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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Private Peace : Chet Walker is still searching for his 'place' as a Hollywood producer. But the former NBA star and author of a new autobiography has found a deeper kind of acceptance.

November 26, 1995|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The move Chet Walker makes in banking his Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra around street corners is reminiscent of the swooping big step he would take--first as an all-American at Bradley University and then as a fourth-quarter go-to guy in the NBA--as he cut to the baseline and swerved toward the hoop, as smooth as a deer. It was his signature, one of basketball's prettiest sights.

Now, with knees shot and a scarred kidney permanently in need of medication, it's something to ease the tedium of the daily drive from his Marina del Rey condo to movie production offices around town and in the Valley, where Walker, now a 55-year-old independent film producer, makes his pitch, shepherds his deals along.

"Every day I meet different people and try to sell a story," he says. "The movie business is a business. It's about selling. The kinds of films I want to make are difficult to sell, because I don't want to do sex and violence. I haven't been a great success."

Walker doglegs up his standard route, Washington to Motor Avenue to Pico on into Beverly Hills for yet another meeting. It's been a good and interesting year. He produced Charles Burnett's critically acclaimed feature film "The Glass Shield," inspired by the Ron Settles police brutality case in Signal Hill. He came out with an autobiography (with Chris Messenger) called "Long Time Coming: A Black Athlete's Coming of Age in America" (Grove Press).

He saw a lifelong personal, historic and seemingly intractable dilemma--black and white America peering at each other across a racial divide--whiplash across public and media consciousness all over again. For many people, whites mostly, it was a shock to learn that gains in racial understanding achieved through desegregation and the civil rights movement had turned out to be an illusion. It's not surprising to Walker, however, who is still mulling over the implications of last month's Million Man March in Washington, D.C.

"This society has been in a lot of denial, refusing to believe that before all this such a big gap existed," he says. "Now they know it's there and we're all going to have to deal with it. I don't think it'll ever be completely fixed, but I think we can learn how to better live with it. White people will have to accept blacks as equals."

Walker is only saying what has been said and heard before; he's neither weary of repeating it nor is he convinced he can make a great difference. As water-smooth as these words are, they seem drawn out of a deep storehouse of pain.

"Long Time Coming" begins with a meditation on place, and how one is set in it by accident of birth and race, and what it means when outer and inner place are at odds.

"Boy, you'd better learn to stay in your place," is the book's first line. "This growing awareness of 'my place,' " Walker adds later, "of these outside limitations and constraints upon freedom of movement, came over me gradually, sadly, inevitably, as it would for most black children. In time, I became shrouded in it, paralyzed within place. But that young seeker was and is still me. Searching, hiding, looking for 'my place.' "

Walker says he has always wanted people to understand him, explaining why he did the book. "I always feel that society never really understands the black male. We were always told to fit in, especially in the world of athletics. In our desire to fit into the system that will accept us, we have to adjust to someone else's culture. There's a price you pay for success."

Walker has made six movies, won a 1988 Emmy as executive producer for "A Mother's Courage: The Mary Thomas Story," and has a number of projects pending, including a film biography of the late New York Congressman and preacher Adam Clayton Powell. But he's still searching for his place in Hollywood.

"It's a difficult transition from the athletic to the so-called normal world," he says. "There's an image that goes along with being an athlete, an image of not being intelligent, of being a dumb jock. Not dependable. It follows you out into the world. You have to prove yourself all over again. When you're selling in a white market, it always helps to bring someone with you.

"[Movie producer] Zev Braun was my neighbor in Chicago," Walker continues. "He was my mentor. I learned how to survive. 'Freedom Road' was my first movie, in 1979-80. It was adapted from Howard Fast's book; it dealt with the Reconstruction period, when black Americans were heavily involved in politics, then squeezed out. A lot of my friends are saying we're experiencing this again. In Reconstruction, our voting rights were taken away. Now, the Supreme Court is taking away a lot of our gains."

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