Like many sports-loving youngsters in the late 1960s, Mark Shainbrown used to wait breathlessly after Jacksonville University basketball games, hoping to catch a sweatband from one of his beloved JU Dolphins.

 

Artis Gilmore. Pembrook Burrows. Rex Morgan. Any of the players who captivated the city with their talent on the court and charisma off it had the star power to make a kid’s day.

“This was my team. My favorite team of all time,” Shainbrown said. “It’s important the city doesn’t forget them or what they did.”

The 1969-70 Dolphins squad was historic not only for its appearance in the NCAA title game. It also broke down racial barriers in Jacksonville on the way to a showdown with perennial powerhouse UCLA.

“It’s not a story about just Jacksonville basketball,” said Frank Pace, a JU almunus and television producer. “It’s a story about race relations and preconceived prejudices.”

Pace has co-produced a 52-minute documentary film on the story he said he was drawn to because of the way it reasonates with so many people. “Jacksonville WHO?” was shown Thursday night on the JU campus at a private screening attended by several hundred people. Among them were Shainbrown and his 16-year-old son, Zachary.

The documentary is expected to air on NBA TV the week of Feb. 19 as part of Black History Month.

In addition to extensive interviews and footage from the most successful basketball team in JU history, the documentary takes a closer look at what was a difficult time across the South.

The day that came to be known in Jacksonville as Ax Handle Saturday, when blood was spilled downtown as whites attacked black demonstrators, was not even 10 years gone when Gilmore began swatting away shots and teammate Chip Dublin helped introduce warm-up music to college basketball.

And while the Dolphins’ path to becoming the smallest school to ever play in the championship game was celebrated by most on campus, it was derided by many others.

That’s because several key players, such as the 7-foot-2 Gilmore, were black. During an era in which some restaurants still would only publicly serve white customers, some coaches would only use white players.

But the Dolphins of that day knew what they were doing: Gilmore averaged an astounding 26.5 points and 22.2 rebounds for a team that finished with a record of 27-2.

The 1969-70 JU squad became the first college team to average more than 100 points a game during a season and took down storied programs Iowa, Kentucky and St. Bonaventure before falling to UCLA in the title game 80-69.

Woven among the footage of the high-flying Dolphins’ success on the court are compelling interviews with people who were in the stands and on the front lines of the racial struggles that came to define the 1960s.

“The players did a lot for not just JU but for the city. To see black men becoming famous in the city …,” said Marchita Simmons, described as the former wife of JU player Ernie Fleming. “Because you’ve got to remember, integration of the schools here was in 1968.”

Nat Glover, who would go on to become Florida’s first black sheriff in the 20th century in 1995, was directly involved in the pain of Ax Handle Saturday and the joy of what the Dolphins brought.

“When I saw Artis Gilmore, Pembrook Burrows, Chip Dublin on the basketball team, that was, in effect, a chipping away at this society of segregation here in Jacksonville,” Glover said in the film.

At the center — literally — of it all was Gilmore, who transferred into JU after two seasons of junior college ball at Gardner-Webb.

Gilmore was among several former JU players in attendance Thursday evening and he recounted what a memorable time in his life it was.

Of his JU coaches, he said, “They introduced me to a new world.”

Pace said he was initially reluctant to start the project; a documentary solely focused on an underdog basketball team beating the odds wasn’t especially appealing to him. But the more he considered the lessons learned during that time, the more he found himself coming around to the idea.

By the time he finished the film this spring, Pace couldn’t wait to lay out everything the Dolphins accomplished.

“That phrase — ‘preconceived prejudices of the time’ — was a recurring theme throughout the movie that kept coming up over and over,” Pace said. “We had to deal with it and find the right balance to accurately tell what Chip, Artis, Pembrook and all of them had to go through.”

Those names still mean something to many people in Jacksonville. Maybe none more than Shainbrown.

Proudly sporting Gilmore’s trademark green No. 53 jersey over a button-down shirt for the screening, Shainbrown talked about how those Dolphins taught him to love basketball and embrace the community around him.

Those are lessons, he believes, that his son and other kids today can keep learning. And that’s what made that team so powerful.

“It didn’t matter where you were from or what your background was,” Shainbrown said. “It really united the city during a tough time when a lot of other things were going on.

“They just captured Jacksonville,” he said. “It was a magical time.”

Phillip Heilman: (904) 359-4063