When football players supported the protests of racial injustice at Missouri two weeks ago, leading to the resignation of the university system president and MU chancellor, college athletics had a new twist on an old theme.
Generations ago, college sports served as a change agent with athletes and coaches viewed as pioneers, knocking down barriers.
Integrating teams was the objective then, and members inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday who were on the front lines then recognize what they’re seeing today.
“Integration doesn’t mean we don’t experience stereotypes,” said Charlie Scott, the first black scholarship athlete at North Carolina when he enrolled in 1966. “Some still have trouble relating to each other.”
Today’s images of a black teenager in a hoodie or an older white man bring preconceived notions, Scott said, not unlike what he experienced in the 1960s when leading the Tar Heels to the Final Four in 1968 and 1969.
“I was a black individual in a white society in the South,” Scott said. “Outside of basketball, there was not much I could do with my teammates. It wasn’t their choice. Society limited our relationships, so it wasn’t a normal time for me.”
Scott came to recognize that he was being watched and admired not only by North Carolina fans who reveled in the team’s accomplishments but by blacks in the region who for the first time were watching an integrated team.
It couldn’t have happened without Dean Smith, the Tar Heels’ legendary coach who died earlier this year. Smith, a Kansan, was a great advocate for black students and student-athletes.
Another Hall of Fame inductee, coach Lou Henson, championed integration. He had spent six years at Las Cruces (N.M.) High School and was being interviewed for the job at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.
In a meeting with the school president, Henson said he’d take the job under one condition.
“I wanted the job, but there was one problem,” Henson said. “I wanted the team to be integrated. This was Texas, a lot different than New Mexico. I had black players on my teams there.”
The president left the room, quickly got in touch with the school’s trustees, and a few minutes later the school had a new coach and was on its way to an integrated team.
Henson won 67 games in four seasons at Hardin-Simmons. He moved on to New Mexico State, where his Sam Lacey-led 1970 team reached the Final Four, and five years later turned down the Oklahoma job in his home state to become the coach at Illinois.
Henson took the Illini to 12 NCAA Tournaments in the final 17 of his 21 seasons, before returning to finish his career at New Mexico State.
Zip Gayles never had the opportunity to play in an integrated game. Gayles, the coach at Langston University in Oklahoma during 1930-55, won two Negro National Championships in basketball and football. One of those basketball titles occurred in 1946, the same year Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), won the NCAA title.
Gayles and Aggies coach Henry Iba had become friends and agreed to have their teams face each other, perhaps even a series. But the state’s board of regents said no.
“The greatest game that was never played,” is how former Langston and Harlem Globetrotters guard Marcus Haynes once described the near-collision.
Racial barriers soon started falling. In 1948, Indiana State, coached by John Wooden, became the first team to appear in a national college tournament with a black player when Clarence Walker appeared in what is today known as the NAIA Tournament in Kansas City.
Loyola (Ill.) won the 1963 NCAA title with four black starters, Texas-El Paso won it three years later with an-all black lineup. By the early 1970s the Southern schools’ basketball teams were integrated.
“Being the first black player in the South wasn’t something I set out to do,” Scott said.
And addressing racial injustice on campus some 50 years later is probably something Scott never thought he’d do.