By: Keith Ryan Cartwight
LAS VEGAS – Moments before the introductions were set to begin for the Showdown in Vegas: Challenge of Champions, bareback rider Tre Hosley stood alone as he quietly looked out at the crowd inside the arena at the MGM Grand.
“I want to be able to take it all in,” Hosley said, “instead of just treating it like another rodeo.”
It was anything but another rodeo.
In fact, it was not even just another Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo
“Today is for the cowboys and the cowgirls,” said Valeria Howard-Cunningham, whose late husband, Lu Vason, was the visionary behind the formation of the all-Black rodeo organization. Howard noted Sunday was also for everyone who is and has been associated with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.
“(The broadcast) is for everyone else.”
Howard-Cunningham, who has led the organization since Vason’s passing, admitted that seeing the rodeo unfold was the first time the partnership between the PBR and the Bill Pickett Rodeo felt real.
Announced back in February, the PBR paired its Unleash the Beast event, which took place Friday and Saturday night in Las Vegas, with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo’s first event of 2021 on Sunday.
CBS will air a one-hour special featuring highlights from the Bill Pickett event on Saturday, June 19, at 1 p.m. ET. The decision to air this event on Juneteenth — the date honoring the end of slavery in the United States and celebration of the oldest African American holiday — only adds to the significance of this historic milestone in Western sports.
“The timing couldn’t be better, and we’re so excited,” actor Obba Babatunde said.
The Senate unanimously passed a resolution establishing June 19 as “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” The measure still needs to pass the House and be signed by the president to become a federal law.
“A large segment of the population has no idea what this is,” said James Pickens Jr., one of four celebrity grand marshals for the opening ceremony, “so it’s a real moment to educate as well, and that’s where the power of television comes in.”
And Pickens certainly understands the power of network television.
He has played Dr. Richard Webber on every season of the longstanding dramatic series “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“CBS is huge in terms of the reach it has,” Pickens continued, “and I can’t stress how important this TV broadcast is going to be.”
As they have done for years, Pickens rode on horseback in the opening to Sunday’s rodeo along with fellow actors Babatunde (“S.W.A.T.”), Glynn Turman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), and Reginald T. Dorsey (“Return to Lonesome Dove”).
“Jim and I, we’re so blessed that we — along with Reginald T. Dorsey and Glynn Turman—have had these extensive careers in film and television,” said Babatunde, “and, so people are identifying us in one light, now they’re going to see our connection, our commitment to this community.”
It is the first time in its 37-year history that the country’s most significant national touring Black rodeo is being broadcast on network television.
Securing a place on television was only a matter of time, according to Carolyn Carter, a champion barrel racer now among several influential African American women who are executives with the Bill Pickett organization.
Carter and her family are familiar with the impact a Saturday afternoon broadcast can have.
Her younger brother, Joe Carter, played Major League Baseball for the Blue Jays, and he remains a popular sports figure in Toronto. In addition to his World Series heroics — Carter and the Blue Jays won a pair of World Series titles in 1992 and ’93 — the Carter family often saw him play as part of the “Game of the Week” telecast on Saturday afternoons.
Thirty years later, Carolyn is not surprised by the PBR or CBS’s interest in Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.
“I knew what we were doing was important,” she said. “Getting to national TV was just like everything else; it’s just a matter of time. I just wish Lu (Vason) was here to see it.”
The long-awaited television component is the realization of Vason’s dream.
In the ensuing years, his dream became the dream of so many others, including Hosley.
“It’s amazing… we finally get to be on the platform we all dreamed of,” Hosley said. “For the PBR to come in and say, ‘Hey, you’re gonna come do it with us on CBS,’ is huge.”
Hosley recognized the significance of Sunday’s rodeo when he saw it brought out Charlie Sampson, who in 1982 became the first Black cowboy to win a PRCA world title, and Gary Richard, who competed at several Bill Pickett events long before becoming the oldest rider to ever win a PBR premier series event.
Richard is proud to have ridden bulls in both the PBR and Bill Pickett and is prouder yet of the fact the PBR extended such an important olive branch.
Harold Cash was there too.
Cash, who started his rodeo career when it was commonplace for Black cowboys to compete after the rodeo, emphasized a desire to see it all unfold in person.
“I wouldn’t miss it for nothing in the world to be the first one,” Cash said. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but I’m here to see that it was going to be for real. Nobody else telling me what happened. I wanted to see it for myself.”
Keith Ryan Cartwright, a former editorial director and senior writer for PBR.com, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West,” which will be released wherever books are sold Nov. 1. Cartwright is contributing an ongoing series featuring Black cowboys and cowgirls throughout the 2021 season.
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