The Right Man
Feb. 10, 2010
By Larry Watts
He was the right man. It was the right time.
Back in 1946, Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, “Jumpin’ Johnny’’ Wilson wanted to play his collegiate basketball at Indiana. There was only one problem — the color of his skin.
Indiana basketball coach Branch McCracken refused to offer the Anderson High School standout a scholarship, choosing to abide by a “gentlemen’s agreement’’ in the Big Ten. Anderson went on to play at Anderson College, where he was twice named All-American, and then spent eight seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters.
One year later, McCracken was faced with the same predicament. Bill Garrett, Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1947, had just led Shelbyville to the state title.
Having already seen Wilson blackballed, local black activists Fabrun DeFrantz and Nate Coffman took their appeal to Indiana President Herman B. Wells. Wells agreed and talked to McCracken, who would allow Garrett to play “only if he made the team.’’
Reportedly, Purdue coach Mel Taube wanted Garrett to come to West Lafayette, not to play, but so he wouldn’t play against the Boilermakers.
“Bill actually came to Indiana on a track scholarship,’’ says Garrett’s wife, Betty. “Wells was very instrumental in Bill coming to Indiana. Branch had some doubts, but Wells put pressure on him. Branch wasn’t certain the Big Ten would accept a black player, but Wells told him as the president of the Big Ten Presidents Council, the rest of the presidents would go along with him.
“This had nothing to do with Branch’s recruiting. It was because Indiana was losing good basketball players and President Wells was ready to make a statement about it.’’
So just over 20 years after the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak in Indiana and six months after Jackie Robinson had played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the color barrier in Big Ten basketball was about to be broken.
“I’m not sure if Branch ever talked to Bill before he came to Indiana,’’ Betty says. “He got off that bus and nobody was there to meet him, so he walked to where he was supposed to go. He still had to make the team.’’
Not only did Garrett make the team, he made an impact. In his three seasons on the Hoosiers’ varsity (1948-51), the 6-foot-2 center was the team’s leading scorer and leading rebounder. He averaged 13.1 points and 8.5 rebounds as a senior, when he was named to the All-Big Ten team and earned second-team All-America accolades. During his three seasons, the Hoosiers were 50-16, posting a 19-3 mark in his final year.
According to Betty, who met Bill when they were both students at Indiana, there were some tough moments but most of the memories are pleasant ones.
“Bill was the right one to break the color barrier because of his temperament,’’ she says. “He could be abused with words and other ways, but he never made a big noise about it. He always said the only person who puts pressure on you is yourself.
“With the trials and tribulations Bill went through, I think a person with a lesser sense of self would have found conflicts. Bill wasn’t conflicting to his peers or teammates.
“The students accepted him completely, but some of his teammates weren’t as giving,’’ she added. “Fortunately, he became close to three of the white players — Phil Buck, Gene Ring and Bill Tosheff. He knew he needed this community of friends on the team or he would never get the ball.’’
As far as opposing crowds in the Big Ten, Betty said there were “some derogatory names, but they were isolated and there was never a wholesale protest.’’ And then she added with a laugh, “But we never played south (of the Mason-Dixon Line) during that time.
“Bill was very committed and competitive, but you didn’t know he had that core of competitiveness because he was so quiet,” she said. “You would think that (quietness) was a sign of weakness, but it was actually a sign of strength in him. He was that way in everything he did. I would try to argue with him and he would just stare at me, letting me blow off my steam.’’
Two days after his final season ended, Garrett was reminded of the hurdles society still had to overcome. Riding with Buck and Ring on a return trip from Indianapolis, the trio pulled into a diner for hamburgers. The waiter refused to serve Garrett.
Within a year of Garrett’s graduation, there were six black players in the Big Ten. The Boston Celtics drafted Garrett in the second round, making him the third black player ever drafted by an NBA. However, he never saw the court for the Celtics because he had to fulfill his military duty and serve two years in the U.S. Army.
“At that time, there were some protected players who didn’t have to go (into the military), but Bill had to go,’’ says Betty. “It was a whole different scenario if you were a known value to certain institutions. By the time he came back, the Celtics didn’t have a spot for him.’’
Garrett then joined the Harlem Globetrotters, where he would be playing with “Jumpin’ Johnny’’ Wilson. However, that chapter in his life would only last three years.
“Bill disliked it intensely; it just wasn’t his style,’’ Betty says. “We were already married and I was working in Toledo at the time when he called me one night and asked if I minded that he was coming home the next day. We stayed there until the end of the year and then we moved to Indianapolis, where he started teaching.’’
Garrett, who had earned a physical education degree with a minor in economics at Indiana, began teaching business classes and was hired as basketball coach at Crispus Attucks High School in 1957. D.C. Stephenson, grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, created the school in the late 1920s in an effort to segregate black students in Indianapolis. It was named after a runaway slave who is believed to be the first American killed by the British during the Boston Massacre in 1770.
In 1955, Attucks, led by Oscar Robertson, was the first all-black school to win a state basketball championship in the nation. The Tigers repeated in 1956 and then Garrett coached them to their third title in five years in 1959. Garrett coached the Tigers for 10 seasons and served as the athletics director for two years before becoming director of continuing education at Ivy Tech. He later was the assistant dean at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Garrett and his wife had three daughters within a three and one-half year span once they moved to Indianapolis. Five years after the birth of their youngest daughter, they were surprised to find out Betty was pregnant again. This time they had a son, Billy, who is now an assistant basketball coach at DePaul.
“Bill was always so good to those girls and he was so happy when we finally had a boy,’’ Betty says. “But Billy is not a junior. I didn’t want him to have to live up to Bill’s name; I wanted him to be his own individual and that he is. He has the same quiet personality as his father and has learned to handle adversity in a positive way.’’
Bill Garrett died at the age of 45 in 1974 while buying a pane of glass to repair a garage window his son had broken. Billy was nine-years-old at the time.
“Two years before that, Bill had passed out while we were preparing to go on vacation,’’ Betty says. “He didn’t have any heart problems that we were aware of, so we went ahead and took the vacation and Bill never got it checked out. Maybe that was an indication.’’
Although Billy is not a junior, he did name his son after his father — William Leon Garrett II. And William is already making headlines as a freshman on the powerful Morgan Park basketball team in Chicago.
“All the memories I have of my father are fond ones,’’ Billy says. “He was a big, strong guy who made friends easily. I remember he took a bunch of plywood, mounted it on cinder blocks and taught me how to play basketball.
“I spent one year coaching at Iowa and I remember our one trip to Indiana. My dad always wanted to coach at Indiana, so that was a pretty emotional night for me. It was only one game, but maybe my son can make it back there as a player.’’
Most of the stories about his father have been passed along to Billy through his mother, uncles and friends.
“Right or wrong, those were the times,’’ he says. “All I know is I have had a blessed life because of the things my mother and father have gone through.’’