Attucks: Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City

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“Now I’ve got a love so deep in the pit of my heart

And each day it grows more and more

I’m not ashamed to call and plead to you baby

If pleading keeps you from walking out that door”

-- One of Oscar Robertson’s favorite songs (Temptations, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” 1966)

[In the early 1950s] “an African American man named Bernard McPeak applied for membership in the Indiana Officials Association, a statewide professional organization of high school basketball referees. McPeak hoped to become Indiana’s first black referee, and he thought he was surpassingly well qualified. He had refereed for fifteen years in his home state of Pennsylvania, officiating four state championship games. He was respected as one of Pennsylvania’s top referees. But he was rejected in Indiana by a vote of 40-7. The organization’s president, Clayton Nichols, matter-of-factly explained the reason to a reporter: ‘It was because of his color.’

Officiating had bedeviled [the] Attucks [high school basketball team] year after year. The Tigers never saw a black referee. ‘When Attucks started going good, some of those [referees] were absolute bigots,’ recalled Bob Collins, then a sports columnist for the Indianapolis Star. ‘When there was a minute left to play in a close game, once that black hand came around that white hand to slap the ball away, the whistle would blow.’

Some of the referees’ calls were downright comical. Attucks played a game against Lafayette Jefferson High in which the referees called five fouls against [the Tiger’s star player] Willie Gardner in the first eight minutes of the game, disqualifying him from further play. Dejected, Gardner walked to the bench and sat down. Moments later, there was a scuffle under the basket and a referee whistled yet another foul on ‘number thirteen.’ Gardner raised his hand from the bench. ‘I guess they just wanted to make sure,’ he quipped.”

-- from ATTUCKS!

  1. Magic Johnson

  2. Stephen Curry

  3. Oscar Robertson

  4. Isiah Thomas

  5. Jason Kidd

  6. Jerry West

  7. Steve Nash

  8. John Stockton

  9. Russell Westbrook

  10. Bob Cousy

-- from the NBA website article, “Ranking Ten Point Guards in NBA History”

“In the 1961-62 season, Robertson became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season, with 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. Robertson also set a then-NBA record for the most triple-doubles during the regular season with 41 triple-doubles; the record would stand for over half a century when, in 2016-17, Russell Westbrook recorded 42 and joined Robertson as the only other player to average a triple-double for an entire season.”

-- from the Wikipedia article, “Oscar Robertson”

For more than one hundred years, high school basketball has been a big deal in Indiana. As we learn in ATTUCKS!, during the Roaring Twenties, many towns built high school gyms for hosting basketball games that seated more people than their entire town.

But Indiana in those days, despite being a so-called “northern” state, was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan:

“By 1924, nearly one-third of Indiana’s white male population--about 250,000 in all--were Klan members, and Indiana was known far and wide as the Klan State.”

It was in this setting, during the Great Migration, that the Klan-infested Indianapolis school board voted to build a blacks-only high school in order to rid the other city high schools of black students. Community leaders tried to stop it in court, but all they could accomplish was getting the new school named after the black Revolutionary hero Crispus Attucks (instead of the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson).

ATTUCKS! features a lot of basketball and a lot of racism. It’s centered around Crispus Attucks High School, its famous basketball coach, Ray Crowe, and its most famous basketball player, Oscar Robertson. It was Ray Crowe’s innovation, playing Robertson at guard, despite Robertson’s height and shooting ability, that led to the evolution of the modern point guard position in professional basketball.

And it was the 1954-55 basketball season--played in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision--that made all-black Attucks High School, Coach Ray Crowe, and star player Oscar Robertson all famous.

“Remembering that city officials had deliberately squeezed nearly all the city’s black athletes into a single school, some whites asked one another: What have we done?”

In the end, the other high schools in Indianapolis were integrated because Indiana was a basketball-crazy state and the other Indianapolis high school basketball teams could only become competitive by recruiting promising black players to their schools.

A triumphant story, ATTUCKS! features exciting sports writing and high-interest nonfiction at its best.

P.S. This Saturday, November 24th, Oscar Robertson celebrates his 80th birthday.

224 pages                       978-0-374-30612-0          Ages 12-18

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

See more of his recommendations:  Richie's Picks


A NYPL Best Book for Teens of 2018

The true story of the all-black high school basketball team that broke the color barrier in segregated 1950s Indiana, masterfully told by National Book Award winner Phil Hoose.

By winning the state high school basketball championship in 1955, ten teens from an Indianapolis school meant to be the centerpiece of racially segregated education in the state shattered the myth of their inferiority. Their brilliant coach had fashioned an unbeatable team from a group of boys born in the South and raised in poverty. Anchored by the astonishing Oscar Robertson, a future college and NBA star, the Crispus Attucks Tigers went down in history as the first state champions from Indianapolis and the first all-black team in U.S. history to win a racially open championship tournament―an integration they had forced with their on-court prowess.

From native Hoosier and award-winning author Phillip Hoose comes this true story of a team up against impossible odds, making a difference when it mattered most.--from the publisher

This title has Common Core connections.

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