Commentary

The forgotten Hoosiers

Updated: February 26, 2009, 6:54 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- As he and his newly retired high school basketball jersey paraded to the center of the Conseco Fieldhouse floor Thursday, Oscar Robertson barely grinned. Even if no one else knew, he did. The moment was bigger than him, his Hall of Fame career or any number he ever wore on his back.

His graying hair and growing midsection told fans it had been a long time since Robertson and his Crispus Attucks High School teammates became the nation's first all-black team to win a state championship. But 54 years, as it turns out, doesn't heal all wounds. It doesn't make the fight go away.

So when an Indianapolis promoter first approached Robertson last month about retiring his jersey as part of a celebration to honor the basketball traditions at Attucks and Washington high schools, he said no. Not unless they honored the entire groundbreaking 1954-55 Attucks team. Not unless they raised a banner for coaches Ray Crowe and Al Spurlock. And not unless they retired the numbers of eight other former Tigers who made the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

Crispus Attucks High School Basketball
IPS Crispus Attucks MuseumThe Crispus Attucks High School basketball team won the Indiana High School Championship trophy in 1955.

"There's a lot of insensitivity still out there," Robertson said. "Because it's a black school, people just don't care. Nobody cares about black issues. And I simply won't stand for that. Not with what we accomplished. I told 'em, 'Do it right or I won't be a part of it.'"

His words are sharp, biting and fueled by decades of frustration. But you can't blame him. In many ways, Robertson and his teammates are the forgotten Hoosiers, the players whose story is every bit as inspiring as that of the boys from tiny Milan but who never made it to Hollywood. Outside of Indiana, few know of Crowe and the discipline he demanded from his players in the face of blatant prejudice. Not many realize the nation's first black high school champions came from a school that was the brainchild of the Ku Klux Klan. And few are aware that even after the Tigers won the state championship, they were given a celebration different from the one the white champions who came before them had.

Yet from 1950 to 1957, the Crispus Attucks Tigers were the most invincible team this basketball-crazed state had seen. Their high-scoring, high-flying, ultra-athletic ways led them to six regional championships, four semi-state championships and back-to-back state titles in 1955 and '56. The Tigers went 179-20 in that span, won what was then a record 45 games in a row, and in '56 completed the state's first undefeated season. The group included not only Robertson, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, but Hallie Bryant and Willie Gardner, two of the 28 members of the Harlem Globetrotters' prestigious Legends Ring.

"What they were able to accomplish is as significant as anything that's ever been done in this state's illustrious basketball history," said former Milan guard Bobby Plump, who hit the championship-winning shot on which the film "Hoosiers" was based. "There's nothing that I can say, there's nothing you will hear, there's nothing you can write that can possibly get to the depth of what they had to go through to accomplish everything they did.

"If any of the great Indiana teams had to bear the responsibility that those young men had to bear every day, in every game, in every place that they went, I doubt any of them would have been as successful as Crispus Attucks. I will forever admire every one of them. It is without question a story more people need to know."

Crispus Attucks High School BasketballIPS Crispus Attucks MuseumTeam photo of the 1954-55 Crispus Attucks basketball team that won the Indiana State championship in 1955 under coach Ray Crowe (upper left).

A SEGREGATED PAST

They remember being told they could sit here but not there. They remember learning there were theaters for whites and theaters for blacks. And they remember thinking this was normal; it was an accepted way of life. Back then, Indianapolis was a ferociously segregated city, traced back to the days of D.C. Stephenson, the Ku Klux Klan grand dragon who lived in the city in the early 1920s.

It was Stephenson and several Klan-supporting politicians who proposed a segregated high school for black students. Crispus Attucks High, named after the runaway slave who was believed to be the first American killed by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre, opened in 1927. But because the school had no white students, the Indiana High School Athletic Association ruled that Attucks was not a public school and thus that the association would not grant Attucks membership. Not until 1933 were member schools even allowed to play against Attucks. And not until 1942 was Attucks granted membership and welcomed into the state basketball tournament.

[+] EnlargeOscar Robertson
Indiana Historical SocietyOscar Robertson cuts down the nets after the Crispus Attucks Tigers won the 1955 Indiana boys basketball state championship.

Even then, Attucks' home gym was too small to host games, so the Tigers always played on the road. And because many of the all-white Indianapolis schools refused to play Attucks, many of those games were played in small towns outside the city. There, the Tigers were the high school version of the Harlem Globetrotters, an entertaining curiosity that filled gyms and amazed fans but who struggled to find a place they were welcome to eat after the game.

"It was a very prejudiced town and a very prejudiced time," said Betty Crowe, an Attucks graduate and the widow of coach Ray Crowe. "You couldn't eat in certain restaurants; you couldn't sit in certain movies. But you learned to overcome it. You learned not to use that as an excuse. You knew you just had to do better."

Many of Attucks' students, including Robertson, lived in Lockefield Gardens, a government-subsidized housing complex a couple of blocks from the school. Others weren't as lucky and lived in homes without electricity or running water. The school was the beacon of hope. Because blacks weren't welcome to teach in most white schools, Attucks had arguably the most decorated faculty in the state, with every teacher carrying a master's or doctorate. The school produced doctors, lawyers, judges, professors, politicians and award-winning musicians.

"I never had a teacher who said a single word to me about basketball," Robertson said. "That wasn't what they cared about."

But most everyone else did. And in those tiny gyms across the state, the lines of color were easy to see. Blacks on one side, whites on the other, a brown leather ball bouncing between them. In the face of segregation, nothing brought more pride for the city's black population than an Attucks basketball victory.

"People would always tell us how good it felt to face their bosses at work, how good it felt to stick their chests out that Attucks had just beaten another white team," former Tiger Cleveland Harp said. "But we were just kids. We were just doing what we were told to do -- and that was shoot the ball through the net."

THE MAN FOR THE TIMES

[+] EnlargeRay Crowe
IPS Crispus Attucks MuseumAttucks coach Ray Crowe, left, shakes hands with then-Indianapolis Mayor Alex Clark after the state championship win in this photo from the 1955 school yearbook.

If Ray Crowe were alive today and walked into a room filled with his former players, you get the feeling every single one of them would stand a little straighter, speak a little softer and be a bit nervous about what was about to happen next.

He commanded that sort of respect. For the man who would later become friends with Bob Knight, discipline was everything. If you didn't maintain your grades, you didn't play. If you missed school, you didn't play. If he even heard you had been smoking or drinking, you were off the team. Player grades were posted on his classroom wall for the world to see. And while he was out working a second job to support his family, Betty Crowe would check on the boys two random nights a week to make sure they were home by the coach's 8:30 curfew.

If anyone dared to stray out of line, Crowe wasn't above breaking out a paddle, throwing a player up against a locker or playing a game of "Watch me throw this chest pass right through you."

"Without Ray, I don't know. I just don't know," Harp said. "He was a man for the times. He knew what to do and how to do it, and he relayed that to us. He was in charge. You were either going to do what Ray said or you weren't going to be on the team. And everyone wanted to be on the team."

Crowe grew up as one of 10 children in the only black family in tiny Franklin, Ind., about 25 miles south of Indianapolis. He had white friends and white teachers, and when he first came to Indianapolis to teach in the late 1940s, he nearly quit because, Betty says, "He had never seen so many black people in his life." But Crowe stayed and, in 1950, was named the basketball coach at Crispus Attucks.

[+] EnlargeOscar Robertson
IPS Crispus Attucks MuseumOscar Robertson, left, and Willie Merriweather, co-captiains of Attucks, accept the state championship trophy from Otton Albright of Cayuga, president of IHSAA.

Crowe had seen the race issue from both sides and believed there was only one way he and his players would be able to react to any inequalities -- keep quiet, turn the other cheek and win the game. It wasn't a popular plan. These were boys who had grown up in the ghetto, where, as Robertson put it, fighting wasn't wrong, it was "a way of life." Now Crowe wanted them to absorb all the name-calling, chanting and prejudiced officiating and look the other way.

"It drove me nuts," Betty Crowe said. "And I'd ask him, 'Why don't you say something? Why don't you do something?' And he'd just tell me, 'The team that puts the ball in the basket more wins the game.'

"He wanted to make that team a group of fine young men, and he did not want them to have any inkling that retaliation was the answer. If he would have ranted and raved like everyone wanted and expected him to, those boys never would have gotten anywhere."

Ray Crowe
Indiana Historical SocietyIn the face of blatant prejudice, coach Crowe still demanded discipline from his players.

Before each game, Crowe would remind his players that they were playing five on seven. He'd instruct them to get the first 10 points for the officials, then concentrate on the opponent. But in the state tournament, it wasn't always that easy. In the final minute of a tie game against Shelbyville in 1953, future Globetrotter Bryant had a clear path to the basket when a Shelbyville player knocked him to the floor to save the game. Officials shockingly called a charge on Bryant; Shelbyville made both of its free throws and held on to win 46-44. According to Crowe's biography, "The Ray Crowe Story" by Kerry Marshall, the call caused a stir, leading five Indianapolis News writers to sign an editorial column in protest. The Indiana Officials Association publicly supported the call, three days before voting 40-7 against admitting a black official into the organization because of his skin color.

"We tried to get way out in front so calls like that wouldn't hurt us, but in the tournament that was not always going to be possible," Crowe said in the book. "After that Shelbyville game, I began to realize with even greater clarity how difficult it was going to be to win a state championship. I was discouraged, but I wasn't about to give up."

BREAKING THROUGH

The next year, without injured Willie Merriweather and Winfred O'Neal, the Tigers lost to Plump's Milan team in the tournament. Before that game, Plump was walking with a few teammates in downtown Indianapolis when a car approached and its passengers yelled, "You guys beat those goddamn n------."

"That shocked the hell out of us," Plump said. "But that was the type of prejudice that was there. That's what Ray [Crowe] had to teach those boys how to deal with every single day."

But the next season, no injuries or prejudice could stop Attucks, which finished the regular season 30-1. After Attucks defeated New Albany to reach the state title game, the long-standing tradition of the losing school's cheerleaders joining the winners' for the final game continued.

Crispus Attucks High School Basketball
IPS Crispus Attucks MuseumThis photo from the 1955 school yearbook shows the team riding a truck through town after they won.

"I still remember those cheerleaders; I remember black and white standing together, cheering for our team," Merriweather said. "We didn't understand a lot of what was happening around us, but we understood the significance of that."

There would be no issues of prejudice in the title game because the opponent, Gary Roosevelt, was another segregated school. Led by Robertson's 30 points, Attucks defeated Roosevelt 97-74.

"I remember that night, they called us Indianapolis Attucks, not Crispus Attucks," Robertson said. "To me, that sort of meant we arrived. They just wanted you to win; they didn't care what color you were."

After the game, the champions continued the tradition of piling into a fire truck for a parade from Butler Fieldhouse to Monument Circle. Blacks and whites lined the parade route to celebrate the city's first basketball championship. But the Tigers weren't allowed to get off the truck at the circle and pose for pictures. Instead, the truck took one lap around the circle and headed for a park in the city's black neighborhood for a bonfire. The same thing happened the next season when the Tigers went undefeated and repeated as state champions.

"There was this fear that if the truck stopped and we got out to take pictures and celebrate like everyone else had, we were going to tear up the city," Merriweather said. "You know, because we were black. So they wanted to get us back into our own neighborhood as soon as possible. No one has forgotten that."

EMBRACING GREATNESS

Crispus Attucks High School BasketballPacers Sports and EntertainmentThe names of the 13 members of the 1955 state champions will forever hang in the Crispus Attucks gymnasium.

As he strolled through the Black History Museum at his former high school one day last week, Robertson couldn't help but feel a great sense of pride. Spread between tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Tuskegee Airmen is a letterman's jacket from the 1956 undefeated state champs and a medallion from the 1955 trailblazers. There are pictures and trophies, paintings and plaques commemorating everything the Crispus Attucks basketball teams of the 1950s were able to accomplish.

Winning didn't eliminate the city's racial tension, but it did bring change. Whites began to smile and acknowledge Attucks students in town. The city's Jewish community center and Lions Club held banquets at which the champions were awarded medals and belt buckles. The team also was invited to Fendrick's, a downtown restaurant. It was the first time Robertson had eaten in a sit-down restaurant. Teams that a few years ago wanted no part of playing Attucks now began begging the Tigers to play in their gym, so they could reap the financial rewards of the sure sellout. And schools that a few years earlier refused to admit blacks now began recruiting them.

The sole reason the all-black team had existed -- segregation -- was in many ways the reason it was able to succeed.

"It was a special time," Robertson said. "I've always said that Attucks' winning probably meant more for the city than it did for the players. The city was able to understand that we were not a bunch of hoodlums or crooks or animals with tails. We were just kids."

"For our community, it was as big as the election of President Obama," former team manager Clifford Robinson said. "It was the greatest thing that had ever happened to our community."

All of Crowe's players graduated from high school, and several went on to play in and eventually graduate from college. Indianapolis desegregated its schools in 1949 and by the late 1950s, black students were spread throughout many of the city's other schools. The first white student attended Attucks in 1971.

Crowe himself retired after the 1957 season to become the school's athletic director. He never won the state's coach of the year award.

"A complete travesty," Robertson said. "A joke."

So it should come as no surprise that Robertson put his foot down when it came time to honor his high school career. After all these years, Robertson is still fighting for his coach, his teammates and his community.

The ceremony, of course, should have taken place years ago. But in 1986, because of declining enrollment, Attucks was converted to a junior high school and later a middle school. Not until 2006 did it return as a medical magnet school for grades 6-12. This year is the first year the Tigers are playing varsity basketball in nearly a quarter century. It isn't pretty. Crispus Attucks is 3-14, and seven of its losses have been by 40 or more points. Last week at Conseco, on the night the Attucks and Washington legends were honored, the Tigers lost to Washington 78-34.

That night, the basketball was ugly. And fewer than 2,000 fans were in attendance. But to those who knew, none of that mattered. The glory of the past stood face to face with the promise of the future. In a private dinner before the game, Conseco Fieldhouse executive director Rick Fuson -- whose father, Wayne, wrote about Attucks' struggles for the Indianapolis News -- put the significance of the night in perspective when he called it the single most important event the 10-year-old building had hosted.

"When I think in terms of my life and what Indianapolis is all about, to have that many people in the building who had to overcome so many struggles to achieve greatness, it was bigger than any concert or basketball game or event we have ever hosted," Fuson said. "I wish my dad could have seen it."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.