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Withstanding a racial rant For women involved in WNY basketball, a chance to stand tall

When radio host Don Imus called members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," it was an insult felt by African-American women across the nation.

In Western New York, African-American girls and women involved with basketball were especially disturbed by the slur, and many of them agreed that Imus deserved to be punished.

Thursday afternoon, CBS Radio announced that it is canceling the "Imus in the Morning" show after mounting pressure from African-American and women's groups to fire the controversial shock jock. MSNBC had announced Wednesday that it was canceling its television simulcasts of Imus' radio program.

Seventeen-year-old Brianna Lee, point guard for the Hutch-Tech High School Engineers, said she felt that Imus' slur was "very, very wrong."

"I don't think anyone should say it," said Lee, who had been rooting for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights through the tournament. "But for a white man? I think it made it worse. He should know better than that."

Tanika Shedrick, 26, of Cheektowaga, who coaches Oracle Charter School's girls basketball team, said she was "disgusted," mindful that her girls have role models on the Rutgers team.

And if she heard any of her girls using language like that used by Imus, she said, they would be punished with "strenuous exercise": laps, push-ups, sit-ups or even running stairs. "They know the repercussions."

Erie Community College women's basketball coach Natosha Cummings-Price has conflicting feelings about Imus' controversial comments.

"It was offensive," she said. "But, hey, he spoke his mind. For me, I would rather have someone tell me how they feel than to lead me to believe they're one way when they're really another. . . . But does it make it right? Absolutely not."

Cummings-Price, 34, of Buffalo, had wanted to see Imus fired -- but doesn't know whether it will do any good.

"He should [also] be required to go to some form of a diversity workshop," she said. "He needs to be educated. Racism is learned. It's based on stupidity and ignorance."

Imus, notorious for his acid-tongued tirades and more than occasional insensitive remarks, touched off a firestorm of criticism April 4 as he discussed the previous night's NCAA women's basketball championship game in which Rutgers lost to the University of Tennessee. Both teams are made up of a majority of black female players.

Imus, his producer and a sports announcer bantered about the game and how members of the Lady Volunteers were "cute," while the underdog Knights were, in Imus' words, "some rough girls."

"That's some nappy-headed hos there," Imus then infamously remarked.

The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse L. Jackson, along with women's groups, assailed the shock jock for the racially and sexually insensitive comment and called for his show to be yanked off the airwaves and from TV.

Erika Harris, a Niagara University guard, had been impressed with Rutgers' aggressive playing style this season but was completely won over when the New Jersey team knocked out No. 1 Duke during its run to the NCAA championship game.

So when Harris, one of the two blacks on Niagara's team, heard Imus' comments, she was "hurt and angry."

"I felt bad," the sophomore said. "They did all that hard work, especially beating Duke, the team that was supposed to go all the way, and then to be put down like that. I felt sympathy for them."

Kristina Walton, the other African-American on the team and also a sophomore, was shocked by Imus' words.

Noting that the word "ho" is often used by rappers, the Niagara forward said, "I don't think it's OK for rappers to say, but you never hear them say it on the radio; it's usually bleeped out."

Christie McGee, 37, associate coach at Niagara, said she believes that Imus was attempting humor when he made the comments.

"I don't think he meant it; he was trying to be funny, but it was the wrong choice of words," she said. "He's ignorant."

McGee isn't sure Imus should have been fired, but Walton and Harris said the firing was warranted.

"With all of the talk about ending racism, a stand needs to be taken," Harris said. If Imus is allowed to stay on the air, Harris added, it will give a license for others "to slide in little comments like that during their broadcasts."

ECC's Cummings-Price said she's glad that the media have seized on Imus' remarks. She says such comments show that "racism is still alive."

"We, as a community, have a long way to go," she said.

Cummings-Price knows how tough that battle can be. She was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University at Buffalo's NCAA Division I scholarship program. She had played for UB from 1993 to 1995.

She recalled how she was the only African-American on her team. Growing up, she had often found herself the only black child in a group. "I learned at an early age that I'm not like all the rest," she said.

She thought that college would be different but was stunned by some of the racist behavior she experienced while playing on the UB team.

Once, as she was getting on a plane with her team members, a flight attendant stopped her and asked her for extra identification. She was dressed in her warm-ups, just like the other team members, and none of them was stopped.

"She made me step aside," Cummings-Price recalled. She remembers how her coach appeared as though he was "going to bust a blood vessel," she said. "And I was practically in tears. I knew what it was."

As a coach for a variety of community and school teams these days, Cummings-Price said she often finds herself in charge of majority white teams. And she makes a point of talking with her team members about racial issues.

She believes that interaction among blacks, whites and other minorities is the only way to combat racism. "We have to get to know one another," she said.

That's exactly why she's so thrilled with her mini-basketball camp for boys and girls that she's holding through ECC.

She had made a point of publicizing the camp throughout Western New York, sending fliers out to dozens of schools and hand-delivering material to youth centers across the area to get as diverse a group as possible.

As she began receiving applications and saw the names and addresses of the young people signing up, she had a feeling she would have a multicultural bunch.

But on Wednesday, as the children arrived for the first day of the camp, she knew she had done well.

"I have never been in a location within the City of Buffalo with as much diversity," she said. ". . . It was my proudest moment."

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com and esapong@buffnews.com

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