When he was a kid, Ray Flynn would go anywhere to play basketball.
To him, it was no big deal to walk across the bridge connecting his native South Boston and the South End. There were some really good players in the South End and Roxbury, and the only way you got better was to play against the best.
Jack Crump, the legendary coach of the Roxbury Bruins, a great semi-pro basketball team, noticed the skinny white kid from Southie who was lighting it up on the courts of Roxbury and the South End, playing mostly against Black kids. At Crump’s invitation, Flynn became the first white kid on the Bruins.
“Jack Crump had a station wagon, and we’d all pile in to drive to games,” Flynn told me Thursday. “That’s how I got to know Mel.”
Mel King played for the Bruins, and was Crump’s protege when it came to being a role model for young Black men. After one game in which Flynn poured in 30 points, a spectator approached the Bruins bench.
“I thought this was an all-Black team,” Flynn recalls the spectator saying to Crump and King.
King didn’t hesitate sticking up for Flynn.
“He can put the ball in the basket,” King told the spectator firmly. “He’s on our team.”
Flynn said that moment had a profound effect on his view of life, and his view of Mel King.
“Mel cared about the dignity of all people,” he said, “and what Mel said, and how he said it, sticks in my mind to this day.”
King and Flynn served in the Massachusetts House together.
“We co-filed legislation,” Flynn said, “mostly to help the poor and special needs children when it came to education. We had similar, working-class values.”
Both came from immigrant families, and their fathers were longshoremen.
In 1983, when they went head-to-head as finalists to replace Kevin White as mayor, some feared Flynn being white and King being Black would fan the flames of division that became a conflagration during the desegregation of Boston public schools a decade earlier.
Instead, King and Flynn ran a civil, policy-centered campaign, treating each other with the respect that was first forged on basketball courts and in Jack Crump’s cramped station wagon all those years before.
“Mel and I went to 76 candidate forums during that campaign,” Flynn said. “Waiting for one of them to start, in West Roxbury, Mel and I started talking about how dangerous it was for longshoremen. My dad got tuberculosis, my wife Kathy’s dad lost his leg, Mel’s dad got really sick. Suddenly, we realized the hall was full and everybody was listening to Mel and I talk about helping working families.”
The morning after Flynn was elected mayor, he walked over that bridge again. He went to a South End coffee shop that King frequented.
“I called Mel and he came down and we had a cup of coffee,” Flynn said. “I offered him a place in my administration, but he said he couldn’t do that. Instead, he said, ‘Listen Ray, I’ve got some people who aren’t political but they’re really good on social and economic justice.’ I hired a lot of Mel’s people, because I trusted Mel on that stuff. He cared about working people, poor people, all people.”
Even after he left public life, Ray Flynn would sometimes walk over that bridge, from Southie to the South End. He’d sit with Mel King on a bench at the corner of Yarmouth Street and Columbus Avenue, and they’d just shoot the breeze. Flynn’s son Ed, now the City Council president, did the same, seeking the counsel and wisdom of Mel King, a man who dedicated his life to civil rights and human rights.
When he learned, on Tuesday, that Mel King had died, Ray Flynn picked up a framed photograph he keeps in his house. It shows him and Mel King embracing. He stared at the photo for a long time. And then Ray Flynn thanked Mel King for being his friend.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.