It seems a fitting time to take a break from the intensity of the changing national political scene and talk about something else, like the holiday sports calendar, which is chock-full of excitement from the Super Bowl to the basketball games that ultimately lead to March Madness.
I choose basketball because, first of all, I’m from Indiana, where it remains a religion as intense as any metaphysical variety practiced in the state. My second reason is that for a great many years now, I have joined a handful of like-minded Hoosiers who are determined to right an injustice done to one of the most important historic figures in the game from several standpoints, not the least of which is the struggle for racial equality.
So, I write this column at least once a year as my contribution to the cause. We all may be tilting at the windmills of hard-headed bureaucracy, vagaries of time and insensitivities of ignorance. But so what? Tilt we must under a compulsion we don’t expect to disappear until the Almighty says we must and our last dim vision is of a ball dropping quietly through a hoop with a net strung to it at the end of whatever March that might be.
The other night, while watching our alma mater, Indiana, play Kansas in one of those season-opening tournaments that are fairly meaningless in the race to Oz except to sort of set the parameters of excellence for the regular play later on, I felt pressed to make my annual offering to the cause early.
As 10 superb black young men raced up and down the court making one impossible move after another, the moment struck me squarely between the eyes: two heavily white, Midwestern schools with historic programs and Caucasian heroes without a single pale face on the floor. Who would have thought. I turned to the New York-born lady next to me and said only, “Bill Garrett.”
Our cause dates back to the late 1940s and early ’50s, when William Leon Garrett became the first black basketball player on a varsity in the Big Ten. He was a 6-foot, 3-inch center facing a competition of giants. His presence at the time effectively made him (to be trite) “the Jackie Robinson” of major college basketball. An excellent student with remarkable physical skill, his will to overcome (no small goal then) set a tone that ultimately not only brought his league, but also the entire game out of the dark ages of prejudice.
It is enough probably to certify his playing importance by noting that in three years of eligibility, he was never out of the starting lineup and led the team in scoring and other statistics against the best teams in the land. It is equally important to know that during those years of national competition, he never played against or with another person of his own race. How tough is that?
He was an all-American whose last team lost only three games and was ranked fifth in the nation. IU couldn’t play in the NCAA tournament because it finished second in the league, and entry was restricted to league-winners except for independents, a number of whom had lost far more games.
There is little need to cite his exceptionalism any further, all though it is extensive. What is needed is for his contribution to the welfare of the game and to the destruction of the barrier of bias that kept so many talented young black Americans from achieving to be recognized by the highest honor in the game, induction into the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The revered Baseball Hall of Fame long ago honored Robinson as it should have. Yet every effort to find room for Garrett has been met with stern resistance from Springfield while far less important figures have been so knighted.
The mysteries of the hall defy explanation. It took the powers at Indiana a while to remember that our school was once subscribed to a secret unwritten agreement of coaches and athletic directors against recruiting blacks. The decision by IU to break that policy by choosing Garrett, Indiana’s high school Mr. Basketball of 1947, and what it meant later, is one of the proudest moments in the history of a great program and university.
Shame on Springfield. Do those who run the hall not realize the smell of past prejudice that hovers over them?
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.