Cal Bruton’s childhood in the concrete jungle of Queens, New York was far from easy. His dad was stabbed to death during an armed robbery when he was 7 years old, leaving his mum a single parent, heavily pregnant with his baby sister.
His mum, who turned to alcohol, struggled with addiction and one day drank so much that she had to be taken away from the family home in a straightjacket. He looked after his younger sisters, one who is intellectually handicapped and an albino African-American growing up in a tough neighbourhood.
“We grew up in the ’60s when racial tensions were really high. People used to think my sister was a white girl and used to yell at me, ‘Let go of that white girl’s hand’. I tried to explain that she is my sister but I used to get into a lot of fisticuffs over looking after her,” he said.
It was in his teenage years that Cal took up shooting hoops. In the winter time he would play football and gridiron and the summertime he would play baseball and all year round he practised on the concrete basketball courts near his home, even if his shoes only had cardboard soles.
“My mum wanted me to stay out of trouble and sport provided that avenue to stay out of trouble,” he said. “She encouraged mentors to come and look after me because I did not have that male role model in my household. I was always around sport and it taught me great values.”
It is hard to believe that this kid from Queens would move to a foreign country at the age of 24 and would become one of the luminaries of Australian basketball. But that is just what he did, arriving in Australia for the first season of National Basketball League in 1979, leading all scorers with an average of 33.2 points per game.
Drifting from team to team, Bruton left his handprints across the entire competition, including the Canberra Cannons, guiding teams to their first championships, winning NBL coach of the Year in 1982 as a player/coach.
Winning a championship with the Brisbane Bullets in 1985, Cal capped a superb career as a player and coach when he took the Perth Wildcats to the title in 1990. The American import also went on to become the first naturalised Australian in the NBL and represented the Australian Boomers.
“The Black Pearl”, as he was affectionately dubbed by the Australian public, led the NBL in three-point shooting, free throw shooting, assists and steals.
Cal was only a little man (5’9), but he became one of the giants of the game in this country and was one of the first inductees into the NBL Hall of Fame when it opened in 1998.
“If anybody asked me back when I was in Queens if I was going to have six kids, four grandkids and two step grandkids, I would have called them crazy,” Bruton said with a laugh.
“If they had told me I would be a Hall of Famer and a Championship player and coach and win so many individual awards in Australia, I would have called them insane.”
It was in 1988 when Bruton started running basketball clinics for Indigenous kids in remote Western Australian towns. Since then he has taken his clinics all over the nation, from Tasmania to Alice Springs, to Darwin to Halls Creek and even to the nation’s capital.
Bruton said he has been living out his calling, sharing tips for success with Australia’s Indigenous kids, through his Black Pearl Basketball Academy.
“I have covered the whole of the country with the clinic, working in Indigenous communities and helping these kids understand the game of basketball. The skills that the game provides teaches you about teamwork, it teaches you about life and it teaches you about putting SWAG in your bag, as I like to call it,” he said with a wide grin.
Cal, who has an infatuation with acronyms, came up with four attributes needed to succeed in basketball and in life.
S – Skill Sets
W – Work ethic
A – Attitude
G – Goals
“These four things have guided me through my rough times in Queens so I am encouraging these kids to do the same,” he said.
“Sport has been my guiding light and now at the ripe old age of 64, I get the chance to do what the mentors did for me and to look after these young kids who have grown up in more difficult circumstances than I did. I have been given that chance to give back.”
His academy works with all kids from different backgrounds and encourages any child that wants to get involved in basketball to participate, with a strong emphasis on Indigenous kids.
Some of these kids live in communities where the only place to play basketball is on concrete slabs, with no shoes and in the searing Australian heat.
“I grew up playing in the concrete jungle and playing most of my basketball outside so I understand how important it is to have a pair of shoes even if they have cardboard on the bottom of them,” Cal shared. “I admire these kids and try and provide opportunities for them to have a better way.
“Basketball changed my life and gave me experiences that I never expected so now I want to return the favour and help change the lives of kids across Australia,” he said.
“I want to change the lives of generations of kids and I want to inspire my kids, who are now all across Australia, to do the same.”
Inspired by an acronym from his grandson, Cal Bruton has inspired thousands of kids throughout his career, many to a better future. The sport could not ask for a better advocate.
B – be kind to others
R – respect your elders
U – use your manners
T – trust in God
O – own your mistakes
N – never give up.