Bill Garrett's story an important tale
Being of a certain age, sports in the U.S. has always been something more than just games to me. I came up in a generation where people like Bill Russell, Althea Gibson, Oscar Robertson, Arthur Ashe, Wilma Rudulph, Bob Gibson, Lee Elder, Willie Mays, Muhammed Ali and others were more than just talented athletics. As the spiritual descendents of people like Jackie Robinson, Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, they were soldiers on another front in black folksâ€™ battle for racial justice in this nation. As a kid, it made me feel good to be able to cheer for winners, heroes, who looked like my father, my familyâ€”and me.
Iâ€™m too young to have sat in front of the radio, cheering for Joe Louis when his fights were broadcast on the radio, but Iâ€™m old enough to understand that his battles in the ring were more than boxing matches. His victories reminded black folk across the nation of the Creatorâ€™s promise that he eventually delivers His people from the yoke of oppression. But, to receive His deliverance, His soldiers must battle with due diligence, righteousness and moral imperative. Given that, those of us who were blessed to be chosen to open doors for others seemed to carry ourselves with a regal, quiet dignity, strength and resolve that couldnâ€™t be broken by the most virulent racists of the times.
There are many heroic names among the annals of black folks who chose sports as the battleground to challenge racism in the U.S. And, if some of them today are regarded as kings and queens of that righteous movement, certainly, former Hoosier high school and college basketball star Bill Garrett must be considered a prince among them. His fascinating story is told in the recently released â€œGetting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball,â€ by Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody [Indiana University Press ISBN 978-0-253-22046-2.
Iâ€™ve prided myself in recent years of being able to say Iâ€™m not much of a sports fanâ€”especially given that so many of todayâ€™s young stars seem to lack a social consciousness. While they might argue that itâ€™s just a game and that they represent no one but themselves on the field, the fact is a lot of people had to endure often untold suffering so that these spoiled, modern superstars might have a chance to earn money to burn. â€œGetting Openâ€ puts a lot of that in perspective.
Evidently, many modern stars arenâ€™t aware that by 1951 only three blacks had been drafted in the NBA. Prior to that, the league was all white. And, how could they have missed the story of Jackie Robinson and the fact that it took until 1947 for a black player to enter the modern Major Leagues? And, the story of blacks in pro football is another tale of difficult journeys. You might all know of the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods now, but even 25 years ago, life was extremely difficult for blacks in those sports. If it werenâ€™t for trailblazers like Bill Garrett, itâ€™s certain pro sports would have a much different complexion these daysâ€”yes, pun intended.
Garrettâ€™s story is one of the trials and tribulations of black folks in general during the middle of the last century here in the U.S. and particularly in Indiana. Early one, Garrett made history and paved a trail through rough terrain making it easy for others to follow. He was the key figure on the Shelbyville Golden Bears team that won the Indiana high school state basketball title in 1947â€”an integrated team that for perhaps the first time in the country, included three black starters, Garrett, Marshall Murray and Emerson Johnson.
Despite being named Indianaâ€™s Mr. Basketball that year, being on the state championship team, carrying great grades and being acclaimed as one of the stateâ€™s outstanding student athletes with regard to character, Garrett initially was passed over by every Big Ten basketball program. There was a â€œgentlemanâ€™s agreementâ€ at the time that no black would be allowed play basketball in the conference. And, as the authors point out, the Indiana University Hurrying Hoosiers (ironically, that future nickname came about largely because of Garrett) were among those who staunchly honored that agreement. â€œGetting Openâ€ details the story of how Garrett, with the guidance and support of a number of righteous people, including family, teammates, coaches and community leaders nudged open the door of segregation in Indiana college basketball. While itâ€™s ultimately a tale of triumph, be forewarned thatâ€™s itâ€™s not always a pretty story. Coauthors Graham and Cody do not shy away from the racial ugliness of the times here in Indiana and across the nation. Nor do they ignore or attempt to pass over the pain that Garrett and his black colleagues had to endure just to play a little basketball with white children they knew as friends.
â€œGetting Openâ€ is a spellbinding piece of work that reads like a cross between a good mystery and a topnotch golden age sports radio broadcast. History already has told us the end of the story, but the how and whys are still fascinating. The tale also has its share of heroes, villains and bystanders. Among the heroes, along with Garrett, are coaches Arthur â€œDocâ€ Barnett and Frank Barnes, renowned black activist Faburn DeFrantz, IU President Herman B. Wells and Shelbyvilleâ€™s Nate Kaufman, among others.
The story has its share of villains, too, but read the book yourself to decide who they are. Suffice it to say, even the most casual Indiana sports fan will recognize many of the names in the bookâ€”but you might walk away with a very different perspective on some, given details of their behind the scenes roles in this true life drama. The attitudes of former IU Board of Trustees President Ora Wildermuth and the legendary Indiana sports czar Arthur Trester are of note.
In addition to telling the story of Garrettâ€™s integration of college basketball in Indiana, the Graham and Cody do an excellent job placing events in the larger world of U.S. culture. The book also is full of interesting tidbitsâ€”like how important an Indiana native was to the integration of baseball. The story of the famed Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis is touched upon too, as well as brief mentions of other luminaries such as Fort Wayneâ€™s own Bobby Milton and the Harlem Globetrotters.
â€œGetting Openâ€ is an excellent read for sports fans, history buffs or anyone interested in biographies. And, it should be required reading for every young high school athlete on the way to college and every college athlete on the way to the prosâ€”especially African American athletes. With all the scandals plaguing professional sports today, Bill Garrettâ€™s story might inspire a lot of folksâ€”athletes and fans alikeâ€”to bring some dignity back to the games.