First inductees at college Hall were champions of equality

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

November 21, 2006|By BLAIR KERKHOFF | BLAIR KERKHOFF,The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, MO. -- Five men entered the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame as its inaugural class Sunday night, but they have more in common than their basketball greatness.

They were pioneers of another kind, standing up for racial equality in the face of ugly opposition.

Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson felt the hostility. Coaches John Wooden and Dean Smith took courageous stands.

Even the game's inventor, James Naismith, played a role, perhaps unwittingly, in breaking a color barrier at the University of Kansas. He worked with future Hall of Fame coach John McLendon to integrate the university's pool in 1936 so McLendon could pass a requirement for his physical education degree.

Sunday, the National Association of Basketball Coaches and Kansas City opened a place of honor for college basketball's elite. The greatest champion, the first three-time national Player of the Year, the coach with the most national championships and the one with the most victories, along with the game's inventor, were celebrated.

They should be honored for what happened away from the floor as well, and Russell hit on that theme early in the evening. He spoke of Smith's social consciousness, of how he participated in sit-ins early in his North Carolina career.

Robertson and other black residents of Indianapolis didn't have much in the 1950s, but they had Crispus Attucks High School, which fielded basketball teams that could play with the best squads in Indiana.

"It meant everything because it meant blacks could achieve," Robertson said. In 1955, led by Robertson, Attucks became the first black school to win an open state championship in the United States.

With Russell leading the way, San Francisco became college basketball's first national champion with a perfect record. The Dons also became something of a historical footnote. They were the second team to win an NCAA title with three black starters, after City College of New York in 1950.

But Russell was the game's first black star, and not long into the 1954-55 season - the same year Robertson was leading Attucks to an Indiana title - San Francisco felt the intolerance.

During a practice in Oklahoma City for the All-College Tournament, Russell and his teammates were pelted with coins. Also, tournament officials told coach Phil Woolpert that white players could stay in hotel rooms. The team's four black players had to stay in dorms at Oklahoma City University.

All of the Dons stayed at the dorm.

"Those were times when you grew up fast," Russell said.

As a North Carolina assistant, Smith asked head coach Frank McGuire about recruiting black players.

McGuire had recruited and coached Solly Walker at St. John's. Smith's father, Alfred, had coached black students at Emporia High, and Smith's first touchdown pass as Topeka High's quarterback was to a black receiver.

But in Chapel Hill, McGuire threw up a caution sign. This was North Carolina in the late 1950s.

"He said he'd never want to see anybody have to experience what Solly Walker went through," Smith said.

But Smith forged on, and after becoming the Tar Heels' coach in 1961, put out the word that the basketball program wasn't a closed society. Change came slowly, but in 1967, Charlie Scott became the school's first scholarship black athlete. He would soon become the Atlantic Coast Conference's first black star.

Wooden, Indiana State's coach in 1948, was not going to the NAIA tournament in Kansas City that year without Clarence Walker.

The problem was, the NAIA did not allow black players in the event. Nothing official, just a gentlemen's agreement.

But the NAIA was starting to feel some heat. Manhattan and Siena had turned down bids to the tournament because of the segregation, and neither team had a black player.

The Sycamores had qualified the previous year and stayed home for the same reason, and Wooden remained firm. No Walker, no Sycamores.

But fate intervened. Turned out, 1948 was an Olympic year, and the NAIA coveted its champion's spot in the Olympic trials tournament. It had been 12 years since the previous Games, the one where Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin, and the Olympic Committee threatened to pull its invitation if black players weren't allowed in the tournament.

Wooden, Walker and the Sycamores were on their way.

"I'm pleased whenever I think of that NAIA tournament in Kansas City," Wooden said. "I think that was a big moment in our sport's history. A few years later, an all-black team [Tennessee State] won that tournament. Maybe we opened the door a little bit."

Blair Kerkhoff writes for The Kansas City Star.

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