Basketball's Best Once Were Blackballed from the College Game

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Mr. Beres, retired in Eugene, was sports information director (SID) at Northwestern University, then at the University of Oregon.

College basketball was for many decades almost an all-White sport. Until the 1950s, Blacks playing on campus courts were rare exceptions.

Howard (Hobby) Hobson, coach of the first NCAA champions, Oregon's Tall Firs in the first national tourney in 1939, gambled four years earlier by playing the university's first African-American, Charles Taylor. But after the 1936 season, albino became the dominant color again. At Oregon State, the first Black was Charley White in 1966.

I remember the "transition" era well because I was a student of the early 1950s at Northwestern of the Big Ten. A classmate, Freddie Duhart, is remembered as a player by few. But his role in the civil rights effort on campus before the days of Martin Luther King gave him a permanent place in school history. He was the first of his race to play the game there.

Duhart's achievement-- little noted at the time-- is part of the most significant development in the game since it began. Some would say the 24-second clock is the change with most impact. Or maybe the rule allowing the slam dunk. Both helped revolutionize the modern game. But neither was as dramatic or meaningful as the overdue decision to allow Blacks to play the varsity sport in college. It did not take a national proclamation. It was gradual, school-by-school.

Few today realize African-Americans rarely were allowed to play varsity basketball before the 1950s. It would shock most fans who every March make the NCAA's "Final Four," the most-watched event on national TV. It's no surprise to them the best teams are led by African-Americans, the game's most skilled players. There are moments in tournament play when all 10 players on the court are of a race not permitted to play at most schools half-a-century ago.

A recent Hollywood Film, "Glory Road," awakened some to the uncomfortable reality of how different things were in that earlier time of racial prejudice. It described how an unknown basketball school, Texas Western (now Texas El Paso), used a lineup of all Black players to win the NCAA basketball title with a victory over a Kentucky team which never had had a Black in uniform.

That evoked memories of how Duhart broke Northwestern's color line 15 years earlier. Freddie never achieved sports greatness. But his appearance in uniform made him one of the first to help erase an unwritten rule that perpetuated sports bigotry. The rule was not on paper-- no formal edict enforced by the game's managers on campus nor in conference offices. It was an unspoken agreement among coaches. No one risked challenging it in the Big Ten until 1944, when the University of Iowa for the first time added to its roster a Black, Richard T. Culberson.

He played two seasons without special distinction except for his race. First Black to make a major impact in the Big Ten was Bill Garrett of Indiana, 6-3 center who was an All-American in 1951. A new book on Garrett is titled: "Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball."

It was different in college football, where Blacks played in racial anonymity, dressed in helmet, pads and full body uniform that obscured a player's race. Most renowned was Paul Robeson, who played for Rutgers in 1916-18. Today he is recognized as one of the all-time greats of the game. He went on to public acclaim as a star of opera.

Years after Robeson played, Northwestern's 1936 Big Ten football champions were led by brilliant running back, Bernie Jefferson. Bernie, also was the most talented basketball player on campus. Unaware of the silent rule against Blacks playing that sport, he tried out, and was rebuffed by Coach Dutch Lonborg.

I heard the story from Sid Richardson, twice Big Ten golf champion for the Wildcats in the 1930s, who stayed on as athletics ticket manager."Golf was my game," Sid told me. "But I liked basketball, and was there when Bernie tried out. Everybody knew him from his reputation in football, but none of us was aware of his talent in basketball. He was head and shoulders better than the rest of us, including varsity lettermen." Bernie never returned to practice, and Sid sought him out on campus. "He told me there was no sense to it," recalled Richardson. "Regardless of talent, he could not play because of his race. Was he angry? I don't know, but he stayed in school, and did what Lonborg (also an assistant football coach) suggested-- concentrate on football. In those days, he had no recourse." Jefferson graduated, and as a Tuskegee Airman in World War II had a distinguished flying career. After the war, he got a master's degree, and became a principal in the Chicago school system.

In 1970, when I was Northwestern sports information director (SID), I contacted Jefferson to tell him the Wildcats for the first time were going to have an entire starting lineup of Black players. I invited him to the opening game. At dinner, we discussed the unwritten rule that prevented him and other Blacks from playing the varsity sport. "I didn't know about the rule," said Jefferson. "The few Black athletes on campus were for football and track. I don't think any of us knew about the basketball rule. I had no intent to become a kind of test case. For all I know, I might've won such a case in court. But times were different, and I just was grateful to be getting an education in return for playing football. So I let basketball drop."

Jefferson was not bitter. He came to the game with me. At halftime, he thanked me for the invitation, and left. It was decades after his campus days, and Bernie had other priorities. Though Duhart had an undistinguished player career, like Jefferson he made good use of his college experience. He got a medical degree, with a life of distinction as a doctor in St. Louis.

The rule-of-prejudice hung on for some years at other Big Ten schools. The last to add a Black to its basketball roster was Minnesota. Coach Johnny Kundla sought out Bobby Bell, star of Minnesota's 1960 Rose Bowl champions in football. Bell, a massive but nimble athlete, joined the Gophers as their unofficial "enforcer" on the basketball court.

The rule lasted longest in schools of the deep South. That gives ironic satisfaction to Black athletes of my time as they see previously all-White teams from Florida to Texas depending on Black players to lead them. The Pac-10, where I later was UO SID, had the same silent rule against Black basketball players when it was known as the West Coast Conference.

The color line was broken far earlier out here. UCLA played its first Black in basketball in 1925. He went on to greater fame. In 1950, Ralph Bunche received the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Vernon Clayson - 4/11/2006

It appears that the interest in an article can be gauged by comments. I'm embarassed that I thought enough of this article that I commented on it. It might have generated more interest if the author complained that white basketball players are being pushed out of the sport by gangly inarticulate black players.

Vernon Clayson - 4/3/2006

Another reason, not touched on by Mr. Beres, is that very few blacks went to college, few even went to high school. More was expected from students entering college than skill in athletics, students had to excel in scholastics and they had to pay their own way, there being no athletic scholarships. I understand his point, and it's well made, but his concern would better be placed on requiring today's athletes be true student-athletes rather than stepanfetchits to sports programs which enrich the coffers of universities without turning out their black athletes as educated young people. NBA - here I come, who needs a degree when million dollar contracts beckon.