Two who integrated SEC survived on-court trials, succeeded

March 08, 1992|By Joseph S. Stroud | Joseph S. Stroud,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- At halftime, in the dingy visitors' locker room at Starkville, Miss., Godfrey Dillard and Perry Wallace sat beside each other on a plain wooden bench and held hands.

The two Vanderbilt University freshmen were still shaking from what they had just endured. In Maroon Gym, the home of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, they had just become the first blacks to play major college basketball in the Deep South.

From the moment they emerged for pre-game warm-ups until they left the court at halftime, the two 18-year-olds had been barraged by Mississippi State fans who shouted racist slogans, spat at them, threw soft drinks and even threatened to lynch the two young strangers in black and gold trunks.

If their teammates were aware of what had occurred, they didn't say a word. So Dillard and Wallace sat there, trying to listen to the coach review plays with a foreboding sense of having to go it alone.

Today, it is easy to forget how much college basketball has changed since that freshman game was played Feb. 27, 1967. Blacks already were playing the game in other parts of the country and at smaller colleges, but schools in the Southeastern Conference stubbornly resisted. If whites in the South hadn't seen the change coming, they were forced to see it that day. Never again would college basketball be a game played just by white guys.

Perry Wallace, today a University of Baltimore law professor, was startled by the fans' reaction but not completely surprised. He grew up in Nashville and had a good sense of how harsh things could be in the South.

Godfrey Dillard, though, was from Detroit and had grown up in an integrated neighborhood. The events of that day would stay in his mind for a long, long time.

He would recall how he and Wallace hung back as their teammates entered the arena. He also would remember how he and Wallace looked at each other, then embraced for a moment before they, too, stepped onto the court.

The lights of TV cameras blinded them to the hissing, spitting crowd. "These people are crazy," Dillard whispered to Wallace. And years later, he would remember an image so strange that he isn't sure it happened: "Somebody let a chicken loose in the place."

If their memories were different, so was their approach to the game, which Vanderbilt won. Wallace didn't say much but played well. Dillard talked constantly -- to his teammates, to the opposing players, even to the fans. Once, standing at the free-throw line, he waved defiantly to the screaming mob before sinking a foul shot.

Wallace's memories of that day are fuzzier, in part because he would play many more games in front of nasty crowds. Dillard would play only a few. But for all of the differences in their backgrounds and their memories of their time together as ground-breakers, their lives remain connected.

They have shared an anger, but also a conviction: To use the pain of those years as fuel for their own success in a world that in many ways seemed to want them to fail.

Godfrey Dillard and Perry Wallace met four months before the game at Starkville, on a late summer evening in Vanderbilt Hall, a freshman dormitory on the Vanderbilt campus in Nashville. Dillard was unpacking when Wallace knocked on his door.

The two found they liked each other right away and ended up talking all night. They also realized that they were quite different.

Godfrey Dillard was a flashy dresser with bright eyes, a loud voice and a small gap between his front teeth. He had attended a Catholic high school in Detroit, where he was president of the student council and a 6-foot-1 All-State guard.

Perry Wallace was 6 feet 5 and extremely shy. He grew up on Nashville's north side, was valedictorian of his class at all-black Pearl High School and went to church every Sunday. He earned All-State honors in basketball but began to take it seriously only when his ability persuaded him to set aside the trumpet. He had not yet acquired the habit of looking white people in the eye.

The two freshmen talked about many things that night -- the coaches, things to do in Nashville, where to meet girls. They also talked about becoming the first black players in the SEC.

Although both players had received hate mail when they were recruited, the tone of their conversation was optimistic.

"We were up for the challenge," Dillard said.

Said Wallace: "We had great expectations."

Although the game at Starkville gave them a a clear sense of what they were up against on the road, the trips weren't all they had to face. On Vanderbilt's campus, with its magnolias, ancient oaks and manicured lawns, things were different but not much better.

When Wallace's best friend from high school, Walter Murray, stepped into his first class, the professor looked up and made a racist comment.

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