Can Denzel Washington Play Basketball

Bob Roberts
• Thursday, 29 October, 2020
• 8 min read

Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of “How Good Was He?” It’s an occasional Playbook series in which we delve deep into the athletic pasts of celebrities. If all you know about DenzelWashington’s basketball skills comes from the extended one-on-one scene with Ray Allen in the 1998 film “He Got Game,” read on.

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Turns out that, back in 1973, Washington was a good athlete, completing his sophomore year at Fordham in the Bronx. After coming up through the playgrounds and Boys Club in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and playing playground ball with the likes of future NBA stars Gus and Ray Williams in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Washington scrapped his way onto P.J.

The Rams went 18-1 his second year, losing an early-season game to Yale but storming all the way through the rest of their schedule, culminating in a big win against rival Manhattan College. Cartesian had just graduated from Fordham, and one of his duties as a varsity assistant was coaching the JV.

Darryl Brown, Fordham Class of 1975, Boston Celtics draft pick: I had a pretty good high school career at Manuel (N.Y.) and started getting recruited in 1970. I thought I was getting drafted, so I didn’t open it for two weeks.

Then I realized they wanted me to come up and look at West Point. I wound up getting recruited by several schools, and it came down to Fordham, UVA, Harvard and Princeton.

Digger Phelps was the coach at Fordham, and he invited me down to . I made my decision that I wanted to go to Fordham that night.

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That year, they went 26-3 and ended up ranked ninth in the country. That summer, I was back home listening to the radio, and they said Digger was leaving for Notre Dame.

So 40 years ago Fordham was a legitimate high-level college program. Brown: We played at Madison Square Garden, and that’s what I wanted to do.

Our schedule included Maryland, Notre Dame, USC, South Carolina, Kansas, Stanford, those types of schools. There was no Big East, so if you were an independent and wanted to make it to the NCAA's, you had to play, you had to have credentials.

He played great defense, very quick, he had good hops, he was a slasher, he would drive hard to the basket. You didn’t want him to guard you, let me put it that way.

He was 6-1 and a pretty decent ball handler, and he would go at the basket real hard. Jeff Crown, Fordham Class of 1976: Actually, one guy on our team, Kenny Charles, went to the NBA.

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Cartesian can vouch for Denzel's basketball ability, calling him “way above average.” Cartesian, Fordham Class of 1971: He’s a decent player.

This was a time when we would have one or two scholarship players, and this was a vehicle for them to get playing experience because they weren’t quite ready for the varsity, so you had to fill out the team with nonscholarship guys. A high school coach would call me up and say “I have a kid who’s there that’s a good player.” I’d be walking through the gym and seeing guys play pickup.

Patrick O’Connell, Fordham Class of 1977: In 1973, we tried out with 80 or 90 other young men to make the JV team. It was more intense and harder than I think anyone had experienced from high school.

The majority of people had come from small Catholic schools or private schools and had been big fish in small ponds. Tells us “last year we had sophomores that were walk-ins, and I decided to keep them.” So at that time, you realize he’s going to have maybe 11, probably not 12.

The thing I was struck by was Denzel and me were the only ones that played defense with our hands behind our back. He was a tremendous athlete, extremely fast and quick.

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… He wasn’t NBA material, but he was just one of those really athletic guys. Denzel Washington, who received an honorary degree from Fordham, took hoops very seriously back in the day.

So freshmen would dress for home games and play on the JV. But I would think that his sophomore year, he got a lot of minutes.

He would be the first one to tell you that he wasn’t a star back then at that level. Brown: The pickup games at Fordham were very, very competitive.

Kevin Cartesian: One story I think I have right: We were playing a pickup game in the gym one afternoon, and the women’s coach came up to me and said, “A friend of mine is here, do you mind if she plays pickup with you?” She was strong enough to play with guys, and she’ll score.

She scored a lot of points, and I went over to Denzel afterward and explained to him, it was Carol Blazejowski who played at Montclair State and went on to hold the Garden single-game scoring record . She would be good enough to play with most guys who weren’t that big.

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He may not remember that story, and Blaze might never have known that turned out to be Denzel , but it eased his mind a little when he understood who she was and how good she was. On the off days, he would give you the opportunity -- if you succeed in making 12 free throws in a row, and then if you get to 13 you knock one off.

So if you made 12 plus 20 you’d only have to run one suicide, and that would just be in honor of our rival Manhattan College. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we think we’re going to go home early, and P.J.

But then we don’t make 12 in a row, so we have to do 20 while we’re thinking of seeing our families and going home. He starts running us, and he’s calling things out like: “You didn’t touch the line.” So now, we’re dead.

Denzel Washington is decades removed from his elite basketball -playing days, but he's still a fan. Andrew D. Bernstein/NAE/Getty Images Crown: We had a wonderful team, and a lot of it had to do with P.J.

I remember Denzel and I more than once laughing about it after practice about how we were treated like dogs and made to run intervals. If you didn’t make your free throws, the whole team had to run 50 laps and things like that.

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We were extremely successful, and from team sports, you just have a bond, and he was right in the thick of it with all of us. He hadn’t gotten the acting bug at that point, that I’m aware of.

Cartesian: We have the main campus in the Bronx, which is what people think of when they think of Fordham, and the Lincoln Center campus that was probably started back in the 1960s. … Very few of the scholarship athletes over the years were Lincoln Center guys, and it’s really a tough chore to be taking a lot of your classes at Lincoln Center and still have to get up to Rose Hill in the afternoon or evening for practice.

I remember that vividly, that he cared enough to get back and forth for practices. … You’d only expect basketball junkies to want to be on the JV team.

The gym wasn’t filled at 6 p.m., but people paid to see us play. It’s not surprising people who were athletes wanted to do it, but you had to make a commitment.

We went to see him when he was doing “Julius Caesar” on Broadway a couple of years ago, and after the show we wanted to see him, but there were crowds lined up and the sidewalk was blocked off. He comes out to sign autographs, and he catches us out of the corner of his eye.

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I introduced him to my wife, Judy, and he says Denzel Washington, pleased to meet you,” as if you wouldn’t know who he was. I was working in radio for ABC, and every time we needed him to go on air with one of our national talents, he would always be there.

Cartesian: My brothers or someone would say, “Hey, did you see Denzel is doing a movie?” I remember that’s what he wanted to do, but I’d be flat-out lying if I said, 'S---, I knew he was going to be great.' When he was doing some shows to promote “Remember the Titans,” he said he modeled some character on his old college basketball coach.

Leslie Jones acts in Ghostbusters | Sony It is hard to imagine the hilarious SNL star doing anything besides making us laugh. But Leslie Jones took advantage of her height back in the day and wrote that she started playing hoops “to please my dad… I also got free shoes and could miss class.” She received a scholarship to play ball at Chapman University, and transferred to Colorado State University to follow one of her coaches.

Jones might have pursued the WNBA, if her friend hadn’t entered her in the comedy contest that shifted her career focus. TV personalities Robin Roberts (L) and Michael Strain attends the 88th Annual Academy Awards | Jason Merritt/Getty Images Emmy-winning Good Morning America anchor finished her college hoops career as one of the all-time scorers and rebounders at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Her playing career then evolved into a studio job as host of ESPN’s NCAA Women’s Final Four from 1996 through 2002. Sinbad performs onstage | Mike Moore/Getty Images for Celebrity Fight NightBefore actor-comedian Sinbad decided to bring his humor to the world of stand-up or bring the wood as “Andre Grimm” in the hilarious football flick Necessary Roughness, he went by his given name, David Adkins, and he brought the goods to another popular arena: college basketball.

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Before he made a name for himself in the music industry, 2 Chain was Tau heed EPP, college basketball player. Granted, he only spent one season (1996–97) playing ball at Alabama State, but that didn’t stop him from getting on the court in 24 of 29 games.

Aside from giving it a go at the University of Houston (before a knee injury derailed the dream), he was also on the Charlotte Hornets during training camp of the strike-shortened 1998-99 season. Yet, as fans of college basketball, we were equally excited to learn that the actor played on the hardwood for the USC Trojans.

Had he not joined the Navy during World War II and stepped away from his schooling, he might have kept playing hoops instead of becoming one of the most famous game show hosts of all time. Jim Cavities never took the court for the Huskies however, as knee injuries cut his collegiate career short.

The LA native played one season of collegiate hoops as a walk-on at UCLA, before transferring schools and then going into the family business.

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