Michael Arace: RIP Granville Waiters, beloved giant of the East Side
Granville Waiters was 6 feet, 11 inches and 240 pounds of sunlight on the East Side. He was found dead in his Berwick home earlier this week. He was 60 years old.
The news of his passing was a jolt to those with whom he once shared a basketball court, at St. John Arena, across the Big Ten, at his stops in three NBA cities, and in Spain. At the seismic center of his universe, his old neighborhood, the impact was devastating.
He was called “Granny” as often as he was “Granville.” He had been recently hospitalized for COVID-19 and the word on the street is the virus was the catalyst for a cruel denouement. Everyone loved Waiters, the gentle giant.
“At the risk of stepping on a trope or two, this was a life that truly mattered,” said Jim Underwood, 73, who was an English teacher and assistant basketball coach at East High when Waiters was a student-athlete there in the late 1970s.
“To have that life snatched away by something as heartless and abstract as COVID only puts the dagger in a little deeper,” Underwood said. “I spent a night talking to the kids – damn, they’re in their 50s and 60s, and I’m still calling them ‘kids’ -- I’m talking about his old teammates. We cried all night. Everyone.
“It speaks to his humanity to have these feelings and not be afraid to express them. This was a great man. This one is hard.”
Waiters was a basketball player, from a neighborhood littered with talent, who made it to the big show. That is an important part of his story, but only a part. He was a businessman (financial planning was his thing) and entrepreneur, and that’s part of it, too. So many parts.
“Financial consultant, that’s what he did,” said Dave Barker, 83, an East Side guy who is the unofficial ambassador for Ohio State basketball alumni. “Working with young people – that's all he talked about. That’s who he was.”
Waiters created or pitched in on so many programs for kids, no one can be quite sure how many. He spread his prodigious wingspan and hugged the city’s most vulnerable. When he was needed, he was always there, ducking his head to get through the door.
“Granny was like someone angelic,” said Fred Saunders, 69, another City League star who made it to the NBA.
“To the day he died, I was working with him on a Little League program to help kids get back into baseball,” Saunders said. “He was getting ready to talk to (a benefactor). They were supposed to meet the next day. Man, he was looking forward to that.”
Saunders, a terrific athlete, played and later coached baseball. Waiters didn't play baseball. He was involved with the Little League effort because that's what he did – find safe spaces for kids who needed it. Be there for them.
“It’s just help the kids,” Saunders said. “They’re shooting guns out there. They need something to do.”
There’s a story that lingers in the old neighborhood. It’s about how Waiters, when he was in high school, took a struggling student under his wing, tutored him into junior college and kept tabs to make sure the kid got through.
This was before Waiters turned 20, while he was leading a legendary East High team to a state championship, as he was matriculating at Ohio State and honing his game to an NBA caliber.
“I grew up in the Bolivar Arms and most of the kids on the team were from Poindexter Village,” said Richardo Hairston, a teammate on East’s 1979 championship team who was known as “Munch” because he ate opponents alive.
“I ran with a different crew than Granville, but I always followed him and loved his spirit. He had the discipline, work ethic, the great heart that I admired. We all had that bond that's made with a championship. A lot of us were more talented than Granville, but he stayed to the task, did the right thing, and it took him all over the world.”
Waiters, who never married, managed five years in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers, Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls. He was a reserve center who did not put up big numbers. But you can see how he built his game if you go to YouTube, and watch him reject Michael Jordan with a two-handed block, or swat away two layup attempts by Karl Malone.
The news of Waiters’ death broke in Spain. There, he is still fondly remembered for a championship season in Barcelona, 32 years ago. Everyone loved Granville. Yet, his humility was such that he didn’t quite understand why folks fussed over him so.
Take the case of the Long Street Bridge and Cultural Wall, which was opened in 2013. It is a powerful symbol. Waiters is part of it.
As in many other cities, the center of Black culture was cut off from the Downtown core when the Interstate Highway System was platted in the 1950s. It was racist redlining on a grand scale. In the case of Columbus, the highway walled off the East Side from the big money, and allowed white suburbanites easier access to office buildings.
The Long Street Bridge and Cultural Wall was, and is, a small step toward righting a systemic wrong. It was, and is, an attempt to reconnect a neglected community – a community which constructed the Cultural Wall as a reminder of what had been segregated.
The Wall has 10 panels, mural-like, that recall more than a century of Black culture in the city. Waiters’ face appears on Panel No. 9 with other notable sports figures, including Archie Griffin, the two-time Heisman Trophy winner, and James “Buster” Douglas, who beat Mike Tyson for the heavyweight title.
Here’s Underwood, the old coach:
“I talked to him about it once. He said, ‘Why am I up there? And not Jimmy Roseboro? Not Lee Williams?”
Roseboro played football for Woody Hayes at Ohio State, and played professionally. He coached football and taught at East in the 1960s, served on the Columbus City Council in the 1970s and became a powerful figure as a businessman and political-action lobbyist.
Lee Williams played on Hayes’ first national championship team in 1954, and played professionally. He was a legendary teacher and coach at East High for four decades. His presence still lingers.
“’They did more for the East Side than I did,’ Granville said. “I said, ‘Granville, you are the epitome of hard work, dedication, staying the course and doing the right thing. And you make it to the top of Mt. Everest.’
“And he said, ‘That’s just one small thing.’ Meaning the NBA.
“And I said, ‘Trust me, it’s not a small thing, not by any stretch of the imagination.”
Before and after the East Side was walled off from the city’s core, it produced a litany of luminaries in every walk of life. Waiters was one, and with a warm heart, ever-present smile and arms long enough to embrace a neighborhood, he helped build a bridge for another generation to cross.