, who starred as ex-Chicago Bull-turned-high-school-coach at L.A.'s Carver High School during the show's November 1978-August 1981 run on ABC, was never a pro player. However, reaching 6-feet-5 before turning 15, he was a star high-school player and started as Amherst's center for three years. (OK, so it was Amherst, but what do you want? It was still college ball and the guy valued academics over athletics.)
Matter of fact, Howard mined that past when he came up with the idea for the show and called executive producer Bruce Paltrow, whom he knew from working with Paltrow's wife, actress Blythe Danner. "Bruce was a high jumper and we had the same kind of memories about athletics," Howard told TV Guide in 1979. "So we had lunch and got very excited talking about high school. We wrote the whole basic idea out on the back of a restaurant napkin I still have it, framed on my wall. Then Bruce went to Andy Segal at CBS and sold him the idea over lunch."
As for the nickname becoming the show's title, it wasn't really a regular moniker for Howard in his high-school days. "Some sportswriter did call me that once, and I mentioned it to Bruce when we were first talking about the show. But it wasn't a name I was known by," he said. "Actually, most guys called me 'Stork' because I was skinny, white and had long legs."
Howard also had the on-court skills to lend some authenticity to the show, as was evidenced by his shooting foul shots and counting how many he made while talking to a reporter.
"I wanted you to see what we're striving for in the show," the actor said as he put the ball up from the free-throw line, retrieved it and shot again. "Missed that one, that's one out of two. We wanted audiences to see the realism, to feel that these guys are really playing. Two out of three. We use long camera angles so you can see the player take the shot and the shot go in. Three out of four. We don't fake, we don't use stuntmen for the shots. Four out of five. All of us have played basketball before. Five out of six. Oh, sure, sometimes we cut from the shot to the basket or the clock just because it's visually interesting. Six out of seven. And the magic of film helps us look good. If we blow a shot we can keep trying until we make it. Seven out of eight. You see that fadeaway from deep in the corner in last night's show? I told the director, Jackie Cooper, 'Just keep the camera on me,' and I told Mike Warren, who was guarding me, 'Stick your hand in my face and keep it there.' Eight out of nine. I shot five times and the fifth one dropped right through the cords. Made a terrific ending. Nine out of 10. Ninety percent is good even for the pros. In one show I tell our kids, 'A foul shot is a free shot. There's no excuse for missing.' And all the time I'm putting them up and dropping them, just like this."
Of course, if you wanted to join Howard and the rest of the cast as a regular, having some playing experience certainly helped. Wolf Perry, who signed on to the series in its final season, was an all-conference guard at Stanford who averaged more than 18 points a game, for example. He studied drama there before being drafted by the Utah Jazz, and while a shot at the pros is the dream of most college players, training camp taught him that acting had a key advantage over playing.
"I was in a lot of pain," Perry said in 1980. "Every night I was soaking my feet and thinking whether there might be some better way to make a living. I decided to try to make it as an actor. It's really a lot easier on the knees and ankles."
As for the off-the-court action, there was even some hoops pedigree there, too. Joan Pringle, who played vice principal Sybil Buchanan (who eventually was promoted to principal), was a top-notch guard on the girls' teams when she was a young student in New York. "Women's rules," she said in 1979. "Pretty limiting because you could just dribble twice and then go. I always wanted to shoot but they'd never let me play forward, because they said I was too good a guard."