The White Shadow had the potential for really cliched premise for a show: a former NBA player forced to retire because of a knee injury returns to his old high school which is not the place it used to be. The school’s principal just happens to be his former roommate from Boston College and talks him into taking the job of basketball coach at their high school alma mater. But there is a catch, these kids are tough and the times (and the kids) have changed and not for the better.
It’s tired story that has been overdone, like the White Shadow’s very popular contemporary “Welcome Back Kotter” for example, but “The White Shadow” was so much more than a Kotter redux. Produced by Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth’s Paltrow’s father) and MTM productions (the same folks who brought you “Mary Tyler Moore” and “Rhoda”), this wasn’t simply a basketball version of the insanely popular WBK. The White Shadow was serious. For the first time a prime time network show was centered around teenagers (black and Hispanic teens to me more precise) that didn’t reduce the characters into caricatures. Everyone had their own complicated personality which saw the world as shades of grey rather than the often over simplified black-white or good vs evil typical of then network TV like WBK. If you think about it, for all of the Sweat-hogs’ tough talk, the audience never saw those chumps get into a fight. There have been a lot of stupid things forced down the throat of the America public, but “Welcome Back Kotter” is one of the dumbest.
Instead the “White Shadow” brought a real gritty reality to prime time television and showing the audience that modern teenagers didn’t live the life of Reilly and that the kids living in the ghetto are constantly bombarded with outright dangerous influences. From gangs to point shavings to drugs to high school prostitutes and even a member of the team getting gunned down in a liquor store before the city championship, if you were a Carver High graduate, you’ve pretty much seen the entire gambit of human misery. And it would’ve been easy for the writers to go the complete opposite way of like Kotter kids and make each episode a weekly “After School Special” about the danger du jour. They didn’t do that.
Unfortunately, The White Shadow didn’t garner the high ratings it deserved but the show received marked critical acclaim and paved the way for later more realistic dramas such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and My So-Called Life.
Fun fact: The show originated from (coach) Ken Howard’s own experiences as a high school basketball star at Manhasset High School on Long Island. Howard was one of the few white basketball players at the school and the only white player in the starting lineup and had been nicknamed “The White Shadow.”
When the JPFmovies staff acquired the DVD’s they were not easy to find, but given today’s availability of virtually any show ever made if you want to see something groundbreaking which themes and gritty techniques are still used today give The White Shadow a look, chances are you won’t regret it.