Howard based the series on his own experience as a basketball player.

By Patrick Gomez
Updated March 24, 2016 07:55 PM
Michael Buckner/BAFTA LA/Getty

As Hollywood mourns the loss of SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard, PEOPLE takes a look into his most-iconic role: former NBA player Ken Reeves in the groundbreaking drama The White Shadow.

Growing up in Long Island, Howard, who was 71 when he died Wednesday, was the only white player on his high school basketball team and was given the nickname “The White Shadow.”

Years later, the Dynasty actor pulled on his experiences on the court in both high school and college when pitching an idea for a series to his pal Blythe Danner‘s husband, late producer Bruce Paltrow.

“I said, ‘How about me as a coach?’ Howard said during a 2005 interview in the NBA Studio. “So I had this idea in my head [of] a guy who was in the NBA, a white guy, and now he’s a coach, and he really knows the game. He’s coaching in a racially mixed inner city school, he’s got to deal with all his kids’ stuff, and that was it.”

The White Shadow was picked up by CBS, but “it was a battle right from the beginning,” Howard said. The network was looking to mold the series into a 30-minute comedy similar to the successful Welcome Back, Kotter.

“We said, ‘Listen, we are going to be funny, but we want to deal with all these various issues,’ ” he explained. “[The Network said,] ‘Please stay away from sex, drugs, crime.’ And we said, ‘Why do you think we are doing the show?! That’s all the stuff that is out there – the demons, that these kids are dealing with.’ ”

Ultimately Howard got his way and the hour-long drama debuted in 1978 to critical success.

“The next thing you know, we are breaking all kinds of ground,” he says of the series, which ran for 54 episodes over three seasons. “I mean, we were dealing with [venereal disease] and teenage pregnancy and drugs and gambling. We figured, why not?”