Inaugural class for NCAA hoops hall is diverse

By Blair Kerkhoff

McClatchy Newspapers

Five men entered the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame as its inaugural class Sunday night in Kansas City, but they have more in common besides 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.

"I’m usually blase about these kinds of things, but when I saw the list, I was completely honored to be associated with these fine people," Russell said.

The family did not escape racism when Oscar Robertson moved from Tennessee to Indianapolis. They lived in Frog Island, a swampy section of downtown bordered by a river and a canal.

Robertson and other black citizens 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. "You heard white people say blacks couldn’t do anything, that they were lazy. When we won basketball games, people felt great about themselves. It gave people an air of pride."

In 1951, Robertson watched on television as his older brother Bailey, known as "Flap," came off the bench to lead the Tigers past all-white Anderson in a regional final. Attucks didn’t win state that year, but beating Anderson filled the community with pride, and the Tigers would get only better.


In 1955, Robertson led the school to the championship, and Attucks became the first black school to a win an open state championship in the United States.

But the Tigers were denied their rightful traditional celebration. Instead of a leisurely parade around Monument Circle, the team was permitted a quick lap and then hustled back to the neighborhood of the all-black school because authorities feared security problems.

That was a team Tigers coach Ray Crowe said needed to score 10 or 12 points extra just to offset biased officiating. Robertson was moved from the frontcourt to point guard to give Attucks an up-tempo jump.

When he died in 2003, Crowe’s funeral procession proceeded slowly around Monument Circle.

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, following City College of New York in 1950.

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