Rod Ramzy doesn’t see colors.
In fact, the only shade that matters to him is the orange leather on a Spalding basketball.
Handling that ball and holding court on the hardwood is of the utmost importance to Ramzy. And that’s exactly how the Fisk assistant men’s basketball coach recruits.
“I just want players that can play. They can be red, green, blue, purple, I don’t care,” Ramzy said. “If you can play ball and fit in the system, that is what I am trying to recruit.”
The way he sees it, Mike Smith fits perfectly.
Standing 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, Smith, a rising sophomore and junior college transfer, shoots well from the perimeter. That excites Ramzy and head coach Derek Watkins, whose 2011-12 Bulldogs went 6-25 and ranked in the bottom third of the NAIA in 3-point shooting percentage (31.8).
The fact that Smith is white doesn’t faze the coaches at the historically black university. It also didn’t slow the two sides from getting on the same page — literally — two weeks ago when Smith signed a national letter of intent to play at Fisk.
When he steps onto the court next winter, it is believed he’ll be the first white men’s basketball player at Fisk, whose basketball program started in 1916.
“I thought it was cool,” Smith said. “I didn’t think it was weird. It is a predominantly black sport, so it is not like it is new to me. ... It is not totally new. I think being the first is new. That is something different.”
Smith, who lives in Mt. Juliet, is taking classes at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin to maintain academic eligibility for next fall.
He graduated from high school last spring after two years of home schooling and one year at Franklin High. His family moved to this area from Birmingham, Ala., when he was 16.
“I’ve been kind of around the world, it seems like, the last four years,” Smith said.
Fisk didn’t pop into the picture until Christmas break.
After a short-lived freshman season at Dyersburg (Tenn.) State Community College — “It was miserable,” Smith said — he was in the stands watching one of his younger brother’s basketball games for the Middle Tennessee Heat, a home-school organization.
Ramzy, who officiates area basketball games, recognized Smith from a year earlier.
“I never heard of [Fisk] before until he told me about it,” Smith said. “I liked Coach and liked the people here. It all came together recently. It has been interesting.”
But not new.
Ever since his mom began teaching him how to shoot a basketball when he was 6, Smith has been accustomed to being in the minority.
On one middle school team, he was the only white kid. That barely changed when he began playing on the AAU circuit or last year when he was at Dyersburg State. In both cases, there were no more than three white players.
While it doesn’t bother the 19-year-old Smith, he admits his friends and family get a kick out of his new situation.
“They think it is hilarious,” he said. “When you are around it a lot, — this atmosphere of basketball — my demeanor changes a little and I start talking a little bit different. And my dad makes fun of me and he reminds me, ‘You know you are Caucasian, right?’ ”
Smith can’t outshoot that fact — or the stereotype that comes with it.
“I shoot 3s. That is what I do. I run off screens and shoot,” he said. “When you see a lot of white kids in basketball and in the NBA, I don’t want to say discriminated against, you assume they can do certain things differently. You assume. You assume most white guys shoot. They play smart. That is just what you assume they do. Of course there are plenty of white kids who can jump and are athletic, but that is not what you expect. …
“You’ve got [white] guys like Chase Buddinger who can fly, and you’ve got [black] guys like Ray Allen who can shoot. So it’s not to say it has got to be this way, but at the same time, it’s just how it kind of happens.”
Entering his second year at Fisk, Ramzy knows his hands and those of his predecessors have been tied in recent years due to a financially drained athletic department. That has made it harder for Fisk’s coaches in every sport to seek out athletes of all races.
Still, even though African-Americans account for more than 93 percent of Fisk’s student body, Ramzy is amazed it took this long for a white men’s basketball player to break through.
“Part of that I would put on the school and coaches, but another part of that I would put on the athletes themselves,” Ramzy said. “I’m not trying to sound racist because I’m not, but the typical, I guess, average white kid that plays basketball probably would feel intimidated going to an all-black school, or feel out of place. It is not what they are used to.”
Ramzy himself never worried about being out of place. His college career included stops at Northwest-Shoals Community College and Athens State — both in Alabama.
“I’ve gone to schools where it has been the opposite, in college, where I have been one of the few black students,” he said. “I never looked at it that way. I have been used to it.”
His boss, meanwhile, had a different experience.
Watkins, 41, played for and graduated from Fisk and before that he grew up hanging around another historically black university — Tennessee State. But those weren’t his only influences.
“I learned basketball from all different people,” Watkins said. “From sneaking in and watching Don Meyer camps and Rick Byrd camps over in my neighborhood, to my dad, who played at TSU, and all his friends and everybody I was around there, so basketball means basketball. We just love playing, and love being in the gym.
“We don’t look at it as a race thing.”