I love college basketball and of course the love affair is in full blossom this time of year. My romance began in 1966 when a bunch of unknown upstarts from a Podunk school in El Paso – who ever heard of Texas Western College? – won the NCAA championship over the vaunted Coach Adolph Rupp and the University of Kentucky Wildcats.
There have been a thousand (or more) great college basketball games since 1966, but for my money none was better or more important than Texas Western’s 72-65 win over the big dogs from Kentucky and the segregated Southeastern Conference (SEC). The Texas Western Miners started five black players in that 1966 game. Kentucky didn’t have a black player until 1969. Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass, a Hall of Fame coach who won 82 percent of his games, went to his grave remembered for that championship loss by his all-white team to a talented and determined all-black team. It is stunning to remember that Rupp refused to shake hands with the Texas Western players after the game. And it should be just a little embarrassing to Kentucky fans today that the still vaunted Wildcats play their home games in Rupp Arena.
As Kentucky steams toward another national title, let’s just say that I’m for anyone but Kentucky. Call it a grudge and label it unreasonable, since the Wildcats now depend on spectacularly talented African-American players to maintain an unbeaten season, but I have a long memory.
Maybe its just Kentucky. I’ve long remembered a great line uttered by the supremely talented Civil War historian Gary Gallagher who once joked that Kentucky stayed loyal to the Union during the rebellion and “only joined the Confederacy after the war.” Adolph Rupp and his basketball team were still fighting that war more than a hundred years later.
All this old basketball and racial history came rushing back to me recently with the publication of a fine and important new book on basketball and race in the SEC, the pioneering courage of an African-American player at Vanderbilt who was the first to play in that storied league and how far we have come – and still need to go.
The book is Strong Inside, the gutsy story of Perry Wallace and his trials and triumphs in the SEC in the late 1960’s. The author is Andrew Maraniss (son of Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss, author of acclaimed books on Roberto Clemente, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, among others).
In many ways the centerpiece of Wallace’s story is the account of a game he played in 1968 in Oxford, Mississippi. Remember the context. The Ole Miss campus was finally integrated in 1962, but not before a full-scale riot, a death and many injuries marked the school with scars that are still visible. The racist governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, played to local politics and his own ambition when he defied federal courts and President John Kennedy when James Meredith wanted to register for classes at Ole Miss.
In 1963, NAACP organizer Medgar Evers, an Army veteran of World War II, was assassinated in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Three young civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. Bloody Sunday took place in Selma in neighboring Alabama in 1965. It was into that environment of hate, fear and racism and that a courageous Perry Wallace stepped when he set foot on the basketball court in Oxford for the first game in Mississippi featuring a black player.
Shortly before halftime a white elbow was thrown at Wallace, a blow “so fast that no one knows who threw the elbow,” Maraniss says. The blood flowed from Wallace’s wound, the crowd cheered and no referee blew a whistle. “When halftime ended,” the Washington Post noted in a recent review, “Wallace was left alone in the locker room with a bag of ice and a swollen eye. He was ‘shaken not just by the physical blow but by the relentless taunting. . . . He could hear the Ole Miss crowd react when his teammates returned to the court without him: ‘Did the nigger go home? Where’s the nigger? Did he quit?’”
Wallace didn’t quit. He helped Vanderbilt win that game, but had to make the long walk back to the basketball court all by himself. None of his white teammates made the simple gesture of walking with him. In other SEC basketball venues Wallace “was spit on and pelted with Cokes, ice and coins. At LSU, some Vanderbilt players claimed, a dagger was thrown on the court in Wallace’s direction. . . . In Knoxville, teammates remember, fans dangled a noose near the Vanderbilt bench.”
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Wallace’s story is the grace and dignity with which he dealt with such unspeakable abuse and overcame it all. Today Wallace is a widely respected law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. and a man humble in talking about his pioneering role in SEC basketball. Vanderbilt officials, originally peeved when Wallace talked candidly at the end of his playing days about his experiences, finally made peace with him and retired his jersey in 2004. Perry Wallace deserves to be more widely remembered and Andrew Maraniss’s book is a wonderful start.
Banning the Dunk Shot…
Wallace stood just 6’5”, which, even considering the standards of his day, made him a rather small frontline player, but the guy could jump and Maraniss writes, “the ‘stuff shot’ was Wallace’s most reliable offensive move.”
The long-prevailing basketball wisdom holds that the “dunk shot” was banned to neutralize the inside play of the great UCLA post man Lew Alcindor – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But, Maraniss makes a compelling case that Wallace and his role as the first black player in the SEC also had much to do with banning the dunk. In that 1966 NCAA championship game Texas Western’s unforgettable big man, David Lattin, “embarrassed Rupp’s Wildcats with a powerful dunk over Pat Riley,” later a great NBA player and coach. “The next season,” Maraniss writes, “Lattin’s protégé, Wallace, embarrassed Rupp’s freshman team with his slam over Dan Issel,” also later an NBA star.
Shortly thereafter the NCAA rules committee, long dominated by Adolph Rupp, changed the rules to ban the dunk, a decision that it is hard not to conclude was racially motivated. Rupp’s Wildcats never scheduled Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins, but they played Perry Wallace’s Vanderbilt team twice every season. “While the [dunk] ban wasn’t directed at Wallace,” Maraniss says, “it was more than just a coincidence that the rules of the game changed just as the first black player – a prolific dunker – was about to enter the league that Adolph Rupp had dominated for decades.”
Sports at the college and professional level along with the United States military have been more successful than virtually any other segment of our culture in advancing the cause of racial equality. Both have their problems to be sure, but both have also shown what America might be if we finally come to grips with our haunted racial past and commit to a better future. Perry Wallace’s largely forgotten story is a testament to what one man can do to make ours a more perfect union and proof that heroes are found in many places, including above the rim.
Perry Wallace and Andrew Maraniss were recently featured on the NPR program Only a Game when they were interviewed by Bill Littlefield. NPR’s All Things Considered also recently featured a story on the book.
The Maraniss book was published by Vanderbilt University Press. Order it up. If you’re a basketball fan you’ll enjoy it. If you enjoy an uplifting and great American story you’ll love it.