Friday, February 27, 2015

My schools' basketball pioneers

Melvin Russell, as a Woodlawn High School
senior guard in 1968-69
(First in a series)
     I have thought of Melvin Russell and George "Petey" Thornton a lot lately, and they will be the subjects of the next few blogs.
     Those names might be familiar to old-time basketball fans in North Louisiana because they were trailblazers -- the first black players (first black athletes, period) at the schools from which I graduated.
     Both broke the color barrier in the 1968-69 basketball season -- Melvin at Woodlawn High School, four years after I graduated there, and George at Louisiana Tech University. He was a freshman when I was a senior working in the sports information department.
     They were admirable young men, and to me, they remain admirable young men as they hit their mid-60s.  They are, in my opinion, success stories, and that's in life, as well as in athletics. They were championship caliber.
     One of my recent reads was Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss, the detailed and fascinating biography of the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference.
     Wallace was a kid who grew up in Nashville and stayed close to home to play at Vanderbilt, the rare SEC school where academics actually matter more than athletics. He had been a great leaper, great player, at Pearl High School, which won the first integrated state championship tournament in Tennessee.
     As you can imagine, in the late 1960s (he was a freshman in the 1966-67 season and joined the varsity the next season), he caught hell on trips to Ole Miss and Mississippi State and Auburn and Alabama -- among other tough venues.
     But even on the relatively progressive Vanderbilt campus and in town, acceptance of his place on the team and in the university often came grudgingly and with difficulty. He was "profiled" and ostracized repeatedly and this was a polite, soft-spoken, clean-cut young man who was very studious and determined to success in the classroom, as well as on the basketball floor.
     Long story (467 pages) short: He was an All-SEC player, graduated with a degree in engineering, earned his law degree from Columbia University in New York City, worked as a trial lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice and now is a professor at American University's Washington College of Law. His jersey No. 25 was retired by Vanderbilt (but it took more than three decades).
     Reading the book, re-living those rocky days of the civil-rights movement in the '60s, made me think of the basketball trailblazers I knew.
George Thornton, Louisiana Tech, early 1970s
     Neither Melvin Russell nor George Thornton had as rough a time as Perry Wallace. But their transitions into Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech -- and into the basketball programs -- weren't seamless; there were hardships and challenges.
     That's just the way it was for black athletes integrating programs and black students integrating what had been all-white schools.
      I had done stories on Melvin and George in the past, but those stories did not deal with race relations -- not in any detail -- or with the issues they faced. So in talking to them the past couple of weeks, we talked about those times.
       They were not familiar with each other -- maybe just name recognition -- although they played in college at almost the same time (George was a year ahead of Melvin in school).
        I thought maybe they had played against each other -- Melvin played for Centenary while George play for Tech -- but in a strange twist, the two years that their teams could have met were two years that the Tech-Centenary series was interrupted (they had played twice or three times a season for 25 consecutive years prior to that).
       They each have their examples of where they faced racial prejudice, and I think it'll be a good read to see what they had to say.
       So I'm going to do some blog pieces on each, take them back to their Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech days, and follow the "whatever happened to ..." format that worked so well for our sports staff at the Shreveport Journal in the early and mid 1980s. And we'll tell you where they are now.

No comments:

Post a Comment