With Arlena Smith — especially if you saw her the other day in her soup-kitchen hair net as she dished out cornbread and kindness — you realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Today, thanks to your generosity, the 84-year-old West Dayton woman will be dressed to the nines as she is treated to a gala champagne brunch, walks the red carpet into the Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass., and then sits in a seat of distinction up front at Roger Brown’s induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
She and her great, great nephew, 22-year-old James Moore, left her modest Shoop Ave. home in a limousine Saturday morning for the Dayton airport. They flew to Boston, were taken again by limo some 90 miles to Springfield and then went out to a fancy dinner with Ted Green, the Indianapolis filmmaker who made the documentary “Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story.”
Today’s official festivities conclude with an after-party at the Hall of Fame. “If Arlena’s still standing and still game after all that,” Green quipped, “I’ll take her out dancing.”
And she certainly knows how. A half-century ago she taught Brown how to dance in the living room of her home. Back then, she also taught him how to handle Monday’s clothes-washing chores and she made him go to church every Sunday and eat the okra she put on his plate.
She and her late husband Azariah — to whom she was married 61 years – became Brown’s guardian angels, taking him into their home after he was unfairly kicked out of the University of Dayton after his freshman basketball season and barred from the NBA, all because the summer before he came to college from Brooklyn he had crossed paths with Jack Molinas, a principal figure in one of the NCAA’s worst point-shaving scandals.
Never mind that Brown was never charged with anything, that there was no proof of any serious wrongdoing on his part and that he had no contact with Molinas after he got to Dayton.
While UD, the NCAA and the NBA treated Brown like a pariah, Arlena and her husband treated him like a son, just as they had some 30 other kids they had taken into their home over the years. Their embrace buoyed the deeply-scarred Brown and eventually some of the wrongs were made right. He became an ABA legend and now, after a 17-year wait, he is being taken, posthumously, into the Hall of Fame.
Arlena certainly belongs at today’s ceremonies, but because Az died two years ago and she is on a fixed income and tickets for today’s events cost $750, the trip seemed far beyond her means.
That’s when a few of us tried to change that.
Green decided to show his film here as part of a fund-raising event and The Neon movie theater agreed to provide the venue. Artist Bing Davis lent his name to the affair and I wrote a few stories asking folks here to get involved.
And boy did you all respond.
The Neon show drew a turn-away crowd. People from all over — some of Brown’s former UD teammates, the parents of a current Flyers player, Don Donoher, a former teammate of Brown’s from the Indiana Pacers, and scores and scores and scores of other folks — opened their wallets to help fund the dream.
People who attend Shiloh Baptist Church with Arlena made donations, as well, and others simply stuffed checks in Arlena’s door.
We had hoped to raise $2,500.
Instead, nearly $7,000 was collected.
But before we go any further, let’s get back to the cornbread.
If you don’t already, you need to know the kind of woman to whom you gave your money.
Wednesday morning — as you could every week — you would have found Arlena in the kitchen of Shiloh Baptist’s Thomas Hall with eight other just-as-giving women getting ready for the church’s weekly Hot Meals program.
The group hands out about 80 meals a week and on this day both stoves and their ovens were overloaded with pans of pork chops and chicken and pots of corn and green beans with potatoes and ham hocks.
“This is some real down home Southern cookin’,” said Frances Dawson as she checked on the chops and then beans one last time.
Out in the social hall, those who would be fed — people in need, the elderly, mothers with small children — waited patiently as the women wrapped the plates of food in aluminum foil, placed them in plastic bags, often with extra breads and desserts added in, and then called their names.
“C’mon Ricardo honey, you start,” Estella Crews, the kitchen manager called out to a suddenly-beaming man to whom she handed four bags of meals to take home to his mother and others. “Tell Joanne I said hello.”
As Arlena was making sure each plate had its cornbread, salad and fruit, Estella summoned a woman named Jenice and her 89-year-old mother, who was involved in animated conversation and didn’t hear the call.
“You know Mama’s got to do her talkin’,” Estella teased.
Later as she and her mom — both loaded down with meals — slowly made their way back to their aging car, Jenice nodded toward the hall: “I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
Roger Brown was saying the same thing about Arlena and Azariah back in the early 1960s. The couple was unwavering in support of him, not just in the six years he lived in Dayton after his UD ouster, but afterward when he was picked up by the Pacers and began to reclaim his basketball glory.
Yet, what they did for him was not unlike what they did for so many other at-risk children and young people in need. The father of James Moore, who is escorting Arlena today, could tell you that. He was born to Arlena’s niece in Detroit in 1967.
“He was just a tiny thing,” Arlena said. “I brought him home on my shoulder all the way from Detroit as Azariah drove. We raised him ‘til he was grown, took him to church every Sunday and you know what? Today he’s a preacher.”
Arlena credits Azariah — “the love of my life,” she calls him — with providing the indelible lessons for the young men who came through their home:
“They saw how he treated me, saw how I loved it, and he tried to make them understand that when they got grown, they do their wives the same way.”
Even after his ABA career, when he became a community leader in Indianapolis, Brown stayed close to the Smiths and returned to Dayton. He did so right up to 1997 when, at age 54, he died from liver cancer.
Now, with Az gone too, it’s up to Arlena to carry the torch of those times at today’s ceremonies.
“I’m so excited, I’ve been packed for over a week,” she said the other day.
She said she had made a list of the clothes she’d bring and then laid each outfit out on the bed where Roger once slept.
“I’ve always been a dresser,” she said as she nodded at the golden easy chair — once Azariah’s — that now sits empty in the living room:
“He was the choice of the women, too, so I had to step it up — I had to dress — to make sure I kept his attention. And I think I got it right. We were married 61 years and courted five before that. And nothing’s different now. I still want to look my best ‘cause I’m representing Az and Rog, too.”
While she’ll be joined today by some of Brown’s family — son Roger Jr. and daughter Gayle will represent their dad on stage — as well as by former Pacers players and many of Brown’s old teammates and friends from Brooklyn, the thing Arlena is most looking forward to is when they unveil Brown’s Hall of Fame bust.
“I just want to touch that bust, put my hands on it and just hold it,” she said as her voice began to flutter and her eyes glistened. “When I do that I’ll be thinking of Rog and especially of my husband. Az is the one who said Roger was the best there ever was. He was the one who always knew this day was gonna come.”
And so the more things change, the more they do remain the same.