As March Madness fades into memory and the record books for another year, one can’t help but reflect on the anomalies of race and sports in America.
Glued to the television watching an activity that is utterly dominated by black athletes at every level it is difficult to remember that not too long ago the presence of bare limbed young Negroes on a basketball court, especially in the college game, was considered a racial affront.
So they just didn’t exist in the intercollegiate big time. There was, in fact, an unwritten agreement in the major American conference, the Big Ten, effectively banning blacks from playing on the teams of these large Midwest universities. This denial of rights by the flagship schools of the nation’s heartland set the tone and served as cover for the rest of the top leagues.
Now there are literally thousands, perhaps millions, of African American youngsters who go to bed every night dreaming of the fame and fortune that can come from proficiency in throwing a ball through a hoop. Feeding their hopes are the coaches, scouts and agents who haunt the gyms and playgrounds measuring their skills even before puberty, seeking to cash in on the next phenomenon.
But it is safe to say that none of these young men and women or even their mentors has any idea how it all began. Ask them who Jackie Robinson was and they will tell you in a flash. Ask them about Bill Garrett and you will receive only blank stares. Yet to the average aspiring Michael Jordan or LeBron James, Garrett is a far more important figure, a now nearly forgotten hero who used his considerable talent, brains and character to open the door of opportunity for black players when those of African descent went to segregated schools.
For those relative few remaining who knew and remember him, this 6 foot 3 inch string bean they called “Bones” holds almost mythical status. In the basketball season of 1948-1949, William Leon Garrett trotted onto the floor of the Indiana University Field House to break the color line in the Big Ten and to carry the torch of integration into major college basketball. At the conference’s most southern institution, he was greeted by jeers and shelled corn hurled to the floor in derision.
Three years later, in 1951, during his final home game, he left that same floor to a 12-minute thunderous standing ovation from those same 11,000 fans, many of who wept as did he. With him at center, IU lost only three games that year and was ranked sixth in the nation. A year later there were six African American players on Big Ten teams.
What occurred prior to and between those two occasions and in his relatively short life after is a story of endurance, perseverance and achievement on a par with any in the history of desegregation. It is the subject of a long overdue biography by Tom Graham, a Washington lawyer from Garrett’s hometown of Shelbyville, Ind., and Graham’s daughter, Rachel Cody. “Getting Open,” published by Atria books, is a meticulously researched attempt at restoring this remarkable young man to his proper place both in athletics and the more important cause of civil rights.
It is also a tribute to those Indiana men who overcame the stigma of virile racism attached to their state, saw the opportunity to right dreadful wrongs and had the courage to do so. It wasn’t done totally unselfishly. They wanted to win.
Garrett was one of the most gifted athletes in the state’s rich basketball history. He was also an outstanding high hurdler and baseball player and, crucially, a fine student. In 1947 he had been the state’s high school Mr. Basketball. He went on to lead IU in scoring and to become one of the first two black consensus all-Americans, the third black drafted by the NBA, a successful coach and, finally, an official of his alma mater. He died in 1974 at the age of 45 from a heart attack.
Many of those who played against and with him during those turbulent years are now in the National Basketball Hall of Fame, including his main high school opponent Clyde Lovellette, the former University of Kansas star. Sadly, Garrett is not.
Indiana University should honor its own contribution to the cause of equality by striving to correct this injustice. It is as important a legacy as any of its national championships. Garrett’s image is reflected in every black college kid who dunks a ball, grabs a rebound or hits a three pointer.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)