You know it’s a tough ticket in this town when an event involves sports and Don Donoher can’t get in.
Neither could John Henderson, the NFL veteran out of Roosevelt High and the receiving star of Super Bowl IV. And longtime Dayton sportswriter Bucky Albers and his wife, Judy, couldn’t get a seat either.
Scores of folks got to The Neon movie theater well before the start of Thursday night’s Arlena Smith fundraiser — a celebratory affair that was highlighted by the showing of documentary on Roger Brown, the exiled University of Dayton player who became an NBA legend and soon will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame — only to find themselves turned away.
Once the Neon had opened its doors, it took just a few minutes for the crush of people waiting outside to pour in and buy every seat in the small theater. And yet even those left empty-handed made sure to help fill Arlena’s platter.
They congregated in the theater lobby just to be part of the scene and share stories and then stuff some cash in the donation box before they left.
“I was shocked at the big turn out,” Albers said. “It was like being at a Hollywood movie premier. It was exciting. Just a really feel good night.”
Imagine if Bucky had gotten inside.
Regardless, he summed it up perfectly. It was a night of good feelings directed toward the late Roger Brown and the 84-year-old woman who was his guardian angel here.
Brown was the schoolboy hoops sensation from New York, who arguably was the greatest talent ever to wear a UD uniform. He starred on the Flyers 1960-61 freshman team and then got unfairly bounced from the school and a shot at the NBA because of a point shaving scandal that involved other college players, but not him.
Cast adrift by everyone — and feeling crushed — Brown found some outstretched hands from Arlena and her husband, Azariah, a good-hearted West Dayton couple who had no children of their own but had given a home to many young people in need here over the years.
They saved Roger Brown.
As Ted Green, the filmmaker who produced “Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story” put it, there would have been no glorious Indiana Pacers career and no Hall of Fame for Brown were it not for the Smiths.
Brown gets inducted Sept. 8 in Springfield, Mass., and if anyone deserves to be there, it’s Arlena. But Az died two years ago and she’s on a fixed income and the trip seemed impossible.
Tickets for the Hall of Fame festivities cost S750 each. And she would need to be escorted by her great nephew. Add in travel expenses, rooms and meals and the event was out of reach to her.
That’s when a few of us got together and decided to try to raise some funds. I had a big story about the venture in last Sunday’s newspaper. Nationally acclaimed Dayton artist — and Brown’s former AAU teammate — Bing Davis handled the donation collection and offered a piece of his artwork for auction. And the Indianapolis-based Green agreed to debut his wonderful film here.
He didn’t know what he was walking into.
“I was hoping we’d get half the house to fill up” he said. “I was blown away — just overwhelmed — by the turnout.”
Several former UD players — guys like Pat Allen, Frank Case, Tommy Hatton, Paul Winterhalter, and Brown teammates Chuck Izor and Bill Chmielewski — were there, as was current Flyers assistant coach Kevin Kuwik.
Browns’ pals in the six years he lived here after his ouster at UD — guys like Ike Thornton and Bobby Cochran — were there too, as was Roger’s wife, Jeannie, who’d made the drive from Indianapolis.
While the spotlight of the evening certainly belonged to Brown, Arlena and Green, the unexpected star was the Dayton community itself.
“It’s nice to see what Dayton feels about Roger,” Jeannie said. “I think Dayton did him proud tonight.”
As Bing Davis surveyed the crowd, one thing struck him: “Back when he played here and now again Roger was a lightning rod for pulling people together. When you looked in the audience tonight, you saw that broad spectrum of the community, people black and white, from all walks and economic stratus.
“We’re always so divided, but to see people come together like this and share their support and love is truly amazing. Who would have thought we could draw such a big crowd … and we weren’t even serving beer.”
That’s not to say the night wasn’t intoxicating.
“When I saw Don Donoher walk in, it shocked me to death — just all these people wonderful people,” gushed Arlena.
Chmielewski, who teamed with Brown to make that UD freshman team a thing of legend, was just as moved: “Ted sent me an advance copy of the film and I’ve seen it four times. But every time I get choked up … Roger got a raw deal. He was a great guy, a good friend and this night was a great testament to him.”
Izor said he wanted a copy of the film: “For the past 50 years I’ve been telling Roger Brown stories and people don’t believe me. That’s why I need a copy. He was just so incredible and the film will back me up.”
There are DVDs and Green felt so bad about people getting shut out Thursday that he gave those folks a copy of the film to take home.
The documentary, by the way, will also play on ThinkTV PBS here starting at the end of the month and leading into the Hall of Fame weekend.
And it appears we collected enough money that Arlena is now assured of her trip. Initially her nephew was going to drive her, but now we likely will be able to fly them there.
Of course we could still use some help (send checks to the Arlena Smith Fund, c\o Bing Davis’s EbonNia Gallery, 1135 West Drive Martin Luther King Way, Dayton, OH 45402) to make her time in Springfield first class all the way.
Her head is already swirling though.
“When I dropped her back off at home late Thursday night she was on Cloud 9,” said Green. “It was just a wonderful night.”
Bobby Cochran, Roger’s longtime pal here, wasn’t as surprised by what happened:
“For all that happened to him here, Roger had a special place in his heart for Dayton. He found an adoptive mom and dad here in Arlena and Azariah Smith. He and I became like brothers and he had a lot of other very good friends here. He found folks here who really cared about him.”
They still do.