usually hunched over. When he rocks back and forth, Ardie knows what he wants. But if Gale gets up unattended, surely he'll fall. In May, he crashed before she could reach him, leaving a cut on his head.

"It's tough when you look at a person and see what they used to be and how they've changed," she says.

Through it all, Ardie wonders ... what does he remember?

Memorabilia lines the walls. Footballs and photos of Gale's career. Ardie opens albums and points out his kids and friends. She goes over the names. Every once in a while, a flicker of daylight appears. Hope dashes into the room like Gale through a defense.

A friend tells a story and Gale laughs. Or a nurse inserts a DVD of his playing days and marvels at the way he weaves through tacklers. "Gale," she says, "you were really fast, weren't you?"

"Yes." Ardie hears a word and cheers.

"Yay!" When Earl Campbell calls, his voice is so distinctive that Gale perks up. When Dick Butkus phoned the day before Gale's 76th birthday — I'm calling you early, buddy — Gale lit up. "He even chuckled," Ardie said.

In June, Gale's nephew — Roger's oldest son — arrived from Hawaii. He walked in and found Gale curled over in his chair. He kissed his uncle on the head and began greeting others in the house. That's when Raymond felt a bear hug from behind. Uncle Gale? Uncle Gale!

It's almost like he's in a shell, Raymond says.

"You know when you're telling somebody a story and you're trying to recall a name and it's on the tip of your tongue and you see it, you know it, but you can't get it out? I think that's him all the time. And that's the reason why he doesn't speak.

"He's in there. You know he's in there. But there's no vocabulary."

The outdoor courts looked the same, but only memories occupied them.

Ron Boone came home in the summer from Salt Lake City and returned to his basketball "haven" at Bryant Center. In his day, bouncing balls and trash talk and cheering spectators gave the place a rhythm. A soundtrack. By the '80s, Boone heard only silence.

From 1960-'80, the number of businesses along the four blocks of 24th Street south of Lake had dropped from 52 to 15. Chambers compared North 24th to a "collapsed artery."

Every man has his metaphor. In the mid-'50s, Chambers and Bob Gibson enrolled in the same Spanish class at Creighton. The future state senator watched the future Hall of Fame pitcher weave together a long cord hanging from the window shade. That's how Chambers learned to braid.

"You make the first loop," he said. "Then you pull the next one down through it, then the next one through that and when you got through, that cord was not two individual strings that looped at the bottom, it was a chain."

At its best, North Omaha braided its strands together beautifully. But the '60s tugged at a few, the '70s pulled a fewmore. By the '80s, the chain unraveled.

"In basic needs — education, employment, shelter, nutrition, health care — this community as a whole is worse off than it ever was," Chambers said then.

Gibson invested in numerous North Omaha businesses, including the neighborhood radio station, KOWH. But blacks didn't have sponsorship dollars and when he approached white businesses, Gibson felt like he was pitching uphill. Take his friend, a tire distributor.

"He had the gall to tell me black people don't buy tires," Gibson said. "For the life of me, how in the hell am I going to get people to buy (ads) when they have that mindset?"

North Omaha's commercial collapse paralleled a plummeting housing stock. Freeway construction and home condemnations reduced the number of homes in 20 years from 8,900 to 4,900. In 1960, the Near North Side counted almost 30,000 residents. By '80, it had dropped to 10,900.

Where did all those people go? Some to Denver or Kansas City. Some to Chicago or Los Angeles. Even more to Atlanta and the South, reversing the Great Migrations. There's a reason Native Omaha Days became such a big deal, Preston Love Jr. says. "Because everybody left."

Of those who stayed in Nebraska, the most successful often moved to Bellevue, Benson or west Omaha. By '83, about 25% of the city's 40,000 black residents lived in the old neighborhood, compared with 82% in 1960.

Open housing righted a moral wrong and opened new opportunities, but it fractured black unity and cohesion. No longer did doctors, lawyers and accountants live next to factory workers.

During the civil rights era, William Reed said, the neighborhood resembled "a big glass ball that was slowly falling to the surface." Rich or poor, prominent or ordinary, blacks were stuck inside.

"That thing hit the ground and shattered all over the place. There's some big chunks that came out and some smaller chunks that stayed in. They were destined to never be together again."

The crash resembles brain drain in rural America. Once upon a time, North Omaha was good enough for everybody. Suddenly, it wasn't. Here come the unintended consequences:

Dilution of black culture and political power. Accumulation of resentment and bitterness from those who couldn't leave the neighborhood. Disinvestment in the community. You spend your money where you live, multimillionaire Hughes said, not where you grew up.

"Integration was the worst enemy of black economic development because no longer were you forced to go to the black doctor or shop at the black store," Hughes said. "Because you had a choice. And because you had been deprived for so long, the choice you exercised was oftentimes to the detriment of the black community. We didn't realize that. No one told us."

Think of the problem from the perspective of a black teenager in the Logan Fontenelle projects in the 1980s. Before integration, if a kid wanted to be a doctor, Eric Ewing said, his mom could send him to talk to the doctor across the street. Now those mentors reside elsewhere.

"If you can't see those things, you can't even imagine those things," said Ewing, executive director of the Great Plains Black History Museum. "We went from a 5-star menu of life choices down to a McDonald's menu of burgers and fries."

Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer grew up half a mile apart, just a brisk walk down 24th Street. By the '80s, Gibson lived 10 miles south; Boozer 13 miles west.

Omaha still produced accomplished black athletes: Mike McGee, Larry Station, Maurtice Ivy, Ron Kellogg, Kerry Trotter, Erick Strickland, Andre Woolridge, Ahman Green. But they weren't as frequent, weren't as spectacular and likely didn't gain as much strength from their environment.

Segregation, horrific as it was, forced young black athletes to compete against each other; they couldn't just transfer to Bellevue or Millard for more playing time. Discrimination, repugnant as it was, bonded those athletes at Kountze Park and Bryant Center.

Love, the ex-Husker end, compared it to a football team. "I would fight with teammates at Nebraska, but when we played Oklahoma, we locked arms and kicked ass. This community locked arms in some sort of mental way that brought us together. ...

"It was magic." Perhaps dispersion and dilution were inevitable. Black professionals wanted newer homes, better schools and safer streets, just like whites did. But Love Jr. says the goal should've been desegregation, not integration. Knock down the walls of discrimination to create equal opportunities. But don't leave.

"Just build a better house down

PROLOGUE: Bob Gibson's 17 strikeouts and setting the stage for the rise and fall of North Omaha

PART ONE: Josh Gibson and the birth and history of North Omaha as a segregated neighborhood

PART TWO: Bob Boozer and discrimination at the dawn of the civil rights movement in the early '50s.

PART THREE: Life inside the packinghouse motivated athletes like Marlin Briscoe

PART FOUR: How the North Omaha safety net — and one critical coach — saved athletes like Gale and Roger Sayers

PART FIVE: Defeat and tragedy, on and off the court, produced a wave of bitterness

PART SIX: A homecoming for a World Series MVP and growing unrest on North 24th Street

PART SEVEN: Not even star power could open up housing beyond North Omaha

PART EIGHT: George Wallace, a chaotic week and The Rhythm Boys' lost rhythm

PART NINE: A red-hot summer for Gibson as the country hit the boiling point

PART TEN: The dark side of the moon and the close of 1968


"24th & Glory: The Intersection of Civil Rights and Omaha's Greatest Generation of Athletes" arrives Aug. 1. Softbound, 184 pages. $19.95.

Pre-order the "24th & Glory" book by calling 402-444-1014 or go to For each book you pre-order, you will receive "The Nebraska 100" book for free.

Book signing and meet some of the athletes. Sunday, Aug. 4, 2 to 4 p.m. inside Central High School atrium, 124 N. 20th St.

Book made possible thanks to support fromHistory Nebraska

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