College basketball holds a rich African American history

Sat, 1891-03-07

*With March Madness beginning, on this date we remember African Americans in the history of American college basketball.

Basketball is a team competition that has been transformed by the presence of African-Americans and has been an important lightning-rod of cultural, political and social change in the United States for more than 100 years. In December 1891, Canadian-American physical education teacher James Naismith, of the School for Christian Workers (now Springfield College) in Springfield, Massachusetts, was asked to invent a new game to entertain the school’s athletes during the winter season.

With an ordinary soccer ball, Naismith assembled his class of 18 young men, appointed captains of two nine-player teams, and introduced them to the game of Basket Ball (then two words). The game has also become important as style: the logos of American college basketball teams can be found on the clothing of children from South Africa to China. But although the grace and power of Black athleticism has now attained the respect and admiration of the world, for years it was forced to sit on the bench, as segregation split America along racial lines.

In 1905, after being exposed to the game over the summer at Harvard University, Coach Edwin B. Henderson introduced basketball to a physical education class at Howard University in Washington, D. C. By 1910, basketball was one of the most popular sports among young African-Americans. The game could be played on almost any surface, and it required little or no equipment. It was promoted largely in the Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCAs) in Black neighborhoods, on basketball courts indoors and outdoors, at parks and on playgrounds.

By 1915, African-Americans played basketball in high school physical education classes, on college and university squads, and on club teams representing major urban cities. Some of the first predominantly Black universities to form basketball squads include Hampton University in Virginia; Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; Wilberforce University in Ohio; and Virginia Union in Richmond. In 1916, the all-Black Central Interscholastic Athletic Association (CIAA) was formed, uniting Virginia Union, Shaw University (Raleigh, North Carolina), Lincoln and Howard in competition.

Four years later, the all-Black Southeastern Athletic Conference was established, and by 1928 there were four all-Black regional conferences. Regional competition produced a flood of excitement as teams battled on college campuses, in city parks and on high school varsity teams. In several states, tournaments allowed high school teams to compete for the title of state champion. At the college level, African-American athletes such as Paul Robeson at Rutgers University, Wilbur Woods at Nebraska, and Charles Drew at Amherst College became basketball stars. Several college basketball programs stood out. Xavier University won 67 games and lost only two between 1934 and 1938, and Alabama State, Lincoln University in Missouri, Morgan State in Maryland, and Wiley College in Texas all produced exceptional basketball programs.

The success of professionals and the strength of the Civil Rights Movement opened new doors for young Black athletes as predominantly white schools rushed to attract the best high school stars. Soon young Black men were being recruited from inner-city high schools in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D. C. In the 1960’s James Cash became the first Black player at Texas Christian University and Perry Wallace was the first Black to be recruited by the Southeast Conference. Billy Jones followed Wallace, integrating the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) won ten national titles from 1964 to 1975, largely because of Black players such as Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Alcindor, standing more than 7 feet tall, was so dominant at UCLA that league officials had to outlaw the slam-dunk while he was in school. In 1965, Texas Western University coached by Don Haskins, with a team made up exclusively of Black players, won the Division I NCAA Championship. It was the first time an all-Black team had ever played an all-white team in a NCAA title game.

Today, college basketball is a major representative for young Black men seeking to escape the hardships of urban life. Although more and more players are electing not to attend college and thus turning professional immediately after high school. Many insist that African-American athletes have been exploited for their athletic prowess by professional, collegiate, and, high school basketball programs.

Some argue that the concentration on Black athleticism continues a racist institution that only stresses the motor skills of African-Americans. Others suggest that the enormous salaries of today’s professional athletes send the wrong signal to young people about the value of sports. One former college player who spoke to The Registry, who made it to the NBA, said most college coaches stress academics for players to stay 'eligible' not to graduate.

Still others disagree, including Black basketball coaches who argue that basketball should be seen as a legitimate and viable vehicle for young, underprivileged African-Americans seeking a better life. A coach can play a major role in the athletic and personal development of young basketball players, ensuring that the desire for a professional sports career is sensibly balanced with the needs for education. Some Black coaches have worked throughout their careers to teach young players the value of education and the importance of becoming a well-rounded individual, including one of the most respected coaches in basketball, Clarence "Big House" Gaines.

Gaines was a coach at Winton-Salem State University and has the most victories in NCAA Division II history. Other outstanding African-American College coaches include John Thompson, John Chaney, K. C. Jones, George Raveling, and Nolan Richardson.

As of 2014, with approximately 330 head coaching jobs in Division I basketball, the percentage of African Americans counts fewer than 19 percent.

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