In 1965, Harold Sylvester played for St. Augustine in the first integrated basketball game in New Orleans history. He wrote Passing Glory based on the story of that secret game, and his movie is showing this month as a TNT Original production. The Harvard Crimson was able to speak with Mr. Sylvester about his experiences writing about this turbulent time in American history.
THC: Was there a specific event that prompted you to write Passing Glory?
Harold Sylvester: Yes, I was in New Orleans doing a campaign for Rusty Palmer, a college classmate of mine. His PR man was talking about this secret basketball game in New Orleans he had always heard about. When I told him I had actually played in that game, Rusty and I decided to bring the story to the public. We called up another classmate of mine, Mike Henry, and decided to get the story onto the screen.
THC: How closely does the film's script follow the actual events of 1965?
HS: In spirit it follows them very well. There was definitely an apartheid system in Louisiana, and Verrett and Grant were constantly petitioning the authorities for change. I had to take artistic licence to create most of the characters, but the broad strokes of the story are absolutely true. 95 percent of everything that happened in the movie did take place at one time or another.
THC: What was it like being the first black person to attend Tulane on an athletic scholarship?
HS: It was quite an experience. I was able to develop some solid relationships with people to whom race didn't matter. I never felt anything but an equal part of the team.
THC: Did you enjoy writing Passing Glory?
HS: Absolutely. As a writer, I think you know when things are going well once characters begin to take over the story you're writing. I felt that in Passing Glory almost from the very beginning. The character of Travis was based on my experiences, and I learned a lot about the people in the story as I wrote it.
THC: Was the writing emotional for you?
HS: Yes. Once the decision was made to write the story from my point of view, I became really involved in the story. The whole thing was wrenching, and an incredible experience for me. Going onto the set was like living in the past vicariously, through the production. The jerseys for Passing Glory are exact replicas of the ones I wore in 1965. It was kind of eerie.
THC: Was Passing Glory your first foray into writing?
HS: I had written things in private before, but this was my first serious attempt, one with money on the line.
THC: Having tried your hand at both acting and writing, do you plan to concentrate solely on writing or continue to act to some extent?
HS: I'd like to do both. I would also like to direct eventually; something that's on the horizon for me right now. So eventually I'd like to do all three, though right now I'm focused more on writing because it gives me greater creative control.
THC: If you had one thing to say to the people who watch Passing Glory, what would that be?
HS: Be suspicious of the conventional wisdom. If you feel like it needs to be challenged, put on your armor and go to war.