Bernard Thomas “Slick” Pina, 1930-2013, was the oldest and most accomplished of three brothers from South Providence who dominated the local sports scene in the 1950s. Slick’s brother Tommy followed him as a two-time all-state halfback at LaSalle Academy. Joe, who did not attend high school or college, compiled a remarkable record as an amateur athlete in baseball, football, slow-pitch softball, and track, and is widely regarded as Rhode Island’s fastest sprinter of all time.
But as Diana Ross led the three Supremes, Bernie was the leader of that supreme athletic trio named the Pinas. He was born in Ocean City, New Jersey on December 29, 1930 to John Pina, a man of Cape Verdean ancestry, and Annette Pina. The Pinas moved to Providence during the Depression. After John’s death from a respiratory ailment in 1938, the family took up residence in the newly-opened Roger Williams Housing Project in 1943. Their apartment at 127 Rugby Street was located in the southeast corner of the 744-unit project in one of two segregated buildings then known as “the colored blocks.”
Bernie’s widowed mother, a devout Catholic, sent him to St. Michael’s School from which he graduated in 1947. Annette Pina was a woman of deep faith and sound moral values who had a profound influence on Bernie and her other eight children before her death in 1955.
The Roger Williams Project was surrounded by a city playground called Richardson Park. Here, Jack Cronin, Providence Recreation Department Director, LaSalle Academy football coach, and Rhode Island Hall of Famer, became aware of Bernie’s great athletic skills and recruited him with a scholarship to play at LaSalle. That decision by coach Cronin released Bernie from the colored block and launched him on his own Hall of Fame career. At LaSalle, Bernie twice earned All-State honors in football as a running back, captained the basketball team, and starred in track as a sprinter. The boy, who some claim was the first black to graduate from the distinguished Christian Brothers school, not only excelled in sports; his wit and friendly personality led his fellow students to elect him the vice president of his graduating class.
Moving on to the University of Rhode Island during its athletic heyday, Bernie again starred in football, basketball, and track. He earned All-Yankee Conference honors as a halfback in the great Ram backfield that included Hall of Famer, Pat Abbruzzi, and he became the first Black to play basketball at U.R.I.
But these exploits were merely the beginning. They were followed by a pioneering coaching and teaching career that spanned six decades. Slick taught such diverse subjects as general science, biology, civics, chemistry, health, and physical education. He coached both football and basketball. Those high schools that were the recipients of his talents included his alma mater La Salle, St. Raphael’s Academy, and six public high schools, most notably East Providence and North Providence. He was affiliated with the latter intermittently from 1968 to 1995, serving there for a time as athletic director.
Bernie died in July 2013 at the age of eighty-two. He was survived by his brother Joe and two sons, Jason, a college administrator in Massachusetts, and Aaron, who teaches in Maryland.
– Dr. Patrick T. Conley