I am not really much of a sports fan. But I love a good story, and sometimes those stories from the world of sports just beg to be shared with a larger audience. We had one of those recently that involved a high school basketball team that won its first state championship in nearly sixty years. According to the sports pages, this story was about a basketball game. But I saw it as so much more.
I live in Indiana, a state that loves its basketball. From the beginnings of the game as a high school sport, Indiana has loomed large in the game’s history. You have no doubt heard of the movie Hoosiers. The 1986 film (which, by the way, you ought to watch again just because it is so good) was the adaptation of the true story of the team from the little southern Indiana burg of Milan which won the State Title in 1954.
For those not all that well schooled in Indiana basketball history, the State Champions of 1955 and 1956 tell an equally compelling tale.
Crispus Attucks High School was built in 1927. Named for the runaway slave who is remembered as the first casualty of the Revolutionary War, its purpose was to segregate Indianapolis’ high schools by race. I have previously touched on Attucks’ back story (here) but for the purposes of this piece, let’s just say that the segregated high school led to some positive things (certainly unintended by the Indiana Public Schools (IPS) administration of the ’20s).
First, despite the Klan-infused school board, IPS built a high quality building for the school. That it remains in use after nearly ninety years is no small thing. Also, Attucks may have been the best high school in the IPS system in terms of pure education primarily due to an all-black faculty comprised entirely of Masters and PhD educated teachers. Those who, while qualified, lacked the opportunities to teach in college classrooms became one of the most over-qualified high school faculties in memory.
In 1950, a thirty-five year old Ray Crowe was hired to coach Attucks’ basketball team. Crowe was both a gifted coach and a tough disciplinarian who would not hesitate to boot a kid from the team for misbehavior or bad grades. He took Attucks to the state Final Four in his first season (1951). Crowe understood that racism was all around but refused to let his team become a victim to it. His main concession to lopsided calls by the referees was to tell his boys to avoid close games where that could become an issue. “The first ten points are for the refs, the rest are for us” was his coaching advice.
The 1955 and 1956 Attucks basketball teams would be the first all-black teams to win a State level championship in any state and the ’56 team was the first Indiana Championship team to go undefeated for the season. Things that most other students would take for granted then (and now) those Attucks kids had to struggle for. Those Crowe-led teams produced basketball great Oscar Robertson as well as Hallie Bryant of Harlem Globetrotters fame.
Many believe that those 1955 and 1956 Championships (the first ever for an Indianapolis high school in basketball) marked a turning point in race relations in the city.
Attucks won its last State Championship in basketball in 1959. Indiana had formally desegregated schools in 1949. A decade later saw housing patterns in the city that were beginning to change and black enrollment that began to slowly filter into other IPS high schools.
Attucks, despite its illustrious basketball history, began a long descent that eventually turned it into a junior high school in 1986 and a middle school in 1993. But in 2006, IPS re-christened Attucks as a Magnet high school where the focus was on grooming students for careers in medical fields.
The school re-started a basketball program, but it was not pretty. ESPN featured a story on Attucks’ history and its then-current basketball struggles in a 2009 piece that is still very much worth a read. But the basketball? Let’s call it ugly.
But fast-forward eight years. Just like the Attucks Tigers of old, the 2016-17 team is once again a State Champ. Not an undisputed State champ like in the old days of single-class basketball, but the Class 3A winner that bested similarly sized schools. Although some might consider this an asterisk that mars the accomplishment, this is still no small feat. Even in modern six class basketball, you don’t win a State championship in Indiana without some serious combination of effort, discipline and skill.
So why do I find this such a compelling story? We live in a time where there are so many excuses for division. Race, class, sex, politics, religion and probably several others that do not come to mind at the moment. But here is a story about kids (and adults) who have worked hard and come together to earn something lasting. And unlike the Attucks of old where they would have been forced to attend, each of these students has chosen to be there.
That these young men did so in a place with a tradition worth upholding makes the story even better. A place that reminds them and the rest of us that what passes for racism today is a pale substitute for what those teams from the old days endured, much as modern poverty pales in comparison with what our elders endured during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The capstone was, I suppose, the picture in my local newspaper of 78 year old Oscar Robertson, one of the greatest to ever play the game, personally placing a Championship medal around the neck of one member of the 2017 winning team. The grandfatherly pride in the heart of the aging champion that was spread across his face tells us pretty much the entire story – a picture that is indeed worth a thousand words.
History doesn’t often repeat itself, at least not exactly. But sometimes it comes close enough. A bunch of kids working hard and recapturing some of the lost glory of a really memorable era is always a good story. The movie Hoosiers preserved one great story about basketball in Indiana. In my mind, the Crispus Attucks saga is just as deserving of a good movie.