Feb. 20, 2003
By Mike Douchant
In the aftermath of the 50th anniversary celebration several years ago of Jackie Robinson beginning his major league baseball career, it was easy to forget there was a time when the now 75 percent black National Basketball Association was 100 percent white. It's also easy to forget that Robinson was instrumental in college basketball's "civil rights" movement.
Long before Robinson came on the scene, however, there was Columbia's George Gregory, who became the first African-American to gain college All-American honors in 1930-31. Gregory was the team's second-leading scorer, in an age of low scoring, with a 9.2-point average. But he was proudest of his defense, and a statistic that is no longer kept: "goals against." In 10 games, Gregory held rival centers to only eight baskets. "That's less than one goal a game," he told the New York Times. "I think they should have kept that statistical category. Nowadays, one guy scores 40 points but his man scores 45. So what good is it?
"It's funny, but even though I was the only black playing for Columbia, and there was only one other black playing in the Ivy League -- Baskerville of Harvard -- I really didn't encounter too much trouble from opponents. Oh, I got into a couple of fights. And one time a guy called me 'Nigger,' and a white teammate said, `Next time, you hit him high and I'll hit him low.' And we did, and my teammate, a Polish guy named Remy Tys, said to that other player, 'That's how we take care of nigger callers.'"
Gregory said the worst racial incident he encountered was at Columbia. "After our last game in my junior year, the team voted me captain for the next season. Well, there was a hell of a battle when this came out. Columbia didn't want a black captain, or a Jewish captain, either, I learned. The dean was against it, and the athletic director was against it, and even the coach was against it.
"The coach told me, `Get yourself together, Gregory, or I'll take your scholarship away.' They were worried that if we played a school in the South and met the other captain before the game, the guy would refuse to come out and it would embarrass the school. But the campus was split 50-50 on whether to have a black captain for its basketball team.
"The fight went on for three or four weeks. The school insisted that the team vote again. We did, and I won again. One of my teammates said, `You forced the school to enter the 20th Century.'"
Barksdale Breaks NBA Color Barrier
The first black to appear in the NBA didn't occur until 20 years after Gregory graduated. UCLA's first basketball All-American Don Barksdale, one of the first seven African-Americans to play in the NBA, was the first black U.S. Olympic basketball player (1948) as well as the first black to play in an NBA All-Star Game (1952).
Inspired by the black labor movement in the 1930s, Barksdale said, "I made up my mind that if I wanted to do something, I was going to try to do it all the way, no matter the obstacles."
As a 28-year-old rookie with the Baltimore Bullets, he was paid $20,850 (one of the NBA's top salaries) to play and host a postgame radio show, but that notoriety also put extra pressure on him. Forced to play excessive minutes during the preseason, he sustained ankle injuries that plagued him the remainder of his career.
Why play so many minutes? "It's Baltimore, which is considered the South," Barksdale said. "So the South finally signed a black man, and he's going to play whether he could walk or crawl."
Open Door, Closed Door Policies
UCLA's initial all-conference basketball player in the 1940s had been the multi-talented Robinson, a forward who compiled the highest scoring average in the Pacific Coast Conference both of his seasons with the Bruins (12.3 points per league game in 1939-40 and 11.1 in 1940-41) after transferring from Pasadena (Calif.) City College.
There are ramifications when assessing the issue of race and it would be nice if we were all color blind. Nonetheless, it's impossible to properly evaluate the history of college basketball without broaching the sensitive topic.
The prejudice probably prevented the ACC and SEC from becoming the nation's premier conferences in the 1960s and first half of the 1970s. It almost certainly kept the SWC as a "football only" league. All-Americans, future NBA standouts and prize NCAA playoff performers who attended high school in Southern states and might have enrolled at universities in the ACC, SEC or SWC if not for being deemed second-class citizens included:
Snowden's Success Helps Open Opportunities
It took the ACC, SEC and SWC another 20 years or so to embrace their first African-American head coaches. In 1974-75, Arizona's Fred Snowden became the first African-American coach to have a team finish in a final wire-service Top 20 poll (17th in UPI with a 22-7 record). Two years earlier, Snowden became the first African-American head coach in the Western Athletic Conference.
The next two decades saw the following head coaches break the color barrier in major conferences: Wisconsin's Bill Cofield (Big Ten in 1976-77), Arkansas' Nolan Richardson (SWC in 1985-86), Oklahoma State's Leonard Hamilton (Big Eight in 1986-87), Maryland's Bob Wade (ACC in 1986-87) and Tennessee's Wade Houston (SEC in 1989-90).
In 1982, Georgetown's John Thompson took umbrage to depictions of him as the initial African-American coach to direct a team to the Final Four. But the injustices in the past against his race were sufficient reason for placing emphasis on Thompson's achievements with predominantly black rosters.
Texas Western, now called Texas-El Paso, put the finishing touches on dismantling the prejudiced myth that black athletes couldn't play disciplined basketball by using seven players, all blacks, in winning the 1966 NCAA Tournament final.
"Young black players told me that it (the championship) gave them confidence and courage," said Harry Flournoy, a starter for Texas Western. "Some of them, before that game, had been afraid to go to white schools."
In the first 20 years after the Miners captured their title, the average number of blacks on college rosters increased from three to six. Almost two-thirds of Division I basketball rosters currently are comprised of black players.
Pioneers Faced Hardship, Harrassment, Hate
The integration of college basketball, waiting primarily on the South to emerge from the "Jim Crow" dark ages, wasn't complete until the mid-1970s. Although overt racism probably wasn't quite as pervasive as in professional sports, many of the African-American players who broke the color barriers at colleges post-World War II faced more than their share of hardships and hostility.
"They (opposing fans) were all just rabid," recalls Perry Wallace, Vanderbilt's standout forward who became the first black varsity player in the all-white Southeastern Conference in 1967-68. "I'm talking racial stuff, people threatening your life ... calling you 'nigger,' 'coon,' 'shoe polish.' The first time I played Ole Miss I got spat on at halftime by four generations of one family."
Wallace, a local product from Nashville who went on to become a tenured law professor at the University of Baltimore, encountered raucous road trips through the Deep South, where belligerent spectators drenched him with their drinks and cheerleaders led the crowd in racist chants. In Mississippi, he was punched in the eye by an opposing player whom he knew he couldn't fight back.
Wallace, overshadowed in the SEC by the scoring exploits of LSU All-American Pete Maravich, told the Nashville Business & Lifestyles that "I'm not one of these historical revisionists who tries to claim he was all-smart and all-seeing back in those days. Everybody knew that what was happening was important. You've got to understand that this was post-legal segregation, but it was de facto segregation."
In an interview with The Tennessean, Wallace spoke of also feeling alienated from classmates at Vandy, of being informed by members of the campus church that elders there would withhold contributions if he attended.
"I can't say it any other way," Wallace confided. "I have been there by myself. It's been a very lonesome thing. People knew my name but weren't interested in knowing me. They respected my basketball ability but still considered me as a person who sweeps floors."
In a book The Walls Came Tumbling Down, Wallace said: "There were times when I felt close to a nervous breakdown. They weren't the worst four years any black man ever had experienced, but it took me a while to learn to deal with the pain. The fact that I did is a credit to my parents. They had eighth-grade educations and they worked as servants and what not. But they emphasized education, decency, and morality. I grew up poor but with strong values. My parents wouldn't let me hate back. They used to say, `No matter what is done to you, you don't get the chance to hate back.'"
Slowly Walls Crumble
Henry Harris, an All-SEC third-team selection in 1971-72 and the first black athlete at Auburn, was for a while the only black Wallace played against in the SEC. Harris took his own life by jumping off a building in New York soon after he left college. And Tom Payne, who broke the color barrier at Kentucky a year after Wallace graduated, was imprisoned for an extended period for assaulting females.
"Tom Payne had a tragic life and it wasn't all owing to playing in the SEC, but it didn't help," Wallace asserts. "You have to take the time that it requires to recover from an experience like that. You have to heal right. And fortunately, I think I have. I'm not destroyed. I've wrestled with the emotional effect that experience has had on my life. That was a process that was not easy those first few years, but I did it."
Payne, the son of an Army sergeant, went from pioneer to pariah in the wake of incurring rape convictions in three states (Georgia, Kentucky and California). After growing up in the integrated atmosphere of Army bases, he says that the racism he experienced during his one tumultuous season at UK led him to detest white people and abuse women. Threatening phone calls, broken car windows and eggs smashed on his front door became routine.
"That's the kind of abuse I went through," Payne said. "And people think that's not supposed to affect you? Before I went to college, nothing in my life said I was going to be a criminal. My whole life took a turn going to UK and getting damaged so much. My anger and hatred toward white society came up, and I lashed out."
These problems weren't restricted to major universities. Al Tucker, who went on to become an NBA first-round draft choice after averaging 28.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game in three seasons for Oklahoma Baptist, played one year at the College of Knoxville before going home to Ohio because of racial issues. Said Tucker about the last straw that sent him home: "We had what they called the Tennessee Theatre and we would give the lady a dollar or whatever it cost to get in and she said 'Sorry, we don't allow Negroes in.' Next thing they're going to call the paddy wagon and take us to jail."
The bigotry of the South fades every day, but Arizona State coach Rob Evans thinks the lessons in perseverance shouldn't be forgotten. Every year when Evans was coach at Mississippi, he took his players to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
"I just think it's important to expand kids' knowledge, but I also wanted my kids exposed to what happened in the '60s, and why things are like they are now," Evans said. "I've had a tremendous amount of my white kids say, 'Coach, did this really happen?' They say, 'How did you take this?' I think it bonds the kids together."
To be sure, things have changed drastically in society for minority groups. Gregory, Robinson and Wallace could only do so much in venturing into unchartered territory. The following list of trailblazers who broke the color barrier at schools since the start of the 1950s, the generally accepted introduction of the modern era of college basketball, deserve tribute for paving the path for thousands of black athletes by taking giant steps toward bridging the racial chasm:
School - First Black Player (First Varsity Season)
*Junior college recruit.
NOTES: Bright (Missouri Valley), Cash (SWC), Iowa's Dick Culberson (Big Ten in 1944-45), Jones (ACC) and Wallace (SEC) were the first African-American varsity players to compete in their high profile conferences. . . . Transfer Andre Polly practiced with the William & Mary varsity in 1971-72, but the accomplished musician transferred again to a better music school. . . . USL's Leslie Scott sat out one season after transferring from Loyola of Chicago. . . . Stephen Pitters was a member of Centenary's freshman squad in 1967-68, but wasn't on the varsity team the next season. . . . William Cooper played on North Carolina's freshman team in 1964-65, but quit basketball the following year.