Big O, teammates get their due
INDIANAPOLIS — Oscar Robertson still sees the dirt particles flying around in his mind.
The skinny teenager who walked to Indianapolis’ Lockefield Dustbowl, eagerly hoping for a chance to compete on the hard-clay court against those big names from Crispus Attucks High School, will always be a part of him. Sometimes, Robertson recalls, he was even left out of the pickup games.
Yet it was here, in the early 1950s, that Robertson evolved into the formidable basketball player America remembers — skilled, fearless, versatile. And it was here that Robertson, his friends and future teammates unwittingly began the fight to leave this city’s segregated past, literally, in the dust.
‘‘We just didn’t think about those things,’’ said Robertson, whose high school jersey will be retired in a ceremony Thursday night. ‘‘ We had great friends, great teachers and we were winning basketball games. These were special times for all of us because we were pure. We didn’t know about recruiting wars and how people could do you wrong.’’
They would learn those lessons later.
It took years to understand the full implications of what they achieved in 1955, becoming what is believed to be America’s first allblack state championship team. Or the countless obstacles they faced during their historic quest.
More than a half-century ago, whites didn’t come to this predominantly black neighborhood. Some refused to watch Attucks, the city’s only all-black school, and others fought to keep the city’s other schools from playing Attucks. Insults and slurs rained down from all corners of the state, even their hometown.
Yet Robertson and his Attucks teammates refused to accept the status quo.
They fought the ugly words with a dazzling playing style that was far ahead of its time. They remained poised in the face of bitterness and hate, eventually winning hearts and minds.
‘‘When we went on the road, there would be a little racism, but we transcended that,’’ said Cleveland Harp, a ’53 graduate. ‘‘I guess we realized what we were doing, but we didn’t fully realize the magnitude of what it was doing to the population in the city.’’
For Attucks, victories were the easy part.
The legacy of talented names still reverberate in Indiana high school history: Hallie Bryant, the 1953 Mr. Basketball winner, Indiana star and longtime Harlem Globetrotter; Willie Merriweather, Robertson’s tag-team partner in that ’ 55 run who went on to play at Purdue; Willie Gardner and Harp, who skipped college to join the Globetrotters in ’53; and, of course, the Robertsons, Oscar and older brother, Bailey.
Attucks might never have achieved so much had it not been for their remarkably disciplined coaches, Ray Crowe and Al Spurlock.
Crowe commanded respect, later becoming a city and state legislator in Indiana and a friend of Bob Knight’s.
He insisted on proper attire and being on time, and disdained shenanigans. Crowe’s widow, Betty, retells stories about how she did a phone bed check while her husband worked a second job. And how teenagers told stories about her husband once slamming a student up against a locker.
On the court it was no different. Harp remembers Crowe throwing Gardner out of practice for hitting Harp in the face while catching a pass.
And that composure served Crowe and his players well in more noble pursuits.
Betty Crowe says her husband would be more troubled if their kids’ toys weren’t picked up than if white players used racial slurs against his players.
‘‘He just had a certain idea about how you trained young men, so he behaved like he wanted them to behave,’’ she said.
That meant leveling the playing field.
Crowe would always instruct players to score the first 10 points so officials couldn’t make racially motivated calls, a problem his wife recalls as prevalent.
Before hitting the road, Crowe would send a front man to find potential problem areas so the Tigers could avoid confrontations. Occasionally that meant busing to the school, playing the game and heading home without visiting anything other than the gym.
Yet the Tigers overcame all that to become one of the state’s greatest dynasties.
They reached the final eight in ’54 before losing to Milan’s miracle team. In ’55, they delivered a groundbreaking state title, the first for an Indy school, and followed that with another title run in ’56 as the state’s first undefeated team. Three years later, they won a third state championship under coach Bill Garrett, the Big Ten’s first black basketball player, at Indiana.
The numbers from that decade were astounding. From 1951-56, the dustbowl graduates went 153-14, winning 45 straight games in ’55 and ’56 — still the state record. Four players from that ’53 team went on to play for the Globetrotters, and Robertson became one of the greatest players in basketball history.
Crowe’s secret weapon was the triangle offense, which Phil Jackson used to win NBA titles with the Bulls and Lakers.
‘‘It’s the same thing,’’ Robertson said, chuckling.
Success didn’t do much to alleviate the racial tensions.
Crowe was never named the state’s coach of the year, and when Attucks finally won the state title, the team did not take the traditional parade route from Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse to downtown. Instead, a police guard took them to Northwestern Park, near the school.
Not until Crowe’s funeral procession, in December 2003, did players make the trek to Monument Circle, an omission that still bothers Robertson.
‘‘It was years too late,’’ he said. ‘‘You know when it first happened, we didn’t realize what was going on. I didn’t realize till I got out of college. I guess they thought we were not worthy to go around the circle, but when blacks went into stores downtown and spent money, it was wonderful.’’
On Thursday, in what is being billed as a ‘‘legends game’’ between Attucks and Washington, one of the few city schools that played Attucks during the ’50s, there will be a huge ceremony. Robertson, his brother and Bryant are among 10 Attucks players who will have their jerseys retired. Washington’s Mr. Basketball winners, George McGinnis and Billy Keller, and Miss Basketball Cheryl Cook also will have jerseys retired.
Two banners, one for the ’ 55 team and another for Crowe and Spurlock, will also be presented in what today’s school leaders call a fitting and overdue tribute.
‘‘I was surprised they hadn’t already done it,’’ principal Robert Faulkens said. ‘‘Those numbers [Robertson and Bryant] were still being worn in 1986. When I came here three years ago, I said, ‘ We would never wear those numbers again. Don’t even order them.’
‘‘I’m sure it was just an oversight, but it’s something we can correct now.’’
Faulkens offers a few explanations for the delay.
Robertson didn’t finish playing in the NBA until 1974, and by then, Attucks was integrated and in the midst of a student decline. In 1986, Indianapolis Public Schools converted Attucks into a middle school. Then, in 2006, that middle school reopened as a magnet medical high school devoted to students who aspire to be medical professionals.
This winter, for the first time in nearly a quarter-century, Crispus Attucks is fielding a varsity basketball team and the new players want to rebuild the tradition.
When coach Greg Orr took over the program in 2006, he had a total of five players and sometimes finished games with only three or four on the floor. Now his roster is up to about a dozen, some of whom never played basketball until attending Attucks.
His goal is to restore Attucks’ glorious legacy.
‘‘We’re trying to raise the money to get some things in here, like banners. They’ll cost about $2,000,’’ he said. ‘‘I miss that stuff and some of it will be back up in about a year. But you know there’s no records from back then. I’d really to like know who our leading rebounder was, so I can put that up for these kids.’’
Those who played in ’50s haven’t forgotten.
Robertson believes Attucks might have won the ’51 title had his brother played more minutes against Anderson. Harp thinks they would have won it in ’53 if Gardner hadn’t been declared ineligible by the state high school athletic association. Robertson contends there may never have been a Milan, or ‘‘Hoosiers,’’ had teammate Sheddrick Mitchell been healthy in ’54.
What Attucks did over the next two seasons changed everything.
They ignored the hate, won basketball games, made history and charted a course to end racial divisiveness in Indianapolis.
‘‘What we accomplished, it’s like a movie script with all the racial issues in the country,’’ Robertson said. ‘‘We rallied the whole city, and in the end, instead of calling us the Crispus Attucks Tigers, they were calling us the Indianapolis Tigers.’’